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Israel: Birth of a Nation, Holocaust Memorial, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Golan Heights

Israel

Israel was born from the Holocaust. The Yad Vashem Memorial honors the victims and Israel’s creation — which displaced many Palestinians. We visit Israelis in Tel Aviv and Palestinians in Haifa. An Israeli explains the need to keep the high ground (Golan Heights) for security.

Complete Video Script

The state of Israel was born, in part, out of the Holocaust, a defining event in the long history of the Jews. To appreciate the impact of the Holocaust, critical in understanding the psyche of today’s Israel, visit Yad Vashem. This powerful museum and memorial chronicles the systematic slaughter of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany.

Its Hall of Names is a project designed to give every victim the dignity of simply being named and recorded. This archive aspires to catalog and therefore remember each of the 6 million victims.

Yad Vashem also celebrates the creation of modern Israel. It shows the spirit of Zionism — that determination of those who came both as concentration-camp survivors and refugees from Europe to forge for themselves a state for the Jewish people.Photographs of the first settlers show early Zionists returning to their ancestral homeland — starting as a trickle in the 19th century, and becoming a flood after World War II.

Today, just a couple generations later, the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv stand like exclamation points declaring, “we’ve come a long way.”

There was a popular slogan back then: “A land without a people for a people without a land.” That was inspirational, but it ignored the reality of the Palestinians who actually lived here and were displaced with the creation of Israel. Still, it’s impressive how the true grit of those early Jewish settlers turned sand dunes into Tel Aviv and built modern Israel.

The historic town of Jaffa — now consumed by the sprawl of Tel Aviv — was the Ellis Island of the new state. This was where new arrivals first set foot in Israel. Much of Jaffa — historically an important Arab town — was destroyed in 1948 — in what Israelis call their “War of Independence.”

As in any war, there are winners and there are losers. And, while Israelis celebrate the birth of their nation, Palestinians call Israel’s Independence Day the “Day of Catastrophe.” They remember their loss — the destruction of many Arab villages that once thrived here, and how hundreds of thousands of those who fled ended up in refugee camps over a newly drawn border.

Just a 10-minute drive north of the old stone buildings of Jaffa are the new glass and steel buildings of modern Tel Aviv. Gleaming Tel Aviv feels as modern and busy as any American city its size. While its history only goes back a century, the original main drag, Rothschild Boulevard, is lined with venerable buildings. And Tel Aviv’s beach scene is filled with a live-for-today vibrancy.

In this culture, food is love, and seems to celebrate the bounty of the land. We sat down with our Israeli guide Benny and driver Kobe to get an edible lesson in this part of their culture.

Benny: Hey, cheers. L’chaim.
Rick: L’chaim! Very good. So Benny, could you say this is typical Israeli?
Benny: Yeah — you can say it is typical Israeli. Everything that you see here is grown here locally.
Rick: Now, you could say this is Israeli, but it’s also Arab cuisine.
Benny: Yes. We call it now Israeli food but you can find it in the Arab countries, you can find it Lebanon, you can find it all over the Middle East. Here we have eggplant with olive oil and tahini. Here we have the tahini itself. Here we have another eggplant salad with vegetables. That’s the hummus; very famous hummus made from chickpeas. This is something special: This we call tabbouleh. It’s made of bulgur and parsley and cucumbers. Very special, very tasty. It’s OK to reach and dip your pita bread into it — you dip it in each of the salads, and that’s the way to do it; no need for fork or a knife…
Rick: And Kobe, how do you say bon appétit in Hebrew?
Kobe: Beteavon.
Rick: Bete…
Kobe: …avon
Rick: Beteavon. Thank you.
All: L’chaim!

Israel is small, and laced by modern freeways. Getting around is easy. Road signs are in three languages and three scripts: Hebrew and Arabic for Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel, and English for visitors.

A short drive up the coastline takes us to Haifa — a prosperous and open city famous for its tolerance. Many people here are part of Israel’s Arab minority. I was impressed at the youthful and positive energy. It feels like young Israelis here — whether from Muslim or Jewish families — are most interested in living free from the religious and ethnic baggage of their parents. In a trendy café, it was hard to tell who’s who.

Talking with a local Arab Israeli family we learned that, while problems persist, they consider this land their home.

Rick: Now what is it like socially if, in Haifa, if you’re an Arab Israeli with Jewish Israelis? Is it separate or can you mix?
Woman: Well we mix in restaurants, at work; we socialize here and there. But…
Man: Some neighborhoods, some streets are mixed.
Rick: ’Cause some people —
Woman: Some streets, not, not a lot.
Daughter: I, I used to hear from her that once they were more together.
Woman: Yeah.
Daughter: Like if she had neighbors that used to…
Rick: Really!
Woman: Yeah.
Daughter: …to do everything together, now no.
Rick: And what do you see for the future, for your, for Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews together, your children — what do you hope for?
Woman: Everybody hopes for peace and a better life but I doubt it. I doubt it.
Rick: The reality is…?
Woman: The reality is not like that. Even with all the problems that there is here, this is our roots, you know, we’ll never, never give it up. With everything that happens around us.
Rick: That’s beautiful. I like to hear that.
Woman: Yes. We love it here.

Heading into the interior takes us down — 700 feet below sea level — to the Sea of Galilee. Israel’s primary source of water, it’s both fed and drained by the Jordan River. Galilee is popular among Christian pilgrims. It’s famous as the place where Jesus did his three years of ministry, and where so many Bible stories were set — from loaves and fishes, and the Sermon on the Mount, to Christ walking on water.

When exploring the Holy Land, your sightseeing careens from ancient holy sites to reminders of 20th-century strife and wars. Overlooking the Sea of Galilee stands the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Taken from Syria in the 1967 war, and now firmly under Israeli control, a visit here helps explain Israel’s commitment to holding the high ground.

Benny: See now, a former Syrian position…

Our guide, Benny, shows us the strategic significance of this area from an old Syrian pillbox.

Benny: Standing here, on a former Syrian position, one can understand how vulnerable was the settlements, the villages of the kibbutzim of Israel before 1967. For a whole generation the Syrians were — the Syrians were here on the Golan, on the edge of the cliff targeting and shooting every single village and kibbutz of ours. Every day they looked up to Golan saying, “Is it going to be a day of shelling today — ”
Rick: Artillery from this little base? — Boom.
Benny: Mortar shells, artillery, tank shells, machine-gun fire.
Rick: And the Sea of Galilee was the source of the freshwater for Israel — and still is.
Benny: The Sea of Galilee was always and still is the most important water reservoir we have, and that’s why today it’s very difficult for us even to conceive leaving the Golan, allowing anyone to be here. Above all we must maintain our security. The security of the Israelis, the families, the children, then we can speak about all the other things.