Israel, The Real Thing

By David Cogswell

I’m crossing a major threshold on this trip, transforming from one who has never been to Israel, to one who has experienced it first hand. In my experience, there is a huge gulf between having no direct experience of a place and being there even for a short time. In his book L’imaginaire, Jean Paul Sartre wrote of the fundamental difference between an event in imagination and an event in reality. Even if what you imagine is correct in practically every detail, an actual experience of a place is fundamentally different from hearing about it, reading about it or seeing it in movies on TV. Mental images, Sartre said, are constantly breaking up and dissolving when they collide with real events.

Now that is happening for me with Israel. After being in Israel for 24 hours, most of what I previously thought I knew about it has dropped away or transformed to accommodate the real experience. There is no place where this contrast could be more striking than Israel because it looms so largely in the imagination of humankind. The Judeo Christian tradition is one of the most powerful elements in Western Civilization.

From our earliest childhood we have heard stories and songs of David and Goliath, Samson and Delilah, Cain and Abel and on and on. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all look to Israel and the Holy Land for their origins. Beyond those formative experiences, we are all exposed to the news, and though not much larger than New Jersey, Israel is always in the news.

Now I will be spending the next 10 days traveling around Israel, seeing it for myself. I joined 40 travel agents in a Seminar at the Source produced by IsramWorld. The trip began for me at New York’s JFK airport with an 11:50 p.m. flight to Tel Aviv on El Al airlines. Ten hours later I was in Israel. With the seven-hour time difference it was around 5 p.m. when we arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport. It was rainy, and by the time we got through customs and baggage claim, it was dark. Isram’s ground operation met us at the airport and drove us to the famous King David hotel in Jerusalem, about a 35 minute drive.

The King David hotel ( lives up to its reputation as an elegant, comfortable hotel, reassuring in its durability and imperturbability since 1931. Like most buildings of Jerusalem it is built of Jerusalem Stone, a pinkish beige limestone. King David has a colorful history. It is known for housing royalty, being a headquarters for governments in exile and at the center of many of the turbulent events of the 20th century.

Our first evening the Isram seminar group did a hotel inspection and were treated to a fine feast at the David Citadel Hotel, the former Hyatt, not far from King David. We started our tour of Israel in earnest on Wednesday morning with a trip to the Israel Museum, where we saw pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls and learned about their history. We also saw a model of Jerusalem in 66 A.D. before it was destroyed by the Romans. The model, about the size of a tennis court, is so detailed and amazingly intricate, you have to make a special note on your photographs to be clear you are looking at a model and not an actual city.

The most memorable experience of the day, and really one of the most compelling museum experiences of my life, was our visit to the Holocaust History Museum (see, The complex includes several distinct buildings and monuments, including The Hall of Names, which names and pays tribute to many of the victims of The Holocaust, and The Children’s Monument, which is a dark chamber with a glass case housing five candles that are reflected with a complex construction glass and mirrors to multiply into thousands of sparks of light like stars while an ominous recording reads off names of murdered children. The most powerful part of the complex is the museum’s main exhibit, a vast collection of documents, films, photographs and grisly memorabilia tracing the horrific history of the Nazi’s attempted extermination of the Jewish people.

In a 4,200-square-meter building, the exhibition leads you through a zigzagged trail through that most hideous chapter of history presented with painstaking detail and graphic force from its earliest glimmers in the early 1930s, through the final destruction of the Nazi regime in 1945. Countless exhibits are on display, presented vividly with imagination and sensitivity. Early in the exhibit, for example, is footage of Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels addressing the mob at a 1933 book burning proclaiming, “The age of exorbitant Jewish intellectualism has come to an end. And the German revolution has cleared the way for the German nature in the world once more.” Then he goes down a list of notable Jewish writers and thinkers, saying for each one, “I consign to the fire all works by …” naming Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and many others. Posted on the exhibit is an ominously prophetic quote from German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine in 1821: “Where books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned.”

The exhibit leads the viewer through the gradual tightening of the screws through Nazi legislation, beginning in April 1933 with the Law for Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which dismissed all Jews from civil service jobs. It shows portraits of some of the chief Nazi perpetrators, filmed interviews with many of the survivors, and gives maps and descriptions of the Nazi system of death camps in excruciating detail. It would take days to go through the entire museum reading and listening to each piece. It was an exhausting, shocking experience, but one that should be required for every educated person.

We ended the day with a trip to Bethlehem and a visit to the Church of the Nativity, which was said to be built over the stable and manger where Jesus was born. It was a long day’s journey, and now we are set for our second day in Israel.

-- David Cogswell

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