I had always been fearful of visiting Israel. I had the opportunity to go three years ago on an interfaith trip and turned it down. I was scared of being caught in a terrorist attack, I was unnerved by what I imagined to be a constant and menacing military presence. And more than that, I was ignorant of what Israel had to offer.
I was still anxious when I landed at Ben Gurion airport recently with my group of teachers, arts educators and lecturers, excitedly discussing the nine-day programme ahead of us.
We were part of a training programme for educators — the Imperial War Museum/Yad Vashem Fellowship in Holocaust Education. And it was only then as I looked around, in the modern and quite beautiful airport, that I started to relax.
Holocaust education is like a fly trap — you hover near the edges and then, snap! You’re in.
Five years ago that happened to me when I joined the Anne Frank Trust — initially to run the Anne Frank Awards, but quickly becoming an education officer, and later head of education.
My life revolves around working with children, adults and offenders, linking their respective worlds to the lessons of the Holocaust and the inspiring writing of one young Jewish girl, Anne Frank. I’m not a Jewish girl. I am Catholic. But to be a Holocaust educator, you don’t need to be Jewish, because this history is universal in its messages; the victims may have been Jewish, but the perpetrators were not.
My grandfather, a member of the 7th Armoured Division — known as the Desert Rats — had spent time stationed in Palestine. He used to talk about his amazement at the beauty of the Sea of Galilee and the “white city” of Jerusalem — all the more astonishing to him coming from the industrial, soot-blackened towns of Yorkshire. I’d studied the Balfour Declaration, Zionism and Israeli responses to the Holocaust through the masters degree I am currently working toward at University College London, so I knew about Israel. But I didn’t know Israel. And I didn’t want to go to find out. And then, after eight days in Jerusalem and one in Masada (which truly captured my imagination), I am convinced of the magic my Jewish colleagues speak of. So much history is played out in one city — and so dramatically.
Every alleyway or hidden square has a story; every shop has something “just perfect for you”. There’s energy and happiness and devotion everywhere.
Our course at Yad Vashem was intense. Every minute was timetabled with presentations, lectures and trips. I met with Professor Yehuda Bauer and one of Korczak’s children — the Warsaw Ghetto hero who refused to abandon his charges. I had free access to the archives and the museum. I spent every lunchtime looking over Jerusalem, sitting next to the young soldiers — more like sixth-formers — there for mandatory Holocaust education programme. Their rifles were stacked in squares in the plaza. How contradictory it felt to be in a place dedicated to those lost through violence to have piles of weapons around the place. I’m starting, tentatively, to understand why. But the thought of having to send my children in to a potential war zone is unimaginable.
Now I’m home I realise those nine days weren’t enough. There is so much more to discover and no one should be frightened of visiting. Now, I can’t wait to go back. A friend on the Fellowship has invited me to her parents’ house overlooking Galilee. I might just take her up on it.