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Overcoming Borders, Breaking the Silence

IPU students report on an exchange with Israel in August 2017

A bright full moon is shining over the Dead Sea. It is night, but the temperature on the thermometer is still well over 30° Celsius. A group of young people are floating in the water, holding each other’s hands and forming a large circle. It is a strange feeling for most of them, feeling the buoyancy of the extremely salty water for the first time. But floating together on the water does create a bond. It is the end of August 2017 and the bathers are the participants in the IPU’s exchange programme with Israel.

Twelve students each from the IPU and the Hebrew University came together for two weeks last summer – at first in Berlin and then two weeks later in Jerusalem. During their shared swim in the Dead Sea, a moment of calm prevailed and the smouldering conflicts receded into the background. Because the frictions between the "Germans" and the "Israelis" are still real even 70 years after the Holocaust. Feelings of shame and guilt occur repeatedly, with mutual recriminations and misunderstandings arising. The get-together stirred up highly personal feelings and emotions, and it proved to be a very intimate experience, as everyone agreed.

This intimacy was also revealed in the subsequent presentation by the German group of their experiences to interested students and university members of the IPU. Nobody wanted to have sound recordings made of their reports. With the sensitivity of the subject-matter palpable. Which is also why none of the students’ names appear in this report.

The motive for the exchange was the psychoanalytical thought of confronting and exploring one’s own past and origins. The mass murder of six million Jews during the Third Reich inflicted deep interpersonal wounds, which have remained and can also still be felt generations later. For the IPU students, this meant that they were facing a situation in which they would be confronted with these deep wounds.

Thus, already before the exchange began, the German participants felt they were being exposed to a split that has its roots in Nazi anti-Semitism and which would now be re-enacted once more: With the group of Germans there, and the others, the group of Israelis, there. This unintended but effective separation of the two groups continued to be felt during the stays in Berlin and Jerusalem. During one sociable evening together, they played a game of table football in a bar – between two German and two Israeli participants. Suddenly a clear sense of tension prevailed in the room, and everyone became silent. "Fortunately," one of the female participants said, "the game ended in a draw." There is even a photo of the situation. With the players shaking hands after the draw.

This feeling that fortunately it worked out well once more that time pervaded the reports provided by the students. The days spent in Berlin proved to be unproblematic, comparatively speaking. But after the German participants arrived in Jerusalem, the sense of cohesion then began to crumble. "On the last day," one of the female participants recalls, "when we met up with a group that regarded itself as being on the left politically, I thought: ‘Now it’s all going to fall apart.’" Especially when subjects arose in which "left" or "right" political viewpoints played a role, the split was especially marked. While "actually there’s no way you can be on the right" in Germany, the position in Israel is completely different due to its own incomparable history. And it took the Germans some time to understand this.

For this reason, accusations also arose against the German group, such as having false sympathy with the fate of the Palestinians. This could be seen by way of a real example one day when the participants met a Palestinian family who had been forcibly evicted from their house after having lived there for 45 years. "Investors then discovered some papers which proved that Jews had once lived there and the court ruled in their favour, because a legal claim to ownership was inferred from this," one of the female participants said, explaining the situation. The accusations that arose reinforced the fundamental issue: "It’s barely possible to adopt a position in the conflict in the Middle East, especially as a German."

In Israel, several organisations have set themselves the task of initiating a dialogue and keeping it going. Such as for instance the "Combatants for Peace", who are advocating in Israel and the Palestinian Autonomous Territories for a peaceful solution to the conflict in the Middle East. One project in this context is called the "Crack in the Wall". The idea behind it is to establish telephone exchanges between Palestinians and Israelis. Anyone wishing to participate says which languages they speak and are connected with another interested person "behind the border". In this way, very small and simple encounters occur, in which both parties are able to realise that it is not a devil lurking behind the border, but perhaps another father or another mother whose fates are quite similar to their own.

It was this will to have exchanges, as a constant motivating factor in all of the participants, which maintained the cohesion within the student groups. "You always find borders to cross time and again – by means of communication," was how one female participant worded a potential way of handling this together, one which is also necessary. Indeed, far more such exchange programmes are required to overcome the silence, and in which the themes are repeatedly addressed and discussed.

The central location for such appeals and remembrances is Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. When the group went on a visit there, the tension was especially evident between the silence and the need to talk. It is the declared aim of Yad Vashem to give the victims a face, every single one of them. Just like the Nazis are also given a face to show who they were.

The intensive confrontation with the numerous explicit pictures and stories in Yad Vashem was extremely oppressive. Already just minutes after the tour began, silence prevailed among all the members of the group and continued until the group reflection session that was held each evening. "It’s hard to find words that might be capable of explaining the horrors in an appropriate manner," was how one female participant attempted to describe the problem – and who also struggled here for the few words needed. Yet for that: Yad Vashem helps communication to arise and continue. The memorial provides a place to remember lives exposed to suffering that may never be forgotten: "In order that we learn from this and prevent something like it ever happening again."