That Moment on Har Herzl

Last month I left for Canada Israel Experience’s first ever LGBTQ+ Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. For ten days in early June I embarked on a whirlwind tour of some of the very best that the Jewish State and its people have to offer, and the key takeaways have left me truly inspired.

Just a primer: “Birthright” is a free trip provided by a multitude of different organizations, and in Canada its the Canada Israel Experience (CIE). All Jewish young adults whom have not been on an organized trip in the past are eligible.

The Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site
The Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site

Everyone was LGTBQ on the trip, which added another layer of depth and connection to the journey. All of the participants, the two madrichim (leaders), the Israeli tour guide, and even the medic/armed security guard identified as queer, and that really added to the feeling of mishpacha (family) that the trip seemed to just naturally facilitate.

For 10 days we sojourned the land in an air conditioned tour bus, visiting Jaffa, Tzfat, Tel-Aviv, Jerusalem, Modiin, and a few kibutzim. We sampled different elements of society: the religious and the secular, the urban and the rural, the capitalists and the socialists, as well as two Bedouin villages, one in the South and one in the North.

Tzfat
Tzfat

As a tourist, and as a LGTBQ identified individual, the highlight had to have been Tel-Aviv Pride, which was simply amazing. Hundreds of thousands of people came to support this community in the ‘gay capital’ of the entire region. Dozens of queer organizations and political protesters (not protesting Pride but other social causes) offered a glimpse into the vibrant social dialogue that goes on in Israel, and an official representative of the government, Minister of Culture and Sport MK Miri Regev, added to the overarching notion that Pride in Israel was undoubtedly part of the mainstream civic calendar.

At Tel-Aviv Pride, everyone marches.
At Tel-Aviv Pride, everyone marches.

We marched, we laughed, we celebrated, but for me the most important part of the trip took place in Jerusalem.

The climax of the trip for me was visiting Mt. Herzl. Walking distance from the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum, which we had visited earlier that day, Mt. Herzl is Israel’s central national cemetery located in Jerusalem, which hosts grave sites for soldiers, national leaders and other monuments to Israel’s fallen.

The contrast of the solemn, holy ground, the tenseness of the rows of graves with the sound of birds chirping and the constancy of the Mediterranean sunshine set the stage for an experience I will always hold dear to me.

Our tour guide, Anat, showed us some of the different graves, singled out some particularly brave soldiers for short lessons on how they ended up at Mt. Herzl as we ascended the site.

However, at a certain point we reached a grassy plateau as we approached the summit. Despite the intense heat, a cold chill went up my spine as she explained that “this area is reserved for future fallen soldiers”. We were standing on land that would inevitably also become rows upon rows of graves. We stood there, passively acknowledged the eerie inevitability that more bright, young lives would be lost to war and terror.

I couldn’t help but glance at the faces of the seven Israeli soldiers whom were accompanying our Birthright trip as the Mifgash delegation (“encounter”, where several Israeli youths join the visitors on the trip), dressed in their IDF uniforms. Despite being stiffly posed in their decorated military attire, the uneasiness and tinge of disappointment that painted their young faces reached down deep into my soul.

The grave of Theodore Herzl, philosopher and revolutionary.
The grave of Theodore Herzl, philosopher and revolutionary.

After a week of touring, shopping, swimming, rafting, exploring, tasting and enjoyment, the reality, the inescapable reality that this land is but an island, and the duty of defending it is not only a constant one, but a sacrifice, potentially the ultimate one, became harshly apparent.

Following this was a trip just a little but further up the mountain, to where the great leaders and visionaries of Zionism lay. Meir, Rabin, Peres. Individuals who’s personal history and ministerial portfolios match up with the general history of the State, who possess names synonymous with the Zionist vision.

Shortly we arrived at the grave of Theodore Herzl, the name that is most synonymous with the ideology of Jewish nationalism in the 19th century.

His grave is the summit of the entire hill. The emptiness of the open space that overlooks Jerusalem and the brightly coloured flowers create a dissonant, tranquil atmosphere completely at odds with the somber experience of walking up the path of graves just moments prior.

Maybe that sensation of tranquility and that beautiful view is a matter of design. Maybe you’re supposed to feel that conflict between the graves and the panoramic view of what those souls fought and died for. Experiencing that eye-of-the-storm moment and all of its warring sensations, and doing so in front of the man who dreamed that this all be possible, the reward of coming home to our land as well as the sacrifice it requires, was something I’ll never forget.

This episode, this specific part of the trip, filled with playing, partying and laughter with my fellow birthrighters, I would single out as the most important moment for me on the trip, and the deepest feeling of connection to my Jewish identity I’ve felt for a long time.

I needed to take in the strength of these soldiers, of these people, and tell myself that yes, there are people in this world who want to harm, to molest and to destroy this country and her people. Ten days of intimate interactions, of sadness and joy, reminded me that this is worth fighting for, even in just the small way that I can in Canada.

Thank you Taglit and Canada Israel Experience for this incredible gift. I’ll treasure it always.

About the Author
Willem Hart is a social science and Jewish studies student at York University in Toronto. He is an active member in the pro-Israel scene, and a lifelong disabilities service worker and advocate.
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