To Zion: Review of American Interests in the Holy Land

To Zion


American Interests jpost blog postPossibly one of the first photos of Jews at the Western Wall (1859), by Mendel Diness, a yeshiva student who turned Christian preacher. (photo credit:SPECIAL COLLECTIONS/FINE ARTS LIBRARY/HARVARD UNIVERSITY. ALL IMAGES WERE EXCERPTED WITH PERMISSION)

April 6, 2017

A new book presents Jewish life in the Holy Land through historical photos, with a special focus on the connection between America and the Land of Israel.

The intricate connection between Zion – as a physical and a metaphysical idea – and America, the “Land of the Free,” is a remarkably interesting one. Many of the early settlers in New England saw themselves as the new Israelites and America as the new Promised Land.

This is why Lenny Ben-David’s book American Interests in the Holy Land begins its journey with the Puritans and their fascinating connection to the spirit of the Bible and the concept of Zion. However, we quickly move to the book’s real point of departure, the 19th century, which saw the beginning of modern photography, and was a turning point in Jewish as well as American presence in Palestine.

The book is a sort of Zionist coffee-table book for curious readers with a taste for visual history, built in the form of short, independent photo-essays, each presenting the reader with a specific story, or figure, through related photographs.

One of these, for example, is the story of John Mendenhall Diness – an ex-Jewish yeshiva student who was born in Odessa, studied in Heidelberg (Germany), finding himself eventually in Jerusalem. There, he converted to Christianity and became one of the earliest professional photographers in Palestine, providing valuable documentation of Jerusalem and its surroundings (Diness’s photographic heritage left us, for example, one of the earliest photos of Jews at the Western Wall, taken in 1859).

He eventually moved to the US, where he became a preacher. His collection of photos and the man behind them were completely unknown to scholars and research until the end of the 1980s, when the photos were accidentally found in a garage sale by a photography expert. This discovery led to them being made available to the public.

Each chapter is accompanied with photographs related to its subject matter.

The format is clear: A short story, quotes, and of course photos.

The author also included many – and sometimes very long (albeit interesting) – excerpts from 19th century accounts from travelers and enthusiasts about Palestine (ranging from Mark Twain to president Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state), and especially about its Jewish and American populations.

An intriguing figure that Ben-David dedicates a chapter to is Lydia Von Finkelstein Montford, a performer, lecturer about the Land of Israel and a journalist.

She was born in Jerusalem in 1855 and died in the US in 1917, and her interesting accounts of life in Jerusalem, as quoted in the book, offer a unique viewpoint.

The industrious reader will start his or her journey in the 19th century and will move on, with some detours, to the 20th century, and the establishment of the State of Israel and the War of Independence in 1948.

BEN-DAVID’S book is a very personal endeavor…. In the introduction, he explains that “perhaps by oversight or malicious intent, some historic photographic albums and collections ignore the graphic proof of Jewish life in the Holy Land over the last 160 years.”

This book, we are led to understand, strives to redress this misrepresentation….

The general feeling of the book is that of an interested observer who has undertaken the mission to explain his overall message – that the Jews have been here for a very long time, contrary to widespread propaganda. Indeed, this book actually started out as a blogger’s quest and most of the photos in the book are available and accessible for anyone to see online, through the author’s website – – that preceded the book.

Ben-David is not a historian, but he understands the power of photography and clearly enjoys it.

The fact that this is not an academic book has advantages, as well as obvious disadvantages. One of the pluses is that the reader may feel a certain companionship with the author, who can be seen as giving his guest a tour in his private gallery. The downside is that not everything is satisfactorily explained.

Nonetheless, anyone who picks up this book will surely be interested in meandering through its pages, with a 100% chance of coming across something that will spark his or her curiosity.

American Interests in the Holy Land, Lenny Ben David
Urim Publications, 2017
Hardcover, 184 pages


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