Pictures of thriving communities in the Holy Land

Written by: Martin Rubin
Originally Published by The Washington Times

The State of Israel and its capital Jerusalem are perennially in the news. Recently, Israel joyously celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War and, after nearly two decades when Jews could not visit their holiest site, the Western Wall, opened the holy places of all three Abrahamic religions to all their worshippers.

Yet again, a campaign promise sensibly to move the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv has, alas, been postponed, at best. What other capital is there in the world where nations that have full diplomatic relations with the government located there do not have their missions located there?

Long before creation of the Jewish state 69 years ago, Americans had a special interest in that part of the world. A century and a half ago, an 1867 cruise taking what must have been one of the earliest organized parties of American tourists to the Holy Land inspired Mark Twain’s early “The Innocents Abroad,” which remained his bestselling work during his lifetime as well as catapulting the future creator of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn to international fame.

Here we have a fascinating collection of a century of photographs chronicling this special relationship, starting a quarter-century before Twain’s party reached the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and concluding almost a decade before the State of Israel came into existence.

Lenny Ben-David, the author who has assembled this remarkable photographic collection is superbly qualified for the task. Not only has he served both as deputy chief of mission in Israel’s Embassy in Washington, D.C. and longtime director of AIPAC’s Israel office, he is director of publications at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and publisher of a website devoted to photo essays on the Holy Land.

A chance glance into the online archives of the Library of Congress led Mr. Ben-David to a global quest:

“The Library of Congress online reference read, ‘Jewish settlements and colonies in Palestine.’ Colonies? That piqued my interest five years ago while I was looking for a document on U.S. Middle East policy. The file led me to a 115-year old treasure trove of pictures taken by the Christian photographers of the American Colony in Jerusalem, some showing Jewish ‘colonies’ in the Galilee.

“The thousands of photographs digitized by the U.S. Library of Congress and by large and small archives around the world that I subsequently discovered, provided dramatic proof of thriving Jewish communities in Palestine in the 19th century. Hundreds of photos portray the ancient Jewish communities in Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Tiberias as well as the Jewish pioneers and builders of new towns, industries, and settlements in the Galilee and along the Mediterranean coast.”

But that word “colonies” which caught Mr. Ben-David’s attention and which has become so loaded over the decades, not only raises my hackles, as I suspect it did his, but demonstrates the enduring relevance of his project and this book. In so many parts of the world, we see Jewish settlements outside the superseded 1967 borders of Israel damned as colonies, just as the state itself is too often calumniated as a colonial outpost.

Mr. Ben-David shows us how the Jewish settlements in what was then Palestine resonated with such quintessentially American leitmotivs as “The City on the Hill” and “Manifest Destiny.” A chapter on Ulysses S. Grant chronicles his post-presidential visit to the area in 1877 (10 years after his friend Mark Twain’s) and tells us that although he found it overall a pretty bleak, ravaged region, the one point of light he observed was when “[Grant notes potential for the Plain of Sharon] under good government and tilled by such labor as could be found in America.”

And Mr. Ben-David quotes from former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael B. Oren’s highly informed book, “Power, Faith, and Fantasy”:

“Oren’s opus on America and the Middle East also cites correspondence by [Theodore] Roosevelt in 1918 in which he wrote, ‘It seems to me that it is entirely proper to start a Zionist state around Jerusalem.’ In another letter, the former president stated, ‘[T]here can be no peace worth having ‘until Armenians and Arabs are granted independence ‘and the Jews given control of Palestine.”

Words written nearly a century ago, but still oh so timely today.

It is entirely appropriate and perhaps even to be expected that Mr. Ben-David’s foray into this particular aspect of Middle Eastern history should have led him to be a latter-day Columbus:

“I rediscovered America. The collections revealed American visits to the region from 100-150 years ago by individual tourists, senior government officials, members of Congress, and U.S. Navy ships. For the Americans who were unable to visit the Holy Land, proof of its existence and growth arrived on the shores of the United States by way of the vast collections of these photographs.”

And what they do, among many other things, is refute the myth that the success of Zionism and the establishment of a Jewish state in the Holy Land was not some delusional Utopian dream, but a rationally based, predictably achievable, if inevitably hard-won, task.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.

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

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