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April 19, 2014 / 19 Nisan, 5774
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Book Review: Simon Sebag Montefiore’s ‘Jerusalem: The Biography’

Friday, October 18th, 2013

By Henry Goldblum

At first glance, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s best seller Jerusalem: The Biography is surely impressive. Media critics as well as Henry Kissinger have showered it with praise, and the BBC devoted a timely three-part TV series to the author, providing invaluable publicity. Indeed, the book is not dull by any standards. Drama abounds – be it in chapter headings (take chapter 5, “The Whore of Babylon”) or in the description of events, such as the Moloch ceremonies in the days of King Menasseh, “the sacrifice of children at the roaster…in the Valley of Hinom…as priests beat drums to hide the shrieks of the victims from their parents” (p. 39). The Muslim invasion is depicted in graphic detail, particularly the battle of 636 CE, which took place “amidst the impenetrable gorges of the Yarmuk River” (p. 172) – although the area through which the Yarmuk flows is in fact more of an open plain.

Renouncing Uniqueness

Sebag Montefiore has clearly invested much effort in conveying his vision of Jerusalem – past, present, and future. The result reflects thoughtful study of many sources relating to different features of the city, and the author certainly recognizes its special status. However, in his apparent desire to deal evenhandedly with the various local religions, he fails to make it clear that it is only for Jews and Judaism that Jerusalem is, was, and has always been the sole spiritual center on earth. This omission is unacceptable. The author rightly refers, if only en passant, to Midrash Tanhuma and the writings of Philo of Alexandria as two examples of this basic, constant belief, unlimited by time or circumstance. The intensity of Jerusalem’s sacred status for Judaism is such that later monotheistic faiths have attempted at various times to gain a foothold in the city, despite their having other, holier places (Mecca and Medina, Rome and Bethlehem). Perhaps recognizing the significance of capturing the “chosen status” of Judaism, they have utilized diverse strategies to prop up their variant “histories,” including reinterpreting Muhammad’s miraculous night visit to the “Farthest Mosque” on the outskirts of Mecca to include a stopover in Jerusalem.

It has always been fundamental for the Jew to appreciate this imbalance, and it cannot be overlooked in any attempt to describe Jerusalem. Sebag Montefiore has downgraded this uniquely Jewish aspect of the city; as far as he is concerned, Judaism’s monopoly on Jerusalem is limited to part 1 of his book, extending until the year 70 CE. Parts 2-8 belong primarily to other faiths and peoples, and the final section of the book, dating from 1898, is titled “Zionism,” as if the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty is a separate chapter in the history of the city rather than the restorationof a violently interrupted continuum. Significantly, he neglects to emphasize thata Jewish majority has dominated the citywhenever circumstances have permitted,including from the early 19th century onwardwithout interruption; nor does he remind thereader that only when Jews have ruled thecity have all other faiths enjoyed full rights ofworship there.

Historically Dubious These omissions are partially explained by the almost complete absence of references to classic Jewish works compiled in the Land of Israel – despite their obvious relevance in terms of place, time, and subject. Thus, the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds are together accorded a mere four quotations; the output of Jewish historians from Graetz to current Israeli scholars not of the revisionist mode is similarly glaringly absent. In contrast, detailed descriptions of events and individuals taken from non-Jewish sources abound – even when their relevance is historically uncertain or unsound – notably the passages on Jesus in chapter 11. The sole reference to Jesus in Josephus (Antiquities, book 17, 63-64), whom Sebag Montefiore cites among other non- Jewish sources as confirmation of his existence as a historic character, is widely regarded as being of dubious authorship (see Emil Schürer’s History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus, vol. 1, p. 428ff.).

The reliability of the author’s statement at the opening of the Islam section is similarly questionable: Muhammad is said to have come “to venerate Jerusalem as one of the noblest of sanctuaries” (p. 169). With all due respect, the Koran never mentions Jerusalem, and by beginning his discussion of Islam with the reinterpretation of the passage regarding “the furthest place of worship,” Sebag Montefiore creates a false impression, especially since in Sura 2, the Prophet commands that prayer be directed exclusively to Mecca. The other quotes on page 168 are all from later Muslim sources. The term “Iliya,” a corruption of the pagan name Aelia Capitolina coined by Hadrian, continued to be used by the Muslim conquerors of Jerusalem for a generation or more following Muhammad’s death, with examples from as late as the end of the 10th century. This is the name of the city appearing on the milestones of Caliph al-Malik, who built the Dome of the Rock in the 690s. The name Al-Quds, “The Sanctuary,“ came into common use only in the 11th century, in the context of the struggle between Crusaders and Saracens for dominion over the Holy Land (see Moshe Gil, The Political History of Jerusalem in the Early Muslim Period, p. 10). The anecdote concerning Caliph Omar’s tour of the Temple Mount (p. 175 in Sebag Montefiore’s book) only reiterates the secondary status of Jerusalem in Islam – the caliph rebukes Kaab, a converted Jew, who suggests praying in the direction of the Temple on the mount rather than toward Mecca. As Bernard Lewis has stated in The Middle East, “Much of the traditional narrative of the early history of Islam must remain problematic, whilst the critical history is at best tentative” (p. 51). Why, then, has Sebag Montefiore adopted Islamic accounts regarding this period so readily? Is he perhaps playing to Muslim sensibilities? All this leads us to an epilogue that looks forward, as might be expected from the previous sections, to a permanent division of the city into two capitals for two states, in accordance with current liberal and revisionist dogma. The hope of witnessing such a chapter in the history of Jerusalem rankles coming from a scion of the illustrious Montefiore family, whose philanthropy was once invested in the furtherance of a quite different destiny for the city.

Admittedly, Jerusalem: The Biography provides an enjoyable ride. A more appropriate destination and a less controversial and dangerous route might be preferable, but that, presumably, would require a change of driver.

Dr. Heny Goldblum is a lawyer and a scholar of history

Visit Behind the News in Israel.

Who’s a Pew

Friday, October 18th, 2013

The views in this article are not at all those of the Jewish Press, but we decided to publish the article as an opportunity to expand the public debate. So comment away…

There have been three reports released in the past few days regarding Jewish Population. Two, the Pew Research Study, and the Steinhardt Social Research Institute Study, are concerned with Jewish population numbers. The third, by the University of Huddersfield in England concerns itself with the genetic history of Askenazi Jews. But in fact, all three studies are really about Jewish identity.

The Pew and Steinhart studies have come up with vastly different numbers concerning the size of the Jewish population in the US. This disparity is due to their diverse definition of who is a Jew.

This is not a new problem. Jewish identity has been an issue in the Jewish community at least since the beginning of the Common Era, and perhaps even before. At the start of the Common Era Jews in Rome were proselytizing so successfully that the rabbis felt that they had to erect barriers to conversion for fear that the Jewish community would become too diluted. In essence, they revised the standards for Jewish identification and as Judaism became more rabbinical, whole segments of the Jewish population who were not considered religious enough by the rabbis became disenfranchised and were left out in the cold.

In great part, due to this exclusionary policy, the world Jewish population declined sharply over the next thousand years. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the world Jewish population dropped from about five million at the start of the Common Era, to about one million by the end of the first millennium CE. It remained at about one million until the middle of the eighteenth century when it suddenly skyrocketed to seven million in less than a hundred years.

Both the precipitous population decline and the even more remarkable population increase resulted from the different policies of defining Jewish identity. In the early years of the Common Era, before the rise of rabbinic Judaism, Jews were defined through self description; for example, you could describe yourself as a Roman Jew or as a Greek Jew. There was no other requirement than that. You didn’t have to belong to a synagogue or observe holidays, or keep kosher, or any of the other criteria that are currently applied in population surveys. After the rabbis gained power the nature of Judaism and Jewish identification changed. A Jew could no longer self select. He had to be listed as a Jew by the rabbi. Thus, if a Jew was not affiliated with a rabbinic religious community, he was not counted as a Jew.

This situation continued for the next thousand years until Napoleon granted the Jews citizenship, and pioneers and visionaries like the Bal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, and Rabbi Abraham Geiger, the founder of the Reform Movement, declared that it was not necessary for a person to be affiliated with a synagogue or even know how to pray in order for him to consider himself Jewish. (It should be remembered that the Bal Shem Tov was excommunicated by the Vilna Gaon because of this heretical idea.)

These great visionaries said that if you consider yourself Jewish, then you’re Jewish! As a result of this earth shattering declaration the world Jewish population soared so that by 1935, through the measure of self identification, there were fifteen million Jews in the world. (Hitler did not ask “how Jewish” his victims were)

Today, we are facing a similar problem that confronted the Jews in the first centuries of the Common Era. We have once again set up barriers to Jewish identification and we now have standards to determine if you are a “True Jew:” Was your mother Jewish? Did you have a bar mitzvah? How often do you attend services? Do you belong to a JCC? Contribute to Jewish charities? Been to Israel? Speak and/or read Hebrew? Light Shabbat candles? Have a Christmas Tree? And on and on.

These questions only serve to narrow the field in a time when we should be widening our tent. We can no longer afford to be an exclusive and exclusionary club. We need to find new ways to welcome not only the disenchanted and disenfranchised Jews but also the intermarried, and their non-Jewish partners.

In the same way that Jews of the twenty first century are different from their first century ancestors, so too must the definition of who is a True Jew be different. Until we can settle on a new definition we will be unable to accurately measure the Jewish population.

Bernard Beck is the author of True Jew…Challenging the Stereotype, published by Algora Publishing, 186 pages, $22.95

Excellent Work Plan

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

Some Palestinian speaker detailing his view on negotiations over “Palestine,” and meanwhile offers a very good and reliable plan for Israel to deal with his kind. Just change the name to “Israel” and act accordingly, the situation would be resolved in under a day.

As a good friend of mine pit it, once you place yourself outside the law, you cannot continue to receive protection from the same law. This is a superb example of this axiom.

Last night, after someone in Lebanon shot four Katyusha rockets at Naharia, I expected a couple of IAF wings to get over to South Lebanon and return a large swath of land to the 12th century. Instead, we saw a proportionate response, an attack on some target south of Beirut which killed no one and didn’t even damage property.

We need to appoint this Palestinian man as our prime minister and follow whatever he says – except apply it to the enemy. Trust me, we will be immeasurably successful.

Oh – and watch the two Neturei Karta guys with the anti-Zionist sign. Do they recognize a pogrom in the making? I wonder.


Failing in Order to Succeed

Monday, August 19th, 2013

The rabbis teach that we can only truly understand Torah when we allow ourselves to fail at it (Gittin 43a). Unless we push ourselves to reach for deeper understanding, where we inevitably get it wrong before we can get it right, we will not grasp the very essence of the Jewish enterprise. Rashi here seems to think that it’s the public shame of getting it wrong (and the concomitant rebuke) that strengthens one’s intellectual rigor. It is not hard to think about giving constructive feedback (“rebuke”) when it comes to moral matters, but do we care enough about ideas that we (respectfully) challenge others when ideas are misinterpreted or misapplied? How much do we really value the marketplace of ideas and the assurance that we as individuals and as a society get it right?

History is full of examples of leaders who acknowledged that persistence in the face of failure was more important than individual failures. President Abraham Lincoln, whose army suffered many crushing defeats in the early years of the Civil War, said: “I am not concerned that you have fallen — I am concerned that you arise.” A century later, Robert F. Kennedy echoed the optimistic spirit of youth when he said, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” Besides for being tragically assassinated, what these presidents have in common in that their causes lasted, their legacies carried on, and they are remembered as being among the greatest and most successful men to occupy the Oval Office.

Very often, one can be lured by the traps of conformism (just follow others’ ideas or practices) or isolationism (just follow one’s own marginal ideas and practices). Our job as Jews is to break free from these ploys for mediocrity. We must challenge ourselves and the status quo to reach higher by engaging with societal ideas but without blindly accepting them.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of the Chassidic movement) and founder and intellectual-spiritual leader in his own right, was anything but a conformist. He not only told his followers to be happy, but he also encouraged them to do silly things, highly unusual for a religious leader. Rebbe Nachman stated that each person had to fall in order to rise, and stressed the universality of this concept:

[E]ach person who fell … thinks that these words weren’t spoken for him, for he imagines that these ideas are only for great people who are always climbing from one level to the next. But truthfully, you should know and believe, that all these words were also said concerning the smallest of the small and the worst of the worst, for Hashem is forever good to all.

However, Rebbe Nachman went further, stating that it is “a great thing for a person to still have an evil inclination.” Even the tendency to evil could serve G-d, as people worked through these passions and eventually overcame them. To Rebbe Nachman, it seems, spiritual stasis is the only unacceptable path.

We must be willing to learn and debate with others. Ideas matter. Inevitably that will lead to some level of shame when we get it wrong, but the promise land afterwards is much greater. It offers a culture of more honest, informed, connected individuals who are willing to be vulnerable for the sake of truth and who are willing to be wrong in order to get it right. Our great rabbinic and presidential leaders wouldn’t have it any other way.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/failing-in-order-to-succeed/2013/08/19/

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