A Review of American Interests in the Holy Land: Revealed in Early Photographs From 1840 – 1940: The Perfect Gift
By Stephen G. Donshik
(American Interests in the Holy Land: Revealed in Early Photographs From 1840 to 1940 by Lenny Ben-David. Urim Publications, 2017, New York)
One of the tasks that most Jewish organizations confront on a regular basis is how to most meaningfully thank those people who have volunteered their time and shared their financial resources with the Jewish communities in Israel and in the Diaspora. People tasked with this responsibility search for the most appropriate gift that represents their organization’s mission in meeting the needs of the community, strengthens the connection with Israel, and has an educational message. During these days when we see efforts to delegitimize our connection to Israel, this book is a wonderful way to say thank you and deepen our leadership’s understanding of both American interests and the Jewish people’s connection and involvement in the Land of Israel.
American Interests in the Holy Land presents an exquisite collection of photographs from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, enriched by Ben-David’s annotations and explanations. He selected the photographs from archives and collections, some of which were previously not known. He also shows the long history of American interests in the Holy Land; for example, the book cites President John Adams, who wrote to a Jewish American leader in 1819, “I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation.” The bringing together of these images from a myriad of sources with his comments links the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel with American interests, revealing the long history of U.S. support for the effort to reestablish a Jewish presence in the biblical homeland.
In many cases Ben-David was able to identify the photographers and share their unique life stories. For example, Mendel Diness, who was born in Odessa into a religious family, immigrated to Palestine in 1848. Several years later he became a photographer. He is believed to have taken the first picture of Jews at the Western Wall (1859), and he wound up documenting the Jewish presence in the Old City of Jerusalem. A few years later Mark Twain took his famous trip to the Holy Land and then wrote it up in The Innocents Abroad. Ben-David discovered a photograph of tourists outside the Jerusalem walls (1867) that could very well be of Twain’s companions from his visit to Palestine.
Also from 1867 are photos capturing the images of German Jews and Polish Jews at the Mediterranean Hotel in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem. These photos were discovered in the Library of Congress. Believe it or not, there was an “American Welcoming Committee for Yemenite Jewish Pilgrims” 130 years ago: photographs document the owners of the American Colony Hotel extending themselves to assist groups of immigrants as they completed the unbelievably difficult task of making their way to Palestine. The Yemenite rabbi even offered a prayer for Horatio Spafford, the owner of the hotel, and his family for their kindness to the group.
Thus, we see a unique connection between Americans living in Jerusalem and Jews making their way to Palestine many years ago. And it is very important for all those involved in working for the benefit of Israel to know of the existence of this documentation both of our connection and our presence in the Land of Israel before the early 20th century.
Among the unusual images captured in the book are photos of the model of Jerusalem that was built at the St. Louis Exposition in 1904. Since all Americans could not make their way to Jerusalem, Jerusalem was brought to the United States. Ben-David juxtaposes this image against one of the model of Jerusalem that is being created in the center of Manhattan today. These photos are further evidence of the bond that unites America and the Land of Israel.
Images capture the U.S. Navy saving the Jews of Palestine from starvation in 1915, when more than $50,000 worth of provisions were sent from America to Palestine. One of the reports recorded that 23,000 people in Jerusalem received food, medicines, and other aid from one ship. Surprisingly this shipment also included matzot for Passover. However, the American connection to the Jews’ desire for a homeland in Palestine was not always smooth sailing. Dr. Otis Glazebrook, who helped the Jews receive aid during World War I, took a very different perspective after the war. Once the British Mandate was created he opposed the rebuilding of a permanent Jewish presence in Palestine.
One of the stories and photographs I found most surprising was the documentation of Rav Dr. Abraham I. Kook’s visit to the United States and his meeting with President Calvin Coolidge. Ben-David discovered a photo of Rav Kook in Washington that was in storage at the Library of Congress. Rav Kook had a special feeling for the American Jewish community; he was quoted as saying the three qualities that distinguished them from other Jewish communities were “a deep feeling for religiosity, a sense of Jewish nationalism, and sense of social responsibility.”
In 1918 President Woodrow Wilson endorsed the Balfour Declaration, and President Warren Harding signed into law a joint resolution unanimously supporting the establishment of a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. One of the last images in the book is of the 1936 visit of U.S. senators and their wives on a visit to a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The book takes us up to 1940, and the America-Israel connection will continue to be recorded in the forthcoming volumes of a wonderful series.
This book thus records the long history of the strong relationship between America and the Holy Land. Although there have been tensions and difficulties in this connection, this book provides powerful documentation of the roots of the historic bonds between the two countries. It makes a wonderful way to thank people and to strengthen their connection to their organizations and their commitment to the Jewish people, the Jewish community, the Jewish State, and the Jewish presence in the Land of Israel.
Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a retired lecturer at the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School and occasional contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy.com.