Sir Moses Montefiore was a Jew of great accomplishment. Making his fortune as a broker by age 40, he was the first English Jew to be knighted. He took an active role in condemning the false charges of the Damascus Blood Libel, in 1840. Most important for us as we celebrate Jerusalem Day, were the seven trips the philanthropist and political activist made to what was then Palestine. According to The Concise Jewish Encyclopedia (1980) on Montefiore’s many visits to the Holy Land, “he assisted in many ways in improving the conditions of its Jews, supporting agricultural schemes, promoting industries, new building developments, etc.”
Historian Sir Martin Gilbert in Jerusalem: Rebirth of A City (1985) includes many wonderful photographs of what would be the capital of Israel, including the “New City” built up by Jewish immigrants outside the walls, built on the order of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (construction was completed in 1541).
Gilbert writes: “In 1838, Jerusalem was desolate and forsaken, a remote provincial town of the Ottoman Empire, which pilgrims visited at their peril. By 1898, it had been transformed into a modern city in which six European powers – Russia, France, Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy – had each established their political presence.
“Its holy sites had been rebuilt, systematic archaeological excavations had begun and new churches, monasteries, convents, synagogues and mosques proliferated. The population had trebled, and immigrants hurried to its new prosperity and safety.”
Gilbert includes a photograph of Montefiore’s Cottages, taken in 1860, and the iconic windmill that stands out in the complex. Montefiore bought the land in 1855, with money from the estate of wealthy New Orleans philanthropist Judah Touro. In 1857, Montefiore left his mark on the neighborhood located outside Jerusalem’s Old City: the windmill. It became operational in 1860, as an attempt to wean the residents off charity from the Diaspora but only it operated for two decades.
The neighborhood that was created as a solution
The neighborhood would eventually, after Montefiore’s death, be known as Yemin Moshe. It was established in 1892-94 and presented an answer to the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions inside the walls. The project continued the wealthy man’s work and was dedicated to him – a verse from Isaiah (which describes “the right hand of Moses” in liberating the Hebrews). By the end of the century, the Jewish population dominated Jerusalem’s New City.
The failure of Jewish forces to capture the Old City from the Arabs in 1948 was overshadowed by the Jewish victory in the War of Independence. The early years of Israel were a struggle with the Arabs, the integration of Jews from Muslim countries, and much political infighting between Right and Left.
The Mandelbaum Gate was accepted as a Jordanian barrier to the Jewish holy sites. Burial stones from the Mount of Olives were used to pave roads and synagogues in the Old City were destroyed. But Jews had to be thankful that they gained, in a war instigated by the Arabs, territory that the United Nations would never have given them.
The reality of Israel after the horrors of genocide was a testament to a remnant’s survival and heroism. Neighborhoods, like Yemin Moshe, were witnesses to Jewish revival in Jerusalem and throughout Israel.
A GOOD friend and mentor who made aliyah from the US more than 50 years ago, is a resident of Jerusalem and a reader of my essays and asked me to write about why Jerusalem Day has an inferior status to Independence Day in much of the Diaspora and in Israel.
His point is valid. The day celebrating the Jewish reunification of Jerusalem engenders more ambiguity in Israel and the Diaspora than Israel’s celebration of independence. Why is this so?
First, we must confront the myth of modern Israel’s story as that modeled on the biblical confrontation between David and Goliath. Many people paint a portrait of the War of Independence in 1948 as an improbable victory of an outnumbered and outgunned yishuv, invaded by Arab armies whose main mission was to support their Arab brothers in Israel. Yet, the reality of 1948 is more complex than the victory of the underdog against incredible odds.
By 1945, thousands of Jews from Palestine fought in the British Army. Jewish units fought with the Allies in Greece, in 1941, and a regiment was formed by the British Army, in 1942, that fought in Egypt and the battles of North Africa. The imperialist British, with great hesitation, formed a Jewish Brigade Group in 1944, that included 5,000 Jewish volunteers fighting under the Zionist flag. This brigade battled the Germans in Italy from March 1945 until the end of the war in Europe.
Jewish military experience was deeply rooted in the Yishuv. In 1909, the first self-defense association, Hashomer (The Watchman), was formed. A few years later, The Zion Mule Corps and the Jewish Legion were formed by the British, due to the efforts of Trumpeldor and Jabotinsky in World War I. Christian Zionist Orde Wingate, a captain in the British Army, formed the Special Night Squads that trained a generation of the Haganah.
In 1948, the Arab invaders were fierce and the Yishuv lost 1% of its population. But it is not as if Israel came out of nowhere as a formidable fighting force in the Six Day War, in 1967. The Jews were experienced in self-defense many years before the founding of Israel.
Furthermore, the War of Independence was not solely a political war. Labor Zionists never understood “the Rock of Israel.” David Ben-Gurion’s Status Quo agreement with Agudat Israel and the Orthodox establishment was based on the belief that socialism would win the day and that Judaism would wither.
It did not help that religious parties followed along in a meek manner with a succession of Labor Zionist-led governments. It did not help that the Labor Zionist establishment miscalculated its approach toward more traditional Jews from the Arab and Islamic world. These refugees cared little for Nachman Syrkin and Ber Borochov. It did not help that Labor Zionists had no understanding of a conflict with Arabs that was heavily influenced by Islam.
IF JEWS in America and Israel are uncomfortable with the independence that was challenged by the Arabs for religious reasons and if they don’t know the history of interaction between Muslims and Jews and the impact statehood made on the Arab world, they will never understand why rockets are being fired from the Gaza Strip by Hamas and Islamic Jihad on Jewish territory within the Green Line.
In 1948: The First Arab-Israeli War (2008), historian Benny Morris condemns Ben-Gurion because the prime minister “failed fully to appreciate the depth of the Arabs” abhorrence of the Zionist-Jewish presence in Palestine, an abhorrence anchored in centuries of Islamic Judeophobia with deep religious and historical roots. The Jewish rejection of the Prophet Muhammad is embedded in the Koran and is etched in the psyche of those brought up on its suras. As the Muslim Brotherhood put it in 1948: “Jews are the historic enemies of Muslims and carry the greatest hatred for the nation of Muhammad.”
That 1948 was solely a political conflict in the eyes of the Israel political establishment led to the failed Oslo Accords many years later. The negotiation would never have taken place if Israel had dealt with Hamas, the true leaders of the First Intifada, not Fatah and Arafat, who were in exile in Tunis. Of course, Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) would never have negotiated.
For the Arab invaders of Israel in 1948, this was all about a holy war against the Jews. As for the Arabs in the British Mandate, they were a secondary priority. Religion played an important role for the enemies of Israel in the War of Independence.
Third, the IDF paratroopers who captured the Old City of Jerusalem from the Jordanians on the third day of the 1967 war, exclaimed “The Temple Mount is in our hands.” They didn’t shout “The Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque are in our hands.” The religious and messianic overtones to Jerusalem Day scare many Jews, especially those who continue to ignore the failures of Labor Zionism’s understanding of Judaism and Jewish history.
Masada, discussed by ancient Jewish historian Josephus, but not biblical and later ignored by the rabbis, was a testament to Jewish heroism but stripped of religion, a perfect place of pilgrimage for Zionists who champion the “Israeli” over the “Jew.” But “Zion” appears in the Hebrew Bible 152 times as the title of Jerusalem. Jews have yearned for a return to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount for over 2,000 years.
As important as Yemin Moshe and the New City has been to the history of Israel and the Jewish people, it has never been enough to fulfill the desires and hopes of our people. Jerusalem Day celebrates the fulfillment of the dream of returning sovereignty to Jews in our ancient capital. We should say to Ben-Gurion and a generation of Zionists that Yemin Moshe was never enough.
The writer is a rabbi, essayist and lecturer in West Palm Beach, Florida.