Academic journal article Jewish Political Studies Review

The Zionist Message Hidden within Antique Pictures of the Holy Land

Academic journal article Jewish Political Studies Review

The Zionist Message Hidden within Antique Pictures of the Holy Land

Article excerpt

A 110-year-old trove of pictures taken by the Christian photographers of the American Colony in Jerusalem provides dramatic proof of thriving Jewish communities in Palestine. Hundreds of pictures show the ancient Jewish community of Jerusalem's Old City and the Jewish pioneers and builders of new towns and settlements in the Galilee and along the Mediterranean coastline. The American Colony photographers recorded Jewish holy sites, holiday scenes and customs, and they had a special reason for focusing their lenses on Yemenite Jews.

The collection, housed in the U.S. Library of Congress, also contains photographs from the 1860s, the first years of photography. These photographs provide a window rarely opened by historians-for several unfortunate reasons-to view the life of the Jews in the Holy Land. The photographs' display and online publication effectively counters the biased narrative claiming that the Jewish state violently emerged ex novo in the mid-twentieth century.

The claim that Israel was founded in 1948 as the worlds response to the Holocaust is a common misperception and propaganda refrain. It is a matter of verifiable historical fact that this claim is lacking in merit.

"Americans and Europeans exported the conflict created by Hitler to our land," said Essam El-Erian, a senior member of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood in 2011. "Why do the Palestinians pay the price of Nazis?"1

President Barack Obama reinforced this misperception in his well-meaning but misplaced reference to Jewish history in his June 4, 2009, Cairo speech, "[T]he aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied. Around the world, the Jewish people were persecuted for centuries, and anti-Semitism in Europe culminated in an unprecedented Holocaust..."

The president then presented an "evenhanded" equivalent: "On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people-Muslims and Christians-have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation...."2

These statements are basically inaccurate mainly because they fail to recognize the continuous historical presence of Jews in the Holy Land dating from ancient times. Over the centuries, and following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, the center of Jewish life moved to the Galilee where the great Jewish legal tomes, the Mishnah and the Talmud, were written and where Kabbalist rabbis established schools during the Middle Ages. The holy city of Jerusalem and the Western Wall have always been the destination for Jewish pilgrims and the direction for Jewish prayers.

From the mid-nineteenth century onward, photographers using a new technology chronicled the Jewish devotion to the Land of Israel and to Jerusalem. Steamships opened the Middle East to travelers, explorers, missionaries, and to photographic pioneers such as Felix Bonfils, Francis Frith, James Graham, Elijah Meyers, Peter Bergheim, and Frank Good. Many of their photographs can now be found in the Library of Congress's digital archives online, including several of the Western Wall in the 1860s, which were scanned and posted online at this writer's request. Other ancient photographs can be viewed online at the New York Public Library and Harvard University Museum sites.

The nineteenth-century photographers photographed Jews and the biblical sacred sites in the Holy Land, and many of their subjects were posed photographic setups. Some of the photographers may have even used models dressed as Bedouins, pious Jews, and Eastern priests. These pioneer photographers were by no means "shooters," snapping away endlessly. Their cameras were large and bulky, their images were recorded on glass plates, and the development process required various chemicals and emulsions. Some photographers regarded themselves as portrait artists. Others were documentary and commercial photographers looking to sell well-composed and religious souvenirs to pilgrims and tourists. …

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