One night, Napoleon Bonaparte was walking down a street in Paris. In a synagogue, lit only by candlelight, he could hear people mourning.
When he enquired, he realised they were Jews, lamenting the destruction of their first and second temples in Jerusalem. He assumed it had happened in the recent past. But when he learnt it was nearly 2,000 years ago, Bonaparte remarked: “A people who mourn their temple for thousands of years, will also live to see it rebuilt.”
As Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean, Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), Los Angeles, narrates the story of Bonaparte, he also affirms what the exhibition “People, Book, Land: The 3,500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People with the Holy Land” presents. At IGNCA’s Twin Art Gallery, Delhi, the show, organised by SWC and UNESCO, traces the journey of the Jewish people through their history, values and love for their homeland. Robert Wistrich, anti-Semitism scholar, who authored the 25 panels on display, has highlighted the cultural exchanges that were prominent in Jewish history in the Middle East, from Biblical times to present day.
SWC, a global human rights organisation that confronts anti-Semitism in the urban world, chose to premiere this exhibition in Delhi, after its debut in the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in 2014, and its run in New York. “Our concern is not politics. You will not see weapons or maps or tanks in this exhibition, it’s about values. I believe this show is our best defence against stereotypes,” says Rabbi Cooper, declared by Newsweek as one of the most influential rabbis in the US. Author Simon Sebag Montefiore of Jerusalem: The Biography (2011) says, “The story of Jerusalem is the story of the world”.
We are introduced to Abraham in the exhibition panel “Children of Abraham”. The shared ancestor of Jews, Christians and Muslims, he is seen as the progenitor of the Jewish people through Issac, and of the Arab nation, through his elder son Ishamel. We also meet King David, a great military leader, and a poet (author of the Psalms), and his son King Solomon. An 18th century painting of The Judgement of Solomon — the familiar story of two women claiming a child as their own — is on display.
While King Nebuchadnezzar II exiled Jews and destroyed Solomon’s temple, King Herod, though a tyrant, rebuilt the temple. To him, an entire panel is dedicated, which tells of his building projects. Then came the Arab conquest, the Crusaders and the Muslims, the Mamluks and the Ottomans. Jerusalem is a central motif in every aspect of Jewish lives. It’s evident in the panel “If I forget thee O Jerusalem”, which, besides being a verse from the Psalms, is often recited at weddings before the breaking of the glass, in memory of the destruction of the temple, and the hope of returning from exile.
By 1845, there were barely 12,000 Jews in Israel, ridden by disease and poverty. Philanthropists Anglo-Jewish Moses Montefiore and French Edmond de Rothschild, his brother-in-law, would buy land, start banks and encourage people to take up agriculture. Rabbi Cooper recounts how Montefiore asked people to look beyond their suffering, and work for living to sustain themselves. The European diaspora slowly began returning to their land. This “ascent” produced three future Israeli prime ministers (David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett and Levi Eshkol) and presidents (Hzhak Ben-Zvi and Zaman Shazar). By 1948, Israel won independence from the British.
Amid all this, the holocaust unfolded. While six million Jews were either shot, gassed or murdered, few international voices spoke up. This led the Jews to believe only “national sovereignty, an army and a political centre in the land would help them defend their existence.”
From these shadows, would grow a “People of Hope”, who today stand with the world in relief projects, combining humanism with technology.
“We know that economies go up and down, and geo-political systems change, but the affinity between India and Israel, of shared values, curiosity and soft power, will help us work together,” says Rabbi Cooper.
The exhibition is at Twin Art Gallery, IGNCA till October 9