History of a faith: Exploring the last 3,500 years of Jewish cultural heritage

History of a faith: Exploring the last 3,500 years of Jewish cultural heritage

By SRIJA NASKAR | | 24 September, 2016
The exhibition highlights the emphasis on values, fundamental rights and humanity throughout Jewish history.
A special exhibition exploring the cultural and social roots of the Jewish community is being hosted in New Delhi throughout this month. Previous editions of the show have been held in cities like New York, Paris and Copenhagen, writes Srija Naskar.

Indian government leaders and ambassadors from different nations met recently for the Asian premiere of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s historic exhibition, People, Book, Land: The 3500 Year Relationship of the Jewish People with The Holy Land at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. It was co-organised by UNESCO, the first such exhibit gaining UN approval, and sponsored by governments of Israel, US and Canada. This exhibit has been presented at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, the UN headquarters in New York, the Vatican, the US Congress, Israel’s Knesset, as well as in cities like Copenhagen and Chicago. 

The exhibit traces 35 centuries of Jewish people’s relationship with their land, emphasising the universal and particularistic values that inspired the unique journey of the Jewish people throughout history and inspired Jews to retain an unbreakable bond and love for their ancestral homeland. 

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, Associate Dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said, “ It is appropriate that the Asia launch of this exhibit is taking place in New Delhi as the Jewish people know that throughout history they have always been welcomed by the people of India.”

 He added: “You’ll often find Israel in the headlines, almost always associated with controversy. We wanted to create an exhibition that will answer a few questions. For instance, what and why is it that Jewish people all over the world have this profound affinity for a little piece of land in the Middle East, called ‘the holy land’? This love affair is thousands of years old, and could never be eliminated even when Jewish people were scattered in four corners of the world. For centuries, there was no Google, no iPhone, no radio, no TV, in many ways, no means of communication. So what were the values that sustained Jewish people for so long? And how did they make their way back? One of the reasons we went to UNESCO is because UNESCO curates and is a protector of cultural history of various
communities.”

Cooper touched upon various historical phases, ranging from ancient Jewish history to contemporary times. Starting from Moses to anti-Semitism in Germany and Soviet Union, he shed light on the collective fundamental values that have shaped the Jewish community.

The exhibit traces 35 centuries of Jewish people’s relationship with their land, emphasising the universal and particularistic values that inspired the unique journey of the Jewish people throughout history and inspired Jews to retain an unbreakable bond and love for their ancestral homeland. 

He talked of Moses, who outside of Israel is mostly known to be a liberator of the Hebrew people from slavery and founder of the nation, when for the Israelis, he has always been a “lawmaker”, “a teacher par excellence”. Moses’ teachings on the value of compassion, to never abuse a stranger, have gone down to become the collective DNA of the Jewish people. Copper also mentioned Abraham, who had immensely contributed to monotheism; two of the most famous Jewish Kings, David and Solomon, whose Book of Psalms till this day is a revered book of faith among Jews. Another important piece of information was the mention of the Biblical Prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah. They were known to have inspired great movements, like the Civil Rights movement in America, which drew its ideas of redemption from the prophets.  

“Many young people today are turned off by religion because they see hyprocisy in it. But Isaiah and Jeremiah both had warned the people during those times that if you think you can bribe God with your fancy sacrifices, he doesn’t need your sacrifices because what God wants from you is do good, seek justice, oppose oppression. Difficult ideas to accept even today,” Cooper says.  

He went on to describe various phases of occupation on the Holy Land and threat to Jewish identity — first, by Alexander the Great, then by the Romans which led to the destruction of the Second Temple and a revolt in which the Jews were exiled and which lasted all the way until 1948.

“In this time of utter destruction, it was the Roman emperor who out of vindictiveness decided to rename the land of Israel as Palestine. The term ‘Palestine’ was given by the Romans,” says Cooper.

Cooper went on to describe that amid rising crucifixions of Jews in their Holy Land under the Romans, the worst of which was meted out to Jesus Christ, important Jewish scholars like Rabbi Akiva must be remembered for imparting lessons on “loving thy neighbour as yourself — the great principle of the Torah”, even during such times of death and destruction. 

“This torture continued as mass murders continued in Jewish community in Iran, Germany, England under the Mamluks. Then came the Ottomans. Finally, it is in the modern era, in early 1800s, that we see a change in the psychology. From praying thrice a day about being able to go back home, the need to develop science and technology with available limited resources happened. There was an emphasis on education; the idea to sustain oneself economically arose. You have people like Yosif  Haim Brenner and the rise of the intellectuals. He is said to have caused a reawakening of Jewish life by creating what is now known to being described as modern Hebrew literature,” says Cooper.

Cooper then went on to describe how the capture of Palestine by the British during late World War I came actually as much relief to the Jews. “Winston Churchill was a Zionist and had always been a supporter of the movement of Jewish people fighting for their homeland,” adds Cooper. 

“Then came the hatred of the Nazis in the 1930s. If you want to know what ticks a Jew even till today, you will have to know about the history of the Holocaust, the hatred of the ’30s which culminated into the genocide of the ’40s and continuing with anti-Semitism in the USSR until the fall of the Soviet Union,” Cooper further says. 

“This exhibition here in India highlights the emphasis on values, fundamental rights and humanity throughout Jewish history. It serves as a learning tool in the struggle against a rising tide of anti-semitism and barbarity. By showing it here in India, we hope the Jewish and the Indians will build upon interfaith cooperation and strengthen ties during these difficult times,” says Cooper.

The exhibition will be on display till 10 October at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts

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