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– By Cliff Keller – 

Wholly unique yet not unlike others

Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate was built in 1898 by Ottoman governors to allow German emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, to enter the city in a triumphal procession. The Kaiser had come to Jerusalem for the inauguration of the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, built on land given to King William I of Prussia. Wilhelm said at the church’s dedication…

“From Jerusalem came the light in splendor from which the German nation became great and glorious; and what the Germanic peoples have become, they became under the banner of the cross, the emblem of self-sacrificing charity.”

Thirty-five years and one world war later, Germany’s emblem of self-sacrifice had morphed into the swastika; Adolf Hitler, the nation’s chancellor, had introduced state censorship, ended German civil liberties and passed the “Enabling Act” in which he declared himself to be Germany’s absolute dictator.

Thirty-eight years before Kaiser Wilhelm’s storied visit, homes were built beyond the safety of Jerusalem’s walls by British Jewish banker and philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore. The development consisted of twenty-eight one-and-a-half room apartments, was conceived as a solution to the overcrowding and unsanitary conditions within the Old City and called Mishkenot Sha’ananim (Peaceful Habitation).

Although the homes lay within a walled compound with a sturdy gate that was locked each night, Jews were hesitant to live in the neighborhood because of its potential exposure to Arab marauders. But demand for the new apartments increased as disease persisted within the city.

Three years before Mishkenot Sha’ananim was born, Montefiore had erected a windmill on a lonely slope opposite the western city walls of Jerusalem, part of Ottoman-ruled Palestine at the time. Designed to serve the locals as a flour grinding mill to provide revenue, the windmill was restored in 2012 and serves as a museum dedicated to the achievements of its sponsor.

After Montefiore’s death in 1885, the Montefiore Endowment fund established the settlement of Yemin Moshe (right hand of Moses) around the original Mishkenot Sha’ananim development. Though Yemin Moshe is now a fashionable garden community in Jerusalem with a striking view of the Old City walls and Mount Zion, its early struggles and eventual flourishing testify to much more than the foresight and determination of its zealous settlers and wealthy founder.

Yemin Moshe’s story is in many ways Israel’s story, wholly unique yet not unlike countless others.

But it never ground flour

Israel has fought eight recognized wars since its establishment in 1948. Add to those wars two intifadas and an innumerable string of conflicts. But many Israelis believe they have fought a single, continuous war since 1948 simply to remain alive. And those with a long view of history date the commencement of hostilities much earlier; to Haman, Nebuchadnezzar or Pharaoh’s time.

Shortly after Marcia and I moved to Israel, we lived less than a mile from the now iconic Montefiore Windmill in a very old but pleasant apartment building in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Rechavia. Though no longer threatened by marauding Bedouins, we had jumped out of bed more than once while living there upon hearing air raid sirens as Hamas occasionally aimed rockets from Gaza toward Jerusalem. We would gather in the hallway with our neighbors—the building was too old to have a built-in bomb shelter—and, on occasion, feel the ground shake when missiles landed harmlessly miles away.

During these raids the students who lived in our building would sit yawning on the hallway steps in their nightclothes, unconcerned, waiting for the threat to pass. The raids were also nothing new to Miriam, our landlord, who had taken cover in the same manner, in the same building nearly seven decades earlier while under threat of rocket fire from the Jordanian-controlled Old City, only a mile away.

Like those pioneering souls in old Yemin Moshe, most modern Israelis feel that we are here for a reason much bigger than ourselves and, sometimes, beyond reason, we cling to the hope of future peace. Yehuda Amichai, perhaps Israel’s greatest modern poet, expresses that hope in his poem, inspired by Montefiore’s late nineteenth century vision…

Windmill of Yemin Moshe

This windmill never ground flour.
It ground holy air and Bialik’s
Birds of longing, it ground
Words and ground time, it ground
Rain and even shells
But it never ground flour.

Now it’s discovered us,
And grinds our lives day by day
Making out of us the flour of peace
Making out of us the bread of peace
For the generation to come.

From “Poems of Jerusalem

Translated by Glenda Abramson & Tudor Parfitt