“There are always interesting things to do in Jerusalem,” is a slogan we often hear. Trudy and I took some time to find out. Maybe it wasn’t one of our typical weeks but it certainly wasn’t extraordinary.
On Sunday, we went to a lecture at Hebrew University on the Mongolian Empire and its influence on world history. Say what? Genghis Khan probably doesn’t bring the same associations as “Alexander the Great” or “Julius Caesar,” but the empire that he founded in 1206 was the largest land-based empire in the history of the world, eventually stretching from eastern Europe to the Sea of Japan. The Mongol armies made cruelty an art form; cities and populations that didn’t surrender were customarily wiped out. But within the empire, trade, literature and the arts flourished, all religions were tolerated, and great advances were made in education, postal services, communication, law and governance. I’ll bet you didn’t know this.
The most amazing thing about this lecture was the lecturer herself, a Hebrew U. professor who seemed to know every detail about Mongolian history, language, customs, family life — you name it. She spoke about the Khan dynasty as if they were her own family. She is the kind of scholar whose presence and work enriches a country. People with unique expertise (and this doesn’t mean only academic scholars) are our true national treasures.
After the lecture, we stayed on the university campus to attend a recital we were invited to. The grandson of an old friend was performing as part of his final project at the High School of Music and Dance. The young man is an exceptionally talented bassoon player. Now, bassoon probably doesn’t bring the same associations as “violin” or “piano,” but it is a highly respected concert instrument, crucial to many compositions and very difficult to master. Not many people take the time and effort to do so. But this young man did, and he did it well. Some of his classmates who play other instruments joined him for the quartets and quintets in the program, and they even played a piece which he himself had composed. Another national treasure.
Tuesday saw Trudy and me stretching our brains again. The Israel Museum was having three lectures on Herod, King of Judea just before BC turned into AD (or, if you prefer, BCE turned into CE). Herod, of course, does not bring to mind the same associations as “King David” or “Queen Elizabeth.” He was, how to be gentle, a psychotic and paranoid tyrant who murdered countless rivals and imagined rivals, including his wife and sons! But he was able to maintain prosperity and some kind of Jewish self-rule during a particularly turbulent time in the Roman Empire.
We took the opportunity to view the monumental exhibit on Herod’s life and death at the museum before the lectures. It is set up remarkably well, making learning about Herod’s era a true adventure. The museum transported floors, walls, rooms and even parts of Herod’s tomb from Herodion in the Judaean desert. Animated films show the king’s many splendid building projects rising in Jerusalem, Caesarea, Massada and Herodion. Though I don’t think I remember too many details, I did come away with a much better “general understanding” of what was going on in the Holy Land in the first century BC(E).
This was reinforced by the lectures. The first was by one of the curators on how the exhibit itself was conceived, designed and constructed. The second was by a young historian who was as much at home in the corridors of Herod’s palaces as, well, as Sunday’s lecturer was in the court of the Great Khan. When you put Herod into historical context, he’s still a psychotic paranoid, but — and this isn’t to make excuses — the reasons begin to fall into place. The lecturer called Herod the “between” king. Between Jerusalem and Caesarea. Between Idumaean and Jew. Between Roman and Judean. All in all, he was able to walk those tightropes, giving to Marc Antony and Augustus what was Caesar’s and to the Jewish establishment what was God’s, more or less. For the Romans, he gave banquets as lush and luxurious as any they could see in Rome, great sporting events and displays of pagan culture, and iron-fisted rule against any vestige of Jewish independence. For the Jews, he built perhaps the most splendid Temple in the empire, supported the Temple service and the priesthood (even though many were of his own choosing), and enabled the ebb and flow of Jewish life to flourish in prosperity. To prove this point, the lecturer pointed out the hardships faced by the little province of Judea both before and after the intermission of Herod’s rule.
The third lecturer was a psychiatry professor who stretched poor old Herod on the couch and analyzed why he became what he became. If you’re into this kind of stuff, I guess it can be enlightening, but we found it pretty slow and boring. Trudy and I took turns dozing off. Give me real historicity any time.
That entire week was being marked as “World Week for Animals In Laboratories” and I ended it on Friday afternoon by attending a protest vigil in downtown Jerusalem by the Israeli Society for the Abolition of Vivisection. I’ve been in quite a few protests on both sides of the Atlantic, but this one was different. We dressed up as lab technicians with bloody tears coming from our eyes, and stood in a triangle like bowling pins. Every demonstrator held a sign in Hebrew or English which read, “Stop Animal Testing.” We all stood silently and still.
A few of the ISAV leaders gave out flyers to passers-by to explain what was going on and answered questions. I noticed that most people seemed interested and some actually did stop to talk and photograph us. In the minds of many people, experiments on animals, especially mammals and primates, is associated with progress in science and medicine. They acknowledge the unspeakable cruelty of some of these experiments, but excuse it in the name of this progress.
Our message was that many, if not most, of these experiments are today unnecessary. The same results can be obtained through advanced techniques such as computer modeling and in vitro human cells. We also explained that the results obtained by animal experiments do not necessarily apply to human beings. There are examples of drugs and chemicals which “passed” their tests on laboratory animals but were disastrous when used on people.
However, our overriding concern is, as it must be, the torment and suffering of the animals imprisoned in labs. No goal can justify the untold millions of animals who are tortured and killed in the name of research. That is where we make our moral stand — unattached to whatever “results” are obtained by animal experiments. Our society must find another way to produce better drugs, cosmetics and chemicals.
Perhaps one day soon, historians in Jerusalem will talk about animal experiments the way they talk about Genghis Khan and King Herod: They might have done a little good, but they are not the role models we want for human behavior.