After lunch in Safed, the world capital of Kabbalah and for the 60’s and 70’s the Israeli art capital, Lynnell lingered at the table and read history and I went for a walk in the spring rain. We’d been talking about how Safed seemed cursed with instability. (thanks to Wikipedia and the Lonely Planet Guide to Israel and the Palestinian Territories)
1099 The Muslim town of Safed captured by Crusaders; many killed.
1188 Saladin beseiged Safed for a year, then retook it from the Crusaders. Christians were given safe passage to Tyre, on South Lebanon coast. Safed’s walls knocked down 50 years later so Crusaders wouldn’t want it back, but…
1240 Christians got it back, and rebuilt the walls, but…in
1266 the Muslims retook Safed and didn’t destroy anything so if the Christians come back it would be harder to capture.
The Christians didn’t come back.
1500’s Jews, especially those expelled from Catholic Spain, began arriving in significant numbers and made Safed a world center of Jewish learning and book publishing. Now ruled by Ottomans, Safed was about 25% Jewish.
1628 Safed conquered by a Druze army (a minority sect related to just about every religion you can think of in this part of the world). In 1633 the Ottomans got it back. In 1660 the Druze destroyed it, and very few Jews came back to rebuild.
1700’s plagues and earthquakes
1800’s Russian and Lithuanian Jews came, fleeing pogroms. Egyptians took over Palestine, but Safed’s Arabs resisted, and looted most Jewish homes in 1834. The ones who remained had their hillside homes flattened by an earthquake three years later. More plagues followed, plus Druze looted Muslim and Jewish houses just after they were rebuilt.
In 1917, the British defeated the Ottoman Empire in Palestine and made contradictory promises to Jews, Arabs, and (secretly) France about the future of the Middle East. The first British census of Safed found 60% Muslims and 33% Jews, the rest being Christian, Druze, and Other.
Anti-Jewish riots in 1929 left 20 Jews dead in Safed.
In 1948, Jewish forces drove the Arab majority out of town, including the family of Mahmoud Abbas, the current President of the Palestinian Authority. Since the declaration of the independent state of Israel, Safed’s been just about 100% Jewish.
As I walked around in the cold drizzle, I kept ducking into galleries. The biggest gallery was in a decommissioned mosque. The crescent had been removed from the spire, but an elegant quotation from the Quran remained, carved over the main doors. Off to the right was what first appeared to be a whimsical, almost cartoonish sculpture (below). Sandwiched between what seemed to me like the heavy stone blocks of the history we’d been reading are pale human figures. Like beads on a merchant’s abacus, they get shuttled back and forth as he rings up a sum. But when the abacus is upturned, the beads, people, and cubes become skewers (we had had kebab for lunch). And the people are crushed.
I’m not sure whether the artist meant them to represent various generations of Jews in particular. He or she (there was no label) might have been depicting just the people of this hilltop town or maybe all of us. The blocks of stone might symbolize any of the oppressions that bear down on us, and the abacus itself could belong to any bean-counter, heavenly or demonic. Safed has become once again a center of Jewish mysticism, and the deeds of G-d, angels, and Satan himself are all the subject of imagination.