1918 – Moon of Israel

1918. Ding dong the war is dead! After four and a half years of bitter struggle, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany abdicates, the Weimar Republic is formed, and an armistice agreement is signed. Many nations receive a taste of independence; some for the first time ever in their history. Armenia, Czechoslovakia, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Lithuania and Poland have become independent countries. Austria and Hungary are now divorced. And, cartographers everywhere are having a field day. There is only one age old question that still needs to be answered: “Is this good for the Jews?”

In Finland, the answer is clearly yes. One of the first acts of the newly-formed parliament is to pass a law which grants Finnish citizenship to ‘Mosaic Confessors,’ the country’s Jews. In Russia, the answer is clearly no. Pogroms are one of the predictable side effects of the Russian Civil War, and these claim the lives of 50,000 of our people. And the Jewish nation as a whole? Well, 1918 is also the year in which the British military government of Palestine begins. Lord Balfour has already issued his very famous declaration, which means that the establishment of an independent Jewish state is just around the corner (+30 years). Something that is clearly part of a divine plan, and not to be argued with, as H. Rider Haggard reminds us in Moon of Israel, a book about the Jewish Exodus as told through the perspective of an Egyptian scribe.

Sir Henry Rider Haggard (1856 – 1925) was an English writer of adventure novels set in exotic locations, usually Africa and a pioneer of the Lost World literary sub-genre. He was also involved in agricultural reform within the British Empire, and was a member of many commissions on land use and related affairs. He is best known for his novels King Solomon’s Mines and She.

Unlike most other authors who set their stories in Africa (for example, Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs), Haggard actually lived there. After graduating school, failing to get into the army and then failing to get into the British Foreign Office, Haggard’s father sent him to south-eastern Africa to work as an unpaid secretary’s assistant for the lieutenant-governor of the Colony of Nattal. Haggard proceeded to spend the next seven years working in various colonial administrative positions, and starting a family. During this time he got to meet and interact with many of the very real adventurers who were busy exploring the continent and discovering ruins of ancient lost civilizations, such as Great Zimbabwe. Eventually, Haggard moved back to England where he started practicing law and writing novels, a path that led him to fame and glory, and gave us dozens of great adventure novels to enjoy.

Moon of Israel is a book that is set during the reign of Merneptah (1213-1203 BC), son of Ramesses the Great, the fourth ruler of the nineteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt. The story is narrated from the perspective of Annana (or Ennana), Ana for short, the very real Egyptian scribe who is believed to have written the Tale of Two Brothers, an ancient Egyptian story, which echoes the biblical account of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. Ana is the twin in Ra of Prince Seti II, heir to the Egyptian throne, the two of them having been born on the same day. As a scribe, Ana was expected to earn his living copying the tales of others, but he desired more. He wanted to write his own stories which others will copy, and these eventually bring him to the attention of the prince.

At their first meeting, Seti decides he wants to tour his city while undercover and invites Ana to accompany him. During this adventure the two decide to watch the labor of the Israelite slaves and witness an event in which an Egyptian overseer flogs one of the slaves who is lagging. The slave then proceeds to hit the overseer with his spade, killing him. Other overseers then proceed to beat the slave until he dies. The slave’s daughter, Merapi, called “Moon of Israel”, from the tribe of Levi, begs the undercover Seti to intervene, and he does, triggering a riot in the process. Ana defends him and after the mob is subdued, Seti proceeds to sit in trial over the overseers, and executes the one who instigated the event. This adventure creates a bond of friendship between Seti and Ana, a bond they seal by sharing a drink and breaking the cup, each one keeping a half. And a bond of love is created between Seti and Merapi, which will eventually blossom into marriage and family. A bond which will later force Merapi to choose between her people and her heart.

This is one of those books that should be accompanied with trigger warnings for the sensitive, specifically: #antisemitism, #idolworship and #intermarriage. Haggard has been widely criticized for perpetuating negative stereotype of non-Europeans, and this also holds true here. The Israelites are all zealous hook-nosed fanatics who anyone can befriend with money. Hashem is portrayed as the wrathful biblical god, who wants to punish the Egyptians as much as he wants to let his people go. The Egyptian gods are not false gods. They are merely weaker than Hashem. Finally, Merapi’s love and marriage to Seti are an unforgivable crime to her people, which causes her to forfeit Hashem’s protection, and lose her firstborn son during the last plague. As far as our ancestors were concerned, it would have been better for Merapi to marry her betrothed whom she despises rather than the idol worshiping Egyptian who loves her. An attitude which makes Merapi more than a little indignant:

“‘Did God then make women to be sold like cattle of the field for the pleasure and the profit of him who can pay the highest?’

‘It seem so,’ said Jabez, spreading out his hands.

“It seems that you think so, who fashioned God as you would wish him to be…”

This passage and attitude, written over a hundred years ago, is guaranteed to either offend, strike a chord, or both. Personally, I recommend reading the book. The story is really good and superbly written with a gripping narrative and a very detailed and fascinating portrayal of ancient Egypt (even if the portrayal of the people of Israel is way off). I managed to finish the book in just under two days, and strongly suggest replacing watching Prince of Egypt with reading this book as a new Pesach tradition.

The Omer today is eternity in splendor, and this book is an excellent example of both in its recounting of our own eternal story set in the splendor of the ancient Egyptian cities built by our ancestors. And it is within this ancient setting that the book manages to transmit some eternal lessons that every generation would do well to remember. No matter how much others value you for your external trappings, it is what inside that really counts. The former may earn you a living, the latter is what will earn you true love and friendship, which will last long after all other material splendors fade into dust. Also, don’t mess with the Jews!

Moon of Israel

Author: H. Rider Haggard

Publisher: John Murray

Published: 1918

Pages: 326

Format reviewed: Digital