The Last Ember
by Daniel Levin
Riverhead, 480 pp., $16
The Last Secret
of the Temple
by Paul Sussman
Atlantic, 560 pp., $24
The Hidden Scroll
by Avraham Anouchi
Xlibris, 376 pp., $19.99
The Menorah Men
by Lionel Davidson
Jonathan Marcus, the hottie hero of Daniel Levin’s religio-thriller The Last Ember (2009), is back in Rome seven years after a tragedy cut short what was supposed to be his brilliant archaeological career. A high powered New York law firm has jetted Marcus, a former star classics student and Rome prize-winner, to the Italian capital to defend a client accused of stealing antiquities. The case brings Marcus face to face with his old flame Dr. Emili Travia, and lands him deep inside a complicated and dangerous thrill ride in this cross between Indiana Jones and The Da Vinci Code.
Marcus and Travia race around, but mostly underneath, Rome and Jerusalem trying to piece together a 2,000-year-old mystery. What really happened to the eight-foot solid gold Menorah that supposedly stood in the Holy of Holies of the second ancient Jewish temple destroyed in 70 A.D., the menorah so famously depicted on the Arch of Titus? Was Flavius Josephus really the most famous Jewish turncoat, or some kind of double agent? What “mistake” was Emperor Titus referring to on his deathbed?
First-time novelist Levin does a great job of weaving together fast-paced action sequences with a mass of historical detail. But rather than keep his story planted in 70 A.D., he makes his tale relevant to present day controversies. “Archaeology is politics,” one character avers. Levin’s heroes risk their lives, not to solve an academic puzzle but to thwart an ideologically motivated effort to erase what Levin calls the “Judeo-Christian past.” As the novel’s villain Salah ad-Din exclaims, “Let other people talk nonsense about religion and mythology . . . who controls the past controls the future.”
Indeed, recent news reports support Levin’s thesis. Concerns have been mounting about excavations under the al-Aqsa Mosque, which was built over the destroyed Jewish temple, while at the same time denials of Jerusalem’s centrality to Jews are commonly repeated among Palestinian leaders. Sheikh Tayseer Rajab Tamimi, chief Islamic judge of the Palestinian Authority, declared last year that Jerusalem is solely “an Arab and Islamic city and it has always been so.” His comments followed those by Shamekh Alawneh, a lecturer in modern history at al Quds University, who on a Palestinian Authority TV program said that Jews invented their connection to Jerusalem.
“It has no historical roots,” he said, and opined that the Jews are engaging in “an attack on history, theft of culture, falsification of facts, erasure of the truth, and Judaization of the place.” Just the opposite is, in fact, happening; and The Last Ember, though a fantasy, does a good job of highlighting the urgency of the problem.
Levin’s book isn’t the only example of this type of religious/archaeological thriller-with-a-message. It also isn’t the only recent story obsessed with supposedly uncovering what happened to the Menorah that used to stand in the Jewish temple sacked by the Romans. Whereas Levin imagines that Josephus was the one who helped to save the Menorah by secreting it out of Jerusalem, Paul Sussman, in The Last Secret of the Temple (2007), has the Menorah under the protection of generation after generation of Jewish caretakers. Sussman’s story also has a strong message, but it is less about the politics and power of archaeology and more about the contemporary Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Sussman’s book weaves together four stories: one about a shattered Jerusalem police officer who lost his faith because he lost his fiancée; an Egyptian detective who, in his search to uncover the truth about Nazis who received shelter in Egypt after the war, ends up fighting his anti-Semitic instincts; a Palestinian journalist with a secret and a serious daddy fixation; and finally a crazy, right-wing Jewish zealot who spends some of his time leading similarly minded Israelis to take over Arab homes in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Like Levin, Sussman is trying to make an overarching political statement. Sussman’s message is about the hopes for peace between Palestinians and Israelis. I’m sure that if asked, Sussman would say he is pro-peace and that, as such, his overinflated critique of Israeli motivations is meant to dramatize the depth of the conflict. But the plain fact is that the “bad guys” here are either Nazis or right-wing Jews, and of the “good guys” it is the Egyptian detective for whom one has the greatest sympathy.
As with Levin’s novel, the search for the Menorah is at the heart of Sussman’s story, with more than one character arguing like the terrorist in The Last Ember that he who controls the past controls the future. What Sussman gets wrong, however, is overestimating the importance of relics for Jews. He has set up a scenario where the relic serves to justify the Jewish claim to the land of Israel and, therefore, to the existence of the modern state of Israel. But it cannot be revealed because Jews are not ready for the truth. The Menorah, as Sussman has it, is the source of God’s light and revelation, and its presence in the world must be earned by righteousness. Sussman attempts to explain the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis and lays much of the blame at Israel’s feet, so he puts the case against revealing the Menorah in the mouth of his Israeli hero: “It’s just too . . . powerful. Too special. If it was to go back [to Jerusalem] . . . I just don’t think we’re ready for it. Things are complicated enough as they are.”
But devotion or belief in Judaism doesn’t revolve around icons and relics, such as the Menorah. Judaism is based on the word, not an object. And placing so much importance on the actual discovery of the Menorah is one of the reasons Sussman’s book is less successful than Levin’s—though it is certainly better written.
Like Sussman, Avraham Anouchi’s The Hidden Scroll (2009) is caught up in Nazis and archaeology, and like Levin’s The Last Ember, Anouchi is also concerned with recent attempts to undermine the legitimacy of Israel by undermining the archaeological evidence of the biblical land of Israel. Anouchi’s story happens on dual tracks: One tells of an Israeli’s search for an ancient scroll from the time of the Second Temple and the Maccabean revolt; the other is of the fictional organization Bismillah, founded in 1935 by the mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, for the purposes of waging an ideological war to delegitimize Israel. One of Bismillah’s main covert operations is to try and acquire archaeological evidence of the Jewish claim to Israel, in order to destroy it.
Anouchi’s novel is the least professionally written, which doesn’t make the plot easier to swallow. And he has let his support for Israel cloud his creative impulses. His mufti is a virtual Nazi, and his organization is going to replicate what the Nazis are trying to do in Europe.
On the other hand, a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal provided evidence that Anouchi wasn’t exaggerating much. As Paul Berman explained it, the mufti had a very close relationship with the Nazis, one that continues to influence the fight against Israel and the West today.
“Kill the Jews wherever you find them. This pleases God, history and religion,” said the Mufti on Radio Berlin in 1944. And the Mufti’s rhetoric goes on echoing today in major Islamist manifestos such as the Hamas charter and in the popular television oratory of Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a revered scholar. . . . “Oh Allah, count their numbers, and kill them, down to the very last one.”
Finally, for great storytelling and writing the best of these novels by far is Lionel Davidson’s The Menorah Men (1966). In this book we are once again dealing with scrolls and the ancient Menorah that stood in the Jewish Temple until 70 A.D. The story focuses on a non-Jewish British archaeologist who is enlisted to help an Israeli colleague come to the Holy Land to locate a scroll that accurately points to the location of the menorah. Once again, there is a race to find the scroll before competing Arab archaeologists can find it, and once again it takes amazing powers of deduction and reason for our hero to uncover the mystery.
Beyond the basic plot, however, there is a huge chasm that separates The Menorah Men from the others in this genre. First, Davidson’s story is much less concerned with actually locating the Menorah. When it turns out that modernity and the politics of a new country trump actually digging up the relic, our protagonist is disappointed—but he hasn’t failed. He has taken his search as far as it can go, and ultimately it matters less that the treasure is uncovered than whether he knows its fate.
Whereas the more recent novels all are arguing for the legitimacy of Israel’s existence, Davidson published his novel in 1966, when Israel’s place in the family of nations was a given. Davidson describes a poor country and a country that has a variety of problems, but he isn’t questioning whether Israel should exist. Levin, Sussman, and Anouchi, writing in the first decade of the 21st century, and six decades after the modern Jewish state was founded, are, from a variety of angles, arguing for Israel.
Shouldn’t it have been the other way around? It would make more sense if the book written less than 20 years after Israel’s founding were more attentive to the question of her legitimacy, while the novels written a half-century later accepted the state’s existence without question. And yet, the opposite is the case. Sadly, the more recent novels suggest this: While the country may have succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings, the dream of “normalization”—that the creation of Israel would result in the full and free acceptance of the Jewish state as a state like any other—has been eroded even to the point where those who write thrillers are turning their fiction into a forum for defending her against the charge of illegitimacy.
Abby Wisse Schachter, an associate editor at the New York Post.