Bernard Wasserstein. Divided Jerusalem: The Struggle for the Holy City. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. xix + 440 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-09164-9; $17.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-300-09730-6.
Reviewed by Steven Bowman (University of Cincinnati)
Published on H-Judaic (September, 2002)
Jerusalem has been divided as much by its history as by its biographers. In this century most of her chroniclers and interpreters have been partisans or politicians, pursuing a variety of agendas. Even reviewers fall into these categories, as a recent review of this book in a prominent daily demonstrated when it degenerated into an intellectual diatribe against the policies of Ariel Sharon's government. Rather than take part in the polemical war, Wasserstein adopts a different tack, that of a critical historian, which provides a sober voice that has been somewhat muted in the current tensions over the Jerusalem question. Eschewing the myriad of Jewish, Arab, and Christian perspectives--albeit not neglecting them--he elucidates the patterns of international interests in Jerusalem in the modern era. His study is a neat counterbalance to Rashid Khalidi's Palestinian Identity (Columbia University Press, 1997), which chronicles the local Arab response to the presence of non-Muslim diplomats and non-Arab rule in the city.
Wasserstein's survey of the centrality of Jerusalem reminds us that the bitter and seemingly ancestral invective between Israelis and Palestinians (read Jews and Muslims) is but a recent phenomenon. In an almost sardonic tone Wassersstein notes that the competing claims to several ancestral holy sites have only appeared within recent decades. His main thesis is that for over a millennium, prior to the end of the nineteenth century and the subsequent period of Zionist activities culminating in the emergence of the State of Israel, it was Christian Europeans who had a long and violent relationship with Jerusalem. Starting with the wars between Islam and Christian Byzantium (in the seventh century) and moving on to the Crusades (in the tenth, eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries), through the perennial squabbles of the local Christian sectarian competitions--which incidentally still manifest themselves in squabbles over the various buildings--European Christians have expressed a willingness to engage in violence over the city. Hence Europeans cannot be neutral negotiators or unbiased commentators. This is a point worth emphasizing given the vitriolic attitude of European intellectuals toward Israel and its policies.
Moreover, from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, European powers had to honor the Ottoman superpower's control of the city; and, until the British acceptance of the surrender of the city in 1917, they had to receive the permission of the Ottoman Caliphs both to visit, and from the mid-nineteenth century to reside in, Jerusalem. During the late Ottoman period, Jerusalem was the locus for Europeans to meet and contend for power, somewhat, but not quite, like Geneva during the era of the League of Nations, or New York at the United Nations. During the middle third of the nineteenth century, all the major European Christian powers--great and small--appointed consuls or representatives in the city and soon erected their citadels of power that ringed the Ottoman walls. These various consuls transplanted the obstreperous nature of European diplomacy, and religious rivalries, to the Middle East as they represented their respective government or church interests in the city of Jerusalem.
What has been lacking in the plethora of literature on the Jerusalem question is a sound history of the Muslim rulers of the city, as well as an analysis of the local political leadership. For, after all, they constituted the majority population and controlled the rhythms of city life prior to the twentieth century. What was the structure of the system they ran? What were the relationships between the Turkish overlords and the Arab hamulas during the past millennium? What were the immigration patterns among Muslims? How did all of them view the immigration of the dhimmis into Jerusalem? How did they react to the aggressive interests of the Christian powers who had a vested interest in a sacred area that was controlled by Islamic authorities? Much of this material is widely scattered in monographic treatments. Only when we have a handle on this aspect of the history of Jerusalem, can we study the Christian and Jewish stories within a proper historical framework. I suspect such a study will not be forthcoming for a long time, if ever. Moshe Gil's A History of Palestine, 634-1099 (Cambridge University Press, 1992) should provide a useful scholarly model of critical research and unbiased approach. The above remarks do not detract from the eminently readable effort by Wasserstein. After all, his brief is to analyze the international (primarily Christian) interest in Jerusalem. His analysis of the vicissitudes of British fence-sitting during the Mandate period remind us that the British tried to maintain the status quo that they inherited from the Ottoman era, a policy that was as effective as shoveling sand against the incoming tide. The molasses pace of British bureaucracy that sustained an empire through its inertia, however, could not adjust to the blitzkrieg impact of inter-war developments. So they managed to anger everyone, at least in the public domain. Ultimately, in their retreat from empire they left a mess in Palestine/Eretz Israel that has been as contentious as the mess they left in India.
It is worth pointing out, as Wasserstein does, that Zionist policy has been consistent from the Mandate period through the present in accepting the principle of the partition of Jerusalem between Arabs and Jews. The most biased and ignorant of the news media tend to overlook this stance. While admittedly this type of reporting does keep the pot boiling, it definitely obscures what is of more interest to the historian, namely the continued communication and cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians on the local political level. To be sure, such reporting is less interesting than the bombing of non-combatants or the unbalanced use of force to maintain order. In occasionally reported meetings, and Wasserstein has kept a wonderful file of useful news clippings, we can follow what transpires, at least until the politicians publicize the parameters of agreement and then verbally shoot it down. For example, Wasserstein provides a close analysis of the Beilin-Abu Mazen draft agreement of 1995 over the partition of Jerusalem, an agreement which will most likely be dug out of the debris for renegotiations when it comes time to resolve the issue of Jerusalem.
The state policies of Israel have to be separated, at least for purposes of analysis, from such a policy of compromise. The purpose of the State of Israel is to provide a safe and secure home for the Jews, a tough assignment at best in the shifting dunes of an area in the violent throes of historical transition. One of the principles of the Balfour Declaration was the protection of the rights of non-Jews living in a Jewish national homeland. Such a principle is still held to be binding by the Israelis. After all, there are still Arabs, Christians, and Muslims in Israel, and in the administered territories, as opposed to the nearly Judenrein situation in surrounding Arab states, including the eastern section of the Palestine Mandate now called the Kingdom of Jordan. Israel is in a state of war with the Arab states, save those that have signed a peace treaty (a subject best left to another occasion), and with the Palestinian nationalism that emerged as a counter-movement to Zionism. Her position since the Mandate period has been to make peace with all of these. The basic historical principle of ethnic relations in the Middle East can be likened to a coiled spring that contracts and expands following the historical pressures exerted upon it. Both Israelis and Arabs will have to find a balance they can both live with in Jerusalem, as well as the rest of the historical areas to which Jews have returned. It would be too much to expect journalists, even those not ideologically involved, to be able to convey this complex message to their readers in the short datelines filed from the front. It is not surprising that most commentators (article- and book-length) are incapable of a long-term perspective that puts issues in their proper perspectives. Bernard Wasserstein deserves our thanks for providing a sober view of the positions and tensions of many of the parties involved. On the secular level, perhaps it is only the historian who can cut the Gordion knot of hysteria that understandably constitutes public discussion on the Jerusalem issue. Wasserstein's book is a welcome addition to the library that such scholars as Bernard Lewis have generated over the past fifty years to help us comprehend the mosaic of peoples and the plethora of multivalent interpretations of this perennially perplexing subject.
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Steven Bowman. Review of Wasserstein, Bernard, Divided Jerusalem: The Struggle for the Holy City.
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