Salim Tamari, ed., Jerusalem, 1948: The Arab Neighborhoods and Their Fate in the War (Jerusalem: Institute of Jerusalem Studies and Badil Resource Center, 1999).
Meron Benvenisti, City of Stone: The Hidden History of Jerusalem (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996).
Michael Dumper, The Politics of Jerusalem Since 1967 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).
As the Oslo process dies the death many progressives assumed it would, it seems hardly astonishing that this fall’s sustained street clashes between Palestinians and the Israel Defense Forces erupted first in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is that site the Israeli government is unwilling to even partially withdraw from and the one the Palestinian leadership will not sign away. Despite the centrality of the city to both Israeli and Palestinian national cosmologies, few commentators — scholarly or journalistic — have focused on the central political reality in this contested urban space: namely, that the Israeli state rules here in vio- lation of international law and against the wishes of the Arab population. Writers and news sources are much more likely to foreground the supposed discord among religious communities or the “age-old enmities” said to exist between Arabs and Jews than they are to detail the specific mechanisms of conquest, appropriation and displacement that have defined the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians in this urban center.
The three works reviewed here are not silent on these central questions and offer significant insights into the historical and political construction of Jerusalem since the rise of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The authors address the issues and processes that have come to define the city over the last several decades of Israeli military rule. To varying degrees, they seek to subvert the dominant Zionist representation of the city — that Jerusalem is Israel’s exclusive and “eternal” capital and must remain under the Jewish state’s sole sovereignty.
The articles that comprise Tamari’s edited volume Jerusalem, 1948 principally address the events surrounding the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and its tragic aftermath for the Palestinians. These essays examine the contours of conquest and loss for Palestinians in the city and most of them, in one way or another, seek to enlighten the reader about the deliberate Israeli efforts to first expel the Arab population and then seize their land and property. As Tamari states in his introduction, “The Phantom City,” this work attempts “to provide a reconstruction of this process of displacement and ex- pulsion and to account for the fate of Arab Palestinians who lost not only their property and homes, but also a whole world that exemplified Jerusalem and Palestine before 1948.” It is precisely this “whole world” and the social relations that comprised it which have been largely ignored in past scholarship on Jerusalem.
A number of the chapters in this compilation draw on UNRWA statistics and documents little used until now. From these sources, the volume’s contributors assert that roughly 30,000 Arabs were forced from their homes in West Jerusalem urban areas and minimally another 40,000 from the surrounding Palestinian villages. This wholesale uprooting of Arabs, necessary before West Jerusalem could be portrayed as an Israeli-Jewish space, is scarcely discussed today. The Oslo process did not address these losses and neither have most scholars of the city.
Nathan Krystall’s essay, “The Fall of the New City,” carefully details the expulsion of Arab Jerusalemites in 1948, effectively incorporating interviews with both Arabs and Jews old enough to remember the events of that year. His work is particularly valuable in its use of Hebrew sources and, while drawing somewhat from the work of Israel’s “new historians,” Krystall represents the coordinates of conquest much more critically than these Israeli scholars often have. His work, along with other contributors, underscores the intention of the yishuv to not only expel the Arabs of Jerusalem and its environs, but also to hastily settle new Israeli citizens in the homes of the displaced Palestinians, in an effort to preclude a diplomatically engineered return of these refugees.
Krystall’s contribution reads particularly well alongside Tamari’s essay entitled “The City and the Hinterland.” Here Tamari outlines the extent and dimensions of displacement in Jerusalem’s nearly 40 neighboring Arab villages while discussing the multiple ties that bound the Palestinian city and the village together economically, socially and politically before the 1948 nakba. As few other works have done, his fascinating and well-researched essay also describes how Arab peasants were active subjects in various rebellions against their foreign and domestic overlords in the emerging urban centers of Ottoman and Mandate Palestine.
City of Stone is another in a series of engaging works by the former Israeli deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Meron Benvenisti. Subtitled “The Hidden History of Jerusalem,” the work indeed discloses a number of accounts regarding the policies and practices of Israeli planning circles in the city. The author provides explanation for actual initiatives taken by the Jewish state as it sought to reconfigure this urban center radically. From the policy of settlement building, to confronting the “Arab demographic time bomb,” to responding to the rising political influence of the city’s ultra-Orthodox communities, Benvenisti skillfully relates the dilemmas of Israel’s interrelated occupation and nation-building schemes from the perspective of a former principal architect of several of these measures.
Benvenisti sets out from the beginning to write against what he regards as the “cult of Israeli Jerusalem,” a cluster of Zionist representations and myths attempting to efface all national claims to the city other than those of the Jewish state. Few other studies of the city have unveiled the extent to which Israel has cynically sought to justify arbitrary and brutal dictates under the guise of preserving and guarding “sacred space.” If City of Stone only accomplished this, it would be a work well worth perusing. But the author discusses the materiality of Israel’s occupation in other ways, too.
A fact rarely revealed in Israel (and even less often in the US) is that since 1967 Israel has engaged in a policy of intense de jure segregation meant to ghettoize Palestinians in the city. Benvenisti plumbs the history of this process of exclusion and displacement. In a statement only rarely uttered by even the most progressive Israeli scholars, he affirms that much
of the land of today’s West Jerusalem (upwards of 60 percent) was in fact expropriated from Palestinian owners in 1948.
Unlike the other two works under review, Benvenisti speaks at length about internal Israeli politics and social relations in Jerusalem, particularly those between the burgeoning ultra-Orthodox community (now at least one third of the city’s Jewish population) and secular Jewry. In a particularly insightful chapter entitled “Hallowed Ground,” he illustrates how the once clear spatial divisions between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi populations have begun to break down in Jerusalem. Nonetheless, the city’s ultra-Orthodox — hostile to what they perceive as a secular onslaught on Judaism — still reside overwhelmingly in what Benvenisti calls “self-segregated” ghettos.
Despite its numerous strengths, City of Stone suffers from a certain ambivalence, marked by a series of significant absences and silences in the description of Israel’s rule in the city. Though the author details the Israeli state’s appropriation of Jerusalem for exclusive Jewish use, he seems unable to acknowledge that these processes of domination are those of colonial aggression, not simply the failings of a flawed liberal democracy. The author chooses to read East Jerusalem, in many ways, as Israeli planners always have: as fundamentally different than other territories in the West Bank and Gaza occupied in 1967. The result is a book that offers much in the way of critique but not, ultimately, a critique of the grounding assumptions of Zionism.
Michael Dumper’s The Politics of Jerusalem Since 1967 concentrates on the second major moment of Israeli conquest in Jerusalem, as the title suggests, and does so with impressive scholarly rigor. Well-researched and densely footnoted, it stands as perhaps the finest sociological work on the post-1967 reality in this divided urban center. Dumper’s scholarship is refreshingly free of the dominant language that treats Israel’s illegal presence in parts of the city with neutrality. He correctly regards the current battle over the city as being primarily about territory rather than about religious difference.
Although Dumper concentrates on the post-1967 period, he gives impressive historical context for various themes and subjects he explores. Whether relating the politics of housing, demographics, religion or the provision of services, he effectively demonstrates how these issues were contested long before the advent of the Israeli occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967. His discussion of demographic politics, for instance, situates those schemes in the pre-1967 fight for the city and the historic obsession of Zionist planners with the “threat” of an “Arab demographic time bomb” growing up within the Jewish state’s midst.
Politics illuminates how large segments of East Jerusalem have been reconfigured and woven into the Israeli polity since 1967. But Dumper, unlike Benvenisti, does not forget why these practices are violations of the Palestinians’ right to national self-determina- tion. He does not regard such practices simply as unfair actions under a flawed but legitimate Israeli sovereignty. Dumper provides a thorough scholarly examination of Israeli structures of domination in Jerusalem. In that sense it is an especially successful project.
One remarkable chapter combines a number of methodological strategies to examine the politics of religion, nationalism and space in this urban center. Here the author shows that a number of micro-processes in the city between Christian elites and the Israeli state have made the former occasionally complicit with the latter’s attempts to wrest land from the city’s Arabs. Here, the Greek Orthodox Church (once the largest landowner in the city) comes under particular scrutiny. Dumper also draws on his past research to outline the complex interface between the Israeli state and the Muslim Awqaf Administration.
Finally, rather than reproducing the Zionist representation of the city as “unified,” Dumper’s critique assigns Israel’s blueprint for colonization and displacement its proper name. Settlements are referred to as settlements, not as the sanitized “neighborhoods” typically used by Benvenisti (and the US corporate media). East Jerusalem is acknowledged as occupied territory, not simply as disputed.
All three works poignantly argue that though the national contest for Jerusalem has been highly costly in human terms, it has been anything but an equal one. Building equality and justice in Jerusalem and elsewhere across this divided landscape requires acknowledging the seminal injustices committed against the Palestinians in the city and, critically, moving to redress them. That the “peace process” largely jettisoned matters of justice as it sought further separation between Palestinians and Israelis underscores the value and import of these books in a post-Oslo era.