Jerusalem’s New Historians

Three new books make a persuasive case for reevaluating age-old historiographical conventions in the study of late Ottoman Palestine.

In 2017, the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem staged an exhibition celebrating the centennial of the British conquest of the city from the Ottomans. The exhibition, entitled A General and a Gentleman—Allenby at the Gates of Jerusalem, re-enacted the triumphant British entry into the city, a moment “that changed Jerusalem forever” as the museum’s publicity material put it. Indeed, a transformative event it was. After four centuries of Ottoman rule, the city changed hands and was to be governed by a new empire. However, beyond supplying a historical account of this event, the exhibition was designed to convey the century-old excitement of the moment to twenty-first century visitors, attributing universal joy to the British triumph. “A Hanukkah miracle and a Christmas gift are only two of the many titles this event was crowned with,” the museum’s advertisement suggested, laying bare the exhibition’s target audience. Together with the defunct Ottoman Empire, Jerusalem’s Islamic past and Muslim inhabitants had no place in the story beyond surrendering the city to its new owners, the British—and by extension, today’s Jewish visitors and Western tourists. Jerusalem as we know it, the exhibition implied, was born at this moment, awakened from centuries of slumber by the onset of Western modernity. The exhibition faithfully reflected the way that the British arrival in Palestine in 1917 is portrayed in the Israeli collective memory: it was not only the “deliverance” which enabled the later foundation of Israel, but, moreover, the moment when the history of this place started to expedite toward progress, after centuries of backwardness. No place symbolizes this perception better than Jerusalem, coupling the aura of sacred antiquity and the promise of modern nationalism.

Over the last decade, several historical monographs focusing on Jerusalem have effectively demystified these truisms, dimming the magnitude of 1917 as an ultimate historical watershed. Together, they show that Jerusalem, and Palestine writ large, had long been in a process of political, administrative, and cultural transition during the late Ottoman period, without which later developments under British rule could hardly be understood. Contrary to the earlier scholarship on Jerusalem, this new generation of researchers relocated the Ottoman past from mere “background” to the center of inquiry. Hence, the scale of events such as the 1908 Young Turks Revolution, or the Ottoman context within which the early stages of the Jewish-Arab conflict played out, finally received thorough scholarly treatment. This paradigm change has also expanded our definition of historical sources, and has introduced new methods of studying them. In addition to traditional archival documents, historians now rely on photographs, drawings, literature, ephemera, and street signs in retelling the story of Jerusalem’s modern transition. This process is now revealed as much wider and more subtle than merely an imperial change of hands.

Vincent Lemire’s Jerusalem 1900 is an exemplary work for opening our discussion here. Lemire, a historian at the University of Paris-Est Marne-la-Vallée, did not write a conventional historical study, but more a well-referenced manifesto calling upon scholars to set new terms for discussing the history of late Ottoman Jerusalem. Indeed, it was after publishing this book that Lemire founded his much-acclaimed Open Jerusalem research project, which has harnessed the collaboration of some sixty researchers of different specialties in tracing, cataloging, and making accessible online archival materials concerning the modern history of Jerusalem. The aim was to “open up” Jerusalem for new scholarly voices and research agendas. In Jerusalem 1900, Lemire has in fact proposed what these new directions may look like.

Jerusalem’s modernization under Ottoman rule, Lemire argues, had been hidden from sight by the European-made façade of mythical antiquity, sacredness, and Christian heritage. A critical history of nineteenth-century Jerusalem would thus be one that exposes how European writing, art, and statecraft made modern Jerusalem “ancient” through (the sometimes fictitious) discoveries of biblical sites, celebrated archeological excavations, and invented traditions—while simultaneously ignoring, indeed concealing, the city’s modern development and expansion. Relying on original materials as well as recent studies, Lemire sought to replace the legendary city with a real one. For instance, he debunks the idea that Jerusalem’s Old City was traditionally divided into four compact quarters of segregated religious communities. This, he argues, was a Western conception superimposed over a much more convoluted and fluid urban space and population distribution, to create an easy linkage between sanctuaries and their supposed self-contained denomination. It was intended to simplify both space and social reality, to fit European touristic and political tastes. When examined through Ottoman censuses, court records, or other local representations, the four-quartered division can hardly be found. A much more realistic depiction of the city’s spatial and social divide, Lemire argues, would be the one existing between the walled city and the new modern neighborhoods that mushroomed outside of it. This part of the city, however, was largely ignored in late nineteenth-century European writing, as it did not match the imaginary portrayal of a time-honored holy city.

Indeed, Lemire applies, perhaps somewhat outmodedly, Edward Said’s Orientalism to the writing of Jerusalem’s history. To be sure, as in the case of the broader “Orient,” modern historians of Jerusalem have been careful enough not to fully replicate nineteenth-century impressions. We do have some in-depth accounts of Jerusalem’s urban transformation after all. Yet even these mostly relied upon European narrators, be they pilgrims, travelers, or diplomats, who saw Jerusalem first and foremost as the historic cradle of Judaism and Christianity. Therefore, even accounts seeking to recover the city’s daily lives focus mostly on privileged Western agency as the engine that transformed the city. Lemire calls to counter this approach by shifting our source base to Ottoman documentation. Astonishingly, despite being the sovereign power in Jerusalem for four centuries, up until recently scholarship had treated the Ottoman Empire and its historic records as a marginal factor at best. Imagine a history of Berlin ignoring German sources, relying instead solely on British consular reports and French travelogues. Somehow, for Jerusalem such practices hold, cementing the underlying assumption that European interests, capital, and initiative were the main drivers of change in the city, the Ottoman rulers and Arab inhabitants barely serving as a static backdrop.

To suggest a different approach, Lemire points to local newspapers and archival documentation which shed new light on the city’s history. Most central to his argument, however, are the Ottoman municipal archives of Jerusalem, still held today by the Jerusalem municipality. The municipality was founded under the Ottomans in the mid-1860s, one of the earliest in the empire at the time. Its foundation testifies to a shift in Ottoman attention to the Holy City, as well as to a transition in the Ottoman Empire’s administrative system as a whole. More than a local institution, then, Jerusalem’s municipality opens up new avenues for the study of modern Ottoman imperial governance. The municipal archive became accessible for research only in the 1990s, a fact that may explain its absence from scholarship so far. On the other hand, it might have been sheer scholarly disinterest that prevented its earlier exposure. Anyhow, administrative municipal documentation in Arabic and Ottoman Turkish, together with local newspapers and narratives of Jerusalemites, tell a story of a city in a process of change, the emergence of public spaces, and the development of nationalist sentiments way before 1917.

By privileging local sources, Lemire brings to the fore sites and events which had up until recently been regarded as marginal. The Jaffa Gate plaza is one such site; serving as a space connecting the old and new city, and thus one that saw important transformations in the first decade of the twentieth century. Lighting the city’s streets, the planning of its sewage system, the erection of the Jaffa Gate clock tower, and the inauguration of a public drinking fountain (sabil); all become sites of historical importance, once local sources are consulted. In the political realm, the 1908 Young Turks Revolution and the restoration of the Ottoman constitution and parliament (after their suspension some three decades earlier) stands at the center of Lemire’s book, as an event that was not only celebrated publicly, but also changed the ways in which Jerusalemites could now envision their city, country, and empire. In line with works by Michelle Campos and Abigail Jacobson published shortly before this one (the former in 2010, the latter in 2011), Lemire argues that 1908 ushered in a period of civic patriotism, loyalty to the Ottoman Empire, and a feeling of brotherhood (Ottomanism), that transcended national strife and confessional conflicts. Composed of both Jews and Arab representatives, Jerusalem’s municipality institutionally reflected this common sense of Ottoman civic virtue. To Lemire, this sentiment experienced a long process of dwindling under the British Mandate until the municipality was finally split between Jews and Arabs in 1934. Lemire sees this event as the ultimate demise of the quintessentially Ottoman conviviality, to be replaced by the fast-evolving Jewish-Arab conflict that would eventually divide the city, politically as well as physically.

But instead of reading history backwards, with the inevitable conflict as a starting point, nor for that matter forward from a supposedly glorious biblical time, Lemire asks the reader to consider a different historical temporality for Jerusalem. He proposes the year 1900 as a random point in the midst of Jerusalem’s modern transformation. Lingering on this point reveals how the city’s past was constructed and highlights its multiple horizons of development. Ottoman, local, and European modernization initiatives made Jerusalem’s future look bright, hence the book’s subtitle: “A City in the Age of Possibilities.” Lemire ultimately suggests that if we could put aside Jerusalem’s sorry fate and resist the urge to portray the city as a site of inevitable conflict (let alone justify this conflict historically), we could find ourselves with a whole new Jerusalemite story.

Historian Louis Fishman, of City University of New York, is up for that challenge. In his new book, he focuses on the district of Jerusalem in the late Ottoman period to supply a revised history of the emergence of Jews and Palestinians as rival political communities. Fishman corresponds neatly with Lemire’s methodological call. In dialogue with the immense roots-of-the-conflict literature already existing, Fishman analyzes a host of new sources, from Ottoman archival documents and parliamentary discussions to petitions and newspapers in Hebrew, Arabic, and Ottoman Turkish. Similar to Lemire, Fishman finds the 1908 Young Turks Revolution to be the foundational moment in the history of modern Palestine. He agrees that the liberty and equality ushered by the 1908 revolution were instrumental in creating a common sense of civic Ottoman patriotism across the different communities of the empire. However, diving much deeper into Ottoman historiography and sources, he reaches quite a different conclusion regarding the implications of this novel reality.

Fishman argues that it was the very constitutional promise of equality that also unleashed inter-communal struggles over political dominance and privileges vis-a-vis the Ottoman state. In the case of Palestine, the 1908 revolution enabled the legitimation of Zionism as a non-statist movement calling for Jewish immigration, settlement, and autonomy within Ottoman territory under the auspices of the Sublime Porte. In other words, after the revolution a Jew could be a Zionist and a loyal Ottoman citizen at the same time, without contradiction. Within the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine, Zionism was portrayed as supportive of Ottoman progress, as it sought to bring modernization and economic prosperity to the land.

Fishman shows, moreover, that envisioning the horizons of Zionism as part of the Ottoman empire was widespread, not only among the Old Yishuv’s Sephardi Jews (as recent literature has emphasized) but also among Ashkenazi migrants of the First and Second Aliyot. Young natives of the Jewish moshavot (Zionist agricultural colonies) were proud Ottoman citizens who served in the Ottoman army on the Balkan (1912) and Russian (1914) fronts; similarly, David Ben-Gurion and Itzhak Ben-Zvi pursued professional legal training in Istanbul. These are only a couple of the examples probed in this book. For these and others, the pillars of the Yishuv’s Zionism (immigration, land purchase, revival of the Hebrew language, formation of national institutions) embodied the constitutional rights given to Jews as a collective in the empire. Securing imperial support for the Zionist project was not merely instrumental but foundational. The Ottoman Empire was thought of as the only possible host for the longed-for goal of Jewish autonomy and emancipation.

Be the political arrangement what it may, implementing Zionism’s goals in Palestine was undertaken through overt settler colonial practices, whose clear victims were the natives of the land. The experience of confronting Zionism, which Fishman analyzes in detail from its very first instances, differentiated the Arab inhabitants of Palestine from their fellow Arab people elsewhere, making them distinctively “Palestinians” in their own contemporary jargon. But it was not only the increasing Jewish presence that posed a challenge to the Palestinians. In line with the work of Rashid Khalidi, Fishman demonstrates the emergence of patriotic sentiments among the Palestinians as a reaction to the perils of foreign encroachment. One illustrative event in this regard is what Fishman terms the “Haram al-Sharif Incident” of 1911, wherein a British archeological expedition performed a clandestine archeological dig in the compound of the Dome of the Rock. As the act was revealed, rumors started to spread that ancient treasures had been stolen by the expedition. The city flared with anger, demonstrators took to the streets and local notables demanded in solemn petitions to the Sublime Porte that the responsible state officials be punished. The Palestinians, Fishman shows, were outraged by the British dealing with the land sanctuaries as their own; but the main object of fury was the Ottoman administration who sanctioned such desecration of the holy site. Indeed, a crucial element of the post-1908 era was that the district of Jerusalem had its own Arab representatives in the Ottoman parliament. And thus, complaints against such incidents, as well as against the expanding Zionist colonization were heard in Istanbul and discussed as an imperial issue.

However, this imperial forum, where Palestinians were represented as citizens, also posed limitations on the anti-Zionist argument. In a reality where Zionism was taken as a constitutional right of the Jewish collective, such resistance was framed as a form of anti-Semitism. Ironically, this was an argument made by prominent Istanbul Jews and MPs, such as Chief Rabbi Haim Nahum, who albeit not Zionists, nevertheless felt the need to protect Jewish rights as a whole—including their right to settle in Palestine or elsewhere in the empire. The Palestinians experienced Jewish colonization as a direct assault on their lands, livelihoods, and society, but could not effectively resist it as citizens on an imperial political scale. This way, Fishman argues, a unique form of local patriotism developed among Palestinian Arabs. He terms this sense of collective identity, still too incipient to be taken as full-fledged nationalism, “Palestinianism.” Both Jews and Palestinians thus “claimed the homeland” one against the other —not as a future replacement of, but within the conditions set by the Ottoman state.
Lemire’s and Fishman’s studies mark the 1908 Young Turks Revolution as a moment of political shift because this event also invigorated novel forms of political articulations. With the restoration of the Ottoman constitution, restrictions on the publication of newspapers were removed, and the urge for communal autonomy encouraged the creative usage of national languages. While Lemire demonstrates the emergence of the new Jerusalemite public spaces, Fishman completes the picture by showing how new public spheres for textual exchange developed. It was this change in Palestine’s textual landscape that supplied later historians with the written materials that they worked with.

Yet, while the appearance of mass-printed books and newspapers obviously enriched the intellectual and ideological lives of late-Ottoman Jerusalemites, the vast majority of modern text-forms in the urban landscape, from street signs through graffiti to visiting cards, did somewhat the opposite: they tore apart time-honored practices of sociability in the city. In his book A City in Fragments, historian Yair Wallach of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London sets out to expose this neglected archive of urban texts, and to demonstrate how they epistemically transformed life in modern Jerusalem. Far from a plain historical study, Wallach’s is a documented flâneurie through Jerusalem’s streets, literature, art, and photography, reading the cityscape as inherent to social change and not merely as the platform thereof.

Wallach supplies an astounding account of how and why stone inscriptions were replaced by street signs and name plates; what caused ritual banners made of cloth to turn into modern national flags or paper placards; how colonial political economy was embedded within the transformation of metal coins into banknotes; why the traditional practice of engraving one’s name in sacred sites came to be seen as iconoclastic graffiti; and the process in which multi-layered identities were reduced to census forms and identification papers. As modern textuality spread through Jerusalem’s cityscape, language was gradually stripped from its materiality and text separated from architecture. From being part of the built environment, soaked with its culture, history, and memory, urban texts in the public space became external representations aimed at endowing the landscape and its inhabitants with top-down categorization, definition, and meaning.

The Jerusalemite landscape of Arabic and Hebrew stone inscriptions is a good case in point. This urban feature traditionally tied mosques, synagogues, and a host of other urban institutions with their respective social histories, connoting their founders and funders, origins, and spiritual context of erection. Stone inscriptions, however, never named the site in which they were placed. Titling and defining were not part of their function—or for that matter, the function of any urban text before modernity. Furthermore, Wallach shows that stone inscriptions were not meant to be informative or commonly read by the public. They were often highly literary compositions, rife with references to Quranic verses and Islamic traditions, designed in Arabic calligraphy that was hard to decipher. Rather than explaining the city’s landscape, they were an integral part of its physicality, aesthetics, and experience. With the modernization of Jerusalem, however, the demise of the role fulfilled by the stone inscriptions was abruptly enforced. Wallach identifies this point around the turn of the twentieth century, when scholars started to document them as endangered artifacts of heritage. From being embedded into the urban fabric, they were now figuratively framed out of it, to be explored as external signifiers of meaning. As standalone inscriptions, studied by Orientalist or Hebraist pundits, they became artifacts representing history rather than a living part of the city’s everyday life. The same years saw the appearance of the official and unofficial naming of streets and buildings in Jerusalem, short and readable phrases placed upon metal (Ottoman) or ceramic (British) plates. These textual supplements were meant to render the urban landscape legible to the modern state and to foreigners, as well as to inscribe new top-down spatial order and political logic in the social life of the local inhabitants. In this process of transition, language became a sign, a singular and one-directional set of messages condensing multiple identities, histories, and values.

It is no wonder, then, that the transition of urban texts was key to the politicization of the Jewish and Arab communities in Palestine toward nationalism. For both, language had to go through a process of secularization, and be abstracted from the concreteness of stone, parchment, or cloth to the ephemerality and dailiness of paper. Linguistic revivalism stood at the center of the Arabic nahda, the cultural Arab “awakening,” as well as of the Hebrew tehiyyah. Within the context of the 1908 Young Turks Revolution, that liberalized textual production, disseminating modern texts in Arabic also became urgent, given the new regime’s urge to privilege the Ottoman Turkish language in public spaces throughout the empire, with a view to instilling Ottoman pride and uniformity.

By the advent of the British Mandate, the abstraction of texts was already well underway. The textual practices of the British rule, however, played a key role in expediting the onset of the national conflict. To start with, the very carving of Palestine as a national unit out of Greater Syria had to do with the political economy of modern texts. In a brilliant discussion of monetary history, Wallach shows how High Commissioner Herbert Samuel pushed to turn Palestine into a standalone state by endowing it with an exclusive currency, the Palestine Pound. In 1927, this standardized paper money finally replaced the convoluted system of coinage used during the late Ottoman period. Wallach ties this shift to the economic vision, promoted inter alia by John Maynard Keynes, to detach money from the gold standard and tie it instead to the state’s modern monetary system. Money in the form of paper, just like modern texts, thus became a mere signifier. Severed from concrete matter, it came to be dependent upon the economic policy of the state. Indeed, while detached from the former systems of metal coins, the Palestine currency was attached to the British Pound instead, allowing the imperial power to control and monopolize the Palestinian economy in favor of the Zionist “national home” policy.

Within this newly carved territory, then, centuries-old traditions of displaying texts in public turned into sparks for national clashes. In 1920, the annual festival of Nabi Musa, revolving around banner-carrying processions, transformed into deadly anti-Zionist riots. Contemporary testimonies linked the desecration by Jews of the traditional banners carried by the Muslim participants to the eruption of violence. Yet, as British investigation sought to make sense of the event, it all but ignored the significance of these Islamic symbols, claiming instead that the display of a placard showing “King of Arabs” Faisal bin Hussein, by the young Hajj Amin al-Husseini, stirred national rage in the celebrating crowd. In British eyes, only a modern image of this type, linked to national sentiments, and not an antiquated sacred text, could have inspired such collective action.

The oft-discussed events of 1929 receive a novel treatment through these lenses as well. Wallach traces the history of the Jewish tradition of inscribing one’s name upon the walls of sacred sites. Nineteenth-century portrayals of the Western Wall prove this practice to be widespread. Yet, with the development of national awareness, such places of worship started to be seen as ossified sites of heritage, linking a collective to its historic roots. As such, they were to remain pure from contemporary influences. Traditional name-inscribing thus turned from being taken as part of worship to a form of vandalism. Banning this tradition was done to preserve the nation’s imagined past, built upon the notion of texts as an addendum and writing as an external practice detached from material essence. As is well known, it was the struggle over the traditional “status quo” in the Western Wall/al-Buraq Wall that led to the 1929 disturbances. When these events were investigated later, Wallach shows, the Jewish community found itself in an ironic conflict. To manifest historic belonging to the Wall, they wanted to present historic Hebrew inscriptions, made by generations of Jewish pilgrims. Indeed within the contemporary perception, texts signified unitary ownership. On the other hand, the very same perception considered such inscriptions as disgraceful graffiti, making the claim for ownership of the site self-contradictory.

To the reader’s good fortune, Wallach’s bold move to drive Jerusalem through the post-Structuralist turn, thereby exposing the arbitrary nature of the system of signifiers, does not leave us with textual debris. On the contrary, Wallach chooses to analyze the “crisis of signification” as a historical transition to modernity in which the experience of texts in the city was gradually impoverished. While narrating the fragmentation of urban textuality, thus, the book’s own text is anything but fragmentary. Conveying an erudite theoretical understanding of modernity through the story of Jerusalem makes the text wonderfully harmonious.

The portrayal of Jerusalem in A General and a Gentleman thus deserves critical reconsideration. Not because the facts supplied there were incorrect, but because the context of their display is meaningful. It was the British conquest that made the Ottoman Citadel of Jerusalem into the Tower of David Museum, transforming a living urban institution into a numb symbol of the city’s historic glory. Exhibiting British might in this venue is to mirror one representation with another, to recover a historical truth twice removed. As shown here, we now have an ample scholarly basis for critically examining the history of fin-de-siècle Jerusalem beyond the narratives of big (white) men and imperial conquests. Yet, more than a new factual basis, the work of Jerusalem’s new historians is novel for exposing the structures, paradigms, and underlying assumptions that have framed our knowledge of the city thus far. It is the sources, voices and ways of reading them that enable new paths for understanding the city.

*Louis A. Fishman, Jews and Palestinians in the Late Ottoman Era, 1908-1914: Claiming the Homeland, Edinburgh University Press, pp. 240.

*Vincent Lemire, Jerusalem 1900: The Holy City in the Age of Possibilities (translated by Catherine Tihanyi and Lys Ann Weiss), University of Chicago Press, pp. 224

*Yair Wallach, A City in Fragments: Urban Text in Modern Jerusalem, Stanford University Press, pp. 344

Related Articles

Sudden Change or Gradual Transition?

Michael Press

A popular perception of the Arab conquest of Palestine as a period of violent transformation persists, despite archaeological evidence to the contrary.

Known Unknowns: In Search of the Truth at Khirbet Qeiyafa and Masada

Alex Stein

Two new books attempt to get to the heart of archaeological mysteries from the Biblical and Second Temple periods.

The Prime Ministers: A Man – Neither Hercules nor Perfect

Joshua Sobol

The industrious life of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding father, reads like a polyphonic novel whose depths are never exhausted.

Zionism + Concrete

Liam Hoare

Concrete was the material that built the State of Israel - its prevalence from Tel Aviv to Be’er Sheva to the kibbutz is an expression of Zionism itself.

Three Case Studies of the War in Palestine in 1948

Yoav Gelber

A review of three controversial events and processes during the war in 1948: Deir Yassin, the battle for Kastel, and Jewish refugees.