The Magazine

City of Faiths

What Jerusalem means to the world.

Oct 24, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 06 • By BENJAMIN BALINT
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A hundred years later, at the end of the 19th century, Theodor Herzl imagined a capital that would transcend possession: “We shall extra-territorialize Jerusalem so that it will belong to nobody and everybody,” the Zionist visionary proposed. (“It shall be exalted above the hills,” Isaiah had prophesied of the city, “and all nations shall flow unto it.”) During the First World War, Sir Mark Sykes and his French counterpart François Georges-Picot proposed internationalizing Jerusalem under the control of France, Britain, and Russia. The Zionists, led by Chaim Weizmann, agreed, but to no avail. In the end, David Lloyd George, the wartime prime minister, ordered General Edmund Allenby to conquer Jerusalem as a “Christmas present for the British nation.” In December 1917, after British planes dropped bombs (and on one occasion, opium cigarettes) on the last Ottoman positions, Allenby delivered—and strode through Jaffa Gate to receive the city’s keys from Mayor Hussein Husseini. One member of Allenby’s entourage that day, T. E. Lawrence, called it “the supreme moment of the war.” Lloyd George proved no less delighted: “The most famous city in the world,” he declared, “after centuries of strife and vain struggle, has fallen into the hands of the British Army, never to be restored to those who so successfully held it against the embattled hosts of Christendom.”

Yet another proposal to share the city came in 1947, when the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine drew up a partition plan that would place Jerusalem under the international trusteeship of a U.N. governor. David Ben-Gurion accepted the idea, the Arab Higher Committee rejected it, and war followed. After the war of 1948, in which Israel was born, Jerusalem increasingly became a rallying point of anti-Zionism. Undeterred by the fact that no Muslim empire or dynasty had ever made Jerusalem its capital—even a regional or provincial capital—Yasser Arafat called the armed wing of Fatah, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. This militant group, named after the mosque on the Temple Mount, carried out dozens of suicide attacks during the al-Aqsa intifada. In 1981, the Ayatollah Khomeini inaugurated an annual Jerusalem Day, which in recent years has given a platform to Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to declare his fervent wish that “the occupation regime over Jerusalem should vanish from the page of history.” 

“All roads in our part of the world,” Jordan’s King Abdullah warned last year, “all the conflicts, lead
to Jerusalem.”

Like the best of Jerusalem’s chroniclers, from Josephus in the first century to William of Tyre in the 12th, Montefiore has an emotional attachment to his subject. His ancestor, Sir Moses Montefiore, a Jewish member of the English gentry knighted by Queen Victoria, visited the city seven times and gave it its first neighborhood outside the walls of the old city. Throughout his account, Montefiore joins emotional attachment with scholarly erudition. And he draws on a remarkably wide range of sources, including the works of the Ottoman travel writer Evliya; the letters of Monty Parker, a treasure-seeking English aristocrat; the diaries of the Jerusalem oud player and aesthete Wasif Jawhariyyeh; and the memoirs of Lawrence of Arabia, the British governor of Jerusalem Sir Ronald Storrs, and the Arab Legion commander John Glubb. Some of these are used to riveting effect in Montefiore’s depiction of Mandate Jerusalem, with its demimonde of courtesans, charlatans, aristocrats, and Russian priests who proved to be KGB colonels, as well as proud Palestinian families such as the Khalidis (experts in Islamic jurisprudence) and Nusseibehs (custodians of the Holy Sepulcher).

Pull back the camera from Montefiore’s series of portraits in miniature, and the lasting impression you get is of a many-named city—alternately godforsaken and God-intoxicated—handed off in a relay race of civilizations. Jerusalem is a place of no obvious strategic significance that resists the possessiveness of its earthly would-be masters and glints with immortality.

Benjamin Balint, a resident of Jerusalem, is the author of Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine that Transformed the Jewish Left into the Neoconservative Right.