Why the problem of Jerusalem is distinctly a 20th Century one

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An aerial view of Jerusalem’s Old City. (photo: Ariel Schalit / AP)

A history of the Jerusalem conflict.

By Sewell Chan and Irit Pazner Garshowitz | New York Times | Dec 5, 2017


“Paradoxically, [early Zionist immigrants] recoiled from Jerusalem, particularly the Old City — first because Jerusalem was regarded as a symbol of the diaspora, and second because the holy sites to Christianity and Islam were seen as complications that would not enable the creation of a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital.”
— Amnon Ramon, senior researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research


In December 1917 — 100 years ago this month — the British general Edmund Allenby seized control of Jerusalem from its Ottoman Turkish defenders. Dismounting his horse, he entered the Old City on foot, through Jaffa Gate, out of respect for its holy status.

In the century since, Jerusalem has been fought over in varying ways, not only by Jews, Christians and Muslims but also by external powers and, of course, modern-day Israelis and Palestinians.

It is perhaps fitting that President Trump appears to have chosen this week to announce that the United States will recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, despite concerns from leaders of Arab countries, Turkey and even close allies like France.

Conflicts over Jerusalem go back thousands of years — including biblical times, the Roman Empire and the Crusades — but the current one is a distinctly 20th-century story, with roots in colonialism, nationalism and anti-Semitism.

“It was for the British that Jerusalem was so important — they are the ones who established Jerusalem as a capital,” said Prof. Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, a historical geographer at Hebrew University. “Before, it was not anyone’s capital since the times of the First and Second Temples.”

The three decades of British rule that followed Allenby’s march on Jerusalem saw an influx of Jewish settlers drawn by the Zionist vision of a Jewish homeland, while the local Arab population adjusted to the reality of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which had ruled the city since 1517. . . .

Many early Zionists were secular European socialists, motivated more by concerns about nationalism, self-determination and escape from persecution than by religious visions.

“Jerusalem was something of a backwater, a regression to a conservative culture that they were trying to move away from,” according to Michael Dumper, professor in Middle East politics at the University of Exeter in England. “Tel Aviv was the bright new city on a hill, the encapsulation of modernity.”

Read the full article here →

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