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The Zionist Movement and East Jerusalem: A Continuing Saga

Dr. Yair Paz
| 15/05/2007
Israeli History
Places & Sites
Zionism

My research into the romance that flourished between the Zionist Movement and Jerusalem began years ago. When I began my studies at the Hebrew University in the early 1980’s, I worked as a tour guide at the Sha’ar Hagai Field School situated outside Jerusalem . Sha’ar Hagai (“Bab el-Wad” in Arabic) is a loaded term to the Israeli ear, because of the song made famous by Shoshana Damari, and because it is one of the symbols of heroism that came out of the battles to liberate besieged Jerusalem during the War of Independence. As is well known, the road to Jerusalem in 1948 was largely under Arab control and almost completely devoid of Jewish settlements. This made it easy to lay the city under siege, starving its 100,000 Jewish inhabitants. These geographic and strategic circumstances forced the leaders of the young Yishuv to invest a maximum of their limited military resources in breaking the siege. The resulting battles, in the areas of Kastel, Sha’ar Hagai and Latrun, were some of the most heroic of the war.

When I studied the area in depth, and guided tours of schoolchildren and adults along the paths that are the battles’ legacy, I asked myself again and again how it was that the Zionist movement, which established hundreds of settlements across Israel, neglected to settle this key area that would have linked the two most important population centers of that time: historical Jerusalem on one side and modern Tel Aviv on the other. I observed how one isolated settlement such as Kiryat Anavim was able to exert influence over the entire campaign, and I thought that if only there had existed a string of five or ten such settlements, the battle might have unfolded very differently, and perhaps we would not have lost the historic sites of the Jewish Quarter, the We stern Wall, the Mount of Olives and their surrounding areas in that War.

I decided to make the question the subject of my Master’s thesis. As I researched, I began to understand that the picture was more complex than at first glance. In addition to the general issue of having to decide where it was most urgent to establish new settlements, there was a deeper problem of ambivalence on the part of the Zionist movement – a modern, national and generally secular movement – regarding the holy places in Jerusalem . Jerusalem symbolized the old, conservative Yishuv as well as the conflict with the Arab and Christian world, absent from newer areas such as Tel Aviv or the Jezreel Valley . These perceptions, coupled with additional hardships peculiar to Jerusalem, apparently resulted in antipathy towards this locale.

As I continued my research I focused on Jerusalem itself, and discovered a similar model of preference for newer areas within the city, mainly in the west, and a shunning of the ‘knotty’ historical and holy sites. Here, however, I observed another aspect related to the steady abandonment of Jewish neighborhoods in the eastern part of the city. This abandonment began at the start of the British Mandate period, in the 1920’s, and increased over the next decade. It is commonly assumed that the backdrop to this phenomenon was the ethnic strife between Jews and Arabs and the bloody outbursts that occurred every few years (e.g., 1920, 1929, 1936). But I had discovered that these deserted neighborhoods (such as Shimon HaTzadik, Eshel Avraham , Shiloach) featured predominantly low socio-economic, mainly Sephardic, populations who were disconnected both ideologically and socially from the Zionist enterprise (though not from Love of Zion!) In their hour of need, they did not obtain any relief from the establishment and felt neglected by it. In fact, neighborhoods in similar predicaments but populated by more affluent groups who were closer to the Zionist establishment, such as Talpiot, received more aid and were rehabilitated after suffering damage. These areas remained in Jewish Jerusalem. In short, the aversion to the Old City derived not only from security and cultural issues, but also social ones.

Moreover, already in 1937 – a decade before the city was actually divided – the Zionist establishment drafted a proposal detailing a political division of Jerusalem in which most of the ea stern part was excluded. This was in the context of the British Peale Commission, but from the proposed map one can learn much about the Zionist preferences. The Old City , including all Jewish holy sites (the We stern Wall, Jewish Quarter, and historical cemetery on the Mt. of Olives ), were outside the border of the Jewish city as per their proposal, in which the weaker neighborhoods mentioned above as well as other isolated areas were relinquished. On the other hand, the map clearly indicates a trend towards inclusion of the Mt. Scopus ridge (upon which stood the Hebrew University ), within Jewish Jerusalem, despite its problematic location. Not only was it a far distance from the solidly Jewish district; Jewish control over Mt. Scopus represented a perceived threat to both British and Arab interests (due to its strategic height and vantage point over the Old City ). This not insignificant prioritization by the Zionists led me to focus on cultural and symbolic aspects of the Zionist enterprise in Jerusalem . In my doctoral thesis I dealt with this topic, especially the symbolic-spatial formation of Jewish Jerusalem (exemplified by the decision of where to build the Hebrew University).

Apparently the Zionist movement did not totally waive its claim to historical Jerusalem, seen as a city laden with cultural and symbolic value. Its leaders devoted much thought to constructing alternate cultural symbols within the Jewish city, and fostering discourse between old and modern Jerusalem. One strategy aimed to achieve this was related to the distinctive geographic and topographic features of the city. The verse ” Jerusalem surrounded by mountains” (Psalm 125) is not solely metaphorical; it is a precise topographical description of the ancient walled city and its periphery. It can be said that the Old City is surrounded on four sides by high ridges that overlook and control it: Mount Scopus to the north, Mount of Olives to the east, Mount Mukabar (Armon Hanatziv) to the south and the crest “where the waters divide” (King George St. and the Russian Compound) to the west. Even before World War I, the Zionists contemplated establishing a major Jewish presence on these ridges, which were by and large unpopulated at that time. The first steps taken in this direction were land purchases of Talpiot in the south, of the University site on Mt. Scopus in the north, and the attempted acquisition of land for the Bezalel Art School in the west (where the Rockefeller Museum was eventually built).

This trend grew as soon as the British seized control in 1918. The first act was to quickly lay the cornerstone of the Hebrew University on the land bought for this purpose (not yet even fully paid for). Second, the Zionist leadership submitted a request to the British to be granted ownership of the Augusta Victoria building, an impressive edifice nearby that had been captured by British forces. At the same time, construction plans for the southern ridge were started, including the Zionist headquarters strategically placed overlooking the Old City. Additional plans were devised with the aim of bolstering Jewish presence on the ridges surrounding Jerusalem, within view of the historical city.

However, the British had similar designs in mind in order to secure their control, at least visually, over the Old City . Practically everywhere the Zionists attempted to establish a foothold, they were blocked by British designs or ambitions (or fears). Analysis of this struggle highlights several ideological and cultural stances common to the Zionists and the British that led them to vie for the same sites. Both were new to the neighborhood; and the British, who were mainly Protestants, shared the Zionists’ reluctance to clash with ancient Christian sects over classic holy sites, preferring to maintain control, literally, from a distance.

Also, both the Zionists and the British identified with the Bible and viewed their activity in the city as a kind of fulfillment of prophetic vision. For example, at the University dedication ceremony on Mt. Scopus, there was wide use of the verse “And it shall happen in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains . . .for out of Zion shall come the Torah” (Isaiah 2:2-3).  Some even referred to the university as a modern Temple.  Another shared aspect was the modern approach to architecture and city planning, based on the same school and the same designers (e.g., Patrick Geddes).

In the end, the British prevailed and blocked the Zionist movement from gaining control over most of these sites. Thus, the Zionists were forced to cede control of the topographical perimeter overlooking the Old City , as well as any potential visual discourse with the ancient past. Pushed completely westward, they built the nation’s center of government and new national symbols ( Mt. Herzl, Yad Vashem) far from any visual connection with the Old City. Jerusalem of yore remained an abstract point of yearning.

The notion of strengthening the visual and symbolic connection between we stern (geographically and culturally speaking) Jerusalem and the Old City was rekindled only after the Six Day War. It seems that this involves a process that is enormously complex, and which to this day has not yet been fully developed.


Dr. Yair Paz is Head of the Land of Israel Studies M.A. Track at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. Dr. Paz is the initiator and organizer of the only academic conference being held to mark 40 years of the re-unification of Jerusalem. The conference, “Jerusalem, the Capital of Israel – A Historical and Modern Perspective,” will be held at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem on Tuesday, May 15th, 2007. This article is based on previous research by Dr. Paz and on a lecture entitled “The British-Zionist Contest over Symbolic Sites in Jerusalem and its Environs”, which will be delivered at the upcoming conference

Yair Paz is Senior Lecturer in Land of Israel Studies at Schechter. He received his PhD in Land of Israel Studies from Bar-Ilan University. He has written on Safed as a Holy City in the 16th Century; Jerusalem and its surroundings during the British Mandate and the early years of the establishment of Israel. Dr. Paz’s research also deals with the pioneering neighborhoods just outside the Old City walls; as well as the conservation of the architectural heritage of abandoned Palestinian neighborhoods following the 1948 War. He began his career working with at-risk youth as a counselor and administrator at a youth village.

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