Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Jerusalem, Sepharadim and Christians

From a book review of Abigail Jacobson's From Empire to Empire: Jerusalem Between Ottoman and British Rule. reviewed by Thomas Philipp

...Jerusalem('s) importance derived strictly from its assumed holiness...Only with the Crimean War, Jerusalem reappeared in the consciousness of the European powers and it became – via interference with various Christian communities – the object of international relations. Zionist immigration complicated [???] the picture further. The city’s population grew to more than 40,000 at the eve of World War I. This study focuses on a very few but fateful years in the long history of Jerusalem, from the Balkan Wars in 1912 to the establishment of the British Mandate in 1920...her aim (is) to provide a more differentiating picture of three presumably monolithical monotheistic communities or the simplistic dichotomy “Jews vs. Arabs”. She does that mainly by looking at the internal political discussions within each community and ethnicity...

...The hostility between Arab Christians and Jews, for instance, did not arise only with the Zionist issue but was the result of the loss of old trade routes and commercial connections by the Jews throughout the 19th century and a concomitant ascent of some Christian communities in local trade and new export trade in raw materials. Muslim commerce underwent a decline similar to that of the Jews, while European merchants were advancing and with them the Christian Arabs, hence a certain alliance between Muslims and local Jews.

Internal differences in politics within the Jewish community and in the relations to the Arabs are discussed in the third chapter. It throws new light on an aspect that the typical Zionist-Arab narrative is not aware of. At issue is the position of local and usually young Sephardic Jews who enjoyed a modern secular education, knew a variety of languages, including Arabic and Hebrew, and supported the Zionist movement in Jerusalem. But this support never let them become oblivious of the need to foster good relations with the Muslim Arabs and seek their support. There were influential Sephardic communities in other cities, especially in Aleppo, but this group in Jerusalem seems quite unique. They actively – through a newspaper, articles, speeches, and meetings with the Muslims – tried to seek their support or at least their understanding. At the same time they again and again pointed out to the immigrant Zionists that the Arab population had to be considered in their plans. Jacobson’s relational model proves its usefulness also for the period after the Balfour Declaration when a rapprochement between Muslim and Christian Arabs occurred against a newly strengthened Zionism, while the Sephardim Zionist position lost ground between the hardening fronts.

I presume, not having read the book, that the Sepharadi Jews are the heroes, even trying to cooperate with the locals where those European Jews, the 'newcomers', messed things up. Of course, this is a well-known and well-trod approach.
True, Sepharadi Jews did manage to acculturate to the Muslim general society btter than the Ashkenazim - in the early 19th century, Ashkenazi Jews from Safad trying to move to Jerusalem had to disguise themselves as Sephardim. But to employ a term like "complication"?

Nevertheless, the idea that Arab nationalism in the country owes much, if not the utmost, to Christians is to be welcomed. From Antonius on to Habash, if it were not for them, no one would have heard of Palestinianism.

P.S.  EG adds:

let's bear in mind as apparently Ms Jacobson does not, that the British occupying forces fostered "Muslim-Christian Associations" [think Ronald Storrs & Ernest Richmond, as I recall], so the rapprochement between the two groups was not simply a natural result of shared antipathy with the Jewish National Home. [in re this see Porat's book on pal Arab nationalism]. Also recall that Brit officials [Col. Waters-Taylor, etc] encouraged the Nebi Musa pogrom of April 1920.

The term "Zionist immigration" is anachronistic for any period up to 1882. Jews were already a majority in Jerusalem by 1853 but not or not yet political Zionists.


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