Jan 2002 Journal

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Contentious scholarship

Divided Jerusalem
Bernard Wasserstein,
Profile Books, 2001

Can scholarship be used to further a contentious presupposition? This question comes to mind when assessing Bernard Wasserstein’s Divided Jerusalem. The product of two decades of research, the book was completed in the early months of the ‘al-Aqsa intifada’ and came out in the heat of the fray. Topical though the title and underlying hypothesis may be, the essence of the book is best encapsulated in the subtitle ‘The Struggle for the Holy City’.

This is an exhaustively documented, highly informative record of the millennial struggle for Jerusalem. Early on, the spotlight is thrown on the interminable feuds between various Christian churches and the consuls from the various powers that backed them. The struggle for Jerusalem and the holy places served as a pretext for the Crimean war, a dramatic example of the politicisation of a seemingly religious conflict. This politicisation was as manifest in Islam as in Christianity, but Wasserstein deals with this more sparingly.

The struggle between Muslims and Jews occupies the major part of the book. Wasserstein waxes eloquent over Muslim claims to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, claims which extend even to the Western Wall, referred to as al-Buraq, after Mohamed’s horse, which was apparently tethered to the wall. His attitude to Jewish sensibilities appears, at best, ambivalent. He is clearly riled by the declaration, first made after Israel’s takeover of the holy city during the 1967 war, that Jerusalem was Israel’s ‘eternal indivisible capital’ and has used his scholarship and skills as an observer to undermine this claim. In defence of his argument he has commandeered a variety of maps, demographic statistics and results of soundings taken among both Israelis and Palestinians.

Much attention, previously, was devoted to the infructuous negotiations between Jordan’s King Abdullah and the Israelis after 1948, the one time a divided Jerusalem acceptable to both sides seemed a real possibility. While the claim of a united Jerusalem may well be unrealistic, it was surely provoked by the trauma of the destruction of the Jewish quarter of the old city in 1948 and the denial to Israelis of access to the Western Wall between 1948 and 1967. Wasserstein acknowledges these matters with extreme brevity.

He also omits to mention the help given to the British by Jews in the NILY grouping during the Great War, before the Mandate. In contrast, his ‘even-handedness’ extends to the bald statement, in his final chapter, that ‘both Israel and Palestine are seriously flawed democracies’. Without wishing to take anything away from Wasserstein’s undoubted achievement, he appears more interested in promoting his agenda than providing a comprehensive appraisal.
Emma Klein

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