Book Review: A City in Fragments, Urban Text in Modern Jerusalem, by Yair Wallach

Stanford University Press. Paper. Hard cover. £20.99

Review by Menachem Klein

Yair Wallach

When I walk in London, in particular in the City, I feel somehow disappointed by the ultra-modern architecture of steel and glass buildings next to old, imperial, probably even neo-classical heavy stone-made buildings. The two styles, so it seems to me, create disharmonious streets. The tension between Great Britain’s imperial past, once a source of national glory and respectability, and its post-imperial present is brought to the streets. The steel and glass skyscrapers express British integration into present faceless globalization. 

The British Empire architectural heritage still exist in Jerusalem. Whereas the Ottoman reforms started to modernize Jerusalem, the British administered Jerusalem with the imagined city that they brought with them. When Britain occupied the city in World War 1, its administrators wanted to preserve on the ground their Orientalist-Biblical perception. In the Old Testament, God wrote the Ten Commandments on stone. Jerusalem’s holiest places are also based on stones: the Haram el-Sharif/Temple Mount, Golgotha / the Holy Sepulchre Church and the Western Wall. The first governor of Jerusalem, Ronald Storrs, and his chief planner, Charles Ashbee, issued instructions that the city buildings must have stone cover. This ruling remains in force.

The British also introduced the perception that the Old City is composed of segregated ethno-religious quarters. This division, the British assumed, “was natural in Jerusalem and their role was to police it” (p.140). “Biblical phantasmagoria” Wallach calls it (p.144). Both British and Israeli regimes keep the Old City walls physically detached from the new city in an attempt to keep its “biblical theatre set” (p.146), “turn a living city into a museum and to position themselves as custodians of a world heritage site” (p.147).

Moreover, following Governor Storrs, Old City street nameplates are made of ceramic tiles written in Hebrew, Arabic and English. Israel’s concern is not just street-aesthetic but to show its sovereignty. Herbert Samuel “believed that the interest of the Jewish National Home required a careful balancing act with the rights and needs of the Arab population” (141). This sums up also Israeli mayors’ unrealistic and typical colonial policy since 1967. Accordingly, the Jewish national interest overrides the civic and religious rights of the non-Jewish population, thus ignoring East Jerusalem Palestinian identity.    

“For many years I walked in the streets of Jerusalem in a real and metaphoric sense, searching for the writings on its walls,” writes Yair Wallach, a senior lecturer in Israel Studies at the School of Oriental and Africa Studies, University of London. “I was especially attracted to the little-noticed, half-erased texts: worn-out stone inscriptions, lettering on sewage covers, mysterious acronyms on gates and facades, faded ceramic street nameplates” (p.3). He looked for those texts “in any form that one can encounter in public or semi-public contexts, in Arabic, Hebrew and other languages…from the middle of the nineteenth century to the 1948 war” (p.4). During this period, Jerusalem lived dramatic changes: modernization, regime changes, territorial expansion, national conflict and division. Wallach shows the city transformation though texts that redefine the urban environment.

Rather than writing on the Zionist-Palestinian conflict or politics, Wallach looks on Jerusalem building inscriptions, the city dwellers’ coins, identification cards and bank notes, street naming, graffiti, the banners and flags of the Nabi Musa religious festival. Each of these has a chapter. The author and the publisher well serve the reader interest in visualizing the text with 52 black and white photos.

Since the late 19th Century, the city was a cosmopolitan place with many foreign institutions, immigrants, visitors and pilgrimages. Interestingly, the Zionists did not see the city this way. Their perspective was typical Orientalist. The city is “lifeless body”, Wallach quotes David Ben Gurion as saying, “degenerating in idleness and beggary, drowning in illiteracy, chaotic, splintered and ruled by a band of hypocrites and cheats, unschooled rabbis and ignorant scholars” (17). The Zionist leadership-British collaboration was based not only on the Bible or joint strategic goals but also on a shared typical Orientalist perspective. It led to the Balfour Declaration, 1917, in which Great Britain committed itself to promote a national homeland in Palestine only for the Jewish people, most of whom lived in Europe. The Declaration’s architects saw the native Palestinians, then about 90 per cent of the population, as “non-Jewish residents” whose “civil and religious rights” should be protected.  

In 1919, Herbert Samuel, then a “dedicated Zionist… assembled a small advisory group on financial policy in Palestine.” J.M. Keynes was among the invitees who strongly supported creating a paper currency for Palestine (p.115). Samuel believed that “Palestine was to be ruled by the British… designated for Jewish settlements as a Jewish National Home”, and nothing the Arabs did could change this. Samuel’s chosen medium to communicate this message was a paper currency (p.117). Banknotes, stamps, official signs and logos included Hebrew words alongside English and Arabic ones. The banknotes’ Hebrew inscriptions, Samuel decided, would include not only the name of the country, Palestine, but also the Hebrew acronym for the Land of Israel. They spread throughout the country, validating Zionist claims and “bringing Hebrew to areas where hardly any Jews lived” (p.121). It is worth noting that when Samuel implemented his decisions that Wallach rightly titles as colonization by language, Jews were less than 20 per cent of the total population.  

Through fragmented texts, Wallach provides a fascinating panoramic view of Jerusalemites’ public sphere and their transformation to modernity. Contrary to pre-modern texts that linked the city with the transcendental divine, from the late 19th Century, they contain other meanings, and serve here-and-now purposes. Rightly, the author does not provide an exhaustive survey of urban texts. He gives limited attention to burial inscriptions, commercial advertisements and artistic calligraphy in order to focus on “the liminal quality of text in creating boundaries within the city and facilitating encounters and exchange between different groups” (p.23). 

The book’s style, structure and content are academic yet it is well read. In the present academic zeitgeist, heavily influenced by critical social science, hardly positive, a historian such as Wallach could have avoided writing an unnecessary theoretical introduction based on Jacques Derrida and Walter Benjamin. Derrida is the authoritative voice also in chapter two. Also, the author analyses S. Y. Agnon’s novel Only Yesterday. I am not convinced that this symbolic novel integrates with other chapters’ material subject. 

I find chapter six on Hebrew graffiti on the Western Wall and chapter eight on visiting cards and identification papers, in which the author combines historical analysis with ethnography, sociology and popular culture studies, most interesting. Originating probably in a Greek practice that Christians, Muslims and Jews endorsed, the custom of inscribing names in Hebrew in Jerusalem holy sites as part of the pilgrimage goes back to the 12th Century, if not earlier. The Wailing Wall functioned within the Jewish mind as a tombstone, remnant of destruction and exile on which extended family members add their own prayer language letters out of respect and an act of worship. In the 12th Century, amid growing tourism, the steady increase of Jewish immigration to Jerusalem and a rising popular Judaica artefact market, the Wall’s image became popular artefact among East European Jews.

Painters depicted the Hebrew inscriptions on the Wall. However, in the late 19th Century the perception of inscriptions all over the Middle East changed from ritual performance to vulgar graffiti, ie texts by which an individual visitor can associate himself with the place. This view reached the Wailing Wall only in the late 1920s, when the Western Wall and the Temple Mount/Haram el-Sharif became both symbolically and practically the platform over which Zionists and Palestinian nationalists struggled. Each side nationalized the site, perceiving its texts as territorial markers and self-commemoration. For the Jews the inscriptions were territorial marks, evidence that it was a Jewish sacred site, not the holy Muslim al-Buraq place. The League of Nation commission established following 1929 riots recommended banning the Wall inscriptions. The British administration, the chief rabbis and the Muslim authorities endorsed it. They saw it as disrespectful and approved its removal physically and from the collective memories.

 Wallach makes a meaningful contribution to the 21st Century revisionist school of the history (Klein Menachem, “The 21st Century New Critical Historians”, Israel Studies Review, 32, No. 2, Autumn 2017, pp. 146-163). He concludes, “A common Jerusalem identity and Ottoman citizenship were powerful vehicles for cross confessional alliance” (p.15). Wallach “does not assume the existence of two different societies and cultures [= Jewish and Arab, as the old school presented] in early twentieth century Jerusalem” (p.15). Accordingly, those who came from outside made that division: the British and the Zionists. Jews and Palestinian were not predestined to clash, as the old school historians argue along the common Zionist perspective. The new historians, Wallach among them, explore the roads that were not taken and tragically missed opportunities.  

Prof. Menachem Klein is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at Bar-Ilan University, Israel. He studied Middle East and Islamic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was a fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, MIT, the European University Institute, Florence, Leiden University and Kings College, London. In 2000 -2001, Prof. Klein was an adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Prof. S. Ben-Ami. 

His book Lives in Common – Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Hebron, Oxford University Press NY and C. Hurst London 2014,was acclaimed by the New Republic as one of best 2014 non-fiction books. Lives in Common is published also ins German and Hebrew editions. In 2019 he published Arafat and Abbas Portraits of Leadership in a State Postponed, Hurst, London and Oxford, New York.

Other book reviews by Menachem Klein

Book Review: Nine Quarters of Jerusalem, a New Biography of the Old City by Matthew Teller

Book Review: How the PLO dropped the ball during the Oslo process by by Jerome Segal

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