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The new Jewish Jerusalem during the British Mandat

  • 4.9.2012
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  • Yehoshua Ben-Arie
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The new Jewish Jerusalem during the British Mandate of Palestine – Neighborhoods, houses and people – Aspects of conservation and planning 

By: Yehoshua Ben-Arie

Existing trends in the conservation status of historical textures are found in Jerusalem, among others. However, while the conservation of the old city was in consensus among many, the conservation of the historical city which was beginning to be built outside the walls of the old city in the early 19th century, the Jewish city was not considered until many years later. The explanation of the difference between the attitudes towards conservation of the two parts of the city is presented by Professor Yehoshua Ben-Arie.
This explanation raises another issue besides the historical analysis – the definition of the concept of ‘time’ regarding the process of conservation-related decision making. This concept has many implications on the understanding of the conservation phenomenon and its related significance and social and political context, and therefore it should be documented.
Indeed, Ben-Arie reveals an important documentary tool – the population census, which allows the restoration of a phenomenon in a certain time point, and thus the study of its values and its worthiness for conservation.
This article is based on a lecture given by Ben-Arie in a convention that took place in Jerusalem at ‘Yad Yitshak Ben Tzvi’ on 3.21.2012, celebrating the publication of his book – The new Jewish Jerusalem during the British Mandate of Palestine – Neighborhoods, houses and people.

The first basic question that arises when considering conservation and planning in cities and urban areas which strive for renewal and development, is whether there is any need for conservation of buildings in ancient urban textures. Many people and organizations believe the conservation is a hindering factor to the development of cities and settlements. I will not discuss this issue as a whole, but I will make a few preliminary comments on the subject, especially regarding Jerusalem. 

Conservation of the old city of Jerusalem

It seems commonly accepted today that the old city of Jerusalem must be preserved in its current state. No one would think of destroying the old city or damaging it in any way. This was not always the case. I will present several examples of this matter. Jamal Pasha, a central figure in the Turkish administration nearing the end of the Ottoman period, thought of a breakthrough – an avenue going from Jaffa gate towards the Temple Mount, with intention of wrecking the entire David street, which was than an important part of the old city market. Additionally, during the Ottoman period the old city wall was damaged, with its stones being stolen and holes being made, structures and additions were built on the wall, on the gates and next to them, and more. These damages and changes would not have happened today. The change in the status of the old city was led by the British, who were strict about the issue. Ronald Stores, the British governor of Jerusalem, and many renowned British architects and planners – all were in one opinion, that the old city must be preserved as much as possible. One might ask what were their reasons for this decision, as the old city is actually a medieval, Muslim and crusades-period city. It seems there were three main reasons:

1) The old city was seen at the time by the world as a historical city, holy to the three world religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The British saw it as a duty to preserve the city, a sort of deposit given to them by the whole world. In this approach the British actually ignored the fact that scientifically speaking the old city is not a historical holy city but a medieval city; it was not the historical details regarding construction, technology or style that were of interest to them, but the importance and status of the city to the world.
2) The British had another reason for wanting to preserve the old city in its form. Ronald Stores and other important Brits respected the medieval city for its role and its connection to the western-crusades subject, and because it represented their special attitude towards ancient Muslim cities, such as Cairo. 
3) Than there were the beauty and visual uniqueness of the city. The walls, the gates, the dome of the rock, Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the general location of the city in a natural basin between mountains and more. The famous architect Patrick Geddes, who prepared the second master-plan of the city of Jerusalem, wrote anyone who does not acknowledge the unique look and planning of the old city, cannot architecturally understand what Jerusalem is.

Despite British efforts, ideas concerning damaging the old city occasionally resurfaced, including suggestions to    tear down parts to reveal its older historical past. For example, following the Six-Day War, David Ben-Gurion suggested tearing down the old city walls. Today this might seem strange, but this matter has an even more prominent example. Sir Flinders Petrie, the father of Middle-Eastern Stratigraphic Archeology, who led important excavations in Egypt and later in the Negev area, had the same idea. During the early days of the British Mandate, when he left Egypt and moved to the American Institution of Archeology in Jerusalem, (today the Albright Institute), he suggested to tear down the old city, in order to conduct archeological excavations all through the old city area and expose the historical biblical city and that of the Second Temple period. In his opinion there were four important periods in the city’s history: the biblical period, the Second Temple period, the Roman-Byzantine Jerusalem, and the early Christiane Jerusalem. Other periods held no importance in his eyes.  
But these were all unusual cases. Since the British Mandate till today the conservation of the old city of Jerusalem is accepted by all as a consensus. This fact explains why since the Mandate period no new large or remarkable buildings were constructed in the old city. Almost all “new” buildings were constructed during the 19th century up to WWI, when the conservation of the old city was not yet assimilated into the construction awareness of the area. An exception to this rule is the construction of the Jewish quarter in the old city, which was destroyed during the War of Independence, and whose renewal and reconstruction was decided upon after the Six Day War (1967).

Conservation of historical Jerusalem outside the walls

 Unlike the conservation of the old city, the conservation of historical Jerusalem outside the walls was not agreed upon. Until the second half of the 19th century, the entire city of Jerusalem was walled inside the old city walls. After dark the city gates were locked – no one comes in and no one goes out. Since the second half of the 19th century the construction of exceptionally large buildings began, and many neighborhoods were built – Jewish, Muslim and Christian, beyond the walls. The new city grew especially during the British Mandate. Therefore, when one speaks of historical Jerusalem outside of the walls, one actually means that part of New Jerusalem that was built before the War of Independence and the division of the city to two: An Israeli side and a Jordanian side. After 1948 the Israeli side became part of the state of Israel, and its capital.

Two textures can be noticed in the part of new Jerusalem outside the walls, which became part of the state of Israel: the texture that was not Jewish before the war of Independence, but was included with the Israeli Jerusalem after 1948, and a Jewish texture which developed in the city before the war and became part of the Israeli Jerusalem when the country was founded. This part of Jerusalem outside the walls is the subject of my book “The new Jewish Jerusalem during the British Mandate of Palestine”. The book’s purpose is to show how during the British Mandate period, a new Jewish city developed in the part of Jerusalem outside the walls – a course of events somewhat similar to the development of Tel Aviv which began with the exit of Jewish inhabitants from the city of Jaffa to new neighborhoods in its outskirts, where they quickly formed a new, separate, independent urban entity – a new Hebrew city. The same thing happened in Jerusalem. The Mandate period became a founding period in the development of the Jewish section of the new Jewish Jerusalem, and later – in the creation of a new Jewish city.

I will state that the name chosen for the book, “The new Jewish Jerusalem” comes from the name given to that part of the city, which was named already in 1938, after publication of the British ‘Peel Commission’ report, which was published late 1937.

As you know, this commission was to first to suggest partitions of the western mandatory Israel to two: A Jewish state on a part of the land of Israel, and a second part that will be joined with the Jordanian state, which was before part of the British Mandate and was founded in 1922 .

The commission also suggested giving Jerusalem a special status. The city will not be included in one of the parts mentioned above, but will remain under British Mandate rule as a separate entity. According to this plan, the special status of Jerusalem would also include the Bethlehem area, Lod with its airport, and the city of Jaffa and its ports. This entity was to be called “The state of Jerusalem”. Unlike the British Mandate for the rest of Israel, which was set for 30 years, or until a time when the inhabitants could secure an independence of their own, the “State of Jerusalem” was to remain under British rule indefinitely. 

The Arab side thoroughly rejected the Peel Commission plan. However, the Jewish leadership, led by David Ben-Gurion, was willing to consider accepting the plan to found a Jewish state in a small part of western Israel with two main conditions: A. joining the Negev to the Jewish state, which would significantly increase its size, B. joining the new Jewish part of Jerusalem to the future state of Israel, should the commission’s plan be accepted.
The Agency didn’t just settle for a declaration but created a special committee called “The Jerusalem committee”. The head of the committee was Dr. Mordechai Aliash, who was later the first Israeli ambassador to Britain. The committee created a geographical sub-committee, which made detailed maps that accurately marked the section of new Jewish Jerusalem to be joined, if the suggestions of the Peel commission will be accepted. Much has been written of this matter, and its importance lies in the fact that in the late 30’s during the Mandate period, there was already a kind of new Jewish settlement in Jerusalem, called “The new Jewish Jerusalem”. About 80,000 people lived in this entity, out of the 400,000 Jewish inhabitants that lived at the time in the entire land of Israel. It is clear, therefore, that A Jewish state could not have risen in the land of Israel in 1948, without including this Jewish city, which is why it is important to discuss this entity separately. 

Discussion into the importance of “The new Jewish Jerusalem” raises a central question: How did this entity came to be? Was it planned as such? And who is responsible for its planning – the British administration in Jerusalem? The Zionist movement? The municipality of Jerusalem?

Any answer trying to point out one central factor responsible for the planning of “The new Jewish Jerusalem” would be wrong. The British administration did not fill any central role in the founding of the new Jewish Jerusalem, except for issues of construction licenses and coordination borders regarding the size of buildings and lots. Furthermore, the British administration would have destroyed a large part of the city’s neighborhoods if it could, since it saw them as urban slums. All its interests lay in the old city, and in running matters of the state. The new city was not conceived by the British administration as important. The first British planners – William McClain, Patrick Geddes and even Charles Robert Ashby – did not even set borders to the new part of Jerusalem when they made the master plan for the city. Only when the urban planning committee notified Ashby that in order to plan the new city it must have set borders, he defined for the first time the borders of the city that was beginning to be built outside the old city walls . During the Mandate period additional borders were added to the whole Jerusalem according to different functions. These borders are important for analysis and understanding of construction laws, but they do not address the Jewish part of Jerusalem as a separate identity.
The Zionist movement institutions did not fill a central in the development of the new city, except for a few buildings that were built for these institutions, as a reaction to the British actions that set Jerusalem as the capital of the land. In this aspect the Zionist administration was tagged along after the policy of the British administration (this tagging along was mostly the result of a Mandatory publication that ordered the creation of a Jewish organization – the Jewish agency – with the purpose of representing the Jewish people in front of the British administration. Since the British made the seat of their local government in Jerusalem, it was only natural that the Jewish agency will also set its seat there. And indeed, all buildings of national institution were erected in Jerusalem).
The Jerusalem city council, that was under Arab and British control during the mandate period also did not fill a central in the development of the new Jewish Jerusalem. This is in complete contrast to what happened in Tel Aviv, where the Jewish city council, headed by Meir Dizengoff and other important Jews in the city, played a central part in the development of the first Israeli city in Israel (and the world). During the Mandate several people in Jerusalem called for the creation of a separate Jewish city council for the new Jewish part of Jerusalem. A political party named “Hatoshav” (the resident), that was founded for this purpose, claimed that the Arab-British city council does not serve the Jewish inhabitants of the city, and therefore it is the party’s role to do so. The Zionist administration resented the idea because it was afraid of the political significance of the idea of creating a separate city council for the Jewish part of Jerusalem, which it claimed could be interpreted as if the Jewish side is willing to give up the old city.

Since there was no single factor responsible for the planning of the new Jewish Jerusalem, one possible answer remains – the new Jewish Jerusalem was inherently built by the Jewish inhabitants that lived there and by many Jewish immigrants who came there during the Mandate. The latter were absorbed into the city, added to the construction and expanded its borders. The city was built neighborhood by neighborhood, with each one having its own destination and unique identity. Therefore, in order to understand the entire unit referred to as “the new Jewish Jerusalem”, we must first learn about its sub-units, the separate neighborhoods, and the stages of their creation, development, and finally their joining into one entity.

There is much information about the city’s neighborhoods in the Jerusalem city council archives. Many committees and organizations were behind the founding of the neighborhoods and shaped them according to their views. After the founding of the state of Israel and the Hebrew Jerusalem city hall, these committees were dispersed, and many of them moved their archives to the city’s archive. Some of the neighborhoods were discussed in articles and book, but on many of them nothing was written. This leads to the importance of discussing the neighborhood as a unit. Only a thorough discussion will create a complete picture of the construction of the new Jewish city and its development during the Mandate period.

The 1939 census and documentation of the neighborhoods in the new Jewish city growing outside the Jerusalem walls

In order to study each neighborhood separately, documentation is required, but such documenting sources are not always available. During my work I came upon a historical source which became a very useful tool for learning about the neighborhoods of Jewish Jerusalem. This tool is a detailed census of the Jews in Jerusalem, which was conducted at the beginning of September, 1939, by the department of statistics in the Jewish agency. While it was in progress, World War II broke out, and the census takers did not know or estimate what was about to happen. Almost all of the census forms survived, and they are now found in the central Zionist archives, inside of 90 thick volumes, each containing hundreds of forms, with a detailed form for each and every family. By my estimate there are about 20,000-25,000 forms, as they include all the Jewish inhabitants of the city at the time – about 80,000 people .

Two central questions arise from the census: why was it conducted at that time? Why was it decided to make it so detailed? These questions are answered in a book written after the census was completed by the census director, Mr. David Gurevich, who was the head of the department of statistics in the Jewish agency. The writer states that the census was conducted in order to prepare the voters book for the Israeli Knesset, for the general elections that were about to take place all through the land in those years. Indeed, similar voter books were prepared in those years in other Jewish settlements in Israel.

But it seems there was also another reason for conducting the census in Jerusalem and for its extensive detailing, which might also explain the fact that only in Jerusalem all the census forms were preserved to this day – the recognition of its great importance. 

This reason is also mentioned in the words of Gurevich in the summary report of the census. There he states that when deciding on conduction the census in Jerusalem, he contacted the Jewish National Council in person and convinced them to increase the funding for the census, so it would include not only details for the voters book, but will also function as a detailed comprehensive census of the Jews of Jerusalem and their ethnic and other groups. The council complied, and the census was conducted. Below is the notice that was published at the time in the Israeli press:

The National Council announces: a general census of the Jews of Jerusalem
While upholding the rights of our people to live and to build in our land,
We declare a general census of the Jews of Jerusalem,
While the time is a time of emergency,
It is precisely because of this that we must know the composition and condition of our settlement in the capital of our land.
The census will lead to many conclusions that will affect all aspects of our lives and actions, both in emergency and in normal times. The census data will give us strength and will aid us in the fight for the Hebrew public in Jerusalem, their status and their rights in this city,

The census will begin on Sunday, 09.03.39, and will be conducted by the statistical
department of the Jewish agency. Pairs of census takers will go from house to house
and will question all family members according to a specially prepared questionnaire. 
The support and aid of all political parties, ethnic groups and worker unions have been 
promised, and we expect full compliance from the public.

Jews of Jerusalem, come forward and take the census!
Let not one of you be absent from the census of the Jews of Jerusalem.

The national committee to the Knesset of Israel (the daily paper “Haboker”, 09.01.1939)

It is clear to any researcher of history that the census was meant to deal with the decision of the Peel commission, in case the city of Jerusalem will not be included in the Jewish state, if such a state will be founded in the land of Israel. Therefore the Jewish agency wanted to point out the size of the Jewish population in new Jerusalem, in a specific and detailed manner, and to show that it is inconceivable that this part of the city will not be included in the Jewish state, if that state will be founded in the land of Israel. 

Regarding the subject of conservation and planning of the historical Jewish Jerusalem outside the walls, the 1939 census and its use in the book “The new Jewish Jerusalem during the British Mandate of Palestine – Neighborhoods, houses and people” hold a great importance: A) Through them it is possible to recreate the development of the new Jewish Jerusalem during the mandate period, and to accurately draw the borders of the historical new Jewish city built outside the old city walls. These borders can be used as a basis for a general master plan for conservation of this important part of the city. Additionally, within these borders it is possible to determine all the neighborhoods and construction areas of the new city that were built until the state’s founding.

B) The book itself introduction periods which discuss each and every neighborhood. Through them it is possible to reveal the unique character of each neighborhood, and the special ideas, objectives and initiatives behind its creation.  This meticulous review will lead a change in the emphasis on conservation of the historical Jerusalem outside the walls, and the conservation of single houses will be replaced by an ensemble approach to conservation that will put an emphasis on the unique nature of the neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

It is important to note that the number of houses in new Jewish Jerusalem outside the old city walls that architecturally unique and display a clear style or are related to a known are architect is very small. So it came to be that British planners, including known Jewish architects thought at the time that they should tear down significant parts of the new Jewish city, among them neighborhoods that were considered to lack beauty and glamor, for example ‘Nahalat Shiv’a’ or the ‘Nachlaot’ area.  Today the trend has changed – what was once thought of as mundane is now considered unique, and the rarity of historical buildings along with the high demand for living accommodations in historical neighborhoods at the city center raises their value, changes their status and strengthens the call for their conservation. In other words, the question is not always whether we should preserve, but how to preserve. Should singe buildings be preserved inside a dynamic, developing urban texture, or is neighborhood conservation preferred. In the case of the new Jewish Jerusalem outside the walls, neighborhood conservation has importance. 

C) Conservation of a neighborhood must be about not only the physical assets, the houses, the streets and the layout of every neighborhood. It must also include its living element: the story of the people and families who built it and lived in it. The Jewish writer S.Y.Agnon, a Nobel Prize laureate, was right to describe the Jewish neighborhoods outside the walls by emphasizing their cultural-social-ethnic elements, and giving less attention to the neighborhoods’ layout, their shape, houses and streets. All this is found in the census and in the book. 

Final words

The structure of Jerusalem in the Mandate period, as well as other cities in Israel and in the world, is usually studied by people from the fields of architecture, city-planning and construction, all of which place an emphasis on the physical aspect of the city. They plan and build houses and also tear them down. Mostly they plan and build in a short period of time, and then continue to other locations and buildings without feeling attached to the previous place. For them the external aspects are important: the shape of the house, its architectural elements, its exterior, the neighborhoods layout etc. only a few are interested in the population that lived in that place, its history, its social, financial and cultural attributes. In contrast to the planners, engineers and architects, there are “memory carriers” – those are the inhabitants and their offspring, for whom the houses and neighborhoods are parts of the array of experiences that builds their identity. Reconstruction and learning the lives of the population that lived in those neighborhoods strengthens their involvement with the place and their local pride.

In order to preserve a city or a neighborhood it is not enough to take into account its architectural and physical elements. The “spirit of the location” must be studied, identified, and preserved. For this a community must learn the location’s history, to wonder how it was created, what is its special importance, and to preserve it accordingly. Indeed, this is the objective of the book for which we gathered here today. Through its boards the neighborhoods and their spirit can be reconstructed and properly preserved. 

One example of these abilities is Rehavia, one of the most important neighborhoods of the new Jewish Jerusalem of the mandate period. This neighborhood, so I’ve heard, has a conservation plan, but the important question is how to conserve. Should we continue to dwell on discussions on which house should be fully preserved and on which houses to allow building additions? Should we settle for questions like how to move backwards in these buildings the construction of upper floors so they won’t be seen from the road? Or what should be torn down with a new building erected in its place, and so on. Unfortunately, this approach only reveals one side of the conservation. Rehavia is not only the houses; it is one of the most important “brands” of historical Jerusalem. 

Up until the mandate period, the area of great Rehavia and its surroundings was completely exposed, but during the Mandate one of the most amazing neighborhoods of Jerusalem was built here. Planning-wise, Rehavia belongs to the group of garden neighborhoods that rose in Jerusalem during the Mandate. It housed buildings such as the National Institutes of the Zionist movement, the leadership of the soon-to-be state. In its houses lived leaders of the Jewish settlement such as Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi, Haim Arlozerov (until he moved to Tel Aviv where he was murdered), Moshe Sharet, Eliezer Kaplan, Yitzhak Greenboim, Dov Yosef, Menachem Oshiskin, Arthur Rupin and Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog, the main Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel. David Ben-Gurion also rented an apartment in one of its houses, as well as many others – all from the cream of the crop of the Jewish Israeli society of the Mandate period and after. The second Hebrew Gymnasium in Israel was built in Rehavia, as well as Yeshuron synagogue, which became the central national synagogue in the city until the founding of the state. For years Rehavia has served as the living center of the intellectuals, and indeed many professors, doctors and other renowned persons in Jerusalem and in Israel made it their home. If we look at the boards of the houses and families of streets of greater Rehavia and its area from the 1939 census, we will see that almost every house in the neighborhood had a social story of its own. 

The neighborhood with its houses, streets and gardens, symbolizes the new Jewish Jerusalem as the capital of early Israel. The question is how to preserve its unique character and its “spirit of the place”. Next to the new ‘Yad Ben-Tzvi’ institution building, which is being erected in the neighborhood today, and next to the area where there once was the shack and home of the second president of Israel, the agriculture garden of Rachel Yana’it Ben Tzvi, and the house of female pioneers that took its place, there is an empty lot, which stood empty since the neighborhood was founded. For years the lot was owned by the Yad Yitzhak Ben Tzvi institute, and today it belongs to the Israel Land Administration. There is worry that the lot will be sold in the future, and who knows what would be built and who would live there. Is it not worthy that the Israel Land Administration would give this lot the Jerusalem city council, as was done with the “Leper House’ next to the Jerusalem theatre, so that the city council could preserve it and turn it into a culture and art center? Is it not also appropriate to think about constructing a modest building on this lot at the heart of Rehavia neighborhood, to be used as a community center that will include an exhibition of the neighborhood’s history? Guided tours would leave from this building to the historical neighborhood of Rehavia that will be preserved as much as possible. The sidewalks will be improved to accommodate tour paths. Signs with information and explanations would be posted along the paths and on the walls of houses. At the starting point, visitors to the neighborhood would receive pamphlets explaining about the founding of the neighborhood, its history, its society and the people who lived there. The tours and signs could be accompanied with audio devices, and so Rehavia would become a glorious conservation of Jerusalem, an open and living museum for studying its history and the history of the soon-to-be Jewish state.

Rehavia and the new Jewish Jerusalem are both worthy of such an endeavor. 2012, the 90th year of the confirmation of the decision made by the Jerusalem urban planning committee to found the neighborhood of Rehavia, is a proper time for that. A joint effort by the neighborhood’s people and its community center, combined with the Council for Conservation of Heritage sites, and the Yad Ben Tzvi institution, the most important institution in Rehavia, could start this process. Creation of a joint committee dedicated to this idea and a combined approach of the mentioned entities to the Jerusalem city council and the Israeli government, are the right way to promote this idea.

Rehavia is only one example for promoting neighborhood conservation in Jerusalem; a kind of conservation that does not settle with physical planning, but includes conservation of the “spirit of the place” – conservation of the unique social past of every neighborhood. Strengthening this trend will promote the city and will be an asset to its future development.







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