Three thousand years of rape and pillage

Karen Armstrong's account of an embattled holy city is both passionate and fair, says William Dalrymple; A History of Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths by Karen Armstrong HarperCollins , pounds 20
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Despite frequent references in the Psalms to "the peace of Jerusalem'', the Holy City has seen more rapine and pillage then any other comparable patch of ground on earth. Jerusalem's soil is drenched with blood spilt in the name of religion; its hospitals are full of lunatics claiming to be King David, Isaiah, Mohammed, Jesus or St. Paul.

Sadly, it is not just lunatics who squabble over Jerusalem. Rival Palestinian and Israeli historians differ radically in their interpretation of almost every turn in their capital city's history.

Israeli historians tend to look to the Hebrew Bible to back up the Jewish claim to Jerusalem. They point to the "Book of Samuel'' to show how King David established his capital in the city 1500 years before an Arab army first appeared below the walls. Palestinians reply that King David's Jerusalem has only the most shadowy basis in the archaeological record.

The arguments remain bitter, and it is a brave person who ventures into this historical minefield. But the decision by Jerusalem's Likud administration to declare 1995/6 as the 3000th anniversary of King David's establishment of Jewish Jerusalem has provoked a flood of Israeli propaganda, including such heavyweights as Sir Martin Gilbert who recently published his Jerusalem in the Twentieth Century. The anniversary was boycotted by the Palestinians, so there has been no Arab response to this Israeli barrage. But a book has now been published which is the closest we are likely to get to historical balance on the subject. This is Karen Armstrong's excellent History of Jerusalem.

The qualities of Armstrong's book are probably best gauged by comparing her narrative with that of Martin Gilbert. For while Armstrong gives space to the hopes and aspirations of all the peoples for whom Jerusalem is holy, Gilbert's book is narrowly Zionist, and he has little sympathy with the Palestinians of the city, be they Christian or Muslim.

Thus while Karen Armstrong gives due prominence to both the Holocaust and the central disaster of modern Palestinian history - the ethnic cleansing of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes at the creation of Israel - Gilbert manages to avoid referring to this Palestinian catastrophe at all. The difference between the two books is particularly vivid when you compare their narratives of the 1948 Battle for Jerusalem. Armstrong gives equally moving accounts of the fate of the 2,000 Jews expelled from the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem and the 30,000 Palestinians expelled from the Arab suburbs of West Jerusalem. In comparison, Gilbert gives over 14 pages to a description of the heroic defence of the Jewish Quarter, while dismissing the expulsion of the far greater numbers of Arabs from the west of the city in a single short paragraph. Only Armstrong gives an indication of the methods used to clear these Arab suburbs: "The Haganah began to attack the large middle-class Arab suburbs of West Jerusalem. Raiding parties cut telephone and electricity wires. Loudspeaker vans drove through the streets blurting such messages as 'Unless you leave your houses the fate of Deir Yassin (where 250 Palestinians were massacred) will be your fate'."

Again when dealing with the war of 1967, both authors convey the excitement of the Israeli capture of East Jerusalem and the triumphant Jewish return to the Wailing Wall, but only Armstrong goes on to tell the other side of the story: how the Jewish refugees of 1948 all had their property returned, but not one house in West Jerusalem was returned to a Palestinian. Instead, within ten years of the Israeli conquest, a further 37,065 acres of Arab land had been seized; and today only 13.5 per cent of East Jerusalem remains in Palestinian hands.

When historians of the eminence of Gilbert can produce works of such bias and prejudice, there is a vital need for an even-handed chronicler like Karen Armstrong, one who is not afraid to stand up and speak unwelcome truths. A thread of real compassion for Muslims, Christians and Jews runs through her book as she struggles to understand why a city sacred to three religions has often brought out the worst in all of them. Her conclusion is a passionate call for respect and understanding: "The societies that have lasted longest in the Holy City have been the ones that were prepared for tolerance and coexistence,'' she writes. "That must be the way to celebrate Jerusalem's sanctity today."

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