Jerusalem beholden

Jersusalem in the Twentieth Century by Martin Gilbert Chatto, pounds 20

In the roll-call of world historical cities, only Vienna has had a 20th century of more varied ownership than Jerusalem. In the course of a hundred years, it has had four, arguably five national or transnational regimes. It was held by the Turks until 1917 and the British to 1948; it was in split Israeli- Jordanian hands from 1948 to the six-day war of 1967. It then became an all-Israeli city, with its Eastern half, going beyond the Old City, annexed to the Israeli state in 1980. There is an off-chance that a sixth regime - internationalisation - potentially under UN auspices and often mooted in the mandate's later days, will emerge as a solvent for bitter tensions.

Martin Gilbert lacks any pretence to being a historian. His book is a narrative biography of the city from 1900. As with his magnum opus on Churchill, he piles on the detail, but refuses to assess, analyse or speculate. The book begins entrancingly with vivid cameo shots of fin de siecle street scenes, as he uses travel guides and memoirs of the era with wry, revealing results. Urban atmospherics give way, as the decades unfold, to a tale of clashing ideologies and the interplay of largely political personalities; scenic feel and topography recede in favour of human drama.

One highlight is 1945-1948, as Irgun and the Stern Gang, shocked into action by Auschwitz, aimed to force out the British and, then, as regular Jewish forces waged a desperate battle in siege-like conditions, to keep control against Arab armies. Tears came into my well-cooked Zionist eyes as the Exodus era and the formation of a Jewish state was brought to action- packed life in the hands of a vivid narrator.

Even so, 20th-century Jerusalem offers many potential lines of literary attack that Gilbert is too staid to adopt. The book lacks the feel and the savour, say, of trips on foot round the south of the Old City and its dens of hashish, fly-ridden latrines and sultry balconies where I first ran into the Near East's ideal drink, mint tea. For comment on the city scene, he relies too often on noted foreign visitors, like Bellow, Eli Weisel and Edward Said. Unpredictable reactions by normal city residents would have added more. Field-research could have told him, as I found at Christmas 1988, that the retailers of the old soukh were genuinely wary of the intifada; many felt that they had been bamboozled into suspended activity by stone-throwing teenagers.

The history of the Jerusalem Post, once the Palestine Post, and later the story of the King David Hotel - two key city institutions - are also missing here. The American Colony, in the Eastern area outside the walled city, is another hotel favoured by Arab-leaning reporters, whose past merits exploration. Fink's (a hacks' answer to the Crillon in Paris) should have figured also; in 1945-8 Haqanah agents and British police used to sit at either end of its tiny bar, in a spies' chess game by unspoken rules, mixing suspicion, wry mutual respect and a yen to tap each other's secrets Fink's also supplied succulent shellfish.

He could have made more, too, of Mea She'arim, the Western area where frenzied Hassidim like to stone touring drivers on the Sabbath. In 1981 their comrades at the Wailing Wall briefly manhandled me into a prayer session; in 1995 I left a note in its cracks, feting a secular Jewish lineage of Marx, Freud and Durkheim by way of riposte. Given conflicts between Jews themselves in the city, not just Jews and Gentiles (the ultra- Orthodox are often anti-Zionist) internationalisation may be a boon.

A new capital in Tel Aviv can act to uphold Israel's secular, modern tilt. Gilbert omits to show the distinction in Israeli culture between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, between modernity and religion; as early as the 1930s, Hebrew poets in Tel Aviv attacked Jerusalem as a burden on their backs in the quest for a new identity. A Knesset in Jerusalem meant a political ethos saturated in the symbolism of faith; a Knesset in Tel Aviv would mean a shift in the Israeli centre of gravity, in favour of nightclubs, bustling business and the beach.

We need a shrewd, informed survey by Gilbert of the international option and its viability. Any analysis should cover the implications of a decision by Congress to back American recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, that took place just before Rabin's death. Gilbert's book ends with that murder, but leaves out the significance of the move by Congress. Other issues beckon: how seriously do the PLO want the Eastern City for themselves? How many Arabs in the East vote in Israeli elections or reject Israeli passports?

Gilbert looks at Jerusalem as an Oxford Zionist, aware of his bias, a judicious partisan with his own dialectic of fairness and zeal, like Herbert Samuel, our first Jewish High Commissioner, to be honourable to all sides. New angles add extra depth to received facts, such as Samuel's erratic, oft-attacked choice of the fanatic, al-Husseini (later a Nazi ally) as Muslim Mufti in 1921, and the Irgun's killing of Count Bernadotte, a UN envoy, in 1948. But his story, by turns (in Israeli terms) tragic and exalted, can read like a set of encomia at an Anglo-Jewish fund-raising dinner.

"Encomia" may be apt. The later part of the book has the air of an obituary column. He senses a need to note every death, Jew, Arab or visitor, by terror, in the city's troubled, recent history. What aims to be moving is prone to be wearing, even morbid. Gilbert ought to have spent more time in the streets, having adventures; more, also, in thinking out the issues for himself, less on weaving the courses into a patchwork presentation.

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