Thursday, December 01, 2016

Jerusalem 1913 by Amy Dockser Marcus (Book Review #70 of 2016)

Jerusalem 1913: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Along with this book, in the last couple years I have reviewed this book along with others on Israel's origins and history (see list as the bottom). This book fails to live up to its promise on the book's cover of being "the first popular account of this key era" of Zionist migration during the late Ottoman empire. A survey of books written in the late 19th and early 20th century on uncovers some looking specifically at the Ottoman empire's weakening and the potential for Zionism (from a Dispensationalist Christian viewpoint). The US minister (before there was an Ambassador) to Turkey, Samuel S. Cox, wrote a memoir in 1887 that also speaks of the growing population of Jews in Palestine, particularly Jerusalem, and what it may mean for an eventual Jewish state. There were plenty of times in the early 1800s when the Ottomans fought battles or sent armies to put own uprisings in the greater Levant. The Crimean War was, in part, a question of how nationalities in Palestine were being treated. So, there is no shortage of sources from which to make this "discovery" of zionism before 1920. Ari Shavit's My Promised Land goes back to 1897 and the landing in Jaffa of his ancestors, Zionists from Europe following others who had come before. He examines their influences pretty well. Scott Anderson's excellent Lawrence in Arabia the work of Aaron Aarohnson, who migrated to Palestine in the 1880s and worked for the cause of Zionism through WWI. While Shavit's and Anderson's works were written after Marcus', they draw on earlier works about the era prior to 1913. Marcus' book was the basis for a one-hour PBS documentary and I would recommend that over the book, which is short enough that it could really just have been a long-form article in The New Yorker or someplace.

The author views a film shot by Noah Sokolovsky as a sort of documentary in 1913 and recently discovered and restored; that gives some of the oldest footage of Jerusalem and Palestine known to exist. (You can watch it on YouTube now.) This leads the author to investigate the origins of the film, to be presented to the 11th Vienna Zionist Congress. If there have already been several Congresses convened and now someone is making a propoganda video urging further settlement, there must have already been a growing movement. This is the supposed "discovery" of the book.

The first Vienna congress was founded by Theodr Herzl in 1898, building on the work of previous zionists. By 1913, there were many Jews living along side a much larger Arab population, but with plenty of other ethnicities such as Armenians, Greeks, Druze, and various other sects. In 1898, Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Jerusalem to inaugurate a Luthern church. The Kaiser supposedly privately voiced his support for a Jewish protectorate but later changed his mind. As the population grew, so did a sense of a growing importance about the area. It was integrated and largely peaceful under Ottoman rule. In 1908, the Young Turks succeeded in re-establishing democratic reforms in the Empire, which meant Palestine would have official represenation in Istanbul. There was a growing sense in the early 20th century of national determinism, a flame later fanned by Western influences like President Woodrow Wilson. With more freedoms came further demands for greater media as newspapers began to spring up. (While 1908 and previous reforms had given freedoms to the hinterlands, many decrees from Istanbul were dead letters outside of Istanbul, something the author might downplay in this book.) By 1913, Hebrew was beginning to be important for a unified Jewish identity. One sore point was when a British radio station began translating into Hebrew the word "Israel" to describe the territory.

Marcus details the lives and interactions of a few specific characters in the book including a Russian-born Jew who founded the Rehovot colony in 1890 and a Muslim leader who is increasingly concerned about Jewish activities. While Jewish nationals and Arab nationals may have been united in their desire for independence from Ottoman control, there were also many who did not seek that, or perhaps sought only that the other party would not gain the upper hand. By 1914, there were something like 80,000 Jews living in 30 different colonies in Palestine, pioneering and making money off the land. If private property rights to the land would be held, then you were not far from having a state. As one side has property, it protects that side and hence Jews begin arming themselves. The Ottomans were generally not strong enough to balance all the influences and local corruption allowed skirting of the law. By 1916 and British invasion of the continent, the Arab Revolt began and the Jewish Question would demand an answer.

I give this book 2.5 stars out of five. I don't believe Marcus "rewrites" anything as is said in the book's promo. Plenty of things were written at the time. It is short, and somewhat interesting. I recommend following it with Anderson's Lawrence in Arabia as he takes a similar approach to detailing the lives of a few characters as they cross in Palestine during WWI.
Other books I have reviewed on Israel's founding and modern history:
A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson (4 stars)
My Promised Land by Ari Shavit (4 stars)
Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson (5 stars)
I Shall Not Hate by Izzeldin Abuelaish (4 stars)
Six Days of War by Michael Oren (4 stars)
13 Days in September by Lawrence Wright (4 stars)
Jerusalem 1913 by Amy Dockser Marcus (2.5 stars)

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