Ordinary residents benefited from the veneer of civility that Britain brought to the Holy City even as London betrayed its solemn promise to establish a national home for the Jews.
In 1917, during World War I, the British captured Jerusalem from the Ottoman Turks and governed it from December 1917 until May 1948 when, depleted and detested by Jews and Arabs alike, they withdrew.
British rule altered the city — aesthetically, politically, and culturally.
In a little over three decades, the British shaped the architecture of the city, permanently influenced its hue — ordering that all building exteriors be uniformly finished in Jerusalem stone, which ranges from gentle pink to off-white — introduced radio, advanced public health and sanitation, established a currency, and issued postage stamps.
Edmund Allenby enters Jerusalem
Since Mecca and Medina outrank Jerusalem in Islam, the city had been treated as a backwater by the Ottomans. As Christians, however, the British venerated it, also bestowing it with a veneer of modernity and Western civilization.
Had you observed Jerusalem evolve from Ottoman to British rule, perhaps the first thing you'd have noticed was the increase in population. Hardship during World War I had driven out many of the city 45,000 Jews. By 1922 the trend began to reverse. Of the 62,578 souls living in Jerusalem, the Jewish population had inched back up to 33,971. There were 14,699 Christians and 13,413 Muslims, along with 495 others.
Jerusalem also began to develop a skyline. The Hebrew University was officially opened on Mount Scopus, then north of the city, in 1925. The centrally located YMCA (planned by Empire State Building architect Arthur Louis Harmon) opened in 1935. It melded Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, and neo-Moorish styles. Across the street, on what was then Julian's Way, stood the King David Hotel — with its European exterior and Levantine interior — which had opened in 1931. The Arab-built Palace Hotel, another architectural gem, built in 1929 was several blocks away.
Hebrew University Inauguration Ceremony, April 1925
The General Post Office and the Anglo-Palestine Bank went up side-by-side on Jaffa Street in the late 1930s.The already established outdoor Mahane Yehuda Market further west on Jaffa Street had expanded. So, too, the ultra-Orthodox Me'ah She'arim district, within comfortable Sabbath walking distance of the Old City. Various other neighborhoods began dotting the city's hillsides. Romema, near the entrance of town, was founded in 1921. That same year Rehavia was founded and became home to the city's professional and academic classes. On a southern hill, the garden suburb of Arnona came into being in 1931.
Other small neighborhoods catering to various populations sprang up in the vicinity of the Train Station whose single track, built by French contractors for the Ottomans, linked the city to the Mediterranean coast and beyond. The British improved both the track and the station house. Nearby, sprang up the mixed Christian and Muslim neighborhood of Bak'a and "colonies" for Greek and Armenian Christians.
In 1920, on land expropriated from the northern Jewish suburb of Atarot, the British even opened an airfield.
Materially, life was getting better day by day.
By 1928, electricity had become readily available. The city had a reservoir — though lacked an infrastructure for efficient water distribution. The British also made headway in solving that perennial problem and, by 1935, had drawn a pipeline that delivered drinking water up to Jerusalem from the coastal plain. Many people still continued to use rooftop cisterns to capture rainwater.
And the population continued to increase so that by 1931 there were 51,222 Jews, 19,894 Muslims and 19,335 Christians.
Modern media, too, came to Jerusalem. The Palestine Broadcasting Service went on air in 1936. The English-language Palestine Post appeared in 1931. Haaretz, printed in Hebrew since 1918, was brought up to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv daily. The father of modern Hebrew Eliezer Ben-Yehuda had launched the fledgling Hebrew press back in Ottoman days.
The radio studios were in Jerusalem, while the transmitter was in Ramallah just north of the city. The service broadcast in English, Arabic, and Hebrew. The Jews grumbled that less than 30 percent of air time was devoted to Hebrew programming — and that included classical music. Radio certainly caught on. By 1946 there were 60,000 radio set licenses issued — 80 percent purchased by Jews.
In the political realm, try as they might, the British proved to be serial fumblers.
A few weeks before Jerusalem fell to them, on November 2, 1917, Her Majesty's Government issued the Balfour Declaration promising to establish a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. The post-WWI international powers adopted this promise at the 1920 San Remo conference. And in 1922, the League of Nations codified the Balfour Declaration, expressly granting Britain the "Palestine Mandate" so that they could create "a national homeland for the Jews."
As soon as they arrived in Jerusalem, however, the British got wobbly. Their default policy stance was to placate the Arabs who viscerally opposed creating a national Jewish homeland anywhere in the Middle East.
On September 16, 1922, the British divided Mandatory Palestine into two administrative areas with 77 percent earmarked for the Arabs. The space for a Jewish national home became dramatically smaller. It would not be until 1946 that the bigger eastern chunk of territory officially become known as the Hashemite Kingdom of Trans-Jordan
With the appointment of Ronald Storrs as Jerusalem's military governor in 1917, the die had been cast. Thoroughly unsympathetic to the Zionist cause, he made sure that the city's Jewish majority was not reflected in the distribution of municipal power.
Storrs organized a municipal council and appointed an equal number of representatives from the various communities. Later, the British arranged elections for a 12-member council evenly divided between Christians, Muslims and Jews based on a dozen constituencies. The Jewish majority notwithstanding, and even though Jews comprised most of the taxpayers, the British always appointed a Muslim mayor, and two deputy mayors, one Jewish and one Christian.
As Jerusalem's Jewish population got bigger, British efforts to appease Arab rage invariably fell short.
During Passover 1920, the city's Arabs rioted, killing five Jews, wounding hundreds, and looting property. This was one in a seemingly relentless series of "intifadas" that has now stretched nearly 100 years.
Anything could set off the Arabs. Typically, it was an unfounded rumor that the Jews planned to destroy the Dome of the Rock or the Aksa Mosque, Muslim holy places atop the Temple Mount.
Things went from bad to worse. In 1921, the British appointed Hajj Amin al Husseini to be the mufti, or spiritual leader, of the Palestinian Arab Muslims. He would remain at the epicenter of anti-Zionist incitement until he fled to Hitler's Berlin during World War II.
With the mufti leading the way, Arab violence became a toxic reality of life in Jerusalem. In 1925 the spark was a general strike. In 1926, it was a protest against the French presence in Syria. In 1928, the installation of a flimsy partition at the Western Wall to separate Orthodox Jewish men and women during the Yom Kippur prayer service was the catalyst. In August 1929, some of the most gruesome and sadistic Arab rioting enveloped Hebron, Jaffa, and Jerusalem. The spark? Jews had brought chairs to the Western Wall for use by elderly and infirm worshippers during Yom Kippur services. A week of countrywide rioting left 116 dead.
Sharing environs with the Arabs became too dangerous. Jewish shop owners began abandoning the Old City.
In 1933, in a variation on a theme, the Arabs rioted, this time targeting the British as much as the Jews. In 1936, the mufti instigated yet more rioting – this time under the auspices of the Arab Higher Committee.
In an attempt to mollify the Arabs, the British took one measure after another that backtracked on the Balfour Declaration. The British government’s Peel Commission of 1936 recommended dividing the remaining western Palestine into two states. But the Arabs rejected any territorial compromise with the Jews — even though they would get the bulk of the land.
At some point, most likely in 1937, you could no longer think of the Arab violence as rioting. Organized gangs bombed public transport and shot at vehicles along the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road.
And still, Jerusalem retained its Jewish majority.
Finally, in May 1939, only months before World War II would engulf Europe's Jews, Britain officially reneged on the Balfour Declaration. London issued a so-called White Paper closing the gates of Palestine to Jews and barring land purchases by Jews.
After that, British authorities dropped even the pretense that Jewish interests were of any concern. They kept the doors to Palestine locked solid throughout the Holocaust leaving Europe's Jews no haven. Still, the two main Zionist camps led by David Ben-Gurion and Ze'ev Jabotinsky supported Britain's war effort. Only in February 1944, with the Allied victory assured, did the Irgun under Menachem Begin kickoff its campaign to throw the British out of Palestine with an attack on the immigration offices in Jerusalem. The small Freedom Fighters for Israel (the Stern Group) had fought the British throughout WWII.
In 1944, meanwhile, Jerusalem's Muslim mayor died in office but — under Arab pressure — the British did not allow his Jewish deputy to succeed him, even though Jews were a 61 percent majority.
The Second World War ended in May 1945. But Jerusalem found no peace. The followers of Jabotinsky embarked on a guerilla campaign to throw the British out of Palestine.
Finally, in November 1947, the UN decided that with the exhausted British quitting the Jews and Arabs should divide eastern Palestine into two states. The Arabs rejected the compromise; the Jews reluctantly accepted.
Open warfare between Arab marauders and Jewish self-defense forces became a feature of daily life. Jerusalem neighborhoods were divided by barbed wire to protect residents from attack. In February 1948, the Palestine Post building was bombed and in April 1948, 77 Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital members were murdered when a convoy to Mount Scopus was attacked.
Food, sometimes water, too, became scarce. Convoys bringing supplies up to Jerusalem from the coastal plain were attacked by Arab guerrillas.
Jerusalem went into the War of Independence already partly divided — the Old City, for all practical purposes, was in Arab hands.
Jewish life behind the Old City walls had become untenable and the last remaining Jews — mostly Orthodox elderly people — were evacuated on May 27, 1948, on the eve of the city's fall to the Arabs.
Hilda Salomon Ferder Goldberg, 83
Where: Her living room, Jerusalem.
My father was assigned to be the American Express bureau chief in Palestine and my parents arrived, from England, in 1929 — just in time for the Arab riots.
Mummy told me that in those days she kept a pot of boiling oil on the stovetop. She'd been advised to pour the oil down on any mob that tried to storm the building.
The American Express offices were situated just inside the Jaffa Gate of the Old City. My father always carried a gun and kept another in his desk drawer.
He had Jewish and Arab employees.
The bookkeeper was a man named Aaron Bloch. He went on to marry a girl named Dora. When she was already a grandmother, she was murdered by Idi Amin's soldiers in Uganda in retaliation for Israel’s Entebbe rescue on July 4, 1976.
My parents lived on King George Street, not far from where the Great Synagogue now stands.
It was me, my parents, and my brother and sister.
I was born in 1931 in Palestine at Sharei Tzedek Hospital which was then on Jaffa Road.
I attended an English-language girls school – Evelina De Rothschild. In many ways it was a typical British girl's school. We wore uniforms and hats. And we also had Jewish religious studies. My parents sent me there because the language of instruction was English and they could speak to the teachers and principal in English. The school was then in Musrara near the Old City.
It was the first school for girls in Jerusalem and was paid for by the British Jewish banker Lionel Nathan de Rothschild. A few years ago, when I moved back to Israel, we had a school reunion party and many of the "old girls" turned out.
Outside of class, we spoke to one another in Hebrew but inside only in English.
The school had a rule: because of Arab-Jewish tensions, the girls could not participate in extracurricular activities outside the school compound.
It was an exciting time. As my father was the head of American Express, he mixed with the business and political elite of Jerusalem including the [first high commissioner for Palestine] Sir Herbert Samuel.
Even we children enjoyed visits to Government House — on the Hill of Evil Counsel.
There was a store frequented by ex-pats called Spinneys near the Russian Compound. I remember what a treat it was to go there. My parents would buy kippers [smoked fish] that had been delivered from London.
Every Friday, my mother made steak and kidney pie – kosher, of course!
There were three movie houses in Jerusalem: the Edison, Eden, and Zion. As a special treat, in 1937 I think, my mother took me out of school and we went to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — in Technicolor — which had arrived in Palestine.
Every day an Arab milkman delivered our order on a donkey.
There were not many cars in Jerusalem but daddy had a Dodge and an Arab driver. When daddy went through the Arab areas, the driver wore a ṭarbūsh [Turkish hat] and otherwise no hat at all.
Because of his position, we also had a telephone. I remember the number to this day: 5360.
Water shortages affected everyone. My mother had to recycle bath water to wash the floors. We had electricity though there were often outages.
Then, in 1948, daddy was re-assigned to Cairo. We remained there until 1950 when it became too dangerous and we moved back to England.
This article first appeared in Israel My Glory
Please cite both this blog and Israel My Glory magazine if quoted.