Jerusalem Contested

The Holy City changed hands many times before the War of Independence.


In 70 C.E. the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, ending Jewish sovereignty for almost two millennia. Jerusalem remained a Roman city until 638 A.D., when it was captured by the Muslims, who remained in power for over 500 years.  During the Crusades, which began in 1096, Christian Crusaders entered Jerusalem, proclaiming it the capital of their kingdom and massacring the Jews and Muslims who defended the city. It was reconquered in the 13th century by Arab Saracens, who held it until it was conquered by the Turks in 1517. While considered second-class citizens, Jews and Christians under Ottoman rule were nonetheless granted considerable autonomy in religious matters, enabling the Jews to reassert the importance of Jerusalem in Jewish religious life. Between 1830 and 1870, the Jewish population of Jerusalem doubled, and by 1914 it had tripled, mostly due to religiously motivated Jewish immigration.  By 1914 the Jews constituted a majority of the population. 

The British Mandate

In October 1914 the Ottoman Empire entered World War I on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary, and in November the Ottomans abolished the capitulation treaties, which had permitted foreign nationals residing in Ottoman lands to be judged according to the laws of their own countries. The Allies, meanwhile, set about creating a theoretical post-war distribution of Ottoman lands. During this period of uncertainty the British hedged their diplomatic bets, making promises not only to their French allies but to the Arabs and the Jews in the region as well as well. The Zionists, committed to securing a Jewish homeland in Palestine, also engaged both sides. While some, like Chaim Weizman, sought to build partnerships with the British, others worked to persuade Berlin of the justice of the Zionist cause. When the dust settled in 1917, however, the British were in charge of Jerusalem, and it was clear that they had no intention of leaving or sharing power.

old city of jerusalemThe Paris Peace Conference of 1919 awarded the British mandatory authority over Palestine, with the charge of implementing the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which supported the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.  Promising to respect the interests of all the religions in Jerusalem, Britain upheld the status quo of 1852–an agreement regarding custodianship of various Christian holy places formalized in 1852–extending it to refer to the Western Wall as well. Despite British efforts at impartiality the mandatory government was accused (by all parties) of taking sides, and anger and frustration steadily grew. Over the course of the next three decades, Jerusalem would become a hotbed of rebellion.

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Lili Kalish Gersch was Managing Editor of

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