I took a trip down memory lane this week. It was a collective memory rather than a personal one, but the traveling was done in style. Jerusalem went to town commemorating the centennial of Gen. Edmund Henry Hynman Allenby’s entrance into the Holy City on December 11, 1917, marking the end of 400 years of Ottoman rule there.
The National Library of Israel at the Hebrew University’s Edmond J. Safra Campus at Givat Ram is running an exhibition titled “Where Balfour meets Allenby,” celebrating the double centenary of the British field marshal’s victory and the declaration that prepared the way for the establishment of the modern State of Israel.
The Tower of David Museum at David’s Citadel didn’t just mount an exhibition in Allenby’s honor, it put on a show – reenacting Allenby’s dramatic entrance to the city. This included his proclamation “To the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Blessed and the people dwelling in its vicinity” declaring martial law but promising “lest any of you be alarmed by reason of your experiences at the hands of the enemy who has retired...”
that everyone was free “to pursue his lawful business” and that the sites sacred to any of the three monotheistic religions would be protected.
The Tower of David exhibition is called “A General and a Gentleman: Allenby at the Gates of Jerusalem.”
They might have added that he was also a good son.
Among the exhibits is the letter he started writing his mother on December 7 (beginning in true British fashion with news of the “early rains”). On December 11 he wrote: “Today, I entered Jerusalem. I rode to the Jaffa Gate. There I dismounted.... On the steps of the Citadel a proclamation was read out, in many languages, to the assembled multitude. Then I received the Notables and Representatives of all the many Churches – Coptic, Armenian, Abyssinian, among others....”
The re-creation of that announcement was held at the same spot at the Tower of David. The original declaration marked the first time in modern history that Hebrew was used for an official pronouncement. This week, correcting a historical wrong, Armenian was added to the list of languages read out.
The assembled crowd included tourists and pilgrims, many of them taking selfies and zapping them around the globe with a touch on the screens of their cellphones.
Both the exhibition at the National Library and the one at the Tower of David contain pictures taken by soldiers in an era when photography was just becoming accessible to ordinary people. I wondered, not for the first time, what material will be available for future historians and curators, when selfies and electronic messages have vanished in cyberspace and time.
No journey down memory lane would be complete without a song from yesteryear. The background music at the Tower of David is the seminal “Jerusalem,” by William Blake, triggering my Pavlovian response to sing “And did those feet in ancient time, walk upon England’s mountains green?” “Jerusalem” serves almost as an anthem for Britain.
On a guided tour of the National Library exhibition, curator of the Israel collection Hezi Amiur noted that “Hava Nagila,” the song probably most identified with Israel and the Jewish people, was composed to celebrate the first anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and liberation of Jerusalem. The handwritten sheet of Avraham Zvi Idelson’s words with the musical notes of the hassidic tune is on display.
Both Amiur and curator Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, who showed a press tour around the Tower of David, pointed out that Allenby’s entry coincided with Hanukka, a few days after the Balfour Declaration, and two weeks ahead of Christmas, so that the terms “Hanukka miracle” and “Christmas present” were both used to describe the momentous event. The two exhibitions display a poster produced in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1918, depicting Judah Maccabee in 165 BCE and Allenby in 1917 as men who redeemed the Holy City. Allenby was also seen as a modern (less bloodthirsty) Richard the Lionheart.
There are many myths surrounding the Allenby episode.
The tale that the keys to the city – The City – were handed over by mayor Hussein Salim al-Husseini to two British cooks is not true, I discovered. But it served the purpose of having humble soldiers in the story.
Also, Shalev-Khalifa noted that some crucial photos taken by Swedish photographer Lars Larsson had been destroyed as they did not serve the British narrative.
As David Ben-Gurion reportedly said: “Anyone who believes you can’t change history has never tried to write his memoirs.”
Although many see Allenby’s decision to enter the Old City on foot purely as a sign of his humility, and belief that only the Messiah should ride into Jerusalem, it seems likely that he was also influenced by his desire to do the exact opposite of his arch-enemy, Kaiser Wilhelm, who entered in his carriage with great effort almost 20 years earlier.
Something that is tragically clear at both exhibitions is the dire state of Jerusalem under Turkish rule by the time the British arrived. The population was sick and starving. Women from respectable homes had been forced into prostitution to provide for their children.
“Night after night the city sighed as if its pulse was fading away, weaker and weaker, night after night. And with it sighed every nation and every people in the Holy City,” read one report.
It is easy to see why Allenby was praised and blessed as a savior.
The National Library exhibition is sponsored by the Porter Foundation, and Dame Shirley Porter brought together four generations for the opening, emphasizing the family’s strong British roots, their ties to the First World War period, along with being proud Zionists who live in Israel.
The reenactment was attended by the current Lord Allenby, Viscount Henry J.H. Allenby of Megiddo and Felixstowe, who is the great-great-nephew of the famous field marshal, and Sara Viscountess Allenby, whose late husband was the third viscount.
Despite their impressive titles, and obvious family pride, both mother and son said they were surprised by the amount of attention they had received during their trip, which was the viscount’s first visit to Israel. The viscount, who owns a woodland management company, admitted his “passion” is trees and hedgerows.
Later, I noticed that his famous forebear had enthusiastically written to his mother of the various flowers he had seen along with the biblical places he had passed, before adding “The populace was apparently glad to see us.”
Also at the event was John Benson, the great-grandson of Maj.-Gen. Sir John Stuart McKenzie Shea, who commanded the 60th Division in Palestine and received the keys to the City of Jerusalem. Benson, a keen amateur historian also on his first visit to Israel, was impressed by seeing firsthand just how much history can be found here, stretching back over the millennia.
As Eilat Lieber, director and chief curator of the Tower of David Museum, put it: “When we talk about a hundred years in Jerusalem, it’s like yesterday.”
The VIP visitors were careful to avoid questions on politics, no mean feat when it comes to Israel and Jerusalem.
Curator Shalev-Khalifa noted that the same event can be interpreted in different ways. Was the British arrival in Jerusalem a conquest, occupation or liberation? “I prefer liberation,” she said. And since the exhibition focuses on the dramatic first few days of British rule, when residents of all three faiths were temporarily united in hope, that’s understandable.
In the holiday season, a century on, there is still good reason to sing: “Hava nagila!” “Let’s rejoice!”
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