Fighting for a Jewish Jerusalem

Ephraim Even has compiled a compelling history of the Jerusalem Municipality in the late Ottoman era and afterward, particularly during 1917-1948.

Jerusalem, 1940 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Jerusalem, 1940
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Today, we often take the Jerusalem Municipality and its mayor for granted, and for the most part, we all have a say in the town’s steady progress and development.
But the situation was strikingly different before 1948.
Ephraim Even has compiled a compelling history of the Jerusalem Municipality in the late Ottoman era and afterward, particularly during 1917-1948. Just published in Hebrew by the Ariel Research Center for Defense and Communications, The Jerusalem Municipality 1917-1948: Jews and Arabs sheds new light on the struggle for Jerusalem municipal rights, spearheaded by early pioneers such as F.H. Kisch, Haim Arlosoroff, Moshe Sharett and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. It also details the combined forces pitted against them: the sizable Arab minority, heavily supported by the biased and largely anti-Semitic British Mandatory administration.
This period was highlighted by Ben-Zvi, the country’s second president, who regretted that the Hagana Memorial Book failed to do full justice to these Jewish pioneers who succeeded, after a prolonged struggle, in winning proper standing within the municipality – and did so despite the fact that the mayor had always been an Arab due to the skillful electioneering tactics that the Mandate authorities enacted, on instructions from London.
The “corruption, bribery and thievery” on which the Jerusalem Municipality was based in those days, was, according to David Ben-Gurion, “the most shameful story in the history of the Yishuv.” The country’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, concurred, once describing Jerusalem as “a city of filth and disgrace, the home of physical and moral degeneracy, the shabby dwelling of a corrupt Arab municipality.”
It was under such difficult conditions that Jews fought for their municipal rights, and their ultimate success contributed to the Yishuv’s standing, morale and victory when a fully Jewish municipality was established in a divided town in 1948.
The author received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Hebrew University and wrote a number of books on the Jewish state’s capital, where he served on the Municipal Names Committee and as chairman of the General Zionist Council, and was editor of the quarterly Ha’uma. It was through this extensive, 600-page research that he earned a PhD at the University of Haifa.
JEWS SUFFERED under the corrupt Ottoman administration. Despite the fact that they were the town’s majority, the mayor was always Muslim – and he had the last word. Municipal council members like Abraham Yellin worked hard to protect the interests of the Jewish community, but it was an uphill battle against rampant corruption and discrimination.
In 1917, Gen. Edmund Allenby and his troops took Jerusalem without firing a single shot. A new era began, but the discrimination against Jews remained institutionalized, even though they were still by far the city’s majority: Some 33,000 Jews resided in the city that year, compared to 14,000 Muslims and 14,000 Christians.
The first mayors – Hussein Selim Effendi al-Husseini, Musa Kazim al-Husseini, and Rageb Nashashibi – had full British official support. The municipal council had one Muslim representative, two Christians and two Jews: Itzhak Shirion (Zalkind) and Itzhak Eliashar.
British policy divided the city’s inhabitants by religion, not nationality. Jews had to fight for recognition of Hebrew as an official language, for their right to be employed at the municipality, to participate in and win municipal tenders, and above all, to have municipal income and expense ledgers available to them in Hebrew.
The British had also set up difficult voting conditions for Jews: Only 4,392 Jews were able to participate in the first municipal election in 1926, against the combined forces of 2,825 Muslims and 1,586 Christians. Jews were handicapped by the fact that only those who had held Ottoman citizenship in 1925 were able to vote, and many preferred to retain, for a variety of reasons, their former citizenships; those who arrived by “illegal” means could not participate, either.
What was most important for the Jewish community in this election, however, was that for the first time, the Agudat Israel faction agreed to vote together with Zionists on the same list. Four Jews became councillors, but they were easily outvoted by the five Muslims and three Christians on the 12-man council.
There were better results in the 1934 election, in which 51,418 Jews voted against 19,735 Arabs, 19,180 Christians and 76 “others.” Six Jewish elected councilors then faced six Arabs – but the mayor, who had the decisive vote, had to be a Muslim.
The oppressive rule of mayor Rageb Nashashibi, which had begun in 1920, finally ended in 1935. He had two deputy mayors, one Jewish and one Arab. During a visit to London he was temporarily, albeit ably, replaced by his Jewish deputy mayor Daniel Auster, arousing Arab animosity. On his return, Nashashibi faced steadily growing Arab nationalism, together with the rising power of his Muslim deputy mayor, Dr. Hussein al-Khalidi, who had the support of notorious Jerusalem mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini. Finally Khalidi replaced Nashashibi, and after the British exiled Khalidi following disturbances and violence, and three Arab members failed to participate in the council’s deliberations, Mandate authorities appointed their own Jerusalem municipal commission in July 1945 – in which three consecutive British mayors were assisted by one Jewish and one Arab deputy mayor.
On December 31, 1947, on the eve of the War of Independence, the Mandatory government decided to split the municipality into separate Jewish and Arab municipalities. The new, distinct Jewish municipality opened its offices opposite the police post in the vicinity of Mahaneh Yehuda, in what is now the Health Department building; it started its run smoothly, with Auster presiding over it.
This was a crowning achievement for the Jews after long years of struggle for fairness and independence, and the new Jewish municipality made a major contribution to the community’s welfare during the difficult days of the 1948 war.
Even’s extensive and meticulous research takes us from one municipal council meeting to another, discloses behind-the-scenes negotiations and familiarizes us with numerous brave Jews who stood fast in their fight against dark forces of corruption – making Jerusalem the Holy City we enjoy today.
This book is a fascinating account of an integral part of our national history.