Middle Israel: Partition at 60: The view from Mamilla

"Free ice cream in Tel Aviv," read a Palestine Post headline the following day.

israel flag 88 (photo credit: )
israel flag 88
(photo credit: )
Most Middle Israelis had yet to be born at the time, but they feel as if they were there, among the thousands of soon-to-be Israelis who abruptly abandoned the radios to which they had been glued and took to the streets dancing, singing and toasting as news broke that the UN voted to partition Palestine 60 years ago this weekend. "Free ice cream in Tel Aviv," read a Palestine Post headline the following day, while Haaretz reported that in Jerusalem, synagogues opened at 3 a.m. and were soon filled with worshipers, many of whom sung the celebratory Hallel as others blew the shofar outside chief rabbi Isaac Herzog's home in Rehavia. "Religious and secular people danced in the streets together" and by dawn "all Jerusalem was awake. British cops and soldiers joined the general rejoicing, drank to the Jewish state's life, and even joined the hora dancers," while Jews in east London waved "the Zionist flag" atop their houses. In the middle of its front page, just above a story scolding the BBC for having reported "fantasies that the vote at the UN was conducted under pressure and that the large audience at hand demonstrated its predominantly Jewish character by applauding the resolution's adoption," Haaretz waxed poetic: "Let this historic hour stand for generations' memories... our enemies' maneuvers did not help... The nations of the world have decided to correct a two-thousand-year injustice. The heart has yet to fathom the full meaning of this great gospel. The head spins. The quest of a persecuted people, experienced with torment and Holocaust unprecedented throughout history - is fast coming true. "Let's also remember at this time the enlightened nations... who have lent a shoulder for the sake of the law of justice, for the only people without a land. The nation's dream of generations... has become reality, the dream - a miracle... The gospel is resonating around the world. The Hebrew nation has heard it throughout the Diaspora... Zion shall be redeemed in justice - and the nations' justice has been granted to Zion!" Yet Zion's redemption would soon prove elusive. The violence began just hours after the vote, when Arab gunmen stormed a bus on its way to Jerusalem from Netanya, killing five passengers. Technically, those shots opened Israel's War of Independence. Still, those killings did not constitute a strategic blow to the two-state vision. That was first dealt December 2, when an Arab mob stormed Jerusalem's commercial center, named after the neighborhood in which it was built: Mamilla. DEVELOPED BY the British in the 1920s, and lying roughly between Jaffa Gate and today's Hebrew Union College and Hutzot Hayotzer gallery row, Mandatory Jerusalem's modest business district's planners had a vision. As if to counter Suleiman the Magnificent's project four centuries earlier, which restored Jerusalem's grandeur but kept it walled and remote, the British set out to expand, modernize and connect Jerusalem to the outer world while promoting harmony among its inhabitants. The commercial center, like the nearby YMCA and King David Hotel, was meant to serve as an east-west linchpin, which it indeed was, attracting Jewish and Arab shoppers and merchants who mingled and interacted daily in the stone-framed furniture salons, textile shops and auto-repair shops at the mouth of the Valley of Hinnom. But that was yesterday. Now was December 2, 1947, 9:30 a.m., and Arab rioters were approaching the commercial center from two directions: "One," reported Haaretz, "came from Jaffa Gate, the other from Damascus Gate. The two groups, which numbered several thousand people each, including children, youths and adults, met by Barclays Bank [opposite today's Dan Pearl Hotel] and began breaking and smashing nearby Jewish stores... they continued down St. Louis Street [toward today's Rehov Agron]... British police at hand did not stop the rioters... the Arab rioters arrived at the commercial center [meaning they took a left just before today's David Citadel Hotel] and there, at the orders of several Arab youngsters who seemed like commanders directing the riots, began to break into shops, smash and burn the stores and their contents, overturn cars and set them on fire." Haaretz was not sure to what extent the upheaval was premeditated. It said some of its leaders were heard ordering the attackers to refrain from looting, but looting ensued anyhow, as well as extensive stoning of cars and stabbings of passersby, including Haaretz correspondent Asher Lazar, who was severely wounded. In all, 40 Jewish stores were destroyed, including the legendary Rex movie theater - where today's Ahim Israel furniture passage stands - which was torched "consuming its furniture and roof as well as the Arab garage in its rear, owned by Adiv Bamiya." Yet as darkness fell and store owners cleared what merchandise they could salvage from the debris and as hospitals treated the victims, it emerged that its primary damage was neither medical nor financial, but urban. The attack on the commercial center was effective. Most businesses left Mamilla, as Jerusalem's British-made linchpin went up in smoke. Now, too, Arabs and Jews would meet here, but this time as snipers, bombers and sappers. The streets once filled with shoppers now gave way to crude, bulletproof cement walls. The apartments once inhabited by the bourgeoisie became slums, and the Tower of David, which only yesterday proudly presided over a little cosmopolitan oasis, now surveyed the parched no-man's-land that emerged below it, its face second in its madness only to its builder Herod's the day he executed his beloved wife Mariamme. UNDERSTANDABLY, then, soon after Jerusalem's reunification mayor Teddy Kollek set out to restore Mamilla - physically and spiritually. Led by architect Moshe Safdie, the Mamilla restoration project was controversial in every possible way: esthetically, socially, administratively, religiously, economically - you name it. Some lamented the relocation of its poor residents, others its massive dimensions, some decried its secularism, others its ostentation. No wonder its completion, now imminent, took 40 years to arrive. Yet arrive it has, and now thousands stroll daily through the elegantly restored shops that were looted that fateful day back in '47, sipping lattes in its bustling cafes, scanning Tommy Hilfiger sweaters, Rolex watches and Nike sneakers and listening to a street band before proceeding into the Old City through the newly built plaza that now links Mamilla to Jaffa Gate. True, the original vision - that Mamilla would once again bring together not only the sections, but also its disparate communities - remains frustrated. But 60 years on, the '47 rioters' effort, like the entire anti-partition vision, looms frustrated sevenfold. As Teddy himself once told me, referring to the thousands of flowers with which he dotted Jerusalem: "I hoped they would make Jews, Arabs and Christians be nicer to each other - but if that wouldn't work, then at least we'll have the flowers."