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In response to:

Jerusalem: The Future of the Past from the August 17, 1989 issue

To the Editors:

Amos Elon’s article, “Jerusalem: The Future of the Past,” opens with a useful brief synopsis of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century socialist-Zionist attitudes to Jerusalem. But even in its opening columns the article is skewed by Elon’s neglect of the rich history of religious Zionist yearning and striving for Jerusalem. Ben Gurion’s statement to Monsignor MacMahon of the Vatican, which Elon quotes, is also very much to the point here. “…. Jerusalem was Israel’s capital a thousand years before the birth of Christianity.” Jews most assuredly did not return to Jerusalem in order to spite the Pope, local Arabs, or Amos Elon.

I want to correct a factual error and add another perspective on the relations between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem and at the Hebrew University in particular. Elon writes: “In 1988 there were about a thousand Arab students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. All were Israeli Arabs, mostly from Galilee; not a single Palestinian student from East Jerusalem was attending the University.” In 1988 I personally had two Arab students from East Jerusalem in my M.A. seminar of 10 students, a seminar on Middle English literature. At one point, with the intafada gaining momentum, the attendance of these two students became sporadic. This became especially problematic as their turn came around for doing required class presentations on the topic of their proposed final seminar paper. When I spoke to them about this, asking if curfews or police roadblocks were preventing them from coming to class, they both explained to me, with evident pain and frustration, that it wasn’t the Israelis who were responsible for their absences from class, but rather their fear of having their cars or homes burned by their Arab neighbors; for in attending a course on Chaucer and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at the Hebrew University they were guilty of “consorting with the Zionist enemy.” In 1988 there were a further half-dozen or more Arab students in the English department of the Hebrew University. Several had obtained first degrees at Bir Zeit, Bethlehem, and other West Bank universities. There were probably others I did not know about. Elon’s statement to the contrary is simply not correct.

Lawrence Besserman
Director, Office of Academic Affairs
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Amos Elon replies:

Donald Neff confuses the inclusion within Israel in 1948 of the Western (Jewish) half of divided Jerusalem with the issue of making West Jerusalem Israel’s capital. Latter-day Israeli intransigence sometimes makes even knowledgeable people nowadays forget—or wish to repress retrospectively—the crucial fact that Israel originally accepted the internationalization of Jerusalem as well as the establishment of a Palestinian state. Israel abandoned its support of internationalization only in the aftermath of the failed attempt by Jordanian and Egyptian expeditionary forces to bleed to death and conquer West Jerusalem in the war of 1948. After that war until 1967 every Israeli government without exception recognized and was reconciled with the principle and practice of partition in Jerusalem as well as in Palestine as a whole. The secret deliberations of the Israeli government between 1948 and 1951 are now open to the public and fully bear out the contention that nobody in power during the first nineteen months of the state thought that West Jerusalem should be Israel’s capital. I should consider the material available in the archive more reliable than what a US minister in Lebanon may have thought at the time, or what Donald Neff thinks was true forty years later. The points raised by Lawrence Besserman are extensively dealt with in other chapters of my forthcoming book, Jerusalem: City of Mirrors—the piece published in the August 17 issue consisted mainly of the concluding chapter of that book. I don’t know who Besserman’s two (!) “sporadic” students are. I base myself on a statement by the official spokesman of the Hebrew University that no Palestinians from East Jerusalem attended that institution in the academic year 1988.

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