May 13, 2007

Book Review: Jerusalem Before Israel

From Jerusalem Before Israel:

The Ottoman occupation of Jerusalem in the 16th century until the early 20th was often marked by peaceful coexistence: Twice a year, Jews, Muslims, and Christians celebrated together at the shrine of Simon the Just, a popular biblical figure. Trying to pinpoint the moment when he realized that that the Israel-Arab conflict was inevitable, David Ben-Gurion, who became Israel's first prime minister, said it was the day in 1915 that he sat on a train waiting to leave Jerusalem at the order of Ahmed Djemal, the city's Ottoman ruler, who banished many known Zionist activists from the city. Ben-Gurion had tried to turn himself into an Ottoman - studying Turkish, attending law school in Constantinople, trying to organize a Jewish legion to fight on behalf of the Ottoman Empire in the war, and even donning a red fez. But all these gestures had been to no avail, for at the end of the day, Djemal had looked at him and seen not an Ottoman but an advocate for a future Jewish state, and had him jailed in Jerusalem.

Upon his release from jail, he was exiled to Alexandria. Later, in his books and memoirs, he recalled vividly a particular moment on the train, when an Arab acquaintance of his, whom he called Yeya Effendi, walked by and saw him waiting to leave. The men embraced, exchanged news and greetings, and then Yeya Effendi asked him where he was going.

"Ben-Gurion told him that he was being exiled, ordered never to return to Jerusalem. Yeya Effendi held him in the embrace of a true friend, mourning his loss of their shared city. Then he looked at Ben-Gurion and said something that Ben-Gurion pondered for the entire train ride to Alexandria. 'As your friend, I am sad,' Yeya Effendi told him. 'But as an Arab, I rejoice.'

- excerpted from Jerusalem 1913.