Oh Jerusalem! My Family, My History

To me, Jerusalem should never be exclusively possessed by any single religion. It is a shared treasure , and the desire to possess it totally has always led to disaster.

Every year since I was child I've been coming to Jerusalem, and as a historian, I dreamed all my life of writing a new sort of history about the city, a biography no less - an account of Jerusalem from the reign of King David to the days of Barack Obama.

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Montefiore's windmill


Zion is almost in my blood. That is true for every Jew, of course, but the tradition of the Montefiore family in Jerusalem has made my connection especially intense. We are an Anglo-Jewish family, but a part of us is Jerusalemite, a heritage we were able to appreciate after 1967 when given the chance to visit Mishkenot and Yemin Moshe, which
became such beautiful neighborhoods. My family crest is simple: the word Yerushalayim scrawled over a lion of Judah.

My ancestor, Sir Moses Montefiore, visited the city seven times, more than probably any
other European visitor. He altered the development of the city by founding his own suburb in 1860. He brought a bit of England to Jerusalem with his Kentish Montefiore windmill and his Montefiore cottages, with their crenelated mock-Gothic battlements that oddly resemble a suburban English golf club house.

I am proud of this ancestor, a courageous and tireless protector of the rights of Jews worldwide against oppression. He changed the face of the Holy City forever.

It is less known that Sir Moses Montefiore also brought a bit of Jerusalem back to England. His tomb in Ramsgate, Kent is a white, domed marble mausoleum, a replica of Rachel's Tomb. He and his wife are buried in Jerusalem soil.

When he built this, Sir Moses owned an estate there, where he created his own private synagogue and rabbinical college. The mansion is now gone, having burnt down in the 1930s. The synagogue survives, as does the tomb, but both are surrounded by new housing estates. It is a sad sight.

I hope that one day Sir Moses Montefiore will be buried again, this time in Jerusalem, on Mount Herzl or at Mishkenot beside his windmill. Sir Moses had two homes, both in England and in Jerusalem. I propose that somehow Israel bring him home. Indeed, not only did Sir Moses adopt Yerushalayim as his family motto, but he inscribed it on everything he owned - his silver cutlery, his carriage, even his bed.

As we grew up, the Montefiore tradition was very much a part of our life. Our family itself was a strange mixture of posh English and traditional Jewish. Our seder nights were wonderfully formal, very Victorian, all the family grandees in bowler hats and stiff white shirts, we children sitting in nervous silence.

My grandfather was a typical posh Englishman: Colonel Eric Sebag-Montefiore, an army officer nicknamed Colonel Blood for his splenetic temper, roaring voice, bullet-like bald head, 6'4' stature, ginger moustaches, wearing a red-coated Master of Foxhounds. He was typical of the English gentry, except that he was Jewish. At the seder, he always read out the letter that Sir Moses wrote upon his return from his first visit to Jerusalem, where he described the storm that almost destroyed his ship until he threw a piece of the afikoman into the sea.

Sir Moses was a family saint, but we mischievous children were weary of hearing about the perfection of this Victorian paragon who we called 'Sir Mo.' His private papers were destroyed by his heir, a nephew of Moroccan descent, Sir Joseph Sebag-Montefiore, but new research (gathered by his excellent biographer Dr Abigail Green) has revealed that like every Victorian magnate, he had a secret life: at the age of 81 Sir Moses adulterously fathered an illegitimate son with a 16-year-old maid, a fact that has shocked the elder generation, but made him more human to the younger.

I have been lucky to have access to all sorts of Montefiore papers, including those of Major Geoffrey Sebag-Montefiore, the British chief of police in Jerusalem in 1917-18, whose reports to Allenby usually read "CITY QUIET: VD RAMPANT."

The Montefiores, like the Rothschilds, were split on their stance on Zionism. Moses Montefiore was a Zionist before the word was invented, but his nephew Claude Montefiore led the 1917 campaign against the Balfour Declaration. During the 1980s, my brother Adam, a distinguished wine expert and development director of Carmel winery, made aliyah and now lives near Tel Aviv. He is the first of the Montefiores to become Israeli.

I expected to find in my research thousands of histories about Jerusalem. But I have not. Yes, there are many books on Jerusalem in the 20th century, but surprisingly few are full accounts, and none are as I wanted to tell it.

I have been an historian of Russia, of Catherine the Great and of Stalin. But as Benjamin Disraeli, another visitor to Jerusalem, once said: "When I want to read a book, I write it". I decided to do the same.

I have called my history of Jerusalem a "biography" because each epoch is told through the lives of the people who made or destroyed Jerusalem. The cast ranges from King Solomon, Cleopatra, Simon Bar-Kochba and Saladin to Churchill, Herzl, Netanyahu and
Arafat, from Abraham and Moses to Jesus and Mohammed. Cities are forged by families over generations, so this is also a biography of families - of the Herodians, the Maccabees, the Rothschilds, the Ummayads, the Hashemites, the Husseinis, the Nashashibis and the Spaffords. I have written it for the general reader, be they secular or religious, Jewish, Christian or Muslim.

In Jerusalem, the role of the writer is as vital as those of soldiers and priests. Writing this book has been a joyful education and the book is as literary as it is religious or military. In preparing it, I rad the Bible and Koran, the histories of Josephus and Tacitus, the poetry of Judah Halevi and Judah Harizi, the philosophy of Maimonides, the Arab travelogues of Ibn Batutta and Muqadassi, the remarkable works of the Arab chevalier of the Crusades - Osama ibn Munqidh - and the Crusader bishop William of Tyre. I pored over the astonishing Ottoman works of the greatest ever travel writer, Evliya, and the diaries of Moses and Judith Montefiore. I perused the novels of Disraeli, Gogol, Melville, Twain and Flaubert, and read through the memoirs of Lawrence of Arabia, Rasputin, the British Governor of Jerusalem Sir Ronald Storrs, Kings Abullah and Hussein, Arab Legion commander John Glubb, as well as those of the Israeli leaders Weizmann, Dayan and Sharon.

I read the works of the wonderful modern writer, Amos Oz, who has encouraged me so much in this project (and with whom I spoke about Jerusalem at the 2010 literary festival in Mishkenot), and studied the writings of Palestinians, including the philosopher Sari Nusseibeh and his relative, ex-Jordanian-Foreign-Minister Hazem Nusseibeh. I especially loved the diaries of the Jerusalemite oud player, fixer for the Palestinian families and aesthete, Wasif Jawhariyyeh: His work is a towering masterpiece of Palestinian - and Jerusalemite - literature, the outstanding chronicle of the city in the first half of the 20th century.

"The view of Jerusalem," wrote Disraeli, "is the history of the world; it is more; it is the history of heaven and earth." So this is a portrait of Jerusalem in history - and a history of the world too.

An ambitious idea? It has been the most challenging, daunting - and most rewarding - project of my life. It was a labor of love. My wife (who converted to Judaism and who I brought to Jerusalem, a city she loves, as soon as she became Jewish) says I have long suffered from the city's peculiar strain of madness, the Jerusalem Syndrome. But then, every book must be a work of obsession.

One of the joys of this project has been the opportunity to meet and spend time with archaeologists, scholars, characters from every side, Palestinians and Israelis, Greeks, Armenians, Ethiopians, Copts, Latins and Haredim. But one of the tragedies of Jerusalem is that each race, each creed, each sect believes only in its own history and disdains those of the others. Each brought me their own stories and traditions.

No city arouses such a hunger for absolute possession, such cruel intolerance as Jerusalem does. A city that can never even agree on its past can scarcely face its future. My book chronicles the unbroken Jewish heritage of, contact with and yearning for, the city over 3,000 years.

It is a joyful thing to me that Jews can now worship in total freedom at the Western Wall, for the first time in modern history. Jerusalem is the Jewish city but it is also the Palestinian city, as Islamic as it is Jewish and Christian.

To me, Jerusalem should never be exclusively possessed by any single religion. It is a shared treasure - I call it the Universal City because it is essentially cosmopolitan. The desire to possess it totally has always led to disaster. Any measures that are prejudiced against any of its peoples are wrong.

I still dream of a Jerusalem as the Jewish city but my dream also recognizes that it is also thebiggest Palestinian city. The ancient Arab, Muslim, Orthodox and Armenian communities must remain a part of Jerusalem. Both Jews and Muslims have impeccable historical claims to the city. To make peace, each must recognize the heritage, the history and the modern tragedies of the other. If my book helps even a little in this, I will be happy.

Jerusalem: The Biography, by Simon Sebag Montefiore, is available in
English, and will be published in Hebrew in 2012.