My love affair with the city of peace and conflict

By Simon Sebag Montefiore, February 3, 2011
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In the recent leaked papers about the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Jerusalem is central - always the universal city, the capital of David, Solomon, the Maccabees and Herod, the Holy one, Yerushalaim and al-Quds, the cradle of the three Abrahamic faiths, prize of empires, the setting for the Apocalypse, the heart of Judaism, centre of the world - and vital in 2011 more than ever.

The papers reveal the agony of peace talks. In 2007/8, the Palestinians secretly offered reasonably to share Jerusalem. The British press and much of the Arab media gleefully presented this as a Palestinian betrayal of their own people and as evidence that Israel is not interested in real peace.

This is misleading. Compromise is not betrayal; it is practical politics allowing both peoples to live normal lives. And these revelations can show both sides the sort of compromises necessary. In fact, these secret Palestinian offers are almost identical to those offered by Israeli Prime Ministers Rabin in 1993, Barak in 2000 and Olmert in 2008/9, all of which were rejected by the Palestinians. The tragedy is that sensible ideas by one side are offered at the wrong time for the other.

The media criticism suggests that fashionable British pundits covertly do not really want a two-state compromise. The Palestinians were criticised for calling the city "Yerushalaim" in Hebrew - but this was not "grovelling" as the Guardian called it. On the contrary, in order to make peace, the Israelis must discuss and respect Al-Quds; the Palestinians must respect Yerushalaim. That is one of the reasons I have written my book on Jerusalem: my mission is partly to argue that each side must know and respect the narrative, heritage and tragedies of the other side. Without this, peace is impossible.

In Hebrew literature, Jerusalem is a beautiful woman

In 2011, Jerusalem sits in the red-hot glare of the most intense 24-hour-news scrutiny on earth and in the cross hairs of all the great conflicts: Secularism versus Faith; Islamic fundamentalism vs Western Enlightenment. Democracy vs tyranny. Israel vs Hamas and Hizbollah, America vs Iran. Jerusalem has rarely been as significant as she is today.

I describe Jerusalem in the feminine because, in Hebrew literature, the city is always a beautiful woman, sometimes worldly princess, rejected mistress, flawless virgin. The story of Jerusalem is the history of the world: in this case, the Hollywood cliché is merited - this is the greatest story ever told. I wanted to write a history of the city that can be read by anyone, through the lives of kings, empresses, conquerors, prophets and whores. My Jerusalem is also a saga of many families…

I have wanted to write this book since I was a child visiting the city partly because of a now-obscure family connection: in 1860, the Victorian baronet and Jewish philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore, my great-great uncle, founded the new city of Jerusalem outside the walls when he built a small Montefiore Quarter and Kentish Windmill near the Jaffa Gate.

He visited seven times, probably more than any other Westerner in the 19th Century. When we were children, at our wonderful, huge family Seder-nights, my formidable grandfather, Colonel Eric Sebag-Montefiore (known as Colonel Blood) used to read a letter written by Sir Moses that told how on his sea-voyage back from Jerusalem, he thought he was going to die in a storm until he threw the afikomen from his haggadah into the sea which then became pacific. We children were bored by the endless reverent praise of "Sir Mo" as a Victorian family saint but now I've studied him, I'm proud of this brave, tireless champion of Jewish rights across the world. The revelation that, at 81, he fathered an illegitimate child with a teenaged maid only makes him more human. Thanks to him, "Jerusalem" is our family motto.

I long dreamed of writing an accessible history of the city from King David to Barack Obama, an even-handed history. It is made easier by the fact that I adore the Arab history - featuring fascinating titans such as Abd al-Malik, the caliph who built the Dome of the Rock, and Saladin - just as much I relish the Maccabees and the Herods.

The modern history is complex: I consulted both Israeli and Palestinian officials as well as the great Palestinian dynasties and old Jewish families to get the correct balance. As a historian, my aim is to tell the truth as much as is possible, not please one side or the other. When Ronald Storrs, Jerusalem's British Governor, told Lloyd George that both Zionists and Palestinians were attacking him, the PM replied: "Well if either side stops complaining, I'll sack you!" It's the same with this book.

I love Jerusalem, Jewish Jerusalem with the beloved Kotel, but also Islamic, Arab, Armenian, Coptic, Catholic, Orthodox Jerusalem, and if this book, in its small way, encourages old enemies to respect and understand the ancient heritage of each other, then I will be happy.

Simon Sebag Montefiore will speak about his new book 'Jerusalem: The Biography' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) at Jewish Book Week

    Last updated: 2:09pm, February 3 2011