Empire by Division: Power Transition Proves Critical to Future Conflict

Lynne Rogers


From Empire to Empire
By Abigail Jacobson
Syracuse University Press,  2011, 262 pages

In “From Empire to Empire,” Abigail Jacobson analyzes the social tapestry of Jerusalem during the city’s transition from Ottoman Rule to the British Mandate between 1912 and 1920,. By focusing on the urban dynamic during this particular shift of “interimperialism,” Jacobson hopes “to move beyond the well-known and oversimplified religious categories of Muslim-Christians-Jews, or the ethno-national” and “offer another form of analysis for this important and fascinating city.” She shows that the relations between these groups, their own internal tensions, and the foreign intervention (particularly from the American relief efforts during this time period) not only created sensitivities at that time but also laid the foundations for many modern complications.

 Jacobson uses Ottoman conscription records, the diaries of the celebrated Palestinian educator, Khalil al-Sakakini and Ihsan Tourjman, as well as Hebrew newspapers to examine the hardships of civilian life both during the war and subsequently under Ottoman Gemal Pasha. In doing so, she gauges the changing dynamics of Jerusalem throughout the period. Even with the backdrop of a serious famine, a locust epidemic, a sea blockade, a rise in food prices, and an absence of civil services (closed banks, schools and post offices), Ottoman citizens initially saw themselves as part of a single unit. Supporting the conscription of all males within the city, one Sephardic Jew commented, “All the people of this country are as one man.” But as the war progressed, the sense of unity decreased and individual efforts to avoid conscription rose. The Ottoman Army began to distinguish between conscripts by sending Muslims to the front and non-Muslims to desert work camps that lacked adequate food and water supplies. The war efforts also began to reflect the city’s differing political and ethnic religious dynamics. Differences between the Sephardic, Ashkenazi, and Oriental Jews, which were intensified by the burgeoning Zionist movement and socio-economic class it produced, varied in their approach and perception of the “Arab problem.”

Jacobson uses newspapers and diplomatic letters to illustrate British concern surrounding General Allenby’s entrance into Jerusalem, reflecting the occupying country’s desire to be seen as a secular force. Nevertheless, she says, “British officials clearly divided the population of Palestine according to three religions,” with the “basic premises of status quo…violated following the publication of the Balfour Declaration and the arrival and activity of the Zionist Commission in Palestine.” Thus, Jacobson begins to unearth the ugly story of the shifting of alliances that continues today. While some scholars may find Jacobson’s work hesitant, she presents a fascinating array of sources, re-examines a crucial eight-year period of Middle Eastern history, and offers an innovative approach to the history of Jerusalem.


This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 17, no. 64

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