On the basis of her 2007 study Jerusalem 1913: The Origins of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Amy Dockser Marcus, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, was invited to be a consultant on the PBS Special “Roots of Conflict” that premiered June 30 of this year. After reviewing the PBS Special, I felt obligated to read Marcus’ book, and am glad that I did.
Marcus’ thesis in Jerusalem 1913, which is echoed in the PBS documentary, is that Arabs, Jews, and Christians lived in relative harmony in Jerusalem in 1913, but that harmony was irrevocably upset by the Zionist movement and its drive to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. She tells her story through several individuals, each of whom sees the impending crisis, and though powerless to stop it, offers their vision to restore the prior equanimity.
One might criticize her concentration on Jerusalem at the expense of the entire region. Marcus had spent summers in Jerusalem as a child and was the Wall Street Journal’s Jerusalem correspondent in the 1990s. Yet, while extremely important to the big picture, the story of the conflict cannot be confined to Jerusalem, a city that is unique in dozens of ways as a result of its longevity and its honored place in three religions. Focusing on Jerusalem, she fails to point out the extent to which much of the land settled by the Zionists had been undeveloped and unproductive, explaining if not justifying their perspective that they were a people without a land coming to a land without people.
One might also criticize her decision to label 1913 as the crucial year. The conflict began before 1913, which was not any more a turning point than 1908, the year of the Young Turks revolution that upset the balance of power in the entire region.
Marcus’ thorough research and appreciation of Jerusalem, however, is a plus. She helps give us a more nuanced understanding of that city over the past one hundred years, and if the seeds of the conflict weren’t planted in 1913, their growth was certainly in evidence by that year and thus worth learning about, even if they don’t offer any concrete ideas for resolving the conflict.