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Was East Jerusalem uninhabited?

June 29, 2011

The generally reliable-looking demographic data about Jerusalem since 1922, published annually by the municipality and the Jerusalem Institute for Israel studies here, contain one very large oddity. In 1946, they tell us, the total populace of the town was 164,400, of whom 99,300 were Jews (that’s 60.3%), while 65,100 were Arabs (Muslims and Christians together), or 39.7%. Then, in 1948, there were 82,900 Jews, but a mere 1,100 Arabs. Where did 15,000 Jews disappear to, and far more pressing, where did 64,000 Arabs go?

The first answer must be that the numbers are wrong. During the 1948 war some 1,300 Jews were deported from the emptied Jewish Quarter of the Old City. The other three quarters remained intact and their inhabitants mostly remained in place (or if they didn’t, why have I never heard the story, and where did they go, and why, since the Old City was under Jordanian control?)  Back in 1922 most of the 28,600 Arabs who lived in Jerusalem were in the Old City; it’s not possible that the number was significantly lower in 1948. (Today it’s much higher, and there has been no massive construction inside the walls).

I’ve just come across a second, complementing explanation. As I continue to read the British-authored Jerusalem City Plan, 1948, which I’ve already mentioned here, I’ve come across the plans proposed in 1944, which include a series of maps. These maps make it very clear that Jerusalem within the municipal lines of 1944 (and hence pre-division 1948) was a very different place from the town everyone talks about these days (assuming “everyone” is discussing a real place and not a figment of their imagination). It was much smaller than today’s town, and had a roughly round shape centered on the Old City and going beyond it a mile or two at the most in all directions. Furthermore, and this is where it gets interesting, almost all of the populated neighborhoods were to the west, north-west and south-east of the Old City; to the north, east and south were mostly open areas, lots of important churches of course, but almost no residential areas. Indeed, the proposed plan explicitly recommended this not be changed, with the empty spaces proposed as public parkland.

In other words, once the city was divided in 1948, the Old City was on the Jordanian side, along with the churches and parklands, but almost all of the residential areas were on the Israeli side. Some, such as Talbiya and Katamon, had been settled by Arabs who had left or been evicted (some of both) but when the war was over and the city was divided, it really had a majority-Jewish side, and a minority-Arab side; on the Arab side there really weren’t substantial residential neighborhoods beyond the Old City walls and the blocks to its north, Sheikh Jarrah. And this means that dividing the city back then wasn’t actually that hard. The Old City walls served as the line part of the way, there needed to be a nasty border between Mea Shearim and Sheikh Jarrah, the small villages of Abu Tor and Beit Safafa were divided, but most of the time the border went through open spaces, fields, windswept rocky hilltops and places like that.

Compare that to today’s city, in which any possible line of division will have to snake for many miles between Jewish homes and Palestinian ones, getting in everyone’s way and making life most unpleasant in the best of scenarios, and hell in all the other scenarios. It’s simply a much bigger and more crowded place.

It would also be interesting to know where the evicted Arabs of 1948 went. Was it Shuafat, now within the municipal lines? Daheisha, a few miles to the south? The destroyed Jewish Quarter in the Old City? Or perhaps Cairo and Beirut, as you’d have expected from the wealthy residents from Katamon or Talbiya, and from there to Kuwait, London New Jersey and South America? Does anyone know? It is possible to reconstruct?

Update: There is of course another possible explanation: that the small numbers of Arabs in Jerusalem in 1948 (1,100) and 1961 (2,400) are the Arabs in the Israeli half of town, not counting the Jordanian half at all.

2nd update: yep. I’ve asked Dr. Maya Choshen, the head of the team which prepares and publishes the reports, and she confirms. The very small number of Arabs in Jerusalem in 1948 (1,100) and in 1961 (2,400) are of Arabs living in Jewish Jerusalem.

There were of course no Jews living in Jordanian Jerusalem at all. Not a small number, not any number.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Nycerbarb permalink
    June 29, 2011 2:59 pm

    This is fascinating, as always.

    I hope you will be able to make your little maps with colored lines on them to show where you are talking about, and you will post them here.

    Do you think you will get access to Jordanian records of the city from 1948-1967? Have you found photos from pre-1948 from the east side?

    Also, typo in your 1st update. It should read 1948, not 2948.


    • June 29, 2011 3:17 pm

      Hi Nycerbarb,

      Thanks for finding the typo. In the meantime I found a second one, and they’re both fixed.

      I’ll have to put up maps someday, but at the moment I’m too leery of this hi-falutin wordpress software to do anything beyond the basic basics.

      • Nycerbarb permalink
        June 29, 2011 5:06 pm

        I know just how you feel. I hate switching softwares.


  2. Jane permalink
    June 29, 2011 10:14 pm

    This is so interesting. I can’t wait to read the book:-) May you have joy in the journey.

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