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Colonial Jerusalem

Colonial Jerusalem: The Spatial Construction of Identity and Difference in a City of Myth, 1948–2012, by Thomas Philip Abowd (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2014)

This ethnographic study by anthropologist Thomas Abowd examines “the spatial construction of identity and difference in contemporary Jerusalem.”1 Abowd defines Israel’s control of Jerusalem as colonialism because it goes beyond population control; it “radically remake[s] captured lands and regulate[s] populations”2 by creating new legal, military, and cultural schemes that destroy and replace old ways of life. Drawing on approximately 100 semi-structured interviews, many more conversations with Palestinians and Israelis, and several periods of residence in the city over a few years, Abowd explores Jerusalem as a colonial city by examining it through the lens of daily life. Indeed, much of the book explores the impacts—psychological and otherwise—on Palestinian residents of Jerusalem of Israel’s restrictions on where they are permitted to live within the circumscribed parameters of their city that are imposed by the Israeli colonizer (see Closure and Access to Jerusalem).

Abowd explores Jerusalem as a colonial city by examining it through the lens of daily life.

Abowd argues that controlling space is a colonial necessity. As an example, since its creation in 1948, Israel has continually ensured that Jerusalem is inaccessible to most Palestinians in the remainder of the West Bank and Gaza, and across the diaspora. The author spoke with Palestinians and Israelis who held the belief that the two groups must be kept apart to avoid tensions. This belief is useful for a state whose only endgame is to maintain perpetual domination, but it is a myth. As the many stories recounted in chapter 2, “Diverse Absences: Reading Colonial Landscapes Old and New,” tell us, prior to 1948, Palestinian Jews, Muslims, and Christians lived relatively harmoniously in the city’s western neighborhoods of Musrara, Talbiyya, and Qatamon; people visited and celebrated together and patronized one another’s businesses (see The West Side Story, Part 1: Jerusalem before East and West). During the British Mandate, both groups were under British rule.

After 1948, however, and with the exile of over 70,000 of the city’s Muslim and Christian Palestinians in the wake of the establishment of the State of Israel, the relationship between Jerusalem’s Jews, Christians, and Muslims was radically altered. They were literally divided between a Jewish “West” and a Palestinian “East” (see The West Side Story, Part 1: Jerusalem before East and West). The situation grew more dire with Israel’s occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967. Since then, Israel has sought to maintain its grip over the city through any means, including by demonizing Palestinians and restricting their access to, and mobility in, the city through implementing segregationist policies banning them from many spaces (see The Separation Wall and Closure and Access to Jerusalem).

Abowd posits that no city has the “religious and symbolic potency”3 of Jerusalem. For that reason, it is instructive to study Jerusalem as a microcosm of the Zionist project, which uses the Bible to achieve colonial aims. Indeed, in Israel, the Bible and the stories it tells are taught as historical fact. As founding myths go, one that claims to be inspired by God’s will is hard to beat. In Jerusalem, as Abowd amply documents, Israel’s colonial machinery moves furiously and relentlessly to uproot the old and create facts on the ground, exploiting religious mythology in the process.

But sometimes, the old cannot be erased so easily, and in some cases, the colonizer might not want to get rid of it. Abowd describes these unruly facts that refuse to bend to the colonial narrative, such as old Palestinian homes. In chapters 2 and 3, he explores neighborhoods that still have their elegant old Palestinian homes, with a particular focus on Talbiyya, and describes what became of them in what was named West Jerusalem after 1948, upon the permanent exile of its original Palestinian inhabitants. Israel took several legal and demographic measures to orchestrate their transferal to the state (see How Israel Applies the Absentees’ Property Law to Confiscate Palestinian Property in Jerusalem) in order to secure them as Jewish properties that would serve state purposes and house Jews, often new immigrants. Many Palestinian homes became the residences of Israeli presidents, prime ministers, governmental offices, institutions, and so on, foreclosing the possibility of ever returning them to their rightful Palestinian owners.

Graphic The Unreachable City

How many millions of Palestinians in historic Palestine and beyond are unable to enter Jerusalem without Israeli permission?

Book cover of Colonial Jerusalem: The Spatial Construction of Identity and Difference in a City of Myth, 1948–2012, by Thomas Abowd

Book cover of Abowd’s Colonial Jerusalem: The Spatial Construction of Identity and Difference in a City of Myth, 1948–2012 (Syracuse University Press, 2016).

Israel does not deny that these are Arab properties, and in fact markets many of them to Jewish renters and buyers for their beautiful, old Arab architecture (see The West Side Story, Part 4: The Erasure of the New City and Its Transformation into Jewish West Jerusalem). They also command a high price. This dissonance in the Israeli national narrative is striking; how can an allegedly inferior people, the Arabs, build such sophisticated and superior structures? Israel denies that Palestinians were the original inhabitants of the land for centuries before the establishment of Israel and that they constructed these magnificent structures; as Abowd explains, such denial is a necessary component of colonizing the land. In this way, using the word “Arab”—and not “Palestinian”—to describe West Jerusalem’s stunning architecture is a deliberate form of colonial erasure. Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister, Abowd notes wryly, must have known that she was living in a Palestinian home (the Bisharat home, see below) even as she was trumpeting to the world that Palestinians do not exist.4 Abowd describes her statement as “peculiar”: by insisting that Palestinians did not exist, she was asserting that Israeli possession of these properties was not really theft since there was no injured party—a classic case of cognitive dissonance.

It is hard to find a more fitting metaphor for colonialism than the transfer of the key to the home of Hanna Bisharat from a British national to a Zionist paramilitary group. In chapter 2, Abowd delves into the story of this home and its family in some detail. During the British Mandate, the British Royal Air Force had rented the stately mansion in the Palestinian neighborhood of Talbiyya, and when it left in May 1948, a British official turned it over to an officer in the Haganah. The transfer of a Palestinian house key from British to Zionist (and soon to be Israeli) hands is a good metaphor to convey the common interests and brotherhood of Western colonizers, who never gave the legitimate house owners a second thought.

The same logic was evidenced by Israel’s wholesale adoption of the British Mandate’s Emergency Regulations, which allowed for banishment and administrative detention without charge or trial.5  As a result of the foundational acts of ethnic cleansing, the Bisharat home, like so many Palestinian homes in the western half of Jerusalem, became Israeli state property (see The West Side Story, Part 4: The Erasure of the New City and Its Transformation into Jewish West Jerusalem). Since 1948, Palestinians in Jerusalem and all other areas of historic Palestine and across the world have been demanding their rights to their seized properties, deemed “absentee” by Israel (see How Israel Applies the Absentees’ Property Law to Confiscate Palestinian Property in Jerusalem).

Abowd argues that controlling space is a colonial necessity.

The seized home of Hanna Bisharat in Talbiyya, today West Jerusalem

The home of Hanna Bisharat, completed in the late 1920s in the Palestinian neighborhood of Talbiyya, today in Jewish West Jerusalem. Noted here is the added third floor. See the home and read more about its original owners in 1929 here.


Tarek Bakri website

Abowd describes the addition of a third floor to the Bisharat home. It includes a tile with a biblical verse in Hebrew, presumably to restamp the house as Jewish. The addition is clearly recent and shows shabby workmanship, which becomes painfully obvious next to the masterful Palestinian stonemasonry. The incongruence between the original house and the addition makes clear that the goal of prompting the addition of the third floor has not been achieved.

The same extends to nomenclature in Jerusalem. While Israel has tried to replace the original Arabic names of street and landmarks across the city with Hebrew ones, Abowd argues that this has been largely unsuccessful. It is satisfying to read that the attempt by Israeli planners to rename streets and places, to rebrand them as only ever Hebrew, draws on fanciful mythology to do so, which somehow never really completely wipes out the old names: “the older Arab names are more often than not still used in upscale real estate guides, in Israeli tourist brochures, and in common parlance among Israeli Jews.”6

Video Villa Harun al-Rashid—Talbiyya, Jerusalem

The American resident of a cherished Palestinian family villa called Villa Harun al-Rashid gives his glossy version of the house’s history, completely erasing its real story.

A side view of the Bisharat home in Talbiyya, today West Jerusalem

A side view of the Bisharat villa, with the added third floor clearly showing. Note the stark difference in stonemasonry, with the original Palestinian arched windows on the first and second floors, and the less sophisticated rectangular style of the third-floor windows, added by Israeli developers.

By thinking of Jerusalem as a colonial city and Israel as a colonial power, Abowd tells us that we can better understand why it was so important for Israel to expand the municipal boundaries of the city after the 1967 War: Redrawing boundaries is one way in which power is exercised (see Where Is Jerusalem? The Uncertain and Unfixed Boundaries of the City). Couple that with ringing Jerusalem with Jewish settlements, the picture of Jerusalem as a colonial city comes into focus (see The Three Israeli Settlement Rings in and around East Jerusalem: Supplanting Palestinian Jerusalem). No sooner had it conquered East Jerusalem in 1967 than Israel bulldozed the ancient Moroccan Quarter adjacent to the Western Wall (al-Buraq), dispossessing and displacing the 650 or so residents whose roots there extended for centuries. In its place, Israel constructed the Jewish-only prayer plaza that is located today across from the Western Wall. In effect, Israel secured exclusive Jewish access to the area, even if these areas were home to non-Jewish communities whose ancestral presence in the city dates back centuries. To be sure, Israel uses the Bible to provide the ideological basis for extending Jewish dominion over Jerusalem, reconfiguring space to suit its colonial purposes.

The same impulse is behind the bulldozing of the Ma’man Allah (Mamilla) Cemetery, as Abowd points out. Cemeteries denote residence and roots in a place, and Arab names on headstones contradict the Israeli narrative of deep roots in “the biblical land of Zion.”7 After reading Abowd’s account of the destruction of both the Moroccan Quarter and the Ma’man Allah Cemetery, one comprehends the risk to the al-Aqsa Mosque. Destroying it in the quest to rebuild an old Jewish temple might appeal to ultra-Orthodox Jews, but it unequivocally suits Israel’s secular-colonial interests, too (see The History of Israeli Settlement Expansion in and around East Jerusalem from 1967 to 1993). Indeed, the eloquent presence of that architectural masterpiece easily counters any hasbara rhetoric, proving undeniably that continuous Muslim settlement of the city can be dated in centuries, that Muslims ruled the area, and, by extension, that the hyper modern state of Israel has no discernible connection to its surroundings. One cannot imagine the colonizer, bent on domination and erasure of the old, losing sleep over the disappearance of the Dome of the Rock, which dominates the landscape and skyscape of the Old City: a stubborn fact that exposes Israel’s colonial aspirations. Indeed, a recent article in Haaretz reported that a photo of the city horizon without the Dome of the Rock today hangs in the same Interior Ministry office in Jerusalem where Palestinians must file appeals of denied building permit applications.8

Backgrounder The Destruction of Jerusalem’s Moroccan Quarter: From Centuries-Old Maghrebi Community to Western Wall Prayer Plaza

How Israel razed an 800-year-old historic Muslim neighborhood in the dead of night within hours of occupying East Jerusalem

Redrawing boundaries is one way in which power is exercised.

Palestinians sit beside the graves of loved ones in Ma’man Allah Cemetery in East Jerusalem.

Palestinians sit beside the graves of loved ones in Ma’man Allah Cemetery in East Jerusalem, where Israeli authorities have already demolished several graves to build a national park.


Middle East Monitor

Beyond holy sites, Abowd’s explication in chapter 5 of the experiences of Palestinian women who rent apartments in Jewish-majority buildings is intriguing. That they would face racism is arguably unsurprising, but explosive devices at their doorsteps indicates a new level of hate. Western readers may be surprised to learn of swastikas accompanying anti-Arab, biblically inspired, and misogynist graffiti on Palestinians’ homes. Indeed, that Zionists would share the symbols of other exclusivist ideologies—including those under which the Jews suffered greatly—exposes an unspoken and perverse fact buried in Zionism as it is presented in the West: Israel’s supporters in the United States invoke the Holocaust regularly to excuse Israel’s violent policies, yet violent Israelis seem to draw from that horror another lesson: the parameters for what is permissible. For example, in the context of Palestinian women experiencing hate crimes by Israelis, Abowd tells us that it is legal in Israel to discriminate against prospective tenants because of their ethnicity. When US and Israeli politicians pontificate about shared values between the two countries, the most obvious for anyone who understands the colonial nature of both countries is not the one they intend: a Jim Crow ideology whereby not all ethnic and racial groups are deserving of equal and humane treatment—Blacks and Indigenous people in the US, Palestinians in Palestine.

The single women whose stories Abowd retells are admirable because they confront formidable odds with courage. By living alone and on their own terms, these unmarried women have to deal with Israeli structural racism, the murderous behavior of neighbors and the stress that creates, and their own culture’s patriarchal notions of proper deportment for women. It was gratifying to read that their determination to stand up to their neighbors’ bigotry earned them more respect in their own Palestinian communities. For the families and kinsfolk of the women profiled in this chapter, at least, pride in resistance trumps patriarchal mores.

Colonial domination can only succeed if the colonizer can instill fear in the colonized, and Israel attempts to do this using an extensive toolkit, including residency revocations, home demolitions and seizures, constant policing, arbitrary physical abuse, detention, ubiquitous penetrating surveillance, petty humiliations, a network of military checkpoints, restrictions on movement and a permit regime (see Closure and the Dismemberment of Jerusalem), and more. Chapter 6 illustrates how Israel uses these tactics to control the movement of Palestinian men in public spaces. Here too, a US reader will likely draw the obvious parallels with policing practices in US cities and towns toward non-white residents.

The book ends with a look at Israel’s practice of home demolitions (for Palestinians) and the work of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions (ICAHD) to rebuild them. Palestinians can only rarely secure the permits they need to build homes or add to their existing homes, and unpermitted construction is subject to demolition, which Israel does with impunity (see Land Settlement and Registration in East Jerusalem). Thus, a practice that is usually reserved for wartime military purposes (to deny enemies safe havens, to depopulate areas or ethnically cleanse them en masse) has become a routine bureaucratic measure woven into the fabric of the civilian realities of the city—for its Palestinian residents only. One of the more chilling details that Abowd mentions in passing is that a Palestinian homeowner he met whose house had been demolished was billed for the bulldozing,9 a practice that rmains routine today. 

Colonial Jerusalem, written by a scholar who describes himself as “both objective and partisan,”10 provides an analytical framework to help us understand the method and purpose fueling Israeli policies and practices throughout historic Palestine since 1948 and to this day. For this reader, it explains why the use of the word “occupation” to describe Israel’s control of historic Palestine is inadequate; it does not fully convey the goal of Israel’s national project, which this book painstakingly and thoroughly makes evident: the permanent distortions of landscape and space and absolute control over the lives of an unwanted population that insists on remaining.

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Page 4.


Page 6.


Page 8; and to my knowledge none is associated, as Jerusalem is, with a syndrome, or psychological distortion, defined in Wikipedia as “the presence of either religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or other psychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem.” See “Jerusalem Syndrome,” Wikipedia, last modified September 13, 2022, 10:55.


Page 56.


Matthew Hughes, Britain’s Pacification of Palestine: The British Army, the Colonial State, and the Arab Revolt, 1936–1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).


Page 53.


Page 128.


Page 236.


Page 28 (emphasis in the original).

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