Palestinian Studies

2017 Workshop

Vincent Lemire

Lecturer in Contemporary History, University of Paris-Est / Marne-la-Vallée

Opening Jerusalem’s Memories : For a Transnational, Open and Bottom-up Database of Primary Archives of the Holy City (1840-1940)

  • Jerusalem is undoubtedly one of the cities that receives the most attention from historians, but the available bibliography, generally speaking, is plagued by three major flaws. First, most studies are devoted either to ancient and medieval history, or to the very recent history of the city (after the 1948 War). The Ottoman period (1517-1917) and the British Mandate (1917-1947) are decidedly less studied, as though only the Bible, the Crusades, and then the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were worthy of interest. The second flaw stems in part from the first: the overwhelming majority of existing studies focus on religious and geopolitical aspects of the city’s history and thus Jerusalem appears either as a jumble of shrines or as a battlefield. The third flaw is the cause of the other two: most Jerusalem historians limit their studies to the history of only one community of the Holy City, thus contributing to the creation of a segmented historical narrative that precludes a more sweeping view of the city. The history of Jerusalem, which is doubtlessly the epitome of the “global city” and should consequently benefit from recent historiographic advances in connected history, instead remains one of the most fragmented histories anywhere. As a consequence, the citadinité (“urban citizenship”) shared by the inhabitants of Jerusalem from 1840’s Ottoman’s Reforms to 1940’s War, is not sufficiently visible in the available bibliography. 
  • It goes without saying that compartmentalizing national or nationalist historiographies dedicated to the region has caused incalculable political damage in the Middle East and around the world. Given these stakes, there have been several attempts within the community of Middle East historians to collectively develop a shared narrative or at least a “relational history” of these disputed territories. The question is even more crucial and pressing regarding Jerusalem specifically, a mixed city in the late Ottoman period that had become a divided one after the 1948-1949 War. Today, current discussion on the final status of the Holy City tends, systematically and whatever the framework of the negotiation, toward the idea of a Jerusalem that is “the capital of two states,” as the 27 member-states of the European Union so solemnly reminded us on December 2009. It is only a matter of time before the question of Jerusalem’s institutional repartition comes up, and the importance of a connected history of citadinité in the Holy City should be viewed in that light.
  • An analysis of current conditions of the primary sources of Jerusalem’s history eads us to identify three major obstacles. The first is geopolitical: most researchers who work on Jerusalem cannot physically access the entirety of available sources owing to their nationality, religious identity or political affiliation. The second obstacle is linguistic: the city of Jerusalem has always produced archives in a multitude of languages. To attain an overview of the urban history of Jerusalem, one would theoretically have to master the syntax and paleography of Arabic, Ottoman, Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Armenian, Ethiopian, Coptic and Russian, but also most of the modern European languages, because Jerusalem has always been a “world city” where all nationalities, faiths and populations intersect. This global polyglossia, impossible to achieve at an individual level, is today within reach if we summon the digital humanities’ powers of translation, indexing and interconnection. The third obstacle is related to the impenetrability of the collections themselves, which, for reasons related to limited funding and to the current geopolitical climate, only rarely possess an analytical inventory. 
  • Yet truly decompartmentalizing Jersualem’s historiographies means finding ways of opening up and interconnecting its primary archives, an idea that is central in this research program. Supported by an European institution reputed for its neutrality and stability, the Open-Jerusalem program distinguishes itself through the scientific quality of its research tools, the close attention it pays to local administrative archives and its unbiased openness to all demographic segments of the Holy City’s population. Last but not least, it not limit itself to a logistical initiative but scientifically utilize those sources as part of a real intellectual proposal intended to produce a connected history of citadinité in Jerusalem from 1840 to 1940. The general goal of the Open-Jerusalem program in terms of expected value added is both pragmatic and ambitious, and can therefore be separated into short- and long-term goals. In the short term, the focus is on doing the necessary to obtain, for the first time, a detailed overview of available archives pertaining to the history of Jerusalem from 1840 to 1940 and to catalogue their contents. In the long term, the goal is to turn this systematic approach to the archives into a decisive catalyst by interconnecting datasets, and networking the researchers who work on them. The logistical program should therefore transition into a scientific one, guiding both the project’s methodology and its timetable through three phases.

• The first issue of the Open-Jerusalem project involves drafting a thorough list of the repositories of archival material covering the 1840-1940 period, above all in Jerusalem but also, when justified, outside the city. The second issue is to shift from an overarching view of the available collections or their containers to the analysis of their contents in order to produce a structured & English-language inventory for the collections, with an eye to creating a database of interconnected data, insofar as possible. The third issue concerns the reading of the harvested data. In order to connect the fragmented historical narratives of the city and move freely within the archipelago of documentary evidence, our work will focus on the notion of citadinité.

Vincent Lemire is lecturer in contemporary history at the University of Paris-Est / Marne-la-Vallée and director of the ERC Open-JerusalemProject (2014-2019). He has published La Soif de Jérusalem. Essai d’Hydrohistoire, 1840-1948(2010); Jérusalem 1900. La ville sainte à l’âge des possibles (Armand Colin 2012 ; french pocket edition Points-Seuil 2016 ; Arabic edition Dar al-Farabi 2015 ; English edition University of Chicago Press 2017; Hebrew edition Magnes Press 2017); Jérusalem. Histoire d’une ville-monde (Flammarion 2016).