‘A fortified strip of barbed wire, minefields, firing positions and observation posts crossed [the city],’ wrote Amos Oz. ‘A concrete curtain came down and divided us from Sheikh Jarrah and the Arab neighbourhoods.’ There was often sniper fire: in 1954, nine people were killed in this way and fifty-four wounded. Even when the two sides cooperated, it was agonizing: in 1950, the UN mediated the feeding of the one tiger, one lion and two bears of the Biblical Zoo on Israeli-controlled Mount Scopus and officially explained that ‘Decisions had to be taken whether (a) Israeli money should be used to buy Arab donkeys to feed the Israeli lion or (b) whether an Israeli donkey should pass through Jordan-held territory to be eaten by the lion in question.’ Eventually the animals were escorted in a UN convoy through Jordanian territory to west Jerusalem.

Across the barbed wire, the Nusseibehs mourned the Catastrophe: ‘I suffered what amounted to a nervous breakdown,’ admitted Hazem Nusseibeh. His nephew Sari missed ‘the English and Arab aristocrats, the free-wheeling parvenus, the middle-class tradesmen, the demimonde catering to soldiers, the rich blend of cultures, the bishops, Muslim clerics and black-bearded rabbis crowding the same streets’.

In November, Abdullah was, bizarrely, crowned king of Jerusalem by the Coptic bishop – the first king to control the city since Frederick II. On 1 December, he had himself declared king of Palestine in Jericho, renaming his realm the United Kingdom of Jordan. The Husseinis and the Arab nationalists denounced Abdullah for his compromises and could not forgive him for being the only Arab to have succeeded in the Palestinian Catastrophe.

The king turned to the Families of Jerusalem, who now enjoyed a strange renaissance. He offered Ragheb Nashashibi the premiership of Jordan. Nashashibi refused, but agreed to become a minister. The king also appointed him governor of the West Bank and Custodian of the Two Harams (Jerusalem and Hebron) as well as presenting him with a Studebaker car and the title ‘Ragheb Pasha’. (The Jordanians were still awarding Ottoman titles in the 1950s.) His dandyish nephew, Nassereddin Nashashibi, became royal chamberlain.* In a satisfying dismissal of the hated mufti, Abdullah officially sacked him and appointed Sheikh Husam al-Jarallah, the very man cheated of the title back in 1921.

Abdullah was warned of assassination plots, but he always replied, ‘Until my day comes, nobody can harm me; when the day comes, no one can guard me.’ Whatever the dangers, Abdullah, now 69, was proud of his possession of Jerusalem. ‘When I was a boy,’ recalled his grandson Hussein, ‘my grandfather used to tell me that Jerusalem was one of the most beautiful cities in the world.’ As time went on he noticed that the king ‘grew to love Jerusalem more and more’. Abdullah was disappointed in his eldest son Talal, but he adored his grandson whom he educated to be king. During school holidays, they breakfasted together every day. ‘I’d become the son he always wanted,’ wrote Hussein.

On Friday 20 July 1951, Abdullah drove to Jerusalem with Hussein, a sixteen-year-old Harrow schoolboy, whom he ordered to wear his military uniform with medals. Before they left, the king told him, ‘My son, one day you I’ll have to assume responsibility,’ adding ‘When I have to die, I’d like to be shot in the head by a nobody. That’s the simplest way.’ They stopped in Nablus to meet the mufti’s cousin, Dr Musa al-Husseini, who had served the mufti in Nazi Berlin: he bowed and expressed loyalty.

Just before midday, Abdullah arrived in Jerusalem for Friday prayers with his grandson, Glubb Pasha, Royal Chamberlain Nassereddin Nash-ashibi and the unctuous Musa Husseini. The crowd was sulky and suspicious; his nervous Arab Legion bodyguard was so numerous that Hussein joked ‘What is this, a funeral procession?’ Abdullah visited his father’s tomb, then walked to al-Aqsa and told the guards to pull back, but Musa Husseini stayed very close. As Abdullah stepped into the portico, the sheikh of the mosque kissed the royal hand, and simultaneously a young man emerged from behind the door. Raising a pistol, the youth pressed the barrel against the king’s ear and fired, killing him instantly. The bullet exited through the eye, and Abdullah collapsed, his white turban rolling away. Everyone threw themselves to the ground, ‘doubled up like bent old terrified women,’ observed Hussein ‘but I must have lost my head for at that moment, I lunged towards the assassin’, who turned on Hussein: ‘I saw his bared teeth, his dazed eyes.He had the gun and I watched him point it at me then saw the smoke, heard the bang and felt the shot on my chest. Is this what death is like? His bullet hit metal.’ Abdullah had saved his grandson’s life by ordering him to wear the medals.

The bodyguards, firing haphazardly, killed the assassin. Holding the dead king in his arms as blood gushed from his nose, Nashashibi kissed his hand repeatedly. The Legionaries started to rampage through the streets, and Glubb struggled to restrain them. Kneeling by the king, Hussein undid his robe, and then walked with the body as it was borne to the Austrian Hospice. There Hussein himself was sedated before being hurriedly flown back to Amman.26


The mufti and King Farouk of Egypt were said to be behind the assassination. Musa Husseini was arrested and tortured before he and three others were executed. The assassination was just one of the killings and coups precipitated by the Arab defeat. In 1952, King Farouk, last of Mehmet Ali’s Albanians, was overthrown by a junta of Free Officers, led by General Muhammad Neguib and Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser.

Abdullah of Jordan was succeeded by his son, King Talal, who suffered violent attacks of schizophrenia that led to his almost killing his wife. On 12 August 1952, young Hussein was holidaying at a hotel in Geneva when a waiter entered with an envelope on a silver platter: it was addressed to ‘His Majesty King Hussein’. His father had abdicated. Still just seventeen, Hussein liked fast cars and motorcycles, planes and helicopters, which he flew himself, and beautiful women – he married five. While his grandfather had never lost the dream of a greater Hash-emite kingdom, risking everything to win Jerusalem, Hussein realized gradually that it would be an achievement even to survive as king of Jordan.

A Sandhurst-trained officer, this debonair monarch was pro-Western, his regime funded first by Britain then by America, yet he survived only by trimming between the forces at play in the Arab world. At times he had to endure the suffocating embrace of hostile radical tyrants such as Nasser of Egypt and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Like his grandfather, he was able to work with the Israelis; much later, he came to like Rabin especially.

The octogenarian Churchill, who had returned to office as prime minister in 1951, muttered to one of his officials, ‘You ought to let the Jews have Jerusalem – it was they who made it famous.’ But the city remained divided between east and west, ‘a jarring series of ad hoc fences, walls and bails of barbed wire’ with ‘signs in Hebrew, English and Arabic reading STOP! DANGER! FRONTIER AHEAD’. The nights crackled with machine-gun fire, the only gateway was the Mandelbaum Gate, which became as famous as Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie. Yet it was neither a gate nor the house of the Mandelbaums. The long-departed Simchah and Esther Mandelbaum had been Belorussian-born manufacturers of stockings whose sturdy home had become a Haganah stronghold that was blown up by the Arab Legion in 1948. The Mandelbaum checkpoint stood on its ruins.

Through these mined and barbed barriers the Jewish teenager Amos Oz and the Palestinian child Sari Nusseibeh, the son of Anwar, were living close to each other. Later Oz and Nusseibeh, both fine writers and opponents of fanatacism, became friends. ‘Islam’, wrote Nusseibeh, ‘was no different for families like ours than I would learn later that Judaism was for Amos Oz a couple of hundred feet away, just beyond No-Man’s-Land.’ The boys watched as a new influx of immigrants changed Jerusalem yet again. The Arabs, particularly Iraq, had avenged themselves on their own Jewish communities: 600,000 of them now migrated to Israel. But it was the survivors of the ultra-Orthodox sects known as the Haredim (Awestruck) who changed the look of Jerusalem, bringing with them the culture and clothes of seventeenth-century Mitteleuropa and a faith in mystical and joyous prayer. ‘Hardly a day would go by’, recalled Sari Nusseibeh, ‘when I didn’t spy into the streets beyond No-Man’s-Land’ and there in Mea Shearim, ‘I saw blackclad men. Sometimes the bearded creatures looked back at me.’ Who were they, he wondered?

The Haredim were split between those who embraced Zionism and the many, such as the Toldot Haron of Mea Shearim, who were devoutly anti-Zionist. They believed that only God could restore the Temple. These introspective, rigid and ritualistic sects were divided between Hasidics and Lithuanians, all speaking Yiddish. The Hasidim are in turn divided into many sects originating from seven principal ‘courts’, each ruled by a dynasty descended from a miracle-working rabbi known as the admor (an acronym deriving from ‘Our Master Teacher and Rabbi’). Their costumes and the arcane differences between sects contributed to the complexity of Israeli Jerusalem.*

The Israelis built a modern capital in Western Jerusalem,* which was an uneasy blend of secular and religious. ‘Israel was socialist and secular,’ recalls George Weidenfeld, ‘high society was in Tel Aviv but Jerusalem revolved around the old Jerusalem of the rabbis, the German intellectuals of Rehavia who discussed art and politics after dinner in the kitchen and the Israeli elite of senior civil servants and generals like Moshe Dayan.’ While the Haredim lived their separate lives, secular Jews like Weidenfeld dined out at the smartest restaurant in Jerusalem – Fink’s, with its non-kosher goulash and sausages. Amos Oz felt uneasy in this kaleidoscopic city, with its peculiar mix of restored antiquities and modern ruins. ‘Can one ever feel at home in Jerusalem, I wonder, even if one lives here for a century?’ he asked in his novel My Michael. ‘If you turn your head you can see in the midst of all this building a rocky field. Olive trees. A barren wilderness. Herds grazing around the newly built prime minister’s office.’ Oz left Jerusalem, but Sari Nusseibeh stayed.

On 23 May 1961, Ben-Gurion summoned one of his young aides, Yitzhak Yaacovy, into his office. The prime minister looked up at Yaacovy: ‘Do you know who Adolf Eichmann is?’

‘No,’ replied Yaacovy.

‘He is the man who organized the Holocaust, killed your family and deported you to Auschwitz,’ replied Ben-Gurion, who knew that Yaacovy, child of Orthodox Hungarian parents, had been sent to the death-camp by SS-Obersturmbannführer Eichmann in 1944. There he had survived the selection of those allowed to live as slave labourers and those to be gassed at once by SS Dr Josef Mengele himself, perhaps because of his blond hair and blue eyes. Afterwards he emigrated to Israel, fought and was wounded in the War of Independence and settled in Jerusalem where he worked in the prime minister’s office.

‘Today,’ Ben-Gurion went on, ‘you will take a car to the Knesset and you will sit as my guest and watch me announce that we have brought Eichmann to stand trial in Jerusalem.’

The Israeli secret service Mossad had kidnapped Eichmann from his hiding-place in Argentina, and in April his trial started in a courthouse in downtown Jerusalem. He was hanged in Ramla prison.

On the other side of the border, King Hussein called the city his ‘second capital’, but his regime was too precarious to risk moving the real capital from Amman. The Holy City was effectively demoted to a ‘provincial town with barbed-wire in the centre’. Nonetheless, Hash-emite Jerusalem regained some of its old charm. The king’s brother, Prince Muhammad, governed the West Bank. He had just married the beautiful sixteen-year-old Palestinian: Firyal al-Rashid, ‘We spent six months of the year in Jerusalem,’ remembers Princess Firyal, ‘in the most delightful small villa that had belonged to the Dajanis, but my husband spent most of his time negotiating with the Christians, trying to make peace between the warring Orthodox, Catholics and Armenians!’

King Hussein appointed Anwar Nusseibeh as governor and custodian of the Sanctuaries. The Nusseibehs were more prominent than they had been for many centuries: Anwar at times served as Jordanian defence minister, his brother Hazem as foreign minister. All of the Families had lost their money and their olive groves, but many continued to live in their villas in Sheikh Jarrah. Anwar Nusseibeh now lived opposite the American Colony in an old-style villa with ‘Persian carpets, gold-embossed academic degrees, crystal decanters for after-dinner drinks and dozens of tennis trophies’. Nusseibeh had to practise ‘a tolerant ecumenicalism’, praying at al-Aqsa every Friday and every Easter leading his whole family to join ‘the high clergy in robes holding golden crosses to circle the Holy Sepulchre three times’, as his son Sari recalled. ‘My brothers and I liked this [Easter celebration] the most because the Christian girls were the prettiest in town.’ But the Temple Mount itself was quiet. ‘There were few Muslim visitors to the Haram,’ noticed Oleg Grabar, the pre-eminent scholar of Jerusalem, who started to explore the city during those years.

Sari Nusseibeh investigated the Old City, ‘full of smug shopkeepers with their golden pocketwatches, old women hawking wares, whirling dervishes’ and cafés resonating ‘with the bubbling sound of people smoking water pipes’. Jordanian Jerusalem was, observed Eugene Bird, the US vice-consul, a tiny world: ‘I’ve never seen such a small big town before. The eligible society restricted it to about 150 people.’ Some of the Families embraced tourism: the Husseinis opened Orient House as a hotel. The white-haired Bertha Spafford converted her American Colony into a luxury hotel and the brooch-wearing grande dame herself became one of the sights of the city, having known everybody from Jemal Pasha to Lawrence of Arabia: she even featured twice on the British television show This is Your Life. Katy Antonius had returned and set up an orphanage in the Old City and, in her home, ‘an upscale restaurant-cum-salon’ named Katakeet after a local gossip column. She was ‘something out Eliot’s Cocktail Party’, wrote the US vice-consul; ‘she’s gossipy and thoroughly affected’. Always in ‘the latest fashions and a string of pearls, black hair cut fairly short’ with ‘a distinctive white streak’, she was, thought the vice-consul’s son, the writer Kai Bird, ‘part dragon-lady and part-flirt’. But she had not lost her political anger, remarking: ‘Before the Jewish State, I knew many Jews in Jerusalem. Now I will slap the face of any Arab friend who tries to trade with a Jew. We lost the first round; we haven’t lost the war.’

The Great Powers had always backed their own sects so it was no surprise that the Cold War was waged furtively beneath the robes and behind the altars of Jerusalem ‘as ardently as in the back alleys of Berlin’, that other divided city. US Vice-Consul Bird advised the CIA to contribute $80,000 to repair the golden onion-domes of Grand Duke Sergei’s Church of Mary Magdalene. If the CIA did not pay, the KGB just might. Russian Orthodoxy was divided between the CIA-backed Church based in New York and the KGB-backed Soviet version in Moscow. The Jordanians, staunch American allies, gave their Russian churches to the anti-Communist Church, while the Israelis, remembering that Stalin had been the first to recognize their new state, granted their Russian properties to the Soviets, who set up a mission in west Jerusalem led by a ‘priest’, actually a KGB colonel who had formerly been an adviser to North Korea.

In a backwater still dominated by ‘Husseinis, Nashashibis, Islamic scholars and Christian bishops, if you could ignore No-Man’s-Land and the refugee camps,’ wrote Sari Nusseibeh, ‘it was as if nothing had ever happened’. Yet nothing was the same – and even this hybrid Jerusalem was now under threat. The rise of Nasser, President of Egypt, changed everything, imperilling King Hussein and risking his very possession of Jerusalem.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!