British Mandatory rule of the region known at the time as Palestine but currently the State of Israel lasted only thirty years, from 1917 (the conquest of the region by British forces and the granting of the mandate by the League of Nations) to 1948 (the declaration of independence by Israel). In view of the region’s recorded history, going back several thousands of years, this is a mere blip, nonetheless the effects of that brief interlude can be seen still today.
The exhibition entitled ‘London in Jerusalem’ tracing just some of these effects occupies part of the exhibition space in the ancient Jerusalem structure known as the Tower of David (the rest describes the conquest of Jerusalem and entry into the city by General Allenby). There are those who believe the site to be the burial place of King David, but the archaeological evidence dates the structure to a later period. However, the building is certainly at least one thousand years old, and has yielded many interesting artifacts. It stands at the outer edge of Jerusalem’s Old City, and forms a prominent landmark, constituting part of the wall surrounding it, separating the old from the newer parts of the city.
During the period of the Mandate the Tower of David served as a focal point for cultural and artistic activities, as is attested by posters in the exhibition advertising exhibitions, concerts and art auctions held there. The influence of British rule may be clearly seen still today throughout the newer parts of Jerusalem, as the first Governor-General, Sir Ronald Storrs, issued an order stating that any new building erected in Jerusalem had to be faced with Jerusalem stone, thus preserving the architectural character of the city.
Under British rule Jerusalem flourished both physically and culturally, with the construction of important buildings, among them the YMCA building and the King David hotel, as well as the garden suburbs of Rechavia and Beit Hakerem. The period also saw an influx of new inhabitants, mainly from Europe but also from other parts of the Middle East, so that both the Arab and the Jewish populations grew. It goes without saying that in the 1930s Jews from Germany and other parts of Europe also made Jerusalem their home, although immigration by Jews became increasingly difficult with the restrictions imposed by the Mandatory authorities as they bowed to Arab pressure.
Nonetheless, alongside the surge in residential and public construction, social and cultural life in Jerusalem flourished. One wall of the exhibition is devoted to posters for concerts, recitals, plays, art exhibitions and dances open to the public. Alongside the growth in the population from former European countries, there was a general expansion of life in the cafés and restaurants of the city, and the exhibition contains a life-size reconstruction of an authentic Jerusalem café of the time, as well as of the famous Fink’s bar, where a large number of journalists and others spent many happy hours.
One of the most outstanding legacies of British rule was the establishment of the broadcasting service, known at the time as the Palestine Broadcasting Service (PBS). The broadcasts were in English, Hebrew and Arabic, and members of the three communities served on the programming board, although this did not preclude disputes over content and time slots. ‘Jerusalem Calling,’ as the station was known, played a significant role in fostering local culture, broadcasting news as well as live music, language lessons, radio plays, segments for children and youth and morning exercise programmes.
One intriguing display cabinet contains the delicate bone china tea service used by the King David hotel when VIPs came to stay. In addition, main roads were given English names, some of which have endured to this day. Thus, every Jerusalemite knows where King George street is located, though few remember that its continuation was once known as Princess Mary street. The exhibition notes point out that as well as turning Jerusalem into a financial and cultural centre, the British made it the administrative center of the region, a status it had not enjoyed under Ottoman rule.
All in all, it is possible to look back at that brief period as one of relative peace and harmony between the different cultures, as a time of cultural blossoming and economic stability. It was also the period in which the leaders of the Yishuv, as the Jewish comunity was then known, were able to focus on creating the instruments of self-government and forging the path for the future State of Israel.