What fractured Jerusalem needs now

In the summer of 2014 Jerusalem broke apart, again. In those few bloody months, which began in April with the collapse of American-brokered peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians and ended with a tense cease-fire between Israel and Hamas after another destructive confrontation in Gaza, the fragile openness in the city, which had come to feel almost normal, disappeared. Especially in the commercial heart of Jewish West Jerusalem along Jaffa Road, the Palestinian shoppers and restaurant-goers from East Jerusalem disappeared, their place taken by right-wing Israeli protesters shouting racist slogans and roving gangs of Jewish teenagers “hunting for Arabs” to attack and abuse.

Those events — and the continuing violence in the city — hang like a looming cloud over Adina Hoffman’s just published Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City. The American-born, Jerusalem-based writer’s latest work is a beautifully written and captivating history of her adopted city during the tumultuous decades of British rule from 1918 to 1948, told through the lives and buildings of three representative architects: the visionary, German avant gardiste Erich Mendelsohn, the shy orientalist Austen St. Barbe Harrison, and the mysterious Spyro G. Houris.

Jaffa Road—which runs from the Jaffa Gate in the Old City walls, past Zion Square and the Mahane Yehuda market, to the traffic clogged western entrance to the city—is the setting for much of the book’s architectural action; all three of Hoffman’s protagonists built representative structures there.

Hoffman’s first-person vignettes of life in the city today — not just her impressions of racism and urban neglect on Jaffa Road, but descriptions of a fortuitous encounter with a shy Palestinian researcher in the national archives or with an ultra-Orthodox American transplant in a Spyro Houris–designed house — could be dismissed as extraneous additions meant to supply local color or narrative continuity.

But the opposite is true in “Till We Have Built Jerusalem.” Hoffman tells the intertwined stories of these three architects in order to make a claim for what kind of city Jerusalem could and should be today. Because of how they built and who they were, Mendelsohn, Houris, and Harrison are the perfect vehicles for a powerful political and cultural argument. As Hoffman has stated more explicitly in a recent essay, the Levantine values of cosmopolitanism, diversity, and liberality — qualities embodied by the book’s protagonists — are just what this fractured place needs most now.

Read the whole review from 2015 in Haaretz.