British Culture on the Streets of the City 1917-1948

The exhibition “London in Jerusalem” asked us to turn our gaze from the political, religious and symbolic aspects of Jerusalem that usually occupy our attention when we focus on the history of the city, and look at the residents of Jerusalem, their work and their material needs – an outlook generally reserved for the city of Tel Aviv. The exhibition sheded light on society and the cultural life of Jerusalem during a relatively short, but extremely influential time in the history of the city: the thirty years of the British Mandate. During this period, the processes of modernization, which began at the end of the 19th century, crystallized and new initiatives were established which boosted the economy and culture of Jerusalem.

The British began their journey to the Land of Israel with a military conquest, and from July 1922 they worked to establish the mandate which was given to them by the League of Nations. Their status as holders of the mandate made them the temporary “patrons” of the country and allowed them to express their imperialistic tendencies regarding the use of public spaces and the cultural activities held within. As opposed to most other areas of the country, the British administration offices as well as a community of British nationals, including women and children, were located in Jerusalem. Members of this community enjoyed familiar British culture, customs and traditions in their homes and also created new cultural opportunities in Jerusalem.

Waves of immigration of middle-class Jews and Arabs, who began to arrive in Jerusalem at the end of the 1920’s, introduced new spices into the melting pot that was Jerusalem. Veteran residents, Jews and Arabs, who had already woven a joint identity and connection to the city, were also faced with new immigrants and their cultural baggage, this time with the scent of Europe. These new arrivals sought a way to express their unique culture in their new place.

This combination of circumstances created fertile ground in Jerusalem for extensive social activities and laid the groundwork for new cultural institutions. Choirs were formed, as well as dance troupes and theaters, coffee houses and cinemas, private salons and public cultural events, and universities. Next to the coffee of the traditional finjan it was possible to find Scottish whiskey and oysters. The Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum (1931) and the classic Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini (1936) performed on the city’s stages; British soldiers volleyed with Jewish and Arab residents and competed against each other in tournaments on the tennis courts and cricket pitches built in the city; the sounds of the oud and the violin, the piano and vocalists were heard coming from the radio studio on Princess Melisende Street. And throughout this time, Jerusalem continued to challenge the lives of her residents with political, societal and security upheavals which also influenced the cultural scene.

The exhibition, “London in Jerusalem”, examined events which transpired in the same public spaces, and occasionally made for a fascinating fusion. The exhibition depicted a profile of the different cultural voices that existed for but a brief moment during the period of the British Mandate. Some of these voices disappeared as if they had never existed, but some of them are still present and echo in the city today. The presentation of the exhibition at the Tower of David, which served as a cultural and artistic center during this time, giveed it a special distinction and closes a symbolic circle, one hundred years after the beginning of the British Mandate.

Curators: Liat Margalit and Inbar Dror Lax

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