A Montefiore Takes On Jerusalem
Tue, 11/22/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Montefiore Jerusalem
Montefiore Jerusalem

When Simon Sebag Montefiore was writing his new history, “Jerusalem: The Biography” (Knopf) he knew his objectivity would inevitably be questioned. After all, the author was not only Jewish, but, well, a Montefiore, one of England’s most respected Jewish families, and one with deep personal ties to the city.

His great-great uncle, Sir Moses Montefiore, a revered 19th-century financier, founded one of Jerusalem’s first Jewish neighborhoods outside the Old City. And Simon, now 46, has been visiting the city regularly since childhood, sometimes with the iconic mayor, the late Teddy Kollek, as his private guide.

“Given my background and my family name,” Montefiore said in an interview from London, “I knew this book would be scrutinized carefully, and it has been. But I don’t think anyone’s found anything” to seriously question its fairness.

Indeed, the book has been widely praised for both its accuracy and its balance. In less than 600 pages, it tells 3,000 years of Jerusalem’s history, beginning with King David’s conquering of the city from the Canaanites. It winds through the Roman destruction of the Second Temple, in 70 A.D., when 500 Jews were crucified a day, just for sport; and continues on through the Christian conquest by Constantine; Muslim control under the Arab Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties; the long period of Ottoman rule, up until the British takeover, in 1917. It brings readers up through the present in the epilogue, though 1967, the year Israelis gained control of the entire city, is the last formal chapter.

But do not mistake “Jerusalem,” published in the United States this month, for a tendentious pro-Israel account. Montefiore can write scathingly of Jewish rule, and misrule; and the same of the Christians, Muslims and British who followed. And though he ends his book in 1967, he does not avoid present-day politics. He bookends the narrative with broadsides against Israel’s support for Jewish settlers, and rebukes Palestinians who continue to deny historical Jewish claims to the city.

“I wanted to get to the truth of it as much as possible,” Montefiore said. “One of the anti-Zionists myths [I was trying to discredit] is the idea that Zionism is a purely modern creation that begins with Herzl. I think that anybody who he reads this book will see that every Jew has in some way been a Zionist since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D.”

He continued: “The book doesn’t challenge the legitimacy of Zionism; Jews have every right to a state there. But the Palestinians have every right to a state there too, and I want them to have one there as soon as possible. I don’t see any contradiction in holding those two positions.”

But would the bloody history he presents — one strewn with crucifixions, incinerations, adultery, castration and ceaseless blood-letting — dim the hope for peaceful coexistence?

“I don’t think the dream of a capital for two states is impossible, I don’t,” he answered. “Both sides were very close, with Olmert in 2008” — when the former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, secretly negotiated the outlines of a peace deal with the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, though it never came to fruition.

“There has to be the will on both sides for it to happen,” he continued, adding: “There has to be recognition on both sides that each one has claims to the city. You can sign any treaty but it will only last if each side recognizes the heritage, the triumphs and tragedies of the other. That was the real aim of the book. And it’s a hard thing to do after such war and suffering.”

It took Montefiore three years to write “Jerusalem.” He synthesized countless scholarly histories, and incorporated printed and rarely used primary sources, too. There were the titillating diaries of an early-20th-century Arab oud player he found, for instance, that gave a street-level view of the city’s recent past. Then there were his own family archives. “In 1918, a police chief of Jerusalem was a Montefiore,” he said. “I used some of his archives.”

Though not a professional historian, Montefiore majored in history as an undergraduate at Cambridge. More importantly, the three other histories he’s written already — two on Stalin, and one on the Potemkin — relied heavily on archival research and were widely praised by professional historians as well as by the general public. 

For his biography on Stalin’s early life, “Young Stalin” (2007), Montefiore mined previously un-used archives in Georgia, where Stalin was born. Montefiore became aware of them while he worked as a freelance war correspondent in Georgia, in the early 1990s. After spending a few years as an investment banker, he gave up the white-shoe career to pursue his fascination with Russia, from which his mother’s family had emigrated from at the turn of the 20th century.

“I studied Russian history all my life, so when war broke out in 1991 [after the Soviet Union collapsed], I just went to all these countries. All the other journalists were in Moscow,” he said.  So when major news organizations like The New York Times and The Spectator needed a reporter to cover the conflicts, they turned to him. “It was a great adventure,” he said of his journalism years.

He recalled one episode in particular. It was 1991, and he was in the office of the Georgian president and asked if he could call his mother. “I said to him, ‘I know she’s worried.’ He said yes, then when I called, she said, ‘There’s a war going on’—typical Jewish mother — ‘Are you alright?’”

While they were talking, the president went to make a speech on his balcony, where protestors were denouncing him. Then Montefiore’s mother said: “What’s going on over there? It sounds like Hitler is giving a speech.” “I said, ‘It’s not Hitler, it’s another local dictator; he’s giving a speech.’”

The president was eventually killed. But the time Montefiore spent reporting proved critical to his future career as a writer of history. “It was a very intense life,” Montefiore said, “I was seeing history being made close-up.”

The Stalin biographies — “Stalin: The Court of the Red Tzar,” from 2003, and “Young Stalin” — secured his reputation as a serious historian. And though “Jerusalem” is less concerned with breaking new scholarly ground than the Stalin books, he aimed for as accurate a history as possible. Before “Jerusalem” was published, for instance, he had it vetted by many leading scholars — Palestinian, Israeli and British.

“I even had it read by officials from Fatah, the PLO and the Israeli government,” Montefiore said. “Writing about Jerusalem was very stressful; every word counts.”

The connections Montefiore made over the years helped his research. The family pedigree got him access to some high-placed present-day Jerusalemites, from Israeli President Shimon Peres to several princes in Jordan. Then there is his marriage to Santa Palmer-Tomkinson, a successful romance novelist from a well-connected British family. 

Prince Charles is a close family friend of Palmer-Tomkinson’s parents. And since Montefiore’s marriage to Santa, in 1998, Prince Charles and his wife, Camille Parker Bowles, have befriended Montefiore. The Prince even signed the couple’s ketubah: “When he came to our wedding,” Montefiore said, Prince Charles “had a kippah with his family crest of feathers, for the Prince of Wales, on it,” he said.

Since then, Montefiore has introduced Prince Charles to David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, and a friend of Montefiore’s.  And Montefiore has gotten to know Prince Williams and his new wife, Kate Middleton. Montefiore attended their wedding, and Middleton came to the book release party for “Young Stalin” in London.

All this has been widely covered in the British press, but Montefiore doesn’t like to linger on it. Yet when it comes to his wife’s conversion to Judaism, he had more to say: “It was a big deal, it meant everything to me. It was very romantic. She learned Hebrew and we visited Jerusalem and, to me, her conversion was more important than the marriage itself. But I never asked her to do it. … I think that she felt that if we had a family, she wanted to have one religion” for our children.

Indeed, their two children — Lily Bathsheba,  10, to whom “Jerusalem” is dedicated; and Sasha, 8 — are being raised Jewish.  Montefiore is himself mildly observant — “I light the Sabbath candles,” he says — but strongly identifies as Jewish. Despite his elite British upbringing, which included posh boarding school and to Cambridge, he hastens to add that he’s never felt entirely “British.”

“I still feel primarily Jewish,” he said. “I don’t feel that Jewish people have a class” — which, for Britons, is often central to their identities. It may be some of that distance that enabled him to write the Jewish presence so strongly into his history of Jerusalem. Many intellectuals in Britain have become outright hostile towards Zionism, and Montefiore sees “Jerusalem” as, in part, a rebuke to them.

“It’s a fashion, that’s all it is,” he said of anti-Zionism in Britain. “Before 1967, Israel was a fashionable cause, and since the 1980s, being against it has become increasingly fashionable.”

But he doesn’t see himself making a rallying cry for Zionism, either. “As a youth,” he said, “I was much more of a Zionist. But Israel was very different then. Israel’s changed, and so have I.”