Book Review: Jerusalem Unbound: Geography, History, & the Future of the Holy City January 3, 2015 11:43

By Michael Dumper, Columbia University Press, 2014, hardcover, 360 pp.

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Reviewed by Kevin A. Davis

Michael Dumper opens his latest book on Jerusalem with the important question, “Why another book on Jerusalem?” Given the plethora of literature on the Holy City and its context within the larger Palestinian conflict, the question is valid. Interestingly, Dumper justifies Jerusalem Unbound, his third book on the city, by citing his recent work on the interdisciplinary project titled “Conflict in Cities and the Contested State,” which has pulled together scholars in sociology, architecture, urban studies, engineering and political science to cultivate new perspectives on Jerusalem as an urban space. The results, claim Dumper, influenced his desire to write another book on Jerusalem, this time focusing on it as a divided city with competing and contesting borders.

Dumper draws upon previous research on divided cities, placing Jerusalem in the same category as Belfast, Brussels, and Mostar, cities to which he continually refers. He argues, however, that Jerusalem is a special case. Not only is it a truly divided city, it also has a specific religious identity that makes the divisions much more complex than anywhere else. His main thesis is that there are limitless borders within the city, created by ethnic, religious, political and sectarian differences that overlap and connect in complex ways. It is not simply a two-way division between Palestinians and Israeli Jews, but a confusing array of social and political identities and accompanying statuses.

Chapter 1 begins with a discussion of what Dumper labels the “hard borders” of the city. These include borders created by walls, highways, barriers, checkpoints and other physical barriers. Examining the creation and expansion of these borders from an historical perspective, he also looks at how such borders affect the security infrastructure of Jerusalem and Israel’s ability to impose its military order through such infrastructure.

In the second chapter, Dumper introduces the concept of Jerusalem’s “soft borders.” Where the hard borders are visible to any observer, Jerusalem is a dizzying maze of more subtle borders, including those resulting from various education systems, electoral voting patterns, and the results of continued settler colonies and Israel’s incomplete annexation of East Jerusalem. Such borders affect the way the city is lived and understood by its residents. And, more often than not, according to Dumper, the soft borders contradict the apparent hard borders of the city. The result is that despite Israel’s colonial claim to the city, spaces of autonomy and uneven state control continue to dictate life for the city’s residents.

The third chapter explores the “holiness” of Jerusalem. In Dumper’s view, it is not just the contrasts between hard and soft borders that make the city of Jerusalem so complex, but the borders created by religious practices. He argues that religious sovereignty by small enclave communities—whether Muslim, Jewish or Chris­tian—have created areas where Israel’s direct control comes further into question. Each community in a sense controls certain parts of the city, and such control becomes incorporated into the larger Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Dumper devotes his book’s final two chapters to outlining a detailed proposal for a peaceful solution based on his previous analysis. Because of Jerusalem’s divergent borders, a simple political solution that entails a city divided into two parts is not practical and ignores the realities of everyday life for its residents. Rather, any solution must account for hard and soft borders as well as religious autonomy by multiple communities who consider Jerusalem to be holy. Dumper eloquently argues that such complexities have rarely been addressed in peace negotiations.

It is perhaps here that Dumper’s argument becomes weakest, possibly due to the abundance of solutions presented by various analysts or to Dumper’s sometimes overly deep knowledge of international law and the city. At the same time, however, his specific attention not to the entirety of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but rather on the settlement of the city of Jerusalem specifically, make his argument much more palatable and useful for general audiences and policymakers alike. Dumper’s unmatched knowledge of the everyday dynamics of Jerusalem make his insight incredibly valuable.

In sum, Jerusalem Unbound is a clearly organized, meticulously researched, highly readable guide to Jerusalem’s complex social and political landscape. Readers with an interest in political geography, urban studies and international law all will benefit from Dumper’s analysis, and his accessible writing style also will appeal to casual readers with an interest in the Holy City, its history, and its many fascinating aspects.


jerusalem unbound