Silent films had already made their way to Jerusalem in the first decade of the 20th century, and were occasionally screened in coffee shops near Jaffa Gate, quickly gaining popularity. One of the city’s first cinemas was established at the Feingold House on Jaffa Road in 1912. During World War One, the cinema changed hands several times in light of political developments: from a Christian Romanian by the name of Joritash (Goriani), to a German Templer named Feig, to his Jewish partner Israel Gut. Accordingly, the cinema relocated several times, finally inhabiting a shack at the Antimos Garden on land leased from the Greek-Orthodox Church, in the middle of Jaffa Road.1 This chain of events intersected with major shifts that transpired in Jerusalem at the time. Modern Jerusalem developed outside of the Old City in the late 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. Its expansion was prompted by several factors: significant population growth, improved roadways and development and modernization processes under Ottoman rule, and the capitulations regime, which drew the Great Powers to Jerusalem and spurred their competition over control of the city. Jaffa Road, extending westward from Jaffa Gate in the Old City, served as the connective axis between old and new Jerusalem. Over the years, it gradually transformed from a rural intercity road into a major, developing urban street that crossed residential neighborhoods, local and foreign institutions, workshops, and commercial venues. In 1917, shortly before they conquered Palestine, the British issued the Balfour Declaration – the primary catalyst for the national Jewish-Arab conflict in Palestine.
The British worldview was based on rigid ethnic-religious divides and binary distinctions between East and West, tradition and modernity, and the sacred and mundane, concepts foreign to the multicultural, diffused city of the late Ottoman era. Among other things, this approach was reflected in the planning of public space. The new city, which had previously developed in geographical, visual, and functional proximity and continuity to the Old City, now grew removed and distinct from it, expanding toward the west.2 Encouraged by these and other changes in the local land market, the Zionist movement purchased the Antimos Garden and two additional plots near the center of Jaffa Road from the Greek Orthodox Church. On this land, at a considerable distance from the city center at Jaffa Gate, the British paved two new roads: King George Street and the “main” street that later became Ben-Yehuda. Thus, the Jerusalem “Triangle,” which quickly developed into the city’s urban quarter, was formed.3 The cinema in Antimos Garden, on the corner of Ben Yehuda Street and Jaffa Road, found itself at the center of this quarter, and was named “Zion Cinema.” With the help of another Jewish partner, Yitzhak Peretz, Gut eventually replaced the cinema-shack with a two-story building that included an 800-seat theater. The square in front of the cinema soon became the city’s main square, and was widely referred to as “Zion” Square.4
Guide map of Jerusalem for the British Soldier (1946)
Drawn by Survey Directorate H.Q. Pal & T.
Yellow highlighting of the cinemas was made by the author
The National Library of Israel,The Eran Laor Cartographic Collection [Jer 470].
Despite the apparent involvement of Zionist institutions and individuals in establishing the new urban quarter, it quickly grew into a diverse area that attracted consumers and entrepreneurs from all populations of the city. The main commercial and office building in Zion Square was built by the catholic-Arab Sansur brothers, and carries their name to this day. Additional Arab entrepreneurs established multiple buildings, businesses, and offices in the area alongside and sometimes in partnership with Jewish counterparts. While the shared name of the cinema and square may have reflected a complex duality between the new spirit of cinema and modernism on one hand and a mythical symbol of national redemption on the other, the multiple functions, entrepreneurs, and populations that both served tipped the scale significantly toward the former.5 This predilection was rooted in a long-standing tradition of shared life between different ethnic and religious communities in the city that intermingled in everyday, social, and cultural arenas. It was also exhibited at Zion Cinema and the additional cinemas, cafés, and businesses established in its vicinity. Though Arab Jerusalemites were not ignorant of its national significance, they regarded the name of “Zion Cinema” and “its” square as a religious symbol and private name, familiar to them from generations of shared Arab-Jewish life in Jerusalem.6 However, like in any typical film epic, the seeds of conflict were bound to spring into the heart of this increasingly complex plot. As national tensions escalated, the halls of “fezzes and hats” in central Jerusalem also became hubs of friction, though they continued to attract most populations of the city throughout the majority of the Mandate period.
The current article concerns the social and cultural life that developed against this backdrop in Mandatory Jerusalem, a life cultivated through the combination of cinemas – the primary cultural platforms of the time – and cafés, one in which Zion Cinema played a central role. The article describes and analyzes this unique urban experience and the changes it underwent, based on the diaries and memoirs of those who lived through it, along with relevant press and literature.7
Many scholars have written on the important role of cinema in 20th century urban development. This new medium embodied the distinctive characteristics of the modern era: enhanced visual experience and accelerated pace of life in response to technological developments and popular culture. It was both influenced by these developments and instrumental in driving them. Cinemas were open to a new set of populations, including women, youth, the elderly, and the working class, and were key to the development of public urban space. Film generally communicated in widely accessible universal language, giving viewers the sense that they were “citizens of the world”. More than any other medium, film managed to convey the pace of modern life, particularly that of modern cities. It was able to express the awe and enchantment of the urban dweller, modeled after the flâneur (“stroller”) protagonist in the works of modern thinkers, primarily Walter Benjamin. In fact, the camera managed to mimic the flâneur’s point of view so effectively, that urban life sometimes seemed more “real” on screen.8
This interplay between cinema and urban development was particularly evident in Mandatory Palestine. City centers in the region developed around the cinemas, which were designed like the grand cultural halls of the time. The “cinema-square” model became pervasive in Palestine’s urban settings,9 and Mandatory cities therefore lacked the prominent monuments or eye-catching fountains of major cities around the world.10 The cinema became the axis around which cities flourished, and its exterior their functional and visual focal point. Cinemas were designed by leading architects in the avant-garde style of the time and housed cultural performances of every genre: operas, theater, and public and political assemblies. However, the new medium – silent film and later sound film – is that which ultimately defined them and their role in public life and space.11
In light of the great popularity of film during the Mandate period, additional cinemas quickly opened in the Jerusalem Triangle, which attracted the diverse populations of the city as well. Contrary to Zion Cinema and the duality reflected by its name, those built around it – Orion, Edison, Eden, Studio, Rex, and Tel-Or – exhibited motifs that reflected the world of film and its universal spirit in both name and function. Numerous cafés opened around the cinemas, whose names – “Café Europa”, “Café Vienna” – also demonstrated the cosmopolitan aspirations of the shared urban quarter and a common yearning for “the real thing,” which was in itself the image of an image best depicted on screen.12 The cinemas had a formative effect on the urban landscape with their prominent location, architectural style, and display windows, the big banners hung over their broad entryways, and the lights emanating from them at night, dominating the street setting. These were designed to draw the attention of passersby and maximize the visual temptation of cinematic wonder. While the least visually extravagant, Zion Cinema gained a “cathedral-like” presence through its central location in the city square, its crucial role in social and cultural city life, and the crowds regularly congregated at its entrance: whether waiting for tickets, engaged in chance encounters, or using the location as a gathering place.13
Many Mandate-period diaries and memoirs by Jerusalemite Jews and Arabs note the centrality of Zion Cinema and the versatile city life that developed around it, enriched by the cafés and additional cinemas in the area. This evolution took place within broader contexts of urban development that also included accelerated construction and physical development, mixed Jewish-Arab living, diverse trade and commerce, liberal professions, and the concentration of British government offices in the new city center. This variety and density of urban functions was integral to the rapid growth and vitality of this environment, and in turn, contributed to the flourishing of cinemas and cafés. This shared communal life began to change toward the end of the 1930s, as these important hubs of connection between Jerusalemite Arabs and Jews became hubs of friction as well.
Zion cinema in Zion square, Jaffa Street, Jerusalem, 1945.
The National Photo Collection (Israel)
Source: gpophoto.gov.il photo code: D728-072.jpg.
This galvanized shack was instrumental in the social development of Jerusalem. […] For many years, “Zion Cinema” served both us and our neighbors. Fezzes and hats sat side by side in peace and amity. The cinema became a kind of Jewish-Arab club. Within its walls, Jewish and Arab youth uttered joint cries of excitement as love scenes played on the screen. […] Over the years, the hall shed its old form and assumed a new one. A stone structure was built atop the metal ruins. But we, the children of 1920s Jerusalem, still remember the metal shack and the holes carved into its western wall, revealing the stars of the screen. […] When we went to the cinema, especially on Saturday evenings after Shabbat, we would see half of Jerusalem’s population at the entrance before the show. During the week, everyone knew who had visited the cinema on Saturday evening.14
Many of the accounts by Jews and Arabs of Mandatory Jerusalem describe visits to the cinema, particularly Zion Cinema, as a formative experience. The powerful appeal of this medium reflected the rise of visual images, popular culture, and the middle class. Visits to the cinema were perceived as magical: the lavish interior and exposure to the wonders of technology, the encounter between different populations, going out to “the city” and enjoying its cafés, ice cream parlors, and street vendors, and of course, the films themselves, were all essential to the experience. Being universal, affordable, and widely accessible, the cinema quickly became the favored recreational activity of urban Jerusalemite society. Aside from “fezzes and hats,” Zion Cinema and the other cinemas around it were frequented by British officials and military personnel as well as members of new populations in the city. Cinemas were also among the first public places in which women and men, of varying ethnicities and social backgrounds, sat alongside one another as equals.
Yaakov Yehoshua, in continuation of the opening quote, shares that in the days of silent films, the owners of Zion Cinema would invite a small orchestra as accompaniment:
If a little war was happening on screen, the orchestra would speed up with boisterous battle songs, and if passionate lovers were shown, it would play melodies saturated with love and youthful pining. Thus, the orchestra helped audiences understand films that were not necessarily accessible to all.15
The viewing experience was a highly emotional one. Audience members would whistle, gesture, clap, and shout in various languages throughout the screening. Together, these elements made visiting the cinema a shared cultural experience. 16
Zion Cinema, also referred to as “Zion Hall” and sometimes as “Zion Theater,” served as Jerusalem’s main cultural hall throughout the Mandate period. In addition to films, it regularly featured the Palestine Opera led by conductor Mordechai Golinkin, concerts by famous violinist Bronislaw Huberman, performances by the “Habima”, “Ha’ohel”, and “Ha’matateh” theaters, and international artists including Jascha Heifetz and Jacques Thibaud. It also hosted a variety of balls and public assemblies.
In 1923, “Traviata” (La Traviata), the debut show of the Palestine Opera, was performed in Hebrew on the Zion Cinema stage at least four times within a six-month period. While the Doar Hayom newspaper criticized the high ticket prices, it noted approvingly that the 800-seat theater was full, the opera enthusiastically received, and that despite the language barrier, “a considerable amount of British and Arab patrons” had attended.17
British high commissioners and head officers would regularly attend operas and concerts at Zion Cinema, often bringing their guests.18 Governor Storrs, under the aegis of the Pro-Jerusalem Society, initiated concerts for all residents of Jerusalem at Zion Cinema. As recalled by Justice Gad Frumkin, the ten-year anniversary of the Hebrew-language Habima Theater was celebrated at Zion Cinema in December 1928 under the auspices of High Commissioner Chancellor.19 Additionally, the Zionist movement elected to open the second and third sessions of its Assembly of Representatives at Zion Cinema. Both sessions, in 1922 and 1925, were boycotted by the ultra-Orthodox due to the issue of women’s participation in Assembly elections, and characterized by ongoing tension vis-à-vis Sephardi (Oriental) leadership over the lacking representation of Sephardi and Mizrachi Jews.20 Zionist leaders, from Chaim Weizmann to Ze’ev Jabotinsky, delivered speeches during public assemblies at Zion Theater. In honor of Weizmann’s speech in December 1922, the Palestine Opera agreed to postpone its scheduled performance that evening. Every seat was occupied by noon, and as evening approached, the lobby doors were opened in order to contain the massive crowd at the entrance, estimated at roughly 5000 people.21 Yaakov Yehoshua remembers hearing Zionist leader Nahum Sokolow’s speech at Zion Hall. Conducted on a Saturday afternoon, the speech was attended by “nearly all residents of Jerusalem,” and Yehoshua, then a young man, listened while standing, crowding alongside many others.22
The events and performances at Zion Hall were not limited to the Hebrew language or to Jewish community affairs. Audiences at Zion Cinema, and later the other cinemas in its vicinity, were mixed. Jewish cinema owners would advertise screenings and performances in Arabic newspapers, adding holiday greetings around Christian and Muslim holidays, and Arab cinema owners did the same with their Hebrew speaking audience.23 In 1932, renowned Egyptian singer-composer-oud-player Mohammed Abdul Wahab performed at Zion Hall. This was Abdul Wahab’s second performance in Jerusalem, and with his popularity rising across the Middle East, he chose Zion Hall as a venue. Tickets for this event were highly coveted as well, and standing audience members outnumbered seated ones. The event is described in the diaries of Arab music ethnomusicologist and oud player Wasif Jawhariyyeh, who was then at the outset of his musical career. During his visit to Jerusalem, Abdul Wahab stayed in the lavish home of writer and scholar Issaf al-Nashashibi in Sheikh Jarrah. Moments before the concert began, news arrived that Supreme Court Justice Ali Bey Jarallah, among the eminent figures of Jerusalem and a frequent guest of al-Nashashibi, had passed away. Jarallah was also a friend and colleague of Justice Frumkin, whose memoir described him as “the most outstanding character among the judges” of his time.24 Grief washed over the full hall, and it seemed the concert would be cancelled. However, several moments later, Abdul Wahab appeared on stage, delivered a brief eulogy in Jarallah’s memory, dedicated the performance to “the audience and the arts,” and swept the hall away. In a different context, this may not have been possible, but the cinematic space, stripped of the familiar settings of authority and tradition, empowered “the public” and its ability to independently define the “appropriate.” At the end of the show, al-Nashashibi invited the excited Jawhariyyeh backstage for a handshake and introduction.25
Jawhariyyeh had come across the late judge several times through their joint social circles. They had met two years prior at the home of Jawhariyyeh’s friend Hassan Sidki al-Dajani during a welcome party for a Turkish string ensemble that also performed at Zion Hall. Other members of the al-Nashashibi family were also present at the event, including then-mayor of Jerusalem Raghib al-Nashashibi. The occasion was particularly memorable for Jawhariyyeh, as it marked his first encounter with the cümbüş, a modern oud that had yet to be seen in Mandatory Palestine, later known as “the modern oud of Ataturk,” which also made its debut on the “Zion” stage. Jawhariyyeh, among the foremost oud players in Jerusalem, continued to prefer the traditional oud nonetheless.26
Like Jaffa and Haifa, Jerusalem had ties to the rest of the Middle East, and artists of all Arab and Muslim regions – Umm Kulthum, Sabbah, Farid al-Atrash, and others – came to perform there. Al-Atrash performed in Jerusalem in the 1930s, at the Edison Cinema.27 Ghada Karmi, who was born and raised in the Katamon neighborhood, also describes Zion Cinema in her diaries, stating that, “Visiting Egyptian film stars, singers and comedians performed there to packed, excited audiences of Jerusalemites who felt themselves part of a new glamorous world.”28 Prior to Abdul Wahab’s live performance at Zion Hall, he often appeared on film screens at Zion Cinema as well as in Tel-Aviv, Haifa, and other locations in Mandatory Palestine. Hazem Zaki Nusseibeh, a news editor for the Palestine Broadcasting Service in Arabic and later a high-ranking diplomat and minister in the Jordanian government, recalls the film Wardat al-Hubb al-Safi (“the white rose”) starring Abdul Wahab, claiming it was among the first sound films screened at Zion Cinema. Particularly memorable to him is the image of Arab women walking to the cinema:
I remember vividly crowds of women, most of whom in the early 1930s were still veiled and wearing the milayas (long black robs), walking briskly towards the cinema [Zion]. They were excited at the prospect of watching a talking film in Arabic for the first time in their lives. None came by car or bus, because these were a rarity, and walking was the order of the day. It would be inconceivable today to see such big Arab crowds wandering at ease in the heart of the Jewish quarters, without as much as a raised eyebrow in surprise or protest. The two peoples were still living side-by-side in amity and peace, notwithstanding their diametrically opposed political platforms.29
Manar Hassan examines the significant role of cinema in opening up public urban space to Arab women during the Mandate period, and in allowing them to enjoy new experiences and social roles. It likely had a similar effect for Jewish women from a traditional-patriarchal background.30 The very concept of men and women sitting side by side during a joint cultural experience was new to many. The cinemas were also among the first places that young girls could visit in independent groups, without adult supervision. This was partly due to the immense popularity of film, and perhaps also to its liminal position between public space and closed, confined space, and the versatile settings in which it could be viewed: from private homes or charity and social events, to neighborhood cinemas such as the Regent/Orient and Al Sharq, to the big cinemas in the city center.31
The Zion Hall stage was also the first to feature Palestinian women performers. This occurred for the first time in 1928 during “The Sacrifices,” (al-Dhabāʾiḥ) a play produced by the Islamic Sports Club in Jaffa (al-Nādī al-Riyāḍī al-Islāmī fī Yāfā). The play was originally written for the Egyptian “Ramesses” theater but was instead debuted by the Jaffa Theater on the Zion Hall stage in Jerusalem. Arab-Palestinian women had never before performed on stage, and men customarily played the female characters. Hassan adds that after the groundbreaking performance, Arab women began appearing in shows for women’s associations, sports and culture clubs, and schools across Mandatory Palestine. One example was the acting committee of the Sports Education Club in Jerusalem (al-Nādī al-Riyāḍī al-Tahdhībī), which gave Arab women an opportunity to explore and develop their acting skills. In 1929, the committee produced the play “Abed al-Rahman al-Nasser King of Andalus” (ʿAbd al-Raḥman al-Nāṣir Malik al-Andalus) at Zion Theater with a cast of 50 actresses and actors.32
In hindsight, this series of events seems almost fictional. However, as Hazem Zaki Nusseibeh aptly describes, in the 1920s and 1930s and even in the first half of the 1940s, shared life traditions were still strong, persisting despite national tensions and often surmounting them. The interrelation between modernism and nationalism is a universal historical phenomenon.33 However, accelerated urban development also significantly increased opportunities for members of different communities to encounter one another in shared public space, and to contribute to its development. In Jerusalem, the numerous daily interactions between members of various populations, both intentional and unintentional, in varying, diverse arenas, fostered an affinity toward the shared urban community that flourished for many years alongside, and not strictly in contrast with, national affinities.34
As a developing urban environment, Zion Square was also a sphere of interaction between the old and the new, and one of social stratification. While urban development generated new economic opportunities and social mobility, the new bourgeois lifestyle also gave impetus to an expanding class of artisans and service providers in traditional and new fields, who were enmeshed in modernization processes yet pushed to their margins. These distinctions became as integral to the urban landscape as national ones. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the semi-invisible figures of the lower class are less present in direct documentation of the square and more so in literary works, photographs, and childhood memories, which may lend them a picturesque-exotic quality, but still stand as social documentation. These sources reveal the tamarind vendor, the shoe shiners, the porters – mainly Jews of Kurdish and Bulgarian descent, the Ethiopian chestnut roasters, the Sudanese green chickpea (ḥāmilah malʾāna) vendors, the “magic box” (Ṣundūk al-ʿAjāʾib), which both preceded and imitated the cinema, and the “temporary” poor – Yekkes (German Jews) in white robes and chef’s hats, who abandoned their liberal professions for lack of demand and sold hotdogs for a living outside of Café Europa.35
Through all of its different incarnations, Zion Cinema never matched the lavish or avant-garde style typical of other cinemas at the time. However, its central location in the city square, its crucial role in the social and cultural life of Jerusalem and the large billboard advertising it from a distance drew one’s gaze to the building and lent it a cathedral-like presence. This presence was further emphasized under special events in which electric signs were displayed on the front of the cinema such as at the coronation of King George VI in May 1937 and the end of World War II in 1945. The centrality of the cinema in city life was also reflected by the constant crowds at its entrance waiting for tickets or using the central location as a gathering place and meeting point and the ongoing traffic surrounding it, composed of passersby, vendors, and vehicles.36 In many ways, Zion Cinema embodied the spirit of shared public life during this period, and the various trends, contradictions, and gaps that characterized it.
In 1931, the theater expanded to include 1,200 seats and a larger stage that could accommodate ensemble shows, concerts, and opera. The renovated hall opened with a screening of the Charlie Chaplin film “City Lights.”37 Additional cinemas opened around the square during the Mandate period: Eden (1928), the somewhat distant Edison (1932), Orion (1938), Rex (1938), Tel Or (1941), and Studio (1944).38 Rex was owned by Josef P. Albina, a well-known Jerusalemite Christian-Arab contractor and entrepreneur, head of the Arab Chamber of Commerce, and for a time, a member of the city council.
He was friendly with Gut (owner of Zion Cinema), and, as Gut did with his Arab patrons, would advertise shows and send greetings to his Jewish clientele in Hebrew press. Rex Cinema would also screen films with Hebrew translation. Albina was known as an amateur photographer and had a personal interest in film. Next door to Rex, he established the smaller Studio Cinema, where he screened Egyptian and self-produced films in Arabic under “Nile Film Ltd.” for both Arab and Jewish audiences.39 The most visually avant-garde of the cinemas was the Orion, which was built in the mid-1930s and modeled after the renowned Radio City Music Hall in New York. With 1,400 seats, it was also the largest in the city. 40
Some of the most prominent cinemas in the center of Jerusalem were the product of Jewish-Arab partnerships. Albina founded Rex in cooperation with the Armenian Patriarchate, which owned the land, and entrepreneur Yona Friedman. Ezra (Moshe) Mizrahi, owner of the Edison, established the Orion Cinema along with Daoud Dajani and the Dabah family. However, in both cases, co-ownership lasted a relatively short time, and both Mizrahi and Albina purchased their respective partners’ share. While these partnerships ended somewhat tensely, it seems both cases revolved around business interests. In contrast, Albina maintained a stable, close partnership with the two Jewish co-owners of his large construction company: engineer Baruch Katinka and contractor Tuvia Donia, brother-in-law to Chaim Weizmann. The construction company “Albina, Donia, and Katinka” built the main Jerusalem post office as well as airports and military bases across Mandatory Palestine, and made sure to employ workers of all religions and ethnicities. 41
Zion Cinema maintained its seniority in Jerusalem throughout the Mandate period, and was rivaled only by the Edison, which was built in the early 1930s and also added the title “theater” to its name. The Edison Cinema opened with a widely attended ceremony that included government and municipal representatives and honorable figures from all populations of Jerusalem. Journalist and editor Itamar Ben-Avi, who delivered the opening speech at the ceremony, commented on “the joyous fact that most theatres and cinemas in Mandatory Palestine, from Gut’s Zion Cinema to Abarbanel’s Eden, from Carasso’s Ophir to Mugrabi’s Opera, to, especially, the Edison – the largest and most lavish of them all, belonging to Mizrahi and his sons – have been established by Hebrews of the Orient.” Gut either earned his place on this list by error or due to his ability to blend-in and his partnership with Yitzhak Peretz.42 The relationship between Gut and Edison Cinema owner Ezra Mizrahi was characterized by tense competition and mutual accusations that ended up in both the press and the courtroom on several occasions.43 Their relationship with Albina, on the other hand, was friendly. While the Edison Cinema was indeed larger and more elaborate, Zion Cinema had the advantage of its central location, and the lively street life that flourished around “its” square.
The Zion Cinema building was renovated once again toward the end of the 1930s, and now included six stories all together. The Gut and Peretz families, who owned the cinema and had previously shared the first floor, now lived on the third and fourth floors of the new structure. The two families shared a warm, intimate relationship. They kept their doors open, spent holidays together, and jointly celebrated family occasions on the building rooftop. During this period, many of the business and office owners in the area lived in nearby apartments or split their quarters into a residential and commercial space. Israel Gut, a known figure in Jerusalem, was born in Lviv (Galicia), graduated from the Reimann School of Art in Berlin, and worked as an art teacher at the Bezalel Art School during his early days in Palestine. Thanks to his many occupations and active membership in Freemasonry lodges and the Rotary Club, Gut forged connections with Jews, Arabs, and British officials. At the Freemasonry lodges, Gut was able to meet his neighbors: attorney and Sephardi leader David Abulafia, who built the large building adjacent to Zion Cinema with the help of another neighbor – Mikhail Sansur, architect Spiros Houris, who planned many of the luxury buildings in the city including that of Issaf al-Nashashibi in Sheikh Jarrah and several of the eclectic-style houses in the elegant row bordering Zion Square on the Jaffa Road side, as well as Baruch Katinka and many others. 44
Numerous cafés, hotels, and businesses opened around Zion Cinema, offering various merchandise and an elegant setting for the lively activity of various populations, and forming a distinct urban fabric. The demand for hotels and boarding houses began to increase in the mid-1930s with the Nazis’ rise to power and the subsequent influx of Jewish refugees from Europe, and persisted during World War II, when Mandatory Palestine served as a transit and supply station for the British military.45 During the 1930s, dozens of cafés had opened in Jerusalem, mostly in the city center, the majority of which were owned by German-speaking Jews.46 Alongside the well-known “Europa” and “Vienna” cafés in Zion Square, other cafés became social and culinary institutions as well: “Kapulski” in the Zion Cinema building, “Atara,” “Zichel,” and “Elno” on Ben Yehuda Street, “Alaska” on Jaffa Road, “Tuv Ta’am” and “Ritz” on King George Street, “Fink” on the corner of King George and Ha’poalim (Ha’Histadrut) Street, the elegant Hesse Restaurant behind Rex Cinema. Café Europa was located in the front of the Sansur building, the main office building in Mandatory Jerusalem, which was situated opposite Zion Cinema and owned by the aforementioned brothers Mikhail and Khalil Sansur – among the prominent entrepreneurs in Jerusalem and residents of the Katamon neighborhood. The cafés were populated by Sephardi and Ashkenazi (European) Jews, Christian and Muslim Arabs, Armenians, Greeks, and British military and government personnel. The patrons smoked, played chess, chatted, read newspapers and books, listened and danced to music, and conducted social gatherings, events, work and business meetings, heated discussions, and even political negotiations.47
The popular “al-Jawhariyyeh” Café, owned by Wasif’s brother Khalil Jawhariyyeh, was located at the western entrance of the Russian Compound on Jaffa Road near Zion Square. The size of four stores put together, the café was located on the ground floor of a British government building and had six street-facing doors. Wasif would sometimes perform there with a mixed ensemble of Arab and Jewish musicians. Al-Jawhariyyeh was frequented by members of all ethnicities and religions who enjoyed the contemporary Middle Eastern musical and culinary menu, inspired by the modern cafés of Beirut.48
Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews would also regularly visit the Arab cafés at the Jaffa Gate and the garden-cafés outside the city, in Beit Jala, Ein Karem, and Beit Safafa. Most Arab cafés continued to offer the traditional combination: coffee, hookah, backgammon, Middle Eastern music, and conversations about a range of issues from the everyday to the philosophical. Alongside these were a smaller number of “literary cafés” and bar-cafés frequented by intellectual circles. The Vagabond Party, led by Khalil al-Sakakini, would gather at the “Mukhtar” Café near the Jaffa Gate. Sakakini later drew groups of intellectuals, including Arab-speaking Jews, to the “Piccadilly” Café in Mamilla.49 Yaakov Yehoshua recalls meeting with al-Sakakini at the “Qahwat al-Ma’arif” at the Jaffa Gate.50 In most of the Arab cafés, women and men did not sit together. According to Ghada Karmi, this is why many members of the Arab middle class preferred Jewish cafés. They were also lured by their “Viennese” atmosphere and menu, and the sidewalk tables from which one could observe passersby. Men and women, Arabs and Jews, also jointly attended lectures and concerts and used the tennis courts, libraries, and cafeterias at the YMCA and King David Hotel, although they largely did so as families.51 The constant expansion of the middle class stimulated cultural, public, and political involvement among both Jews and Arabs. Press in Hebrew, Arabic, and other languages thrived. New newspapers were established, European and international magazines were prevalent, bookstores and libraries multiplied, public assemblies and cultural events were held routinely, and several thousand social, educational, charity, and sports clubs, as well as various organizations, professional and otherwise, were active across the city and saw a steady increase in women’s participation. Along with the political events of the period, this social vitality enhanced national awareness, gradually influencing the lives, habits, and dispositions of Jerusalem’s residents. Nonetheless, the demand for events that crossed cultural, religious, political, and social orientations persisted at least until the mid-1930s.
While the outbreak of the Arab revolt (1936-1939) did not shift this dynamic at its core, it did cast a dark shadow over it. Throughout this period, the halls of “fezzes and hats” in central Jerusalem also became a target for Arabs and Jews who sought to escalate the national struggle and infuse shared daily life with terror. In May 1936, an Arab assassin shot at patrons exiting the Edison Cinema, killing three and wounding several others. Following this harrowing event, Ezra (Moshe) Mizrahi wrote to his competitor Israel Gut in a moment of solidarity: “With regards to the horrific event… I would be glad to know Mr. Gut’s position on whether we should continue screenings, and whether he is planning to open his cinema.” 52
In January 1939, a bomb was thrown toward the entrance of the Orion Cinema, injuring seven, including a British solider and Arab police officer. In May of that year, three bombs were planted at Josef Albina’s Rex Cinema by members of the IZL – an underground Zionist paramilitary organization – dressed as ordinary cinema patrons. Two of the bombs detonated and injured eight individuals, among them three British police officers (one of whom lost his leg), three Jewish police officers, ten Arab citizens, and two Jewish citizens. Following the incident, the British district commander closed the cinemas and cafés in the area for roughly one month, after which they were staffed with guards who conducted rigorous security checks at the building entrances. 53 External reality had now penetrated the cinemas through events that, though reminiscent of cinematic action scenes, carried real, devastating implications.
Commercial venues and cafés became targets as well. In 1938, Albina and his two partners Donia and Katinka travelled to the north for a construction site inspection. On their way back to Jerusalem, they were caught in an Arab terror attack near the Haifa market. Donia was badly injured. Katinka and Albina managed to rush him to the hospital, but his death was pronounced shortly thereafter. The remaining partners jointly decided to keep “Donia” in the company name after his death.54 While Albina, a known social figure, steered clear of political involvement, Katinka, formerly the head technical engineer of the Hejaz railway, maintained close ties with Zionist leadership and the Haganah paramilitary organization. In 1937, a year before Donia’s death, Katinka lent his car to Haganah members who claimed they were independently planning to launch a “bold operation.” Following a coordinated plan, Katinka left his car in an alleyway near Zion Cinema, sat at Café Vienna, and even engaged police officers in lively conversation so as not to arouse suspicion. Roughly one hour later, it was announced at Café Vienna that a bomb had been thrown into Café Lifta at the entrance to Jerusalem, a known locus of Arab attacks on buses and vehicles transporting Jewish passengers, from which a bike rider had been shot several days prior. The bomb killed the son of the Lifta village mukhtar and another individual, and wounded several.55 The following day, Katinka arrived for work as usual at the company he shared with Albina and Donia. Ordinary life continued in the gaps between such events, but the shared space that was once a given began to gradually transform into an arena of conflict as well.
In December 1947, several days after the UN partition plan was adopted, Arabs stormed the Jewish commercial center in Mamilla and set its stores on fire. In retaliation, IZL members set fire to the nearby Rex Cinema. Josef Albina saw his cinema go up in flames from the home of his friend Constantine Salameh. Together, the two events marked the beginning of the civil war in Jerusalem, and the end of the shared life era.
Cinemas played a singular role in the urban development of Mandate-period urban space. For decades, Zion Cinema served as the central axis of urban life in Jerusalem. The urban fabric that developed around it was characterized by a density and diversity that made it distinctly urban despite its modest size. The assorted architecture, multi-layered lifestyles, and various populations living in the area and utilizing its many daily, social, and cultural functions, created a cyclical, vital, and effervescent environment that fostered many forms of interaction between all populations of the city.
It might seem that Zion Cinema and the others around it were simply arenas of random encounters between strangers. However, the events described throughout the article indicate a range of deeper connections, both overt and covert, forged between the different populations. Residents of the city were drawn to the cinema not only for its films, but also in order to see and be seen, to feel part of the shifting world around them. In this sphere of visibility, they were continuously reflected in one another’s eyes as citizens of a joint urban space. The space of the cinema, stripped of the familiar contexts of moral authority and tradition, became one in which rigid social norms such as gender, class, ethnic, and cultural divisions softened and could be reinterpreted.
This dynamic demonstrated the increasing strength of the public, as well as that of different groups within it that had yet to find expression in urban life. The cinemas functioned as the cultural halls of the time – the versatile performances featured on their stages brought together east and west, and deepened the cosmopolitan nature of the city. This was further enhanced by the many lively cafés surrounding the cinemas and the different populations that moved through them. The cinemas were also spheres of economic and professional activity and business partnerships that crossed ethnic-national divides. Their prominent social role and cosmopolitan character was further reinforced by the status and public interest they garnered in the various branches of local press.
In parallel, the cinemas also functioned as a space for discovering “the other” and as a platform for events and activities that emboldened social distinctions and collective political awareness. With the escalation of national conflict, these hubs of interaction also became hubs of friction. The two sides increasingly employed urban terror, and dread penetrated shared daily life. In this context, shared reality became a catalyst for confrontation, as the communal, partition-free lifestyle that had been common practice was now perceived as over-exposed and unsafe. Cinemas, cafés, and stores, which were once spheres of connection, now became accelerators of ever-intensifying conflict as well. Therefore, alongside its functional aspects, the cinema is revealed as a space of partnership and division, and, in more ways than one, a complex mirror: of human, social, and intra-group dynamics, which tell the story of a period and the shifts that defined it.