cartoon after Hebron massacre
cartoon after Hebron massacre iNN:AB

On August 17, 1929, a Jewish boy was stabbed after he retrieved an errant ball in an Arab garden in Jerusalem. A melee ensued, wounding 15 Arabs and 11 Jews. Within the next four days there were 12 attacks on Arabs and seven on Jews in the Jerusalem district alone. Additional assaults were reported within Jerusalem and outside the city. [1]

“Even to one who went through war as a combatant [the scene of the Hevron bloodbath] is still an appalling sight. It is perfectly clear that…the Arabs who took part…behaved like the wildest of savages untouched by the hand of civilization.”
The young boy’s funeral became a massive protest against Arab violence and British rule. On Friday August 23, 1929, the Arabs began what the Shaw Commission—the British Commission sent to investigate these disturbances—called a “ferocious attack,” in Jerusalem, ostensibly over Jews worshipping at the Western Wall. To disperse the many “fanatical” Arab crowds—who were wielding clubs, sticks and some even swords—the police “opened fire for the first time,” employed armored cars, and arranged for a number of British aircraft to fly over Jerusalem as a show of force. British naval assistance and troop reinforcements were requested after the police advised they were no longer able to ensure public security. [2]

In Hevron, angry Arab crowds gathered to vent their anger. The major assault on Hevron began at approximately 9 a.m. on August 24th. Eight American Jews were killed and 15 wounded from the Slobodka Yeshiva. [3]

Scenes from the Massacre

Three weeks after the massacres, a reporter who had witnessed the slaughter in Hevron described the horrors in a private communication: “Even to one who went through war as a combatant [the scene of the Hevron bloodbath] is still an appalling sight. It is perfectly clear that…the Arabs who took part…behaved like the wildest of savages untouched by the hand of civilization.” [4]

Students were killed while seeking refuge at the home of Rabbi Jacob Slonim. The rabbi sought protection from the British, but his pleas were either ignored or rebuffed. An American woman who survived the attack, wrote about what she saw:

With me in Rabbi Slonim’s house were about 40 people, mostly the students of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Hevron, among them many Americans. The reason we were congregated in Rabbi Slonim’s house was the fact that Rabbi Slonim enjoyed a great deal of popularity among the Arabs and we felt surer in his home than in any one else’s. All of a sudden we heard a rattle at the outer gate which was closed. A few minutes later a crowd of savage Arabs burst through the door. The rabbi, together with all those present, rushed to a corner of the room where we awaited the attack. The first to get killed was the rabbi. After him came the young men who, unarmed and unable to protect themselves, recited the prayer for the dead. I saw some of my dearest friends killed right in front of my eyes. Presently I was hit, too, and I fell unconscious. I was buried under a load of dead bodies which covered me and which accounts for my being saved. [5]

Reporters and survivors described in detail the murders and mutilation that took place. In other cities where rioting occurred, American witnesses accused the British police of standing idly by or not being present. When Jews attempted to defend themselves, the British incarcerated them. [6]

Americans were outraged by the attack on American citizens and demanded that the U.S. State Department protect its people. The Jewish War Veterans and the American veterans of the Jewish Legion even wanted American Jews to enlist for military duty in Palestine.

A British account of a meeting of American Jewish leaders in November 1929 provided an astute observation concerning the American Jewish community and the American Zionist movement. “The American Jews are” he warned, “generally very well disposed towards Great Britain. But anything which affects the Holy Land touches in them…something inborn and stronger than themselves, and any cause for a grievance, real or imaginary, would…be quickly and actively resented.” [7]

Reports in the Jewish Press in Palestine

The Jewish press in Palestine provided extensive coverage of the riots and assaults. Words like “slaughter” and “butchery” were used to describe the events along with pictures of those murdered. Haaretz, a liberal Yishuv newspaper, admonished the students for not trying to defend themselves from their attackers—a moral failing in the eyes of the Zionists. Jews should be prepared to risk their lives rather than act like “sheep to slaughter.” One writer complained that their inability to kill even one of their killers was “immoral.”[8]

The Government initially did not want to provide rations to the 400 remaining survivors from Hevron, according to Helen Bentwich, the wife of Norman Bentwich, the British-appointed attorney-general of Mandatory Palestine, who was a member of a country-wide relief committee under the direction of Hadassah Medical Organization. The Jews who had fled the Old City were living in “any odd hole” they could scrounge outside the walls. After the Government agreed to assist the approximately 2,000 Jews displaced in the massacres, rations were supplied and housing was offered in vacant school buildings. [9]

At the hospitals, Helene Bentwich discovered that the majority “of the children had fractured skulls from being beaten with clubs and other ghastly wounds.” When a woman whose husband had been murdered “put her arm round her children to protect them” the Arabs “deliberately slashed each child’s head and cut her so badly that she died. Another woman, whose fingers were cut off, lay so long under a pile of dead bodies with her baby that she has since gone out of her mind.” Bentwich took some comfort in that “many Jews were saved by their Arab neighbors, even in Hevron.”[10]

In Safed, she found the plight of the Jews quite “sad.” The Jews had no confidence in the Government, while the Arabs were in “open contempt” of the administration. Arabs in the police force, who had refrained from intervening during the “horrible atrocities,” had not been removed. Only the efforts of a doctor from Hadassah prevented an epidemic from erupting in the city. [11]

When Bentwich, accompanied by a few refugees and a police escort, visited the Jewish Quarter in Hevron to help the Jews find some of their effects, she was amazed to find Arabs asking the Jews to return home: “Arabs came up to the men with me, threw their arms round them, and begged them to come back again. It’s as if they had been mad, and were now sane again. But the Jews will never go back.” [12]

The British Government Refused to Arm Jews

Bentwich was particularly critical of the Government’s unwillingness to arm Jews to defend themselves. [13] 59 On August 24 representatives of the Palestine Zionist Executive asked (Sir) Harry Luke, Deputy Commissioner for Jerusalem, to enlist and arm 500 Jewish youths to defend remote Jewish colonies. [14]

Luke denied this request after speaking to the Group Captain in charge of the Royal Air Force, who assured him adequate troops were on the way. Luke and his civil advisors also alleged that arming the Jews would aggravate the already volatile atmosphere, and jeopardize the safety of a significantly larger number of Jews than could be protected by arming these young Jews. Brigadier General William Dobbie, who was in command of the military and security forces in Palestine, told Luke that Jews should not “be armed or employed as special constables” to reassure the Moslem Council, who had asked the British to remain “impartial.” Luke then disarmed and disbanded the few Jewish constables and replaced them with other British nationals. [15]

On September 1, 1929, Sir John Chancellor, then the High Commissioner for Palestine, issued a Proclamation in which he deplored the horrible violence and…atrocious acts committed by bodies of ruthless and blood-thirsty evil doers, of savage murders perpetrated upon defenceless members of the Jewish population regardless of age or sex, accompanied, as in Hevron, by acts of savagery, of burning farms and houses in town and country and the looting and destruction of property. [16]

Arabs Blame the Jews

The Arabs resented these accusations and even tried to fault the Jews for what transpired (!).

The British established a Commission to examine the rights and claims regarding the Wall. The Commission found that while Muslims were the sole proprietors of the Western Wall and the pavement in front of it, they were “not permitted to do any construction or repair that would impair Jewish access to the Wall or disturb their services if it could be avoided. Jews were permitted to pray at the Wall and bring the Ark with the Torah scrolls on the Sabbath, fast days and government-recognized holy days. Benches, carpets, chairs, curtains, screens could not be brought to the Wall. Prayer mats were allowed during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but they could “not obstruct the right of passage along the Pavement.” No animals were permitted to be driven along the Pavement during hours of prayer, but Muslims could walk along the Pavement “in an ordinary way,” during this time. The place in front of the Wall could not be used for political activities, demonstrations, rallies or speeches. [17]

The violence had not been anticipated by the Yishuv or its leaders, forcing them to reconsider their belief that a Zionist entity could be established in Palestine before Arab nationalism became a potent force. The disturbances in 1920 and 1921 were seen by many as isolated events, and not an organized effort directed by Arab leaders. In 1929, however, Jews throughout the country were again attacked, this time threatening the future of their community. [18]

After eight years of calm beginning in 1921, many Jews and the British had falsely assumed that riots were a thing of the past. [19] Provocative Arab slogans added to the Jews’ fears about the Arabs’ ultimate goal: “The law of Muhammad is being implemented by the sword”, “Palestine is our land and the Jews our dogs,” and “We are well armed and shall slaughter you by the sword.” Under these conditions, Ben-Gurion, who served as the General Secretary of the Histadrut, wondered if Jews could live securely as a minority in Palestine. The Labor parties and others believed that the Arabs wanted to eliminate all the Jews in Palestine. [20]

For two years after the disturbances, the Arab question and its significance were key issues in the Yishuv. Rather than seeing this as an expression of Arab refusal to accept Jewish settlement in Palestine, some Zionists sought to explain the violence as a result of provocations by Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and President of the Moslem Council, and the Jews who marched at the Western Wall. [21]

“A Small Jewish Island in the Heart of an Arab Sea”

Maurice Samuel, a free-lance writer and lecturer, explained why a number of Zionists did not view the massacre as proof of Arab refusal to consent to Jews settling in Palestine. Approximately 160,000 Jews were encircled by five times as many Arabs, with scores of small isolated Jewish settlements among Arab villages. Of the 130 murdered Jews, 90 were killed in Hevron, Safed and Motza (on the western edge of Jerusalem), which was not a premeditated “uprising.” Instead, it exposed the “falseness” of the charge that the Arabs were hostile to Jews building their homeland; and by inference, confirmed of “the already firmly established belief that peace between the Jews and Arabs is more natural than is enmity….” [22]

Samuel based his optimism on several factors. There were Arab districts that refused to participate in the carnage, while a significant number of individual Arabs demonstrated their friendship, loyalty and “common sense.” Attempts to enrage the Arabs included a rumor that England had sold Palestine to the Jews for £3,000,000 with August 23 being the date of transfer. A far more persuasive campaign to incite Arab fear and outrage was the account of the Jews bombing the Mosque of Omar, situated opposite the southern courtyard of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem. [23]

Arabs not deceived by these false charges were under no obligation to save Jews Samuel contended. Yet from every part of Palestine, he heard reports of Arab religious leaders demanding restraint and of them helping recuse Jews. In Petach Tikvah, which had been the center of vicious attacks during the 1921 riots, peace prevailed. Arab and Jewish notables in Tiberias issued warnings to their respective communities to preserve the peace. [24]

When false rumors claiming about hundreds of Arab casualties in Jaffa reached Arab villages in the region, the fear of attacks against Jewish communities prompted two Sheikhs approached the leaders of Ben Shemen, located about four kilometers from Lod, to suggest they bring their children to them for protection. When the roads were too dangerous to travel, the Sheikhs stayed with them. [25]

At the government quarry near Bethlehem on August 23, 1929, Jews working at the quarry would have been murdered had the Arab foreman and his workers not protected them from the Arab mobs. Dressed in Arab clothes the Jews were taken to the Arabs took them to their village to prevent additional attempts to kill them until they could be rescued. [26]

In appreciation for the “valiant defence of the Jewish population,” the Vaad Le'umi (Jewish National Council), asked Jews who had been saved or assisted by Arabs to submit their names so the Vaad could formally thank them. [27]

Response to the Massacre

“Restrained and careful” is the way Samuel described the attitude of “responsible” Yishuv leaders to the massacre. David Ben-Gurion said, “What we lack is not control of the Wailing Wall, --we are in need of Jews in Palestine…. This is the beginning and end of all policy. And an important condition for the fulfilment of this task is peace with our neighbors.” [28]

The weekly Ha-Poel ha-Tzair, (The Young Worker), the paper representing a socialist Zionist group that established agricultural communities to create a Jewish presence in Palestine, proclaimed: “We have no dispute with the Arab nation. It was blindly misled by political agitators, and by agents who circulated lies among the Arabs and stirred up the instincts of murder and robbery.”

Who then did the newspaper blame for the violent riots? The British Government had the responsibility to prevent this calamity, it declared. Some of the British in the Palestine Administration were especially culpable, since they “hate our constructive and colonization work, intrigue against it, desire our failure and actively passively support the organization of riots against us.” [29]

Samuel added that never has England been “more hideously misrepresented than by a handful of men she has sent, thoughtlessly, to be her representative in this partnership.” [30]

Davar, the Histadrut daily newspaper, was equally assiduous in distinguishing between “the wild and cruel acts of certain Arab circles,” and the rest of the Arabs in Palestine. These murderers and which they said would not “determine our relations to the Arab people as a whole….” There were “deceivers” and “the deceived,” the paper acknowledged. [31]

Many of the deluded surely believed the lies spread by their leaders. Nevertheless, “the level of education, the level of public and spiritual consciousness of the masses, the blind acceptance of slanders which the [British] Government did not deny—these are factors which mitigate the guilt of the individual rioters.” The individual involved in pillaging and murdering would definitely be punished. “But he, he alone, and not another; not his brother in race or religion.” [32]

Two weeks after the Hevron massacre, the Arabs were unable to sell their grapes, which were rotting on the vines; for the Jews were their prime local customers. At the same time, the Jerusalem market was closed. There were few buyers for the measure of grapes, even for those that sold for half a piaster, instead of the usual eight piasters.

The absence of business let to a dispute between Arab families in Hevron who blamed each other for the Jewish boycott. On September 13, 1929, El Aktam, an Arab newspaper, reported that the Arab village of Ag’ur, 15 miles northwest of Hevron, had prepared a memorandum petitioning the British Government to hold Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem accountable for the riots. [33]

After poisoned fruit and vegetables appeared in Tel-Aviv, the boycott, which had begun to wane, intensified. Under normal circumstances, the residents of Tel-Aviv spent thousands a week on fruits and vegetables from the surrounding Arab villages. This devastated many Arab villages, including the “good and the bad.” [34]

Conclusion

The riots persuaded the Yishuv to become more self-reliant observed historian Naomi Cohen. Just as the Haganah’s initial self-defense units evolved into a modern army, the Jews in Palestine steadfastly persisted in establishing the economic and political foundations enabling for the transition to statehood in 1948. [35]

There were a number of lessons the riots taught the Jews Davar opined: the need for a rapid increase in the Jewish population, positioning Jewish settlements and quarters closer together to avoid diffusion, and avoid scattering these communities in isolated areas. [36]

As we have seen, the success of the Jewish people in returning to their ancestral home depended on the Jews themselves, and not on any other people or institutions as Stephen S. Wise predicted in February, 1930: “The answer to every Zionist question,” he said, “will ultimately come, and come not in London, New York or Warsaw, but from Eretz Israel, and from them who are its builders and remakers.”[37]

(For the story of the IDF's return to Hebron in 1967, click here.)

Footnotes

[1] “Report on the Palestine Disturbances of August, 1929,” Presented by the Secretary for the Colonies in Parliament by Command of His Majesty, March, 1930 (London: His Majesty’ Stationery Office, 1930):56.

[2] Ibid. 56-58.

[3] “Report on the Palestine Disturbances of August, 1929,” op.cit. 56-60, 64, 75.

[4] Naomi W. Cohen, Year after the Riots: American Responses to the Palestine Crisis of 1929-30 (Wayne State University Press, 1988), 22; “Report on the Palestine Disturbances of August, 1929,” op.cit. 65.

[5] Cohen, op.cit. ii; “Diary of the first Al-Aqsa Intifada,” Al-Ahram Weekly, number 583(April 25-May (2002).

[6] Cohen, op.cit. 23.

[7] Ibid. 25.

[8] 42.

[9] Anita Shapira, Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948 (New York: Oxford University, 1992), 177.

[10] Norman Bentwich and Helen Bentwich, Mandate Memories, 1918-1948: From the Balfour Declaration to the Establishment of Israel (New York: Schocken Books, 1965), 134.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. 134-135.

[13] Ibid. 135; see also Maurice Samuel, What Happened in Palestine: The Events of August, 1929, Their Background and Their Significance (Boston, Massachusetts: Stratford Company Publishers, 1929).

[14] Norman Bentwich and Helen Bentwich, op.cit. 133.

[15] “Report on the Palestine Disturbances of August, 1929,” op.cit.66, 85-89.

[16] Ibid. 65-66.

[17] Ibid 68.

[18] Ibid.68-69; “Report by His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the Council of the League of Nations on the Administration of Palestine and Trans-Jordan for the year 1932,” (London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1932): 758-762.

[19] Shapira, op.cit. 173-174.

[20] Ibid. 186.

[21] Ibid. 174.

[22] Samuel, op.cit. 196.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid. 198-119.

[25] Ibid. 207.

[26] Ibid. 204-205.

[27] Ibid. 207-208.

[28] Ibid.208.

[29] Ibid. 212-213.

[30] Ibid. 219-221

[31] Ibid. 214.

[32] Ibid. 214-217.

[33] Ibid. 216.

[34] Ibid. 217.

[35] Cohen, op.cit. 178.

[36] Samuel, op.cit. 217.

[37] Cohen, op.cit. 178; JTA (February 9, 1930).

Dr Grobman is Senior Resident Scholar at John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME)