Pesach in Jerusalem 1920: Tragedy and Challenge
Pesach in Jerusalem 1920: Tragedy and Challenge

It was a brief fleeting moment of euphoria, when the British government made an historic offer with the November 2, 1917 Balfour Declaration supporting Jewish statehood in ‘Palestine.’

Just two years later, local British administrators challenged that British policy. Measures were adopted opposing Jewish statehood such as the prohibition of publishing the Hatikvah anthem, as well as prohibiting Jews from possessing firearms, needed for defense. Jerusalem was placed out of bounds to all Jewish soldiers during the holiday of Passover from the 14th to the 22nd of April in 1919.

The former commander of the Jewish Legion which assisted allied troops in the conquest of Palestine from the Ottoman Turks, Colonel Henry Patterson, strongly protested the measure to his superiors, calling them, “provocative and insulting” but to no avail.

Such gestures against the Zionists no doubt encouraged violence at the hands of their opponents.

Among the Jews of the Yishuv, (Jewish community) one of the eye-witness accounts stated, “British troops just stood by.”
During the Passover holiday on April 4, 1920, local Arabs were primed for confrontation in Jerusalem. Tensions had already been escalating since the battle of Tel Chai in the Northern Galilee, and demonstrations against the Yishuv (Jewish community Palestine) which followed. Near the Jaffa Gate outside Jerusalem’s Old City, thousands had gathered brandishing weapons.

It was also the Muslim holiday of Nebi Mussa which drew crowds to Jerusalem. Araf el-Aref, the editor of the Arab nationalist newspaper, Al-Surria al-Janubiyya (the Southern Syria) whipped up the crowd, warning that if force is not used, “We will never be rid of the Jews.” The crowd responded that they “will drink the blood of the Jews.” Local Arab leader, Musa Kazim Husseini, shouted that, “The Jews are our dogs,” adding, “The Muslim religion was born with the sword.”

The riot soon began as the mobs entered the Old City and set upon the terrified Jewish community. Pillaging, abuse, and murder, ensued while the British police stood by with minimal reaction. When they did respond and made arrests, the rioters were allowed to attend prayer services the following morning, and then released while the violence continued. Synagogues were desecrated, shops were looted, and homes were ransacked. When members of the recently disbanded Jewish Legion attempted to intervene, they were arrested. Following almost three days of mayhem, five Jews were murdered, and two hundred and eleven were wounded, some critically.

The authorities did arrest one of the instigators, Amin Al-Husseini, but he managed to escape to Syria. Otherwise, British policy in the immediate aftermath showed little change. They rejected the Jews’ demands to dismiss the Arab police who participated in the pogrom. The British authorities would not even allow over 30 people to accompany remains of victims for burial.

The British also arrested twenty members of the group of Jewish defenders including the leader Zev Jabotinsky. Three-year jail sentences were meted out to 19 members of the Jewish Defense Units.  Jabotinsky was tried on the trumped up charges of “banditism, instigating against the people of the Ottoman Empire” and received a fifteen year sentence. The sentences were eventually dropped due to an international outcry.

The Jews as a whole accused local British rule of complicity in the pogrom. They attributed their inaction to their own anti-Semitic behavior. In a statement, the Achdut HaAvodah-Labor party accused British administration officials, “For allowing agitators to incite the Arab people, allowing them to hold demonstrations. To publish inciting articles in their newspapers, and even to attack Jews while not bringing them to justice.”

Among the Jews of the Yishuv, (Jewish community) one of the eye-witness accounts stated, “British troops just stood by.” According to another, “The local administration not only failed but placed every impediment in out path……They caused the Arabs to believe that the Jews were left unprotected and as many attacked, they shouted out ‘the government is with us.” One member of the Jewish Legion, Leon Chafetz, years later, wrote, “The Jewish soldiers were not permitted to defend the lives of their brethren in the Holy City, This edict came from an administration which contained individuals who were outspokenly anti-Semitic, who did not believe in the Balfour Declaration, and who were not free from blame for the tragic events which followed.”

It is reasonable to presume by their co-ordinated lack of response that the British also had prior knowledge of the planned violence. Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and one British administrator maintained that members of the British administration incited the violence.

The tragic events of Passover 1920 did not stop the continued growth of the Yishuv. It did however become evident in those days that the freedom for which so many longed would not come easily.  It would require toil, determination, and sacrifice.