Massacre in Hebron, 1929.
August 23, 2011 1 Comment
On this date in 1929, violence broke out in the ancient, religiously significant city of Hebron. Huge numbers of Arabs banded together to massacre their Jewish neighbors, an atrocity that resulted in the death of 67 Jews and the flight of the entire Jewish community from the city. The community had existed for centuries.
The year 1929 saw a significant surge in Palestinian nationalist and Pan-Arabist activity, accompanied by violence. It was fueled by the arrival of an ‘Other’: organised Jewish immigration to the British Mandate, on foot of promises from the British and the League of Nations to facilitate the building of a Jewish homeland. On August 15th of that year, several hundred Jews, including many members of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Zionist youth movement, Betar, assembled at the Western Wall in Jerusalem for a political as well as religious demonstration. They chanted “the Wall is ours”, raised the Jewish national flag and sang the Zionist anthem “Hatikvah” (“The Hope”), which later became the Israeli national anthem.
At the same time, Arab leader Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, was seeking to increase his political influence. Husseini was fanatically anti-Jewish. He had discovered the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the early 1920’s and fallen in love with it, eventually sparing no effort to disseminate the notorious work in Arabic. The Mufti would go down in history for being the pioneer of Palestinian Arab nationalism, as well as for collaborating with Nazi Germany in the Second World War.
Hajj Amin made the Temple Mount (or al-Haram al-Sharif in Islam), by the Western Wall, a centerpiece of his hate-mongering and a rallying point for the Arab cause. He began to preach the importance of Jerusalem in Islam, which had been a sleepy backwater for most of Muslim history. Even the Temple Mount complex itself was frequently in a dire state of disrepair.
The day after the Jewish gathering, the Supreme Muslim Council led a march to the area, attacking Jewish worshipers and burning the Jewish prayer books. A Muslim prayer service was held on the Temple Mount on August 22nd, and after that fights broke out between the two communities, which left three Jews and three Arabs dead. In the Arab community, false rumors broke out claiming Jews were engaging in “wholesale killings of Arabs.” The Mufti insisted there was a Jewish conspiracy to destroy the Al-Aqsa mosque on the Temple Mount and replace it with a synagogue. Attacks on Jews began in the Old City of Jerusalem on August 23rd. Shortly afterward it spread to the suburbs, where 40 Jews were killed and 4,000 driven from their homes, which were subsequently looted en masse.
By the same day, the atmosphere of hate had spread to Hebron, 30 kilometers south of Jerusalem. Hebron contains the burial place of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs of the Jewish religion (the Cave of Machpelah), and Muslims revere the site for the same reason. However, when Muslims conquered the area they forbade Jews from entering the burial chamber, relegating non-Muslims to the seventh step of the stairway into the burial complex. Since 1967, that situation has changed.
On 3 PM on Friday, August 23rd, the agitation began. Some of those who returned from the prayer service in Jerusalem claimed that the Jews were killing many Arabs. Arab residents then gathered to stone the yeshiva (place of Jewish religious learning), and an Orthodox Jewish student who tried to leave the building and was stabbed to death. That night, the son of Rabbi Ya’acov Slonim invited any fearful Jews to stay in his family home. Many Jews took him up on this offer, for two reasons: the rabbi was highly regarded in the community, and he possessed a gun. Nevertheless, many would die there. Rabbi Slonim himself was murdered pleading with some attackers to spare the lives of the yeshiva students.
The pogrom began in earnest the next day, when thousands of rioters stormed Jewish residences with mostly melee weapons. The 40-man police force, despite having rifles and pistols, were in no position to control the violence. Only one policeman in Hebron was Jewish, and it and it was soon discovered that some of the Arab policemen were actively involved in the murder and rape. The commander of the Hebron police and the only Briton, Raymond Cafferata, actually recalled a later inquiry how he:
”…shot dead a man who was in the act of committing murder and saw another Arab raising his sword to strike a girl who was already bleeding at the neck. He was about to shoot when the man cried out, ‘I am a policeman’. After a second’s hesitation, Cafferata fired, wounding the man in the thigh”.
The commission ruled, however, that the murderous rampage was “not premeditated”. A list compiled by the authorities, confirmed by the city’s two surviving rabbis, identified 19 Arabs who assisted the Jews during the pogrom. Yet literally thousands participated in the violence and looting.
The massacre lasted the entire weekend. The surviving Jews were escorted out of their home city and resettled mostly in Jerusalem. Most of those who survived had taken refuge with sympathetic Arab families or in the police station, yet even that was stormed. Rape was widespread, and many of the Jewish bodies were so completely dismembered as to be unrecognizable. Some Jewish families tried to re-establish themselves in Hebron, but any Jews still there by the beginning of the Arab revolt in 1936 were removed by the British authorities.
One of the most significant changes after the violence of 1929 was the re-organization and development of the Jewish paramilitary organization, the Haganah. This group, eventually coming under the effective control of David Ben Gurion, became the nucleus of the Israel Defense Forces. Prior to this it was a loosely affiliated group of Jews defending their local communities. Now the Haganah began to acquire foreign arms and trained to become a capable underground army.
133 Jews were murdered following the August events. 116 Arabs were killed in clashes with both the police and Jewish residents. Following the riots, the Arab leadership ordered a boycott against Jewish-owned businesses. Anti-Jewish boycotts would become a regular occurrence whenever tensions with the Arab leadership rose, but they had varying degrees of success and support from the Arab community. The British began to plan on limiting Jewish immigration in order to placate the Arabs, as was recommended by the later Hope-Simpson Royal Commission, though very strict limitations would not come into effect until the White Paper was approved by the British Parliament in 1939.