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The massacre of Jews in 1929 Hebron is a microcosm of the conflict

August 19, 2021 at 1:04 pm

Members of the “Old Yishuv” [American Colony Archive Collections, Jerusalem; the author wishes to thank Rachel A. Lev for the permission to use the photos]

On 24 August 1929, Hebron, in what was then British Mandatory Palestine, witnessed the massacre of 67 Jews at the hands of local Arab-Palestinians. More than 450 Jewish lives were saved on that day by other Palestinian families who gave them refuge.

The massacre is considered by Hillel Cohen as well as several other scholars as the “point-of-no-return” in relations between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. From that moment on, it is often claimed, “Mizrahi Jews” felt the need to align themselves with Zionism.

Shedding light on this means to address some of the key roots of the longest conflict in late modern history, and the meaningful implications for the present. Before doing so, it should be mentioned that the single miscellaneous category of Mizrahim (literally, “the Easterners”, meaning Jews from Arab countries) was coined after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, and became particularly popular in the 1990s.

New York University scholar Ella Shohat, whose family is of Mizrahi origin, noted that the term was a “Zionist invention” and that “Zionism obliged Arab-Jews to redefine themselves in relation to new ideological polarities… Mizrahi identity marks a departure from previous concepts of Jewishness.”

On that fateful day in August 1929, Arab-Palestinians in Jerusalem were incited to violence by rumours that Jews were planning to appropriate what is known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary of Al-Aqsa and destroy the mosques there. The late Israeli historian Haim Gerber pointed out that in numerous documents written by Zionist leaders in the late 1920s they expressed the will to demolish the buildings on the “Temple Mount” to make space for a new Jewish Temple. “It is in this light,” explained Gerber, “that we may understand Amin Husayni’s objection to any compromise with the Zionists over the Buraq [Western] Wall.”

While the spark of the Hebron massacre – part of the so-called 1929 Palestine riots, in which a total of 133 Jews and 116 Arabs were killed –  is indeed linked to Jerusalem, the deeper roots are to be found in Hebron itself, where Arabs and Jews had lived together for centuries without any particular tension, and often spoke the same language. The most notable exception to this was in 1775, when members of Hebron’s Jewish community were unjustly accused of having killed the son of a local sheikh and were obliged to pay a heavy fine.

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When in 1925 the Slobodka yeshivah (religious school) was opened in Hebron, its large number of Ashkenazi students expressed the will to live in complete separation from the local Arab population as well as from the old Yishuv, those Jews already living in Palestine. This situation was extremely different from that in the ghettoes scattered around Europe, in which millions of Jews had been progressively obliged to live in conditions that were often inhumane and subject to a series of special restrictions. In the first case, Hebron, living in an Ashkenazi ghetto was a choice; in the second, Europe, it was almost always a requirement forced upon Jews.

In no way can such an attitude justify the mass murder, which occurred just four years later in Hebron. Of the 67 Jews killed, many were Slobodka students. It throws light, however, on the reasons why the local Arab population frequently viewed the newcomers with suspicion, and sometimes with hatred. They were identified as “Zionist immigrants” or “foreign Jews” with no connection to the areas in which they settled.

“The immigrants dumped upon the country from different parts of the world,” complained the former mayor of Jerusalem, Mūsā Kāẓim Al-Ḥusaynī (b. 1850) at the beginning of the mandate period, “are ignorant of the language, customs and character of the Arabs and enter Palestine by the might of England [sic] against the will of the people.”

Members of the “Old Yishuv” [American Colony Archive Collections, Jerusalem; the author wishes to thank Rachel A. Lev for the permission to use the photos]

Members of the “Old Yishuv” [American Colony Archive Collections, Jerusalem; the author wishes to thank Rachel A. Lev for the permission to use the photos]

Three months after the Hebron massacre, celebrated historian Hans Kohn – active in the Zionist movement from 1909 onwards – wrote the following letter: “I feel that I can no longer remain a leading official within the Zionist Organisation… We pretend to be innocent victims. Of course the Arabs attacked us in August [1929]. Since they have no armies, they could not obey the rules of war. They perpetrated all the barbaric acts that are characteristic of a colonial revolt. But we are obliged to look into the deeper cause of this revolt. We have been in Palestine for twelve years [since the start of the British occupation] without having even once made a serious attempt at seeking through negotiations the consent of the indigenous people. We have been relying exclusively upon Great Britain’s military might. We have set ourselves goals which by their very nature had to lead to conflict with Arabs… for twelve years we pretended that the Arabs did not exist and were glad when we were not reminded of their existence.” (Jewish National and University Library 376/224, Kohn to Berthold Feiwel [1875–1937]. Jerusalem, 21 Nov. 1929).

It would be simplistic to attribute solely to the “isolationist process” the episodes of violence that, in an increasingly systematic way, marred the relationship between Arab-Palestinians and Jews, not least because some of them — including the clashes that occurred in Jaffa in March 1908,in Zarnuqa in 1913 and in Tel Hai in March 1920 — predated the Mandate phase.

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And yet, these earlier clashes as well were themselves connected, in different ways, to the “isolationist process”. It is enough to mention that in 1907 — a few months before the Jaffa clashes — the Eighth Zionist Congress created a “Palestine Office” (“Agricultural Colonisation Department”) in Jaffa, under the direction of Arthur Ruppin, whose objective, in his own words, was “the creation of a Jewish milieu and of a closed Jewish economy, in which producers, consumers and middlemen shall all be Jewish.”

It is, therefore, hardly surprising what Mark LeVine has written in relation to Tel Aviv, which was established two years later (1909) and, since 1950, has included the Jaffa municipality: “For Tel Aviv’s founders,” he noted, “the attempt to separate physically as well as ideologically and espistemologically their new neighborhood from Jaffa and its existing Arab and Jewish quarters was a primary concern.”

That same approach, exacerbated in 1923 as a result of the controversial election of Menachem Ussishkin as president of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), played a relevant role in convincing the Arab majority that the promises and the at times conciliatory attitude shown by Chaim Weizmann and other Zionist leaders were nothing more than tactical manoeuvres. Jewish farmers who were found by the JNF employing non-Jewish workers, for example, were subject to fines or expulsions.

The “isolationist” strategies and approaches contributed to radicalising the two main communities in Palestine; in the space of just two decades, the number of recorded violent incidents was much higher than the total recorded over the previous four centuries. The episodes of violence between the mid-16th and the end of the 19th centuries confirm, once more, that the “isolationist process” fed tensions to a huge extent. “During the thirty years we have been here”, wrote Moshe Smilansky in 1913, a writer who emigrated from Kiev to Palestine in 1891, “it is not they [the Arabs] who have remained alien to us but we to them.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.