Israel as a Failing State

Blog 24: 1929 Palestinian Riots

Were the 1929 Arab riots in Palestine different than its 1921 predecessor? 1921 was a product of false rumour and a defensive reaction. 1929, however much incitement was set off because of fallacious rumours, was rooted in a real religious dispute over access to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. However, even if the scope of the violence and property damage in 1929 was much greater, though the duration of the violence was very similar, the underlying causes were the same: the Arab antipathy to Jewish immigration and the positive aspiration for Palestinian self-determination. The British Shaw Commission located the cause in “the Arab feeling of animosity and hostility towards the Jews consequent upon the disappointment of their political and national aspirations” and in the fear for their economic future since they regarded Jewish immigrants “as a menace to their livelihood,” but also “a possible overlord of the future.”

Between 23 and 29 August, 133 Jews were killed and 339 injured, mostly by Arab rioters. 116 Arabs were killed and 232 injured, mostly by British police.[i] A dispute over Jewish worship at the Western Wall triggered the dispute. Why? Jews had come to the Western Wall to worship for centuries, long before the emergence of modern Zionism. Jewish rhetoric, just as it continues to do now, played a role. The orators were not necessarily extremists.

Menachem Ussishkin was a Zionist leader and was head of the Jewish National Fund from 1923 for almost three decades. In 1925, he gave a speech demanding “a Jewish state without compromises and without concessions, from Dan to Be’er Sheva, from the great sea to the desert, including Transjordan.” (My italics.) He asked Jews to swear before God “that the Jewish people will not rest and will not remain silent until its national home is built on our Mt Moriah.” He had married traditional Jewish religious longing and modern Jewish nationalist aspirations, right wing Revisionist goals with labour Zionism.

Though he had been Secretary of the First Zionist Congress in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland, he was not elected to the Executive of the Zionist Council though he had been a member of Moscow branch of Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), established in 1881-82 to promote agricultural settlement in Eretz Israel, and, perhaps more importantly, a founder of the BILU . The Bilu’im wanted not just to ensure Jewish survival through agricultural settlements but to create the new Jew through physical labour. The Zionist Congress, though it had absorbed Hovevei Zion as an integral part of the Zionist movement, had passed the more moderate Basel program for the Jewish people articulated in Max Nordau’s phrase, “a publicly and legally assured home in Palestine.” (My italics) A Jewish home within Palestine, not a Jewish state from the Mediterranean Sea to what became the borders of Jordan.

That is what the words said. But the sentiment behind it was much different. As Theodor Herzl had said after his triumphant success at Basel, “Were I to sum up the Basel Congress in a word – which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly – it would be this: at Basel I founded the Jewish State.” Not a Jewish homeland within Palestine but a Jewish state in Palestine. Whether it would include all of or only a part of Palestine was a matter of dispute. But for most Zionists it was clear – the goal was a Jewish state. As Herzl continued, “If I said this out loud today l would be greeted by universal laughter. In five years perhaps, and certainly in fifty years, everyone will perceive it.” It took the Palestinians only a quarter century to recognize that this was the real underlying goal. Though the Reform movement and religious Jews at the time dissented, (one reason why the first Zionist congress was moved from Germany to Switzerland), the major difference was really not over the goal, only its extent and only over whether to pronounce that goal loudly and clearly or only in whispers.

It took until 1942, following the 1936 Arab uprising in Palestine and the response of the Peel Commission, for the Zionists to explicitly adopt the goal of establishing Palestine “as a Jewish commonwealth.” Ussishkin had always been unequivocal. In his pamphlet, Our Program, he advocated collective settlements based on Jewish labour and a central role for higher education. He was active in creating the Jewish polytechnic which matured into the Technion. As President of the Jewish National Fund after 1923, he became the driving force behind the major land acquisitions: Hefer, the Jezreel Valley and the Beit She’an Valley.

It is in this context that one can understand the impact of Ussishkin’s 1925 speech. After all, it was Ussishkin who had rejected the 1922 proposal of Colonel Ronald Storrs, then British military governor of Jerusalem, to create a “Palestinian university” with both Hebrew and Arab departments. Instead, Zionist leaders, including cultural/political Zionists like Albert Einstein, Chaim Weizmann and Yehudah Magnes, created the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In the dialectic between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, their mutual fears and contending aspirations pushed them into opposing camps.

Higher education in Israel has always been linked to Jewish political aspirations. When Hebrew University was inaugurated on 1 April 1925, the opening was as much a Jewish religious as a secular higher education beginning. A choir sang chapter 19 of the Book of Psalms and a Haydn melody, “The Torah shall go forth from Zion.” Rabbi Kook read a special prayer composed for the occasion. The university was to develop in two directions: as a centre of Jewish tradition and the preservation of its historic language, Hebrew, and a centre of scientific research that became so critical to the extraordinary development of Israeli agriculture. H. N. Bialik, then and since known as the first national poet of Israel, read his poem written for the occasion that promoted both the reconciliation of modern science and the preservation of tradition, mainly the Jewish religion and the Hebrew language. The second part of the poem linked both objectives to the 1917 Balfour Declaration. In the poem, Balfour is portrayed as an Old Testament prophet as described in Ezra and Nehemiah. The return to Zion, שיבת ציון, was a marriage of modern intellectual enterprise and the preservation of traditional moral principles that made serving as a “light unto the nations” a moral and political imperative.  

Intellectual enterprise and religion had been wrapped together by political Zionism. Jews by and large who continued to identify organizationally as Jews would eventually and overwhelmingly adopt that position. And it was recognized by Jewish leaders and Arab leaders at the time. 1925 is the key to understanding 1929.

In 1937, Ussishkin and Weizmann would eventually clash following the 1936 riots (the next blog) over the issue of partition, but in 1925 they were united in their views, even as they differed over what could be articulated. But as Ussishkin declared at the 1937 Zionist Congress, accepting the principle of partition would be disastrous and introduce “great misfortune.” That split, however, belonged to the future.

How do we link 1925 with the events of 1929? Because in 1921, the riots had been spontaneous and based on false rumours. But by 1929, the inevitable clash of Zionist aspirations and the Arab quest for self-determination had become clear. They were set in motion the year before. In September 1928, “The Western or “Wailing Wall” (Buraq for Muslims) controversy, which became a public issue in 1928, triggered the intercommunal violence that in 1929 claimed 800 casualties and marked the shift of the political process into the irreconcilability violent phase which continues today.”[ii]

What was the controversy about? At the time, the Muslim Waqf, a religious trust, claimed ownership and control of not only the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, but the Wailing Wall as well.  In 1925, three years earlier, following the Ussishkin speech and the inauguration of Hebrew University, to appease Muslim complaints, the British forbade Jews bringing seats and benches to the Wall even for worshippers who were aged and infirm. In September 1928, Rabbi Aaron Menachem Mendel Guterman (1860-1934), the third rebbe of the Radzymin Hasidic dynasty, while visiting Jerusalem, put up a mechitza, a screen to separate male and female worshippers. Another visitor at the time, governor, Edward Keith Roach, noted the structure and ordered the commissioner to remove it by morning, according to some accounts, ignoring both the traditional tolerance for temporary facilities as well as the pleas of worshippers to leave it in place until after prayers. Others insisted that Roach agreed, but in the interim,  Attorney General Norman Bentwich  ordered the removal not knowing that Roach had agreed to an extended time to allow it to stay in place. The mechitza was removed forcefully by ten policemen in the morning; the police were attacked by Jewish worshippers.

The ardent anti-Zionist Haj Amin al Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, distributed leaflets throughout the Arab world claiming Jews were planning to take over the al-Aqsa Mosque. He held the British authorities and Jews to be jointly responsible for any actions the Arabs in Palestine might take to defend against illegal intrusions by Jews.

Zionists, in turn, demanded sole control over the wall; Ben Gurion called for its “redemption”. In the spring of 1929, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the leader of the Revisionist Zionists, launched a campaign in the Jewish right-wing newspaper to claim Jewish ownership and reverse the British decision to award control over the wall to the Waqf. Op-eds also advocated the use of violence to advance the claim.

On Thursday, 15 August, during the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av, several hundred right-wing youth, including members of Jabotinsky’s Betar youth organization, marched to the Western Wall shouting “the Wall is ours” and sang Hatikva, the Zionist national anthem. According to the Shaw Commission, the marchers were unarmed. The following day, on a Friday after a rabble-rousing sermon in a mosque, the Supreme Muslim Council led an unprecedented march to the wall where the crowd burnt prayer books, liturgical fixtures and notes of supplication left in the Wall’s cracks. The Beadle was injured, and the destruction spread to the Jewish commercial area.

The next day, on Shabbat, a 17-year-old Mizrachi Jew, Abraham Mizrachi, was stabbed just outside of Mea Shearim; he died on August 20th. Nine days after the original Zionist march demanding ownership of the Wailing Wall, on the 23rd of August, prompted again by rumours as in the 1921 Jaffa riots, this time that the Zionists were going to march to the Temple Mount to claim ownership of it, thousands of Arab villagers from the surrounding countryside carrying sticks and knives arrived to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque.  

In the meanwhile, in Me’a Shirim during the noon hour, three Arabs were killed by Jews, either in response to what the Arabs had said or done or as revenge for what had taken place at the Wailing Wall, depending on whose account you believe.[iii] At 1:15, responding to the news, Arabs went on a rampage and started murdering Jews, beginning in Jerusalem and quickly spreading throughout Palestine. British police, overwhelmed by the huge numbers, stood by as Arabs murdered Jews at the Jaffa gate. The number of Jewish victims would have been many times greater if Arab neighbours had not hidden and protected their Jewish ffriends.

The worst atrocities took place at Hebron and Safed, though six Jewish villages were entirely destroyed. The British on 24 August had deputized and armed about 60 Jews to defend Jewish communities, but several days later, under threats by the Mufti, rescinded the appointments and disarmed the constables on 27 August.

Though the Jewish para-military Haganah had offered the Maklef family in the village of Motza protection, the patriarch refused since he had always enjoyed good relations with his Arab neighbours. But on 24 August, Arabs from neighbouring Qalunya invaded Motza, murdered the patriarch and his son as well as two rabbinical guests, tortured Chaya, the wife and mother, and hung her on a fence. They also raped and murdered two daughters.

In Hebron, where the Jews again rejected Hagana offers of protection, insisting that they had lived at peace with their Arab neighbours for years, almost 70 Jews were killed, many tortured in advance, including women and children. The atrocities were followed by looting and wanton destruction. However, many of the Jews who survived had been hidden in Arab homes. Mutilations and murders of Yeshiva students followed. In Safed, just under twenty Jews were killed and many homes and businesses were set on fire. The eye-witness descriptions of the murders are horrific: Aphriat, a school teacher along with his wife and mother, were murdered; Toledano, a lawyer, was cut to pieces with knives; children in orphanages had their hands and heads cut off; Yitshak Mammon, a tenant of an Arab family, was repeatedly stabbed and then trampled to death. 

A few atrocious reprisal attacks took place, including a raid on Sheikh ‘Abd al-Chani ‘Awn’ home, killing all the adults but not the children. The Nebi Akasha Jerusalem mosque built beside the Tomb of the Prophets where Muhammed’s companion, Ukasha ibn al-Mihsan was buried, was desecrated.

What was the result? A few Jews and many Arabs were sentenced to death. Almost all the sentences were commuted. On 21 October 1930, the Hope Simpson Royal Commission recommended limiting Jewish immigration on the fallacious grounds that there was not enough arable land to support a large population. None of the actions prevented the march towards a much greater catastrophe.

[i] Great Britain (1930) Parliamentary Papers: Report of the Commission on the Palestine Disturbances of August 2029.

[ii] ME Lundsten (1978) “Zionist and Palestinian Strategies in Jerusalem, 1928,” Journal of Palestinian Studies 8: 3-27, p. 3.

[iii] As the Shaw Commission concluded, there was no objective definitive account of what had happened.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s