The Hebron Riots of 1929: Consequences and Lessons

Palestinians shout slogans during a protest at the Israel-Gaza border fence in the southern Gaza Strip October 12, 2018. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters)
Arab anti-Zionism runs deeper than disputes over borders, water, and settlements.

In 1929, Arab clerics and politicians provoked riots across Palestine by accusing Jews of plotting to take control of Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque. This month marks the 90th anniversary of those riots — but they are not a bygone. Palestinian Authority and Hamas leaders incite violence today using similar falsehoods and ideology.

The 1929 riots destroyed the Jewish community in Hebron. They persuaded Labor Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion that socialist fraternity among Jewish and Arab workers and peasants would not ensure peace. They impelled Palestine’s Jews to bolster the Haganah, their underground self-defense group. And they vindicated Zionist warnings against relying on foreigners for security.

To investigate the riots, the British government, which controlled Palestine at the time, appointed an inquiry board known as the Shaw Commission.

The commission noted that Arab objections to Zionism were ideological, comprehensive, intense, and inflexible. In its report, it nonetheless devoted thousands of words to minute details of specific Arab grievances. It plumbed complaints that Jews, on one occasion, brought a chair to Jerusalem’s Western Wall and, on another, set up a screen there to divide male and female worshipers.

All this brings to mind the story of a man who thoroughly detests his wife but makes his case for divorce on the grounds that she doesn’t put the cap back on the toothpaste tube. Obviously, what he gripes about is not what accounts for his detestation. Confusion on this score was characteristic of Middle East policy officials in 1929, and it still is.

Today’s conventional wisdom holds that Palestinian–Israeli peace will result from resolving the “final-status issues” (borders, water rights, security arrangements, settlements, etc.). This is to assume away profound Muslim religious and Arab national objections to Israel’s very existence. It is like believing that the man detests his wife because of the toothpaste cap.

In the run-up to the 1929 riots, Arab leaders claimed (falsely) that the Jews intended to desecrate al-Aqsa. They called for fighting the Zionists without mercy. On a Friday in late August, armed Arab villagers entered Jerusalem for weekly prayers. The British police commandant considered disarming them, the Shaw Commission reported, but accepted assurances that the weapons were defensive. A few hours later, “crowds of Muslims with sticks and clubs, some even with swords” made their way through the city and attacked the Jews.

As news of the violence spread, it sparked more rioting. The next morning, “Arabs in Hebron made a most ferocious attack on the Jewish ghetto and on isolated Jewish houses. . . . More than 60 Jews — including many women and children — were murdered and more than 50 were wounded.” The commission found that “this savage attack, of which no condemnation could be too severe, was accompanied by wanton destruction and looting. Jewish synagogues were desecrated, [and] a Jewish hospital, which had provided treatment for Arabs, was attacked and ransacked.”

In the immediate aftermath, a Canadian journalist visited one of the massacre sites, a religious school. Blood was still pooled on the floor. The Arab attackers, he reported, had mutilated their Jewish victims, severing the sexual organs of the males and the breasts of the females.

Jews in other locations were also attacked. In a village near Jerusalem, the commission said, “the horrors of Hebron were repeated on a smaller scale.” A few days after the Hebron attack, the Jewish survivors departed the city under British escort. No Jews lived there again until Israel won the West Bank in the 1967 Arab–Israeli war.

For Ben-Gurion, according to Anita Shapira, the biographer of the future prime minister, the riots were a “turning point.” They killed his hope that the Arab masses would join with the Labor Zionists in class solidarity against the bourgeois landowner-effendis. They showed that violent, uncompromising anti-Zionism had become a Palestinian Arab mass movement. From then on, he supported transforming the Haganah into the kind of professional and national force that would in time evolve into the Israeli army.

Though Britain had issued the pro-Zionist Balfour Declaration during World War I, British officials in the Middle East generally disfavored Zionism. The Shaw Commission shared their slant. It would denounce the savage murder of Jews but not endorse their ambition to be able to defend themselves within a Jewish-majority state in the Jewish homeland. Accordingly, the commission blamed the riots not on extremist hostility to Zionism but on understandable Arab resentments. In effect, it blamed the Zionists.

Similarly, today, enemies of the Jewish State blame anti-Israel terrorism less on the terrorists and jihadist ideology than on actions by Israel — building security barriers and operating checkpoints in and around the West Bank and Gaza, for example — which are described as “provocations” that fuel Palestinian resentment. To commemorate the 1929 riots is to refute the common error that the conflict is about the “occupation” that began in 1967. Arab anti-Zionist violence predates not only 1967 but Israel’s birth in 1948. It started even before the Hebron massacre.

United Nations resolutions routinely label the West Bank “Palestinian Arab territory,” implying that the area belongs to the Arabs and that Jews have no right to live there. But, in the years before the 1967 Arab–Israeli war, the area was exclusively Arab because the Jews had been expelled. In some cases, as in Hebron, the expulsion was accomplished through mass murder.

Arab rejection of Israel and Zionism emerges from an all-or-nothing view of justice and honor. It has never brooked compromise or moderation. It has justified, indeed demanded, murder of the enemy and destructive sacrifice of Palestinian lives. If the conflict were a matter of practicalities — a line-drawing problem of how to partition the land — it would have been resolved long ago. Until the Palestinians have a leadership willing to set aside the ideology and cool rather than inflame the passions that spawned the Hebron massacre, the conflict will not be resolved through diplomacy.

Douglas J. Feith, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, served as under secretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration. Sean Durns is a senior research analyst for the Committee for Middle East Reporting and Analysis.

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