How the 1929 Hebron massacre invigorated the Zionist movement

The riots made it clear that the distinctions between religious and secular Jews, or between the old established community and the newcomers were meaningless for the Arabs. That wasn’t because in the eyes of Muslims all Jews should equally be put to the death, but because at the end of the 1920s, the Arabs felt that what all these currents held in common was more significant than their differences.

By Hillel Cohen

How the 1929 Hebron massacre invigorated the Zionist movement
Funeral of a victim of the 1929 Hebron Massacre. (photo: Wikicommons)

The 1929 events have become symbolic of Arab murderousness, at least in Jewish eyes. It’s the proof that even without the 1967 occupation and the 1948 Nakba, Arabs have massacred Jews mercilessly; that Muslims are thirsty for Jewish blood. But things are never that simple. At least not if we examine them thoroughly. A detailed examination reveals that during the disturbances, Jews murdered innocent Arabs while other Jews saved Arabs from being lynched in Jerusalem, and there were also Arabs who saved Jews. And it does not take long to realize that, like in any historical event, the conventional wisdom hides more than it reveals. Nevertheless, a true understanding of the riots must concentrate on tackling the murders head on. It must face up to the axes that Arabs landed at the heads of young and old Jews in Jerusalem, Hebron and Safed. It must face up to houses being set alight while their frail elderly inhabitants were still inside; it must deal with the moments of horror and blood. And the question that needs to be asked is why. Why did people kill their neighbors, their regular houseguests, those with whom they have mingled for dozens of years? (And needless to say, the purpose of asking  “why” is not to excuse the actions, but to seek some understanding.)

Herein are the fundamental insights arising out of my research into the 1929 riots (the subject of my forthcoming book). Those murders committed by Jews do not change the overall framework of the events: an Arab attack on the Jewish communities. The overall framework of the events does not change the broader historical picture: Jews came to this land since the late Ottoman period under European (and especially British) tutelage in order to turn it Jewish, and consequently turn the Arab inhabitants into a minority in their own country. The ethical discussion of whether there was justification for the Zionists’ activities is outside the scope of this study. Sufficient to say that in my opinion persecuted Jews had the right to come here to seek asylum. But this right does not extend to disenfranchising the right of the Arabs to Palestine, and it certainly does not justify the full range of maneuvers carried out by the Zionist movement.

Offering asylum to fugitives does not necessarily run contrary to the spirit of Islam: those Jews who were expelled from Spain were welcomed here during the early Ottoman period. However, in 1929, things were different — it was after nearly a century of Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel/Palestine under the protection of foreign powers. And of those, the most recent 50 years or so involved Zionist activities in which the Jews were not merely seeking asylum but demanding sovereignty. This brought about radical change in social and political relations in Palestine. Many members of the older, long-established, Jewish community who had initially aspired to equality with their neighbors rather than to establish Jewish state in the spirit of European Zionism, began to adopt the nationalist concept including the lure of the possibility of a Jewish state in this land. The Arabs of Palestine recognized that, thus the distinction between Zionists and non-Zionists Jews in the Palestinian discourse started to become blurred. The distinction had not completely disappeared: in both spoken and written Arabic, and in everyday life, the old lexicon had been preserved and distinguished between “Arab Jews,” who were part and parcel of Middle-Eastern culture, and the “Zionists,” who came from Eastern Europe with their foreign customs, as well as the “Sknaz’ –  Ashkenazi Haredim.

But at the height of riots, these distinctions evaporated. Jewish communities were attacked, regardless of political affiliation or length of time in the land. The Cohen and Afriat families of Safed, and the Kastel, Abushdid and Capiloto families of Hebron screamed “Surely we are brothers!” to their friends and neighbors but the way their screams fell on deaf ears is a clear proof of that evaporation. The disturbances made it clear that the distinctions between religious and secular; between the old established community and the newcomers; between Ashkenazim and Jews who hailed from Muslim countries; between the various currents within the labor movement and between them and the Revisionists – distinctions that divide up segments of Jewish/Israeli society – now as in before the establishment of the state, were just about meaningless for the Arabs. That wasn’t because in the eyes of Muslims all Jews should equally be put to the death – that’s not the idea – but because at the end of the 1920s the Arabs felt very strongly that what all these currents held in common was more significant than their differences. All those groups believed in the existence of the Jewish people, i.e. that Judaism is not only religion but rather nation. They all believed in the right of Jews to immigrate to their ancestral homeland. They all strove for a Jewish state in the Land of Israel/Palestine (whether it is established by human beings or thru the coming of the messiah, whether it be liberal or socialist). All those groups believed in mutual Jewish surety. These beliefs were clearly counterpoised to the aspirations of the Arabs, and they turned all the Jews who subscribed to those principles into a single amorphous mass. And therefore, during the 1929 murderous riots, the Arabs in their own view were not killing their Jewish neighbors, but their Zionist foes who were trying to take over their country.

The Arabs, it seems, recognized the potential for Jewish unity under Zionism before it came to pass, and their attack hastened the process of turning it from theory to practice. Jews who lived for generations in the country, whether of Middle Eastern or another origin, whose attitude to the Zionist movement was unenthusiastic, who felt  rejected by the socialists or the Zionist leadership, who wanted to maintain their traditional lifestyle alongside the Arabs; who spurned politics, preferring to leave the decision regarding the sovereignty of the country to the one above; who felt more comfortable with the Palestinian Arabs  than with the libertine pioneers; who eagerly waited for each new song by Umm Kulthum (whose fame had just began to flourish) – all realized following the bloody attacks that Jews have no political home other than the Zionist home. They could participate actively or just shelter in its confines during a storm, but they could not offer a real political alternative in the form of union with the country’s Arabs, because those Arabs were not interested.

In this sense we can assert that the riots established the Yishuv and shaped the ethos and values of the future Jewish State; ethos of defense and warfare. The massacres that occurred in places where there was no countervailing Jewish defense force, and the success of the Jewish defenders in repelling attacks in places where such a force existed, provided the proof to the extent that Jewish fighters, and no one but them, mark the dividing line between the survival of any Jewish community and its annihilation. In consequence the military realm became far more attractive to the more able members of the community, Mizrahi Jews joined the Haganah in much larger numbers than before and military commanders have become national leaders. Moshe Behar has already shown us how the persecution of Jews in Arab countries in the ’40s reinforced the Zionist movement. A similar process occurred here two decades ago.

Hillel Cohen specializes in the study of relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel/Palestine and teaches Palestinian and Zionist history at the Hebrew University. His book 1929 Disturbances: Year Zero is to be published soon by Keter in Hebrew. This article, first published in Hebrew on Haokets, is based on a précis of the book.

This text was translated by Sol Salbe.