The 1929 Palestine Riots – A Conflicted Jewish Historiography by William M Mathew

Mathew compares the work of two Jewish historians on the long-term effects of the inter-communal violence and harsh response by British forces which rocked Palestine in 1929. Where their accounts overlap Mathew explores their markedly different approaches.
Violence in Palestine in 1929 has influenced the conflict ever since. William Mathew offers us the chance not only to learn more about those events, but also to reflect on the business of history and the way it is used.

Naomi Cohen writes for a Jewish audience. She is selective in her choice of evidence and, Mathew argues, makes an over-simple equation between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. She has an exclusive focus on Jewish suffering and pays no attention to the Arab context within which that suffering took place

Hillel Cohen explores step-by-step the “monstrous slaughter” of Jews, but is able to step outside the closed Zionist narrative to offer a study of murderous behaviour on both sides of the communal divide.

Mathew’s review follows in two parts. Part II is here


I: The Historians – Naomi Cohen and Hillel Cohen

1929-31 witnessed a cluster of dramatic events and political proceedings in Palestine and London, these constituting one of the most critical junctures in Arab-Jewish relations between the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the end of the British Mandate in 1948: the bitter inter-communal dispute over access and ritual at the Western Wall in Jerusalem in the late 1920s; the bloody riots in the summer of 1929; the Shaw Commission Report on the strife, March 1930; the Hope Simpson follow-on Report on the longer-term issues of immigration and land alienation, October 1930; the Passfield White Paper, in the name of the colonial secretary Lord Passfield (Sydney Webb), also of October 1930, advising restrictions on immigration; and, consequent to Zionist fury over Passfield, the so-called MacDonald Letter, issued from the prime minister`s office in February 1931 and moderating the Passfield recommendations.

Three items of Jewish historiography dealing, variously and selectively, with the period are Naomi W. Cohen`s The Year After The Riots. American Responses to the Palestine Crisis of 1929-30 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1988); of more marginal relevance here, her The Americanization of Zionism, 1897-1948 (Hanover & London: Brandeis University Press, 2003); and Hillel Cohen`s Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1929 (transl. Haim Watzmann, Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2015). Naomi Cohen is a widely published American author within the field of Jewish-U.S. history, lately resident in Israel. Hillel Cohen, of a later generation, is director of the Bernard Cherrick Center at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Their purposes are different, Naomi Cohen setting out in the first book to explain why the murders of scores of Jews in Palestine failed to energise American (and most notably State Department) support for political Zionism; and in the second, to argue that Zionism had to be `Americanized`, by `ideology and politics`, before it could have effective purchase on the United States political mind. Hillel Cohen, in sharp methodological contrast, largely limits his discourse to an incident-by-incident, city-by-city, account of the disturbances themselves, proposing that `No other factor was more influential in bringing the established Jewish communities in Palestine and the new Zionist community together under a single political roof than the riots of 1929`. But insofar as their narratives overlap, a `conflicted historiography` becomes apparent – and importantly so, with profound implications for present-day perceptions of Israel`s evolution from national home to independent state.

Around such major historical contingencies, Hillel Cohen writes, `national narratives are born. It is the reason why each side fashions a closed world of its own. Only within a world shut off from the view of the other side can each side mourn its dead and celebrate its heroes. When two nations are at war, one side`s heroes…must necessarily be the other side`s villains`. The perception, and it is a tragic one, is as relevant today as it is to the circumstances of 1929 – but a special feature of Cohen`s work is his ability to break out from a closed Zionist narrative, and to place the crisis in the context not only of Jewish suffering (and there was much more Arab-Jewish killing than Jewish-Arab killing) but also of the alarm felt by the Arab population at the encroachment of Jews, native and immigrant, on both their land and their polity.`Here`, he writes in his final pages, `I will offer my own opinion: the Jews, as a persecuted people whose property and lives were in constant danger, had a right to take refuge in the Land of Israel. But this right did not strip the Arabs of their own rights in Palestine, nor can it justify every action and policy pursued by the Zionist movement to achieve its larger goal`.

`How is it that different historians perusing the very same archives and examining exactly the same documents reach diametrically opposed conclusions about the processes that led up to the riots and about the people who led them?`

Such universalist perspective stands in marked contrast to the restricted range and emphasis adopted in Naomi Cohen`s studies Despite the quality of the writing and the depth of the research, the volumes seem to belong to that intellectually `closed world` as cited above. It is very much Jewish history for a Jewish readership, in the old tradition of nationalist historiography, the great body of her 346 footnotes in the first book and 533 in the second – many of them multiple, and with an impressively heavy bias towards primary material – being from exclusively Jewish sources. This may seem unsurprising given the focus of both her volumes on Jewish opinion and practice, but it features to such a degree that there is no reference whatsoever to Arab sources, despite the demographic preponderance of Arabs in Palestine – and very little recourse either to British documents, despite Palestine being British mandate territory throughout the period of the Riots book, and through most of the years of the Americanization volume. The Palestine Jews are, by her accounts, beset by enemies at home and abroad – by barbarous Arabs in the Levant; by unheeding, commonly anti-Semitic, governments in London and Washington; and in the inter-war years, by fellow Jews in America beset by factionalism and unable `to disarm the hostile elements within the government and the public`.

All this highlights a serious intellectual problem. Crude ethnicism, with all the moral charge of victimhood, is combined in Naomi Cohen`s case with a remarkable authority and sophistication of style – thoroughly disarming to the innocent reader coming to the issues for the first time, unaware of their broader historical context, and perusing the dust-cover appraisals of Cohen`s celebrated scholarship: `one of the established and most highly-regarded people working in Jewish American history` ; `one of the truly important scholars of the American Jewish experience`. Such acclaim might be appropriate in strictly `Jewish-American` terms. It cannot however, apply, as we shall suggest, to Cohen`s selectivities and distortions concerning local Arab and official British political behaviour in the period of the riots and beyond.

It is the achievement of Hillel Cohen to show that Jewish history need not be like this: that it is best offered in the age-old spirit of Jewish universalism.

II: The Western Wall

The immediate cause of the conflict dated back to Yom Kippur, September 1928, when numbers of the Jewish community erected a collapsible gender-separating screen by the Western, or Wailing, Wall in Jerusalem – al-Buraq in Arabic – this going beyond long-established but restricted rights to engage in devotional ritual there: the place revered by Jews as the last fragment of Herod’s Temple, on the site where, they believe, a Temple of Solomon was built;  and by Muslims as part of the Al-Aqsa Mosque where, it is deemed, the prophet Mohammed tethered his horse before setting off on his night ride to heaven. The Wall was under the control of the Waqf, the Muslim religious trust, and the Supreme Muslim Council set out their fear a day or two after the screen went up `that the Jews` aim is to take possession of the Mosque of Al-Aqsa gradually, on the pretence that it is the Temple, by starting with the Western Wall of this place`. Ill-feeling simmered through the rest of the year and into 1929, with the British authorities disposed to uphold the broad status quo.

On 15 August of that year, however, the tensions exploded into physical conflict. As described in a subsequent semi-official British survey (Great Britain and Palestine 1915-1936 [London & New York: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1937]), `some hundreds of young Jews organised a demonstration at the Wailing Wall, in the course of which the Zionist flag was raised and the Zionist anthem sung. Incensed by this, the Moslems held a counter-demonstration at the same site on the following day….There followed a week of extreme tension. Then between the 23rd and the 29th August, murderous attacks were made by Arabs on Jews in Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed and in rural areas. In this outbreak 133 Jews were killed (over 60 at Hebron) and 339 wounded. Arab casualties, mostly inflicted by the troops or police, were 116 killed and 232 wounded`. In the opinion of the Shaw Commission, sent out from London to report on the disorder, `the incident … which … contributed most to the outbreak was the Jewish demonstration at the Wailing Wall on 15 August 1929`.

The treatment of these preliminary events by Hillel Cohen and Naomi Cohen well exemplifies the `conflicted historiography` of our title. Hillel Cohen`s opening chapter begins, tellingly, with an account of the 15 August march written by a Palestinian author, Mustafa Murad-al-Dabbagh (2002): `In the summer of 1929 the Jews provoked the Muslims: thousands of the young and old people gathered on the streets of Jerusalem….Their voices rang out: ”The Western Wall is ours, beware all who sully our holy site.”` It seemed to politically sensitive Arabs that it had become a compelling duty to protect the sacred place that they knew to be theirs by right and custom – the notion of self-defence, Muradal-Dabbagh writes, being `consistent with Islamic logic and the Qur`an`s command: “Fight in God`s cause against those who fight you…”`.

This openness to Arab perceptions, and their ominous implications, is entirely missing from Naomi Cohen`s account – oddly abbreviated in her main text, and set out principally towards the end of her book in a page-long footnote of peculiar sourcing. In the text we learn of an even contest of `claims and counterclaims` of Arabs and Jews, `cultivated by extremists on both sides…`. The critical mid-August Zionist march on the Wall merits no comment whatsoever. And although her extended note cites the 1930 League of Nations Commission findings (Report of the Commission appointed by His Majesty`s Government…with the approval of the Council of the League of Nations, to determine the rights and claims of Moslems and Jews in connection with the Western or Wailing Wall at Jerusalem) on the dispute, there is scarcely any mention of that Commission`s balanced and detailed analysis. Instead Cohen draws on a memorandum submitted to the Commission by the Jewish scholar and religious leader, Cyrus Adler, `on behalf of`, as its title sets out, `the Rabbinate, the Jewish Agency for Palestine, the Jewish Community of Palestine, and the Central Agudath Israel of Palestine`.

Cohen makes no reference to the Commission`s conclusion that `whatever appurtenances of worship…as the Jews may be entitled to place near the Wall…shall under no circumstances be considered as, or have the effect from establishing for them, any sort of proprietary right to the Wall or to the Adjacent Pavement` – providing only the blandest of comments: that the `committee of the league listened to both sides and recommended that the Arabs and Jews together work out a solution`. Why, one has to ask, cite a marginal memorandum from one side of the ethnic divide and effectively ignore the 72-page report itself? – authored by Eliel Lofgren, a former Swedish foreign minister; Charles Barde, vice-president of the Court of Justice at Geneva; and J. Van Kempen, a member of the States-General of the Netherlands and one-time governor of the East Coast of Sumatra.

III: The Riots

As for the disturbances themselves, Hillel Cohen provides an abundance of detail, much of it in the form of contemporary reportage, his chapters – subdivided into numerous short sections – set out not chronologically but by place: Jaffa and Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Hebron, Motza, and Safed. `In the text`, he writes, `I move back and forth over the years in an attempt to express the spirit of the time and to get into the heads of the actors in the story – murderers, survivors, and victims; believers and heretics; and Jews, Arabs, and British`. And he addresses the crucial historiographical question: `How is it that different historians perusing the very same archives and examining exactly the same documents reach diametrically opposed conclusions about the processes that led up to the riots and about the people who led them?`

The casualties were much more inter-communal and psychologically charged on the Jewish side of the divide, individuals and whole families being murdered, mainly in their homes, unarmed, by Arab assailants – Arabs themselves being the victims of a lower scale of Jewish attack, their high death rate mainly the result of British army gunfire as the authorities sought, often brutally, to impose physical order in the cities and villages. Of the 133 Jews killed, by Cohen`s estimate, almost half died in Hebron on the single day 24 August. The sheer horror of what transpired is tersely conveyed: `many hundreds of Arabs from Hebron…and the surrounding area stormed Jewish homes….The massacre lasted for less than two hours….Some died instantly, others only after enduring horrible agonies. Some were long-time inhabitants of the city, others newcomers…` .

Ben-Zion Gershon, a Hebron pharmacist who had over the years served both Arabs and Jews in his neighbourhood, was seemingly killed under the most distressing circumstances – Cohen quoting from a contemporary account by one Pinhas Grayevski: `On the day of the riots Arabs broke into the home of this poor Jew, and instead of having mercy on him for being one-legged, they cut off both of his hands. The very same Arabs who had been cured by him of trachoma and blindness stood over him and gouged out his eyes. The same Arabs whose wives and daughters he had saved from miscarrying and from gynaecological illnesses now seized his eldest daughter, raped her, and killed her. They also stabbed his wife four times with a knife and brought a nail-studded club down on her head`.

But Cohen asks: `Did they really do these things?` There is, he suggests, no way of telling – or any way of confirming a host of other fraught accounts, in Hebron and beyond, written just after the killings had taken place. Charges of rape were widely levelled against the rioters (and universally rejected by Arab writers), Cohen`s cautious conclusion being that there were probably `instances of rape, but that it was not as widespread as reported in Hebrew-language sources`. In the end, of course, what mattered psychologically at the time, and politically in the longer term, is what stories were circulated in the respective communities and what their members chose, in their fears and their hatreds, to believe. `For the Jews, what happened in Hebron that day was a monstrous slaughter of innocents and a seminal event in the country`s history. For the Palestinians, the day`s occurrences were just one event in a series of Arab uprisings against the European-Zionist attempt to dispossess them …`.

Going beyond the documentation of Arab atrocities, Cohen, with a proper attention to balance, cites the numerous instances of Jews, either as groups of individuals or as the fledgling Haganah defence force, murdering Arabs by both shootings and lynchings (noting that `Most of the killings and massacres that Jewish fighters committed against Arabs have been repressed in Israeli society`). A group of Haganah fighters in the vicinity of Haifa, to cite one episode for 25 August, `carried out motorized incursions into Arab neighborhoods, shooting at gathering crowds. Levi Avrahami, the senior Haganah commander in Haifa … took part in these actions and his testimony indicates that he and his fellows made no distinction between assailants and innocent passersby`. Indiscriminate killing by British forces also, as noted, accounted for many Arab deaths. In villages near Jerusalem, Sur Baher and Qaluna, Cohen records, `they arrived after the end of an incident, when no one was in danger any longer, and fired indiscriminately, killing women and old people….The arbitrary British response was the principal cause of the large numbers of Arab casualties in Jerusalem and its surrounding villages. Fifty Arabs died as a result`. The fact that these killings were not strictly inter-communal makes them no less relevant to deteriorating relations between Arabs and Jews: the British were clearly viewed as part of the uninvited `European-Zionist` incursion into their land and polity. From the Palestinian point of view, `the homes the Jews built stood in an Arab land, and the fields they plowed were Arab soil…..No matter that the Zionists did not stage an armed invasion of Palestine but rather arrived to settle there in large numbers. They did so under the protection of British bayonets with the goal of transforming the land into a Jewish one`.

As for Naomi Cohen`s account, a book entitled The Year After The Riots might be expected to provide fair coverage of the disturbances themselves. How else to properly understand their political consequences – especially when their impact on American opinion, the main focus of Cohen`s attention, was to activate sympathy less for the Jews than for the Palestinian Arabs? Such an apparently unfeeling response to faraway Jewish suffering was, according to the dust jacket, `all too familiar in twentieth century Jewish history` and, in the American case, closely related to `the vicious anti-Semitic attacks` common in political writings in the 1920s. A loose equation of Arab behaviour in the Levant with the persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe – unqualified by reference to hugely differing social and political contexts – is signalled in the very first lines of the book: `The Palestine riots of 1929 jolted contemporary Jews, even those who remembered the outrages of Kishinev and Odessa and the massacres in the Ukraine. The loss of life and property, one English Jew said, was “quite as bad as anything that has happened in any pogrom in Russia and Poland”. Other Jews simply termed the devastation as the dritter churban (third destruction)`. Such emotive comment comes devoid of clear sourcing

In her point-by-point summary of `the composite and highly unflattering picture of Zionism` in the United States that `emerged from the nation`s leading journals`, much of it along the lines of informed anti-Zionist opinion expressed elsewhere in the world, and commonly by Jews themselves, Cohen at no stage accords the comments any validity, or acknowledges that there may have been a legitimate case for a viable Arab polity, shared or separate, in Palestine. Instead, there is a slack conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. `The cause of the rioters, the Arabs, drew far greater support in the United States than that of the victims, the Zionists….Baldly put, anti-Semitic imagery, old but hardy, decisively contributed to the judgement against Zionism. The distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism was growing increasingly blurred` – all this, again, undocumented. Likewise numerous other insistent claims – `The reaction of American officials to Zionism even before 1929…bore unmistakable traces of anti-Semitism` – anti-Semitism in the United Kingdom `colored the outlook and predisposition of British officials` – and `Arab opposition to Zionism drew from its long history of Jew hatred`.

It is also notable that – apart from Hajj Amin al-Hussayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, an ever-present and virulent provocateur; the Hashemite prince (and later king of Iraq) Feisal, allegedly a friend of the Zionists; and a Lebanon-born man of letters and `Arab propagandist`, Ameen Rihani – `fluent, persuasive and … unscrupulous` – no individual Arabs make an appearance in either of Cohen`s accounts. They exist merely in the mass, a community of `killers and looters`, undeserving of specificity. Nowhere are we given reasons why numbers of them took to rioting in 1929. We have to settle, it seems, for elementary `Jew hatred`.

From Hillel Cohen, therefore, a study of murderous behaviour and its consequences on both sides of the communal divide; from Naomi Cohen, an exclusive focus on Jewish suffering, devoid of attention to the Arab context, political, economic, and psychological, within which that suffering took place

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