63. 1929 Arab-Jew riots

During the 1920s, the gulf between the Arabs and the Jews went on widening. The British rulers too were inclined towards appeasing the Arabs and at the same time imposing increasing restrictions on the Jews.

During 1925, Palestine’s population had 15 percent Jews, but they paid staggering 45 percent of the taxes. However, most of the amount from the collected taxes was spent by the British on the Arab areas of Palestine. In addition to this, the Arabs were also enjoying the benefits of the progress of Palestine which was taking place with the contribution of the Jews.

However, the Arabs were growing suspicious of the increasing number of the Jews returning to Palestine. They worried that if the influx of the Jews continued at this rate, in the course of time, they would soon become the majority in the region and rule over it. Adding fuel to the fire were the local Arab religious leaders. Concurrently, efforts were also made to settle a higher number of Arabs from outside Palestine into the land.

In 1929, all this culminated into yet another riot between the Arabs and the Jews. The incident did not just happen on the spur of the moment. After the Arab-Jew riots of 1920 and 1921, Palestine had seen many similar cases of high-tension. At times, a petty reason was enough to trigger a crisis while there also were instances when tensions would flare due to troublemakers who purposefully spread rumours. Often, the situation was just saved from going out of hand. However, the anger and the fury in the minds raged unabated.

For the last thousands of years, the city of Jerusalem held a high place of religious importance not only for the Jews but also for the Christians and the Muslims. As a result, during the times of the Ottoman Empire, the rulers had summoned the representatives of all the religions and asked for the ‘status quo’ to be maintained with regards to religious affairs and standing. The Ottomans had also ruled that the followers of all the three religions were free to visit, pray, perform rituals, etc. Over all the years, leaving aside a stray exception, this ‘status quo’ was well maintained.

The ‘Western Wall’ is the only relic of the ‘Second Holy Temple’ left behind after its destruction in 70 AD. It is thus one of the closest and utmost respected places for the Jews. Like today, even in those days, the Jews organized daily prayers at the place, and many would regularly attend them. The attendees would also include the elderly, and hence the arrangements would include chairs and benches meant for them. The seating arrangements using these stuff would be such that men and women would sit apart, separated by a makeshift partition.

For the Arabs already wary of the growing numbers of the Jews coming back to Palestine, the Jewish prayer congregation was an eyesore. The local Arabs viewed the daily assemblies of the Jews by the Western Wall carrying along tables-chairs, and oil lamps in the evening to be the first step of encroachment upon the area. Accordingly, in 1925, the ‘Grand Mufti’ of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, raised an objection against this with the British. (Later, as part of his increasing opposition to the Jews, Amin al-Husseini also joined hands with infamous German dictator Adolf Hitler for which he was expelled from Jerusalem by the British). In response to the objection raised by al-Husseini, the British banned the Jews from even carrying makeshift furniture to the area. Of course, the ban was not always imposed or followed strictly. As the time passed by, the opposition of the Arabs also diminished. However, they nursed an all-time grudge against the Jews in their minds.

Arab-Jew, riots, Grand Mufti, British, Jews, Jews raised an objection, Jerusalem, Shaw Commission
Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini with German dictator Adolf Hitler

This resentment was shaping the course of every incident that was taking place in the region. It was September 1928. The Jews were praying by the Western Wall on the holy occasion of ‘Yom Kippur’. As usual, they were carrying chairs along with them, while the praying areas of men and women were separated using some wooden frames on which cloth was spread as a makeshift arrangement. At that very time, the British High Commissioner was a guest at some function at an Arab apartment near the Wall. The Arab leaders used this opportunity to once again complain about the Jewish gatherings. They called it a ‘Jewish plot to takeover the Al-Aqsa Mosque’ which held a high place of respect for the Muslims. They even went to the extent of tacitly warning the British High Commissioner that if the Jewish assemblages were not stopped, it will force the Arabs to retaliate for which responsibility would lie with the Jews and the British administration and not with the Arabs.

Arab-Jew, riots, Grand Mufti, British, Jews, Jews raised an objection, Jerusalem, Shaw Commission
The Western Wall – Seating arrangement at the Western Wall

In the meantime, in October 1928, the Grand Mufti took a unilateral decision and begun with some constructions next to and over the Western Wall. For this, the mules carrying the construction material were made to use the area where the Jews prayed. At times, they would even defecate in the prayer area. In addition to this, several other hurdles too were created during the time of the prayers of the Jews. The Jews raised an objection to all of this, but the obstructions continued unstopped.

By then, some groups were formed within the Jews which were not ready to mutely bear these impediments. They believed in retaliation, and the anger and irritation in their minds were intensifying. Their annoyance further boiled into demands for the Jews to completely takeover the Western Wall and also into calls for building the ‘Third Holy Temple’ at the place. For these demands of the Jews to reach the government, these groups began organizing processions, marches and rallies.

As an answer and reaction to these, the local Arab leaders too held massive marches and demonstrations where they would incite people with inflammatory speeches. The Jews would print and distribute pamphlets and other material for creating awareness among masses about their demands. However, intriguing was the fact that the Arab leaders used the very leaflets distributed by the Jews to support their own inflammatory speeches! Considering the prevalent tensions, the British administration deployed a heavy police presence right from the start of 1929. However, the destiny took its course….

Arab-Jew, riots, Grand Mufti, British, Jews, Jews raised an objection, Jerusalem, Shaw Commission
1929 Palestine riots – Torn sacred books and broken furniture in a synagogue desecrated by Arab rioters in Hebron, 1929

….at last in August 1929, the long-time bitterness and animosity took a form of riots. Rumours spread by troublemakers added fuel to the fire and worsened the situation. The local Arab rioters murdered 133 and injured more than 225 Jews during the riots that broke out between 23 to 29 August in Jerusalem, Hebron, Safed, Tel Aviv and in their neighbourhoods. In Hebron itself, 67 unarmed Jews were massacred. The police moved the surviving Jews to safe places. Not a single Jew was left in Hebron, and it was for the first time in the history of the city of last two thousand years that this was happening.

The rioters targeted Jewish worship places and also their hospitals. Right in Jerusalem, properties of many Jews were looted and ransacked. In the retaliation that happened from the side of the Jews and also in action initiated by the British police, more than 115 Arab rioters were killed while over 230 were wounded. 17 Jewish settlements were emptied as a precautionary measure.

The British appointed an inquiry commission (the ‘Shaw Commission’). After an all-round and extensive probe, the commission put the blame on local Arab rioters.

The riots did quell after some time but had created a wide valley, a huge gap between the Arabs and the Jews which could never be filled! (To be continued…)

– Shulamith Penkar-Nigrekar