Arab violence against Jews is often alleged to have begun with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 or as a result of Israel’s capture in 1967 of territories occupied by Jordan. But even before the Mandate for Palestine was assigned to Great Britain by the Allies at the San Remo Conference (April 1920) and endorsed by the League of Nations (July 1922), Palestinian Arabs were carrying out organized attacks against Jewish communities in Palestine. Systematic violence began in early 1920 with murderous assaults by groups of local Arabs against settlements in the north and by Muslim pilgrims against Jerusalem’s Jews. Again in 1921, Arab rioters attacked Jews in Jaffa and its environs. The primary agitator behind these attacks was Haj Amin al Husseini, who marshalled Arab discontent over Jewish immigration into violent riots.
In 1929, Husseini and his associates fomented a violent jihad as they called upon Muslims to “defend” their holy places from the Jews. As a result, pogroms were carried out across Palestine. Arab villagers sympathetic to Jews were often targets of murderous attacks by their Arab brethren as well. British forces were sharply criticized for not policing the territory adequately, for sympathizing with the Arabs, and for standing by and allowing havoc to be wreaked upon Jewish communities in Palestine.
In 1936, the Arab Higher Committee, led by Grand Mufti Husseini, launched a campaign of anti-Jewish violence across Palestine. Accompanied by a six-month-long strike, the campaign became known as “The Arab Revolt.” As the British increasingly became targets of Arab violence, they used massive force to suppress the aggression. The revolt was finally quashed in 1939. The resulting White Paper of 1939 reversed British commitment to a Jewish State (the raison d’etre of the Mandate) and drastically limited Jewish immigration into Palestine.
1920-21: Attacks and Riots
Organized anti-Jewish violence began in earnest at the beginning of 1920. In January, Arab villagers attacked Tel Hai, a Jewish settlement in the Galilee near the Syrian border (then under French control), killing two members. Two months later, on March 1, 1920, hundreds of Arabs from a nearby village descended on Tel Hai again, killing six more Jews. Among them was Josef Trumpeldor — a Russian wartime hero who had fought in the Russo-Japanese war and who organized the defense of the settlements in the Galilee.
During the months of March and April, over a dozen Jewish agricultural settlements in the Galilee were attacked by armed Palestinian Arabs. These included Kfar Tavor, Degania, Rosh Pina, Ayelet Hashahar, Mishmar Hayarden, Kfar Giladi and Metulla. (Four of these — Hamara, Kfar Giladi, Metulla and Bnei Yehuda were evacuated after being repeatedly attacked, and the latter was completely abandoned.)
Around the same time, during the Passover and Easter holidays, a group of Palestinian Arab “Nebi Musa” pilgrims (making their annual pilgrimage from Jerusalem to the site they believed was Moses’ tomb), were incited by Haj Amin al Husseini’s anti-Jewish rhetoric to ransack the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem and launch violent anti-Jewish riots. The violence, which took place between April 4 and April 7, claimed the lives of nine people — five Jews and four Arabs — and left 244 wounded, the vast majority Jews. The British military administration, sympathetic to the Arabs, did not allow the Jews to arm themselves.
Ze’ev (Vladimir ) Jabotinsky, a Russian journalist and Zionist activist, organized the defense of the Old City Jews with demobilized soldiers from the Jewish Legion who had participated in the British military campaign against the Ottomans. (Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor had organized and helped lead the Jewish volunteer military units that had fought with the British.) When the British authorities finally quelled the riots, Jabotinsky and 19 associates were arrested for possession of illegal weapons. Jabotinsky was stripped of his commission in Palestine, and was sentenced to 15 years of penal servitude. The Arab aggressors, by contrast, received much lighter sentences. Worldwide protests, however, forced the British to shorten and eventually revoke the sentences of Jabotinsky and his associates (as well as the incarcerated Arabs).
Meanwhile, Haj Amin al Husseini and other Arab leaders continued to incite against the Jews. On May 1, 1921, Arab rioters and policemen with knives, pistols and rifles took to the streets of Jaffa, beating and murdering Jews, and looting Jewish homes and stores. Twenty-seven Jews were killed and 150 were wounded. Attacks by Arab villagers spread to the Jewish communities of Petach Tikvah, Rehovot, Hadera, and as far north as Haifa. According to an Interim Report on the Civil Administration of Palestine to the League of Nation, dated June 1921:
Troops were employed and suppressed the disturbances, and the attacks on the [Jewish] colonies were dispersed with considerable loss to the [Arab] attackers. Martial law was proclaimed over the area affected, but much excitement prevailed for several days in Jaffa and the neighbouring districts, and for some weeks there was considerable unrest. 88 persons were killed and 238 injured, most of them slightly, in these disturbances, and there was much looting and destruction of property. There were no casualties among the troops…
A commission of inquiry, led by Sir Thomas Haycraft, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in Palestine, was set up to investigate the causes and circumstances of the riots and concluded that the violence was due to Arab resentment of Jewish immigrants to Palestine. As a result, the British High Commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel, ordered a temporary halt to Jewish immigration. Ships carrying Jews were not allowed to land in Palestine.
In November 1921, another Arab attack on the Jewish quarter of the Old City was repelled by the Haganah, Jewish defense volunteers.
1928-1929: Jihad against Jews
Between 1918 and 1928, the Jewish population in Palestine doubled, to about 150,000. Palestinian Arabs were concerned about this and their leaders, with Haj Amin al Husseini at the forefront, fanned the flames of hatred and suspicion. Husseini, now the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, used the Western (Wailing) Wall — the last remnant of the Jewish Holy Temple compound — as a focal point for his anti-Zionist campaign.
In September 1928, a small group of Jews erected a “mechitza” (a divider to separate men and women during prayers) for Yom Kippur prayers at the Western Wall. The British forcibly dismantled the divider, but Husseini used this incident as a pretext to incite Muslims. He accused the Jews of attempting to seize Muslim holy sites, including the al Aqsa Mosque.
A virulent propaganda campaign calling for jihad against the Jews resulted in the frequent beating and stoning of Jews worshipping at the Wall and culminated in widespread, murderous riots across Palestine in August 1929.
August 15, 1929 was Tisha B’Av, the day on which Jews commemorate the destruction of the Holy Temple. Thousands of Jews marched to the Wall to protest British restrictions on Jewish prayer there, and to reaffirm their Jewish connection to the holy site. They displayed their nationalistic fervor by singing Hatikvah (later to become Israel’s national anthem). The following day, mobs of armed Arab worshippers inflamed by anti-Jewish sermons, fell upon Jewish worshippers at the Wall, destroying Jewish prayer books and notes placed between the stones of the wall. On August 17, a Jewish boy was killed by Arabs during ensuing riots in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Bukharan.
According to the Davar newspaper of August 20, 1929, incitement against the Jews was rampant, especially in the Jerusalem and Hebron area. Rumors were spread that Jews had cursed Islam and intended to take over their holy places; Muslims were told that it was their duty to take revenge. “Defend the Holy Places” became the battle cry.
On August 23, more than 1000 Arabs launched attacks on Jews throughout Jerusalem. Forty-seven people were killed. This was followed by widespread attacks on Jews throughout Palestine.
Again, the British forbade Jews to organize armed self-defense units and within several days, 133 Jews had been killed and 339 wounded. Arab attackers sustained high numbers of casualties (116), almost all of whom were killed by British police trying to quell the violence. Jewish leaders reported that Arab attacks showed evidence of organized warfare; Arab assaults on Jewish communities extended from as far south as Hebron to Haifa, Safed, Mahanaim and Pekiin in the north. A state of emergency was declared and martial law was imposed by the British.
1929 Hebron Massacre
According to Dutch-Canadian journalist Pierre Van Passen who was in Palestine at the time, fabricated pictures of Muslim holy sites in ruins were handed out to Hebron Arabs as they were leaving their mosques on Friday, August 23, 1929. The captions on the pictures claimed that the Dome of the Rock was bombed by the Zionists. That evening, armed Arabs broke into the Yeshiva (Talmudic academy) and murdered the lone student they found. The following day, an enraged Arab mob wielding knives, axes, and iron bars destroyed the Yeshiva and slaughtered the rest of the students there. A delegation of Jewish residents on their way to the police station was lynched by an Arab mob. The mob then proceeded to massacre Hebron’s Jews — both Sephardi and Ashkenazi — who had lived peacefully with their Arab neighbors for years. With only one British officer supervising, the Arab police made no attempt to prevent the massacre.
The head of Hebron’s Ashkenazi community, Rabbi Ya’akov Slonim, had been on good terms with his Arab colleagues and offered his home as a refuge to Hebron’s Jews, believing that they would be spared. But the mob broke in and killed the Rabbi, members of his family and all those assembled there. Van Passen gave the following account, revealing an attempted cover-up by British officials:
What occurred in the upper chambers of Slonim’s house could be seen when we found the twelve-foot-high ceiling splashed with blood. The rooms looked like a slaughterhouse. When I visited the place in the company of Captain Marek Schwartz, a former Austrian artillery officer, Mr. Abraham Goldberg of New York, and Mr. Ernst Davies, correspondent of the old Berliner Tageblatt, the blood stood in a huge pool on the slightly sagging stone floor of the house. Clocks, crockery, tables and windows had been smashed to smithereens. Of the unlooted articles, not a single item had been left intact except a large black-and-white photograph of Dr. Theodore Herzl, the founder of political Zionism. Around the picture’s frame the murderers had draped the blood-drenched underwear of a woman.
We stood silently contemplating the scene of slaughter when the door was flung open by a British solder with fixed bayonet. In strolled Mr. Keith-Roach, governor of the Jaffa district, followed by a colonel of the Green Howards battalion of the King’s African Rifles. They took a hasty glance around that awful room, and Mr. Roach remarked to his companion, “Shall we have lunch now or drive to Jerusalem first?”
In Jerusalem the Government published a refutation of the rumors that the dead Jews of Hebron had been tortured before they had their throats slit. This made me rush back to that city accompanied by two medical men, Dr. Dantziger and Dr. Ticho. I intended to gather up the severed sexual organs and the cut-off women’s breasts we had seen lying scattered over the floor and in the beds. But when we came to Hebron a telephone call from Jerusalem had ordered our access barred to the Slonim house. [Van Passen, Pierre, Days of Our Years, Hillman-Curl, Inc., New York 1939]
In total, sixty-seven Jews were killed and 60 were wounded. The Jewish community in Hebron was destroyed.
In 1931, the community attempted to rebuild, but during the riots of 1936, the British authorities evacuated Hebron’s Jewish residents and did not allow them to return to their homes. Hebron, one of the four cities holy to Jews, which, for many centuries, had a Jewish presence, remained Judenrein for over 30 years. It was only in 1968, after Hebron came under Israel’s control, that Jews resettled there.
1929 Safed Massacre
Barely a week after the Hebron massacre, Safed, another one of the four Jewish holy cities, was subject to the same depredations. On August 29, 1929, Arabs from Safed and nearby villages assaulted and murdered their Jewish neighbors, burning and pillaging their homes. Witnesses called it a pogrom. Eighteen Jews were killed, 40 wounded, and 200 houses were burned and looted.
The following is an eyewitness account by David Hacohen, who immigrated in 1907 to Israel from Russia and later served in the Israeli Knesset from 1949-69:
I believe I was the first Jew to reach Safed from the outside after the massacre there. One Friday morning we heard that there had been a pogrom in Safed. We read the official announcement:
“On August 29, at 6:15, disturbances broke out in Safed. The army arrived on the scene at 8:35 and immediately restored order. There were some fatal casualties and many houses were burnt. The Jewish inhabitants were at once transferred to safety. Since then calm has prevailed in Safed” …
…We had enough experience not to trust the reassuring official announcement…
We set out on Saturday morning. When at noon we entered the town through the main road, I could not believe my eyes. . . I met some of the town’s Jewish elders, who fell on my neck weeping bitterly… Inside the houses I saw the mutilated and burned bodies of the victims of the massacre, and the burned body of a woman tied to the grille of a window. Going from house to house, I counted ten bodies that had not yet been collected. I saw the destruction and the signs of fire. Even in my grimmest thoughts I had not imagined that this was how I would find Safed where “calm prevailed.”
The local Jews gave me a detailed description of how the tragedy had started. The pogrom began on the afternoon of Thursday, August 29, and was carried out by Arabs from Safed and from the nearby villages, armed with weapons and tins of kerosene. Advancing on the street of the Sefardi Jews from Kfar Meron and Ein Zeitim, they looted and set fire to houses, urging each other on to continue with the killing. They slaughtered the schoolteacher, Aphriat, together with his wife and mother, and cut the lawyer, Toledano, to pieces with their knives. Bursting into the orphanages, they smashed the children’s heads and cut off their hands. I myself saw the victims. Yitshak Mammon, a native of Safed who lived with an Arab family, was murdered with indescribable brutality: he was stabbed again and again, until his body became a bloody sieve, and then he was trampled to death. Throughout the whole pogrom the police did not fire a single shot.
The British police commander, Farradav, walked up and down the main street of the town, where everything was quiet, and did not go down to the scene of the massacre… Instead of protecting the Jewish population and its property, the police commander had evacuated four thousand Jews from their homes to the courtyard of Government House, leaving their homes to be looted and burned. While the looting and killing were still going on, the police were searching the Jews for arms… [Hacohen, David, Time to Tell: An Israeli Life 1898-1984, English translation from the original Hebrew, Cornwall Books, New York 1985]
Toward the end of 1935 and the beginning of 1936, Arab demonstrations were held against Jewish immigration and purchase of land in Palestine. Tensions between the Arab and Jewish population grew. On April 15, 1936, Arabs attacked Jewish vehicles on the highway and murdered three Jews. The following night, two Arabs were shot by unidentified masked gunmen, in what the Arab community believed to be a reprisal attack by Jews. The gunmen were not identified, but soon false rumors were spread that Jews had murdered Arabs in the Jaffa area, upon which a Jewish bus was attacked and local Jews were assaulted. Within days, Arab mobs were assaulting and murdering random Jews and destroying Jewish property.
The violence — including murders, ambushes, plunder and arson — quickly spread throughout the country, and was accompanied by a general Arab strike to put a stop to Jewish immigration and the sale of property to Jews, and to demand the establishment of an Arab national government. It was the beginning of a three-year-long campaign of terrorism against Jews and British soldiers and officials, orchestrated by the Arab High Command led by Haj Amin al Husseini and known as the “Arab Revolt.”
Onslaught of Arab Terror, 1936:
April 15, 1936: 3 Jews in Tulkarm killed by Arabs.
April 19: 9 Jews in Jaffa killed by Arabs.
April 20: 5 Jews in Jaffa killed by Arabs.
April 22: Jewish woman in Jaffa killed by Arabs.
April 26: Jewish houses in Nazareth and Beit Shean burned by Arabs.
April 26: An Arab mob beats up Jewish boy in Jerusalem.
April 28: 4 Jewish farm workers in Migdal injured by Arabs.
April 29: Arabs burn down a Jewish forest in Balfouriya.
April 29: Arab mob forms in Jerusalem, but British police break it up before Jews harmed.
May 1: 2 Jews in Haifa killed by Arabs.
May 3: Arab mob burns down Jewish timber yard in Haifa.
May 4: Jewish orchards in Mishmar Ha-Emek burned by Arabs.
May 4: Arabs destroy 200 acres of wheat in Ramat David.
May 5: 500 orange trees uprooted in Tel Mond by Arabs.
May 7: Arabs fire on Jewish bus in Beit Dagan.
May 10: Arabs burn crops and haystacks in Givat Ada.
May 10: Arabs uproot newly planted olive grove in Zikhron Yaakov.
May 11: Arabs burn Jewish crops in Ramat David.
May 12: Arabs burn threshing floor in Zikhron Yaakov.
May 13: 2 elderly Jews murdered by Arabs in Old City.
May 13: Jewish shops in Haifa stoned by Arabs.
May 13: More orchards burned in Mishmar Ha-Emek.
May 16: 3 Jews in Jerusalem exiting a cinema are shot dead by Arabs.
May 19: Arabs kill a Jew in the Old City of Jerusalem.
May 20: 2 Jews wounded during Arab attack on bus.
May 24: Arabs severely wound a Jewish guard at Majd el Krum.
May 25: Arabs kill a Jew at Hebrew University.
From May 30 – June 13, 1936, in more than 11 attacks, the Arabs destroy over 30,000 trees planted by Jews, as well as many fruit orchards,crops and barns. Telephone wires are cut throughout the district, roads are barricaded, and bridges and culverts are mined. Volunteers from Syria and Iraq aid the Arabs in their attacks.
May 31: Jew at Givat Shaul killed by Arabs.
June 1: Jewish bus passenger killed by Arab rifle fire.
June 5: 5 Jewish passengers injured when Arabs threw bomb at bus in Haifa.
June 6: Jewish girl severely injured by Arab fire while traveling on bus.
June 8: Arabs attack Jews on their way to the Dead Sea Potash works.
In the third month of terror (June 16 – July 17) campaign, 9 Jews were killed, mostly in Arab ambushes on buses, and 75,000 trees planted by Jews were destroyed.
The Arab campaign of murder, intimidation, and sabotage continued through 1939, and on occasion, sparked isolated Jewish reprisals. According to the Report of the British government for 1937:
The [Arab] terrorist campaign took the form of isolated murder and attempted murder; of sporadic cases of armed attacks on military, police and civilian road transport; on Jewish settlements and on both Arab and Jewish private property…” In 1938, public security in Palestine “continued to cause the administration grave preoccupation. [Report by the British Government to the Council of the League of Nations on the Administration of Palestine and Trans-Jordan for the year 1937]
According to the Report of the British government for 1938:
The main difference between the course of events in 1938 and that in 1937 lay in the gradual development during 1938 of Arab gang warfare on organized and to a certain extent co-ordinated lines. By the end of the year, as the result of the arrival in the autumn of large military reinforcements, this gang organization was first dislocated and finally reduced to comparative impotence in the field. But in the towns terrorism persisted and the roads were still largely unsafe for normal traffic. In fact, the events of 1938 succeeded in seriously affecting the economic and social life of the country to an extent far greater than was the case in 1937. [Report by the British Government to the Council of the League of Nations on the Administration of Palestine and Trans-Jordan for the year 1938]
1938 Tiberias Massacre
On October 2 1938, an organized groups of Arab attackers massacred 21 Jews — including three women and 10 children between the ages of one and twelve — in the Old Jewish Quarter of Tiberias. The Arabs stabbed, shot and burned their victims. The New York Times described the organized rampage:
Not since the riots of 1929, when Arabs fell on Jewish men, most of whom were rabbinical students, as well as women and children, in the ancient towns of Hebron and Safed, has there been in Palestine such a slaughter as the attack of last night. The main synagogue of the town was destroyed by fire, and the district offices, the police station and the British police billet were fired on.
The attack apparently was well organized, since the Arab gang, before descending on Tiberias, cut all telephone communications. Coming in two parties from opposite directions at a given signal, which was a whistle blown from the hills surrounding the town, the firing began simultaneously in all quarters…
…The bandits rushed to the central synagogue and, finding there a beadle named Jacob Zaltz, killed him and then set the building afire…
…the Arabs broke in and stabbed and burned to death Mr. Kabin [an elderly American Jew who had recently come to Palestine] and his sister…
From there the bandits went on to the house of Joshua Ben Arieh, where they stabbed and burned to death Joshua, his wife and one son, and then shot dead his infant son. In the same house three children of Shlomo Leimer, aged 8, 10, and 12, were stabbed and burned to death. Proceeding farther, the Arabs broke into the house of Shimon Mizrahi, where they killed his wife and five children, ranging in ages from 1 to 12 years, and then set fire to the house…. [New York Times, Oct. 4, 1938]
The three-year campaign of violence was finally suppressed in 1939, after which a British White Paper limited Jewish immigration into Palestine. As a result, many of the Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were denied a haven from destruction.