One hundred years ago on April 4, 1920, a pogrom took place in Jerusalem. The violence lasted for four days and occurred during the annual celebration of the Muslim festival of Nebi Musa, memorializing the birth of Moses. While often overlooked by journalists and analysts today, the little- known Nebi Musa riots were, in fact, a harbinger of what is today referred to as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And the causes and consequences of that violence echo still, a century later.
As the historians David Dalin and John Rothmann observed in 2008, Nebi Musa was “the first intifada…the first of many violent radical Islamic uprisings against the Jews of Palestine that would take place over the next eight or more decades, throughout the twentieth century and on into the twenty first.”
The first lesson from the Nebi Musa riots lies with its perpetrators and their motives. The violence that left five Jews murdered, 211 injured and at least two Jewish women raped, was not initiated by those seeking Palestinian self-rule, nor was it done in the name of Palestinian nationalism. Those who instigated the riot, many of whom would become identified as the early leaders of the Palestinian Arab movement, were not hoping to create a Palestinian Arab state. Rather, they were trying to prevent a Jewish one—even if that meant being ruled from Damascus in what is today Syria, by a man, Faisal bin Hussein bin Ali al-Hashemi, born in what is today Saudi Arabia.
All of that territory had been part of the Turkish-ruled Ottoman Empire until World War I led to the empire’s eventual dissolution. During that conflict, the British issued the Balfour Declaration on Nov. 2, 1917, which called for “the establishment in Palestine”—then but a vaguely defined geographic area whose Arab inhabitants had never had self-rule— “of a national home for the Jewish people.”
Debates about what to do with the land had begun long before the British military had seized itfrom the Ottomans as a consequence of that war. When the guns fell silent, the question of whether Britain and her victorious allies would continue to support a “national home” for the Jewish people on their ancestral territory was felt by some to be very much up in the air. Borders had yet to be demarcated and, in some cases, rulers had yet to be anointed.
As Simon Sebag Montefiore noted in his 2011 history of Jerusalem, “Arab intellectuals discussed whether Palestine was part of Syria or Egypt.” Ragheb Nashashibi, scion of one of Arab Jerusalem’s leading families, “founded the Literary Society, demanding union with Syria” and another notable family, the Husseini clan, “set up the Arab Club.” Both, Montefiore observes, “were hostile to the Balfour Declaration.”
Indeed, Arab opposition to Balfour and with it, the implied notions of Jewish social and political equality—something that hadn’t existed in the thousand-plus years of Muslim rule—was already clear. At the time, it was less than clear that the purposefully vague term “national home” meant a Jewish state, but it was evident that it would mean a change in the dynamic between Jews and the non-Jews who had, for centuries, ruled over them. For many, this was unacceptable.
On March 8, 1920 Faisal, the third son of Hussein bin Ali, the Grand Sharif of Mecca, and a leader of the British-led and funded “Arab Revolt” against the Ottomans, had himself crowned as King Faisal I in Damascus City Hall. Hoping to garner favor with Britain, in June 1918 Faisal had told the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann that he supported the Balfour Declaration. But this didn’t last. As the late diplomat and author Conor Cruise O’Brien observed, “Once Faisal and his followers realized, in the second half of 1919, that the British were not really backing his claim to a throne in Damascus” his previous “claim to a united Syria, including Palestine, revived, and Arab nationalism took a Pan-Syrian and very militant turn.”
Among his first acts as king was a declaration calling for France and Britain to “vacate the western (that is, Lebanese) and southern (this is, Palestinian) parts of Syria,” historian Efraim Karsh wrote in his 2010 book Palestine Betrayed.
Faisal hoped to present those constructing a post-war settlement in the Middle East with a fait accompli. He even created and assembled a “General Syrian Congress” which, of course, supported his claims. As Karsh observed, “the emir manipulated Syrian public opinion through extensive propaganda, orchestrated public opinion, and intimidation of opponents.”
Faisal’s actions would soon result in “the Jerusalem pogrom of 1920” which “was carried out not in the name of Palestine’s independence but under the demand for its incorporation into Faisal’s kingdom.”
At the time of the Nebi Musa riots, the area was ruled by the British military, under the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration (OETA), which had been established in October 1918. Many leading OETA officials didn’t support the Balfour Declaration and were avowedly anti-Zionist. Several were even antisemitic. Some, Montefiore notes, simply found it “unworkable” and promptly sought to make that opinion a self-fulfilling prophecy.
As O’Brien observes, some in the British military administration “tried to back Faisal, both for Syria and for Palestine. They encouraged Faisal to claim Palestine, and then urged London, unsuccessfully, to accept his claim.” One reason was to frustrate their colonial rival, France. Another: “in conditions of indirect rule, with Faisal as nominal sovereign, the promise of the National Home could have been held not to apply.”
In this sense, it was the OETA which sought to present London with a fait accompli. Indeed, Col. Bertie Harry Waters-Taylor, who served as chief of staff to John Allenby, the British general who conquered Jerusalem, supported the idea of a “United Syria” under Faisal’s rule, and was in regular contact with one of the King’s chief supporters, Amin al-Husseini. Fifteen months before Nebi Musa, the Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky observed, “The Palestine authorities are acting in a manner which clearly tells the Arabs that the [Balfour] Declaration need not be fulfilled.”
This, then, is the second lesson of the riots: powerful international actors encouraging anti-Zionists to think their cause might be successful can, and often does, result in anti-Jewish violence.
On April 4, 1920, anonymous Arabic-language notices began circulating in Jerusalem stating, “The Government is with us, [British General John] Allenby is with us, kill the Jews; there is no punishment for killing Jews.” As Bruce Hoffman documented in his 2015 book Anonymous Soldiers:
“By mid-morning, a large Arab crowd had gathered just outside Jaffa Gate. Egged on by tendentious speakers from the nearby Arab Club, the crowd began to chant the rhyming Arabic couplet ‘Palestine is our land, the Jews are our dogs!’”
Holding up a picture of Faisal, Amin al-Husseini shouted, “This is your King!” Others in the crowd proclaimed, “Faisal is our King!” A newspaper editor and Arab nationalist, Aref al-Aref, shouted “If we don’t use force against the Zionists and against the Jews, we will never be rid of them.” The frenzied crowd shouted, “We will drink the blood of the Jews.” The pogrom began.
Zionist leaders were aghast. Prior to the violence, several had expressed concerns about the darkening atmosphere—only to have their concerns dismissed. When the bloodshed began, Jabotinsky approached the military governor of Jerusalem, Ronald Storrs, requesting permission for armed members of the Haganah, a recently created Jewish self-defense organization, to be deployed to protect lives and property.
Storrs, however, refused. British troops even barred Haganah members from entering the Old City and coming to their fellow Jews defense.
Four days later, the violence was over. But precedence had been set.
For some Jewish leaders, notably Jabotinsky and those constituting the Zionist right, Nebi Musa was a sign of broken faith. They now doubted Britain’s commitment to the Balfour Declaration—doubts which only grew in subsequent years.
Indeed, in the riots’ wake, the new civilian governor, Herbert Samuel, pardoned both Husseini and Aref, as well as Jabotinsky, who had been charged, along with nineteen Jewish defenders, for illegal possession of weapons. Jabotinsky had even received the same sentence as Husseini—a British attempt to demonstrate evenhandedness. The British would even bestow on Husseini the title of Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and leader of the Supreme Muslim Council—an unsuccessful attempt to appease a man who would later become a Nazi ally.
Faisal’s dream of a “Greater Syria” would never come to fruition. He would be deposed by French forces on July 25, 1920. Many of his supporters would subsequently come to see a separate Palestinian Arab state, apart from Syria, as the antidote to Zionism.
The first “Palestinian intifada” wasn’t about a separate Arab “Palestinian state,” it was motivated by opposition to a shift in the status of Jewry. “Those who do not see what is real,” the historian G.J. Meyer warned, “are generally doomed to collide with it.”
(Note: A different version of this article appeared as an op-ed in Mosaic on April 14 2020)
 David Dalin and John Rothmann, Icon of Evil: Hitler’s Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam, Random House, 2008, pg. 13
 Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem: A Biography, Random House, 2011, pg. 441
 Conor Cruise O’Brien, The Siege: The Saga of Israel and Zionism, Simon and Schuster, pg. 144
 Efraim Karsh, Palestine Betrayed, Yale University Press, 2010, pg. 41
 O’Brien, pg. 145
 Shmuel Katz, Lone Wolf, Barricade Books, 1996, pg. 574-75
 Bruce Hoffman, Anonymous Soldiers, Knopf, 2015, pg. 10
 Bruce Hoffman, Anonymous Soldiers, Knopf, 2015 pg. 10
 Montefiore, pg. 449
 Hoffman, pg. 10
 Hoffman, pg. 11
 Hillel Halkin, Jabotinsky: A Life, Yale University Press, 2014, pg. 129