Thursday, August 19, 2004

Remembering the Hebron Riots

The Forward

Seventy-five years ago, a two-week orgy of pogroms took place in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Safed, Hebron and a number of smaller locales in British-ruled Palestine, at the end of which 83 Jews had been killed and hundreds wounded.

Pogroms are not spontaneous events, and those of August 1929 were no exception. The affair began August 15, Tisha B'Av, when a few hundred Jerusalem schoolchildren held a flag-waving demonstration at the Western Wall — allegedly inciting a group of Arabs to violence. The next day, following Friday afternoon worship, 2,000 Arabs burst out of the Mosque of Omar on the Haram al-Sharif, or Temple Mount, and came down to the Western Wall, where they chased off the few Jews who were around, beat the shammes, tore up prayer books and burned the little notes stuck in the wall by Jews. It was suspected that the speaker in the mosque that day had incited Arab worshippers to violence. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, later admitted as much.

Hebron caught the worst of it — 68 dead — mainly because the Jewish population there was not part of the Zionist movement, whose settlements fared far better because of their clandestine defense units. The Hebron community was made up of a long-settled Sephardic community, as well as many younger religious Jews who had gone there to study in a branch of the Slobodka Yeshiva, the famed Lithuanian mussar institution. The carnage in Hebron was particularly ugly, the mobs having sliced a variety of body parts off of their victims. Just over a half-dozen of the victims were American kids from New York and Chicago who had come to study at the famed yeshiva.

The situation was also especially bad in Safed, another religious community that dated back to its heyday as a center for kabbala in the 16th century. Nearly two-dozen Jews were killed there, and the Jewish quarter was burned down, leaving hundreds homeless. In Jerusalem, sporadic violence went on for days. Outlying neighborhoods were evacuated and looted by Arab mobs. Nobel laureate S.Y. Agnon's house was ransacked, and his manuscripts were burned.

The British were slow in quelling the violence, but when they did put their foot down, it came down hard: Dozens of Arabs were killed. But Palestine's Jews were furious and concluded that without the ability to defend themselves, the Jewish community would be doomed.

A month after the pogroms began, the secretary of the Arab Executive Committee, Awni Abdul Hadi, confided to a New York Times reporter that not only were the attacks pre-planned, but also that his organization was responsible for the incitement. He also threatened worse pogroms if the Balfour Declaration was not rescinded.

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