Photo Credit: Jewish Press

In response to Muslim attacks on individual Jews praying at the Western Wall, a massive Jewish demonstration was held in Tel Aviv on August 14, 1929, where some 6,000 protestors roared “The Kotel is ours.” The next day – which was Tisha B’Av – several hundred youths raised the Zionist flag and sang “Hatikva” at the Wall. Arab leaders, including particularly Haj Amin al-Husseini, the rabid Jew-hating Mufti of Jerusalem, preached incendiary sermons and spread rumors that the Jews had cursed Mohammed and were planning an attack on the al-Aqsa mosque. As a result, an organized mob of 2,000 Muslims descended on the Kotel, killing three Jews, injuring the shamash, and burning sacred Jewish holy books.

The escalation of tensions led to the “Buraq Uprising,” Arab rioting from August 23-29, 1929, during which 133 Jews were murdered and over 200 others were injured, in many instances as British police stood by and watched. Rumors that the Jews has massacred Arabs in Jerusalem reached Hebron by August 23, 1929, and, the next day, bloodthirsty Arabs rampaged through the city and murdered 67 Jews (55 Ashkenazi and 12 Sephardi), including 12 women, three children under the age of five, and 24 students from the Slobodka Yeshiva (the “Hebron Yeshiva” was founded in 1925).

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They also maimed, raped, tortured, and mutilated at least 50 others; desecrated and plundered synagogues; ransacked a Jewish hospital that had historically treated Arabs; burned a Jewish library holding holy manuscripts of great antiquity; and looted and destroyed homes. This Hebron Massacre, which is also sometimes referred to as “Tarpat” (an acronym for the Hebrew date, 18 Av, 5689), became the single deadliest attack on Jews in Eretz Yisrael during the British Mandate period.

In 1929, only about 700 Jews lived in the majority-Arab city, with about 30 Jews living in the Jewish Quarter deep within Hebron, where they had built several synagogues and the famous Hebron Yeshiva. After centuries of the Jews living in relative harmony with their Arab neighbors, the massacre ended the eons-long Jewish presence in Hebron, the holy site of Mearat Hamachpela (the Cave of the Patriarchs). Jewish title to this region in Hebron dates back to its purchase by Abraham after Sarah’s death some 3,800 years ago, which is described by the Torah in uncommonly great detail (see Genesis 23:1-20).

There is considerable evidence that British and Arab municipal leaders had advance warning of an imminent attack against the Jews of Hebron, but they did nothing to prevent it. There is also considerable credible testimony by survivors that British police were actually aiding and abetting the perpetrators of the massacre, including testimony from an Arab who had protected Jews, that British police stood aside and permitted the mob to enter the home, where all the Jewish inhabitants were then butchered.

Raymond Cafferata portrait

Some Jews in Hebron had also received advance notice of the coming assault, including warnings from sympathetic Arabs, but they foolishly trusted that no harm would come to them from their Arab neighbors. A few days before the massacre, the Haganah sent 10-12 fighters to protect the Jews there, but when Police Superintendent Raymond Cafferata, the commander of the Palestine police force in Hebron, learned of their presence, he ordered the Jewish defenders to return to Jerusalem.

According to the testimony of Rav Yaakov Yosef Slonim, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Hebron, after receiving a warning from an Arab acquaintance on Friday, August 23, that the Arabs were planning to attack the Hebron Yeshiva, he sought protection from District Officer Abdullah Kardos, who blithely assured him that there was nothing to fear and that the police would maintain peace.

Later that day, after being attacked with knives and stones by Arabs in the street, he sought protection for the Jewish community from Cafferata, but the police chief not only refused to take preventative measures, he advised the Rav to go home, saying “the Jews deserve it, it is the Jews who are to blame in these cases.” Witnesses later testified that the wounded rabbi pleaded with a mounted Arab officer to help him, but the officer used his horse to shove him away. R. Slonim returned to the district officer to repeat his request for protection, but he couldn’t even get an audience with him.

Only a few hours later, at about 4:00 p.m. that Friday afternoon, Arab mobs pelted Jewish homes with rocks, and when the Hebron Yeshiva was hit and student Shmuel Rosenholtz tried to escape the building, the Arab pack stabbed him to death. After about an hour and a half, the massacre died down, and it was only then that the police fired shots into the air and dispersed the mob. Cafferata tried to enlist the local mukhtars to assume responsibility for enforcing law and order, but they declined, responding that Haj Amin al-Husseini, the mufti of Jerusalem, had ordered them to take action against the “Jews who had slaughtered Arabs in Jerusalem.”

Photo of the destroyed Avraham Avinu Synagogue, which had been known for its great beauty.

At about 8:30 a.m. on Shabbat morning, the Hebron Massacre began in force when a horde of Arabs armed with axes and knives marched through the streets to a Jewish home on the main road, murdered two young boys, and entered the home and beat the other occupants to death. Cafferata arrived at the scene, ordered two of his policemen to fire on the crowd, and personally shot several of the attacking Arabs to death, but the mob continued the massacre as they went door to door, slaughtering every Jew they could find. Cafferata would later claim that it was impossible to control the situation because he was the only British officer stationed in Hebron, an overwhelmingly Arab town of 10,000 people, and that the British reinforcements he had requested never arrived, a contention that became the cause of substantial bitter debate. In at least several instances, even a single shot from the police station would have scattered the mob, but none ever came.

Photo of a destroyed Jewish home in Hebron, 1929.

In one particularly notorious episode, 70 Jews sought refuge in the home of Eliezer Dan Slonim, the son of the Rav of Hebron. They thought they were safe because Slonim was the only Jewish member of the city council who, as director of the Anglo-Palestine Bank, had maintained excellent relations with both the British authorities and the local Arabs. When the Arabs arrived at the home, they offered to spare Slonin’s family if he turned over all the strangers in the house but, when he refused, declaring that “there are no strangers here, they are all my family,” the Arabs murdered him, his wife, and his four-year-old son.

In all, 24 Jews were killed and 13 wounded at the Slonim home, but 30 survived. The only member of his family to survive was his year-old son, who was hidden under his mother’s corpse.

Other notable atrocities included the murder and castration of a rabbi; another Rav who was burned alive by his Arab co-worker; and the slaying of yet another Rav, who had survived pogroms in Europe and made aliyah only to have his belly slit open and his organs cut out as he lay dying. A baby was murdered – in a Jewish home adjacent to the police station – when the Arabs decided to entertain themselves by smashing his head against a wall. Ben-Zion Gershon, an elderly cripple who, as pharmacist for the Beit Hadassah Clinic, had served both Jews and Arabs for over 40 years, was murdered – but only after the Arabs first gauged out his eyes in front of his family; his wife’s hands were cut off so that she could not attend to her husband (she later died), and his daughter was raped before being murdered.

Shlomo Unger, who apparently didn’t look Jewish and was asked if he was Christian, could have escaped death by answering in the affirmative, but he proudly acknowledged his Jewish identity and was repeatedly punctured until his body was little more than a sieve. A yeshiva student who asked his killers only for a few seconds to recite a final “Shema Yisrael” was slaughtered with the holy words yet on his lips. Cafferata later testified that he witnessed an Arab cutting off a child’s head with a sword, while behind them stood a Jewish woman smothered in blood, about to be murdered by one of Cafferata’s own Arab officers. Sadly, the foregoing is only a small sample of the horrific atrocities perpetrated by Arab fiends against their Jewish neighbors.

After the massacre had run its course, the police commenced gathering the injured Jews, who were brought to the police station but left on the basement floor to fend for themselves. Adding insult to injury, the British initially refused to permit the Jews to bury their dead, insisting that the Arabs could do it, which they did – while singing taunting celebratory songs. Only later did they deign to permit a minyan of Jews to participate in the burials.

The Shaw Commission, a British commission of inquiry broadly charged in late August 1929 with investigating the violent rioting in Eretz Yisrael, described the brutality of the Hebron Massacre and condemned the Arabs who had perpetrated it, but it also lauded Cafferata. More than 200 Arabs (and, insanely, 15 Jews) were tried and convicted for their role in the unrest in 1929, but only three out of 27 Arabs who received death sentences were executed – including two of the four Arabs charged with the murder of Jews in Rav Slonin’s home; the remainder had their death sentences commuted to life in prison because they were the beneficiaries of the court’s “mercy.” [Cue Terry Goodkind: “Pity for the guilty is treason to the innocent”] Sheik Taleb Markah was charged with being one of the principal ringleaders of the Hebron Massacre, but the judge found that he had incited Arabs in Jerusalem to murder, and not in Hebron, and Markah was sentenced to only two years imprisonment.

Arab leaders responded to the hanging of their brethren who had perpetrated terror and mass murder in Hebron by attempting to erect a statue in their memory, but the British authorities banned all celebrations of the Arab butchers. However, the Palestinians later erected a memorial in celebration of the Hebron Massacre, and the Palestinian Authority now holds annual commemoration to honor these “heroes.”

British Mandate authorities had instituted a criminal legal system designed to give British officials broad powers to impose collective punishment, including the power to declare any area as a “dangerous state” and to assess collective fines to compensate individuals within such areas who had sustained injury to body or property during the course of disturbance. The Collective Punishments Ordinance of 1926, which solidified the assessment of collective fines against villages and tribal areas, was later amended to include municipal areas, effectively making all of Eretz Yisrael subject to collective punishment – including the Arabs of Hebron.

In its report to the Council of the League of Nations for 1929 on the activities of the British Mandate in Eretz Yisrael, the British Government included a report on the 1929 riots, noting:

For the expeditious hearing of criminal charges arising out of the disturbances, the Commissioner of Lands was appointed a Special District Commissioner to hear cases under the Collective Punishments Ordinance. British officers from various Departments were vested with magisterial powers to undertake the preliminary hearing of charges of crimes committed during the outbreaks. An Ordinance was passed to vest the powers of a District Court in a single British Judge.

It reported that by the end of 1929, seven death sentences had been confirmed by the Court of Appeals. It further reported that the Collective Punishments Ordinances were applied to the towns and villages whose inhabitants were guilty of participation in the concerted attacks on Jews at Hebron and that “heavy fines were inflicted.”

I am fortunate to have in my collection an original file of legal leaves and other material relating to lawsuits brought on behalf of the victims of the 1929 Hebron Massacre, and exhibited here are some of those documents.

Acknowledgement of receipt of claim.

First, shown here is a confirmation by A. Abramson, the Commissioner of Lands, acknowledging receipt of a claim by the Zikhron David Cooperative Society, Ltd. pursuant to the Collective Punishment Ordinance, 1926-1929. The Society was a Jewish land holding company that was formed by a group of 160 Orthodox Jews from Mea Shearim. In 1927, a group of Observant Yemenite Jews established Migdal Eder, a small farming community on land purchased by the Society south of Jerusalem but, during the 1929 riots, the Arabs attacked and totally destroyed it. Although the residents of a neighboring village sheltered the farmers, they were unable to return to their land, and the Society filed a damages claim on their behalf.

After the British defeated the Ottoman Arabs and conquered Eretz Yisrael in 1917, Herbert Samuel, the first British high commissioner of Palestine, appointed a three-man commission to assess lands in Eretz Yisrael and to make recommendations for its use. Albert Abramson, a senior British officer, was appointed Commissioner of Lands in 1927.

 

Original document listing damage claims filed by Shlomo Yedidya.

 

Sample page listing names of Jews injured in the riots and the amount of the lawsuit.

Also exhibited here is the original list of property damages filed by Shlomo Yedidya from HaArazim Valley, which includes a detailed list of movables specifying the monetary value of each item, which is categorized as “robbed,” “burned,” or “spoiled.” (Note that the document is large format and the scans may not align perfectly.) Also shown is a sample page taken from a sheaf of original documents containing the names of Jews injured in the riots and the amount of the lawsuit.

Three days after the massacre, the British forcibly evacuated 484 survivors, including 153 children, to Jerusalem, and the Arabs wasted little time in looting and plundering the now vacant Jewish homes for anything of value that they had not already taken during the attack. Several Jewish families tried to return to Hebron, but the British removed them in 1936 at the start of the Arab revolt. When Israel took control of the area during the 1967 Six-Day War, several massacre survivors tried to reclaim their homes, but Moshe Dayan advised them that they would be arrested if they dared to return. Settlers later moved to Hebron in defiance of the Israeli government, but the original survivors never were able to reclaim their original homes.

The Hebron Massacre became a critical event in the Zionist gestalt and in the psyche of the Yishuv as emblematic of a core belief that Arabs intended to kill Jews and that Jews had to take every step to protect themselves. Some commentators argue that the Hebron Massacre of 1929 constituted a point of no return for Arab-Jewish relations which were, indeed, never the same thereafter.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at at sauljsing@gmail.com.