By Alex Winder
This article analyzes the outbreak of the deadly 1929 riots in Palestine. Focusing on Jerusalem, Safad, and Hebron, the cities most significantly affected by the events, the article sees the violence as attempts to reinforce, redefine, or re-establish communal boundaries. It argues that patterns of violence in each city can help us under- stand how these boundaries had been established and evolved in the past, as well as the ways in which new forces, in particular the economic, political, and social influence of the Zionist movement and the rise of nationalist politics among the Palestinian Arabs, had eroded older boundaries
The deadly riots that engulfed Palestine in August 1929, known today as the “Western Wall” or “al-Buraq” disturbances, marked a turning point in Arab-Jewish relations in the country. Erupting in Jerusalem, they quickly spread to Hebron and Safad. In less than a week—from 23 to 29 August—the official casualty counts listed 133 Jews killed and 339 wounded,mainly by Arab rioters, and 116 Arabs killed and 232 wounded, mainly by British security forces. The unprecedented violence spawned three commissions of inquiry, forced the British Mandate authorities to re-evaluate and temporarily suspend their policies, and revealed as never before the explosive depths of the emerging conflict.
The violence took place in the context of rising Palestinian frustration over the Mandate’s Jewish National Home policy and its consequences, especially increasing Jewish immigration and Zionist land purchases, with the economic pressures on the Palestinians exacerbated by natural factors, such as cattle plague and locusts. The immediate trigger, however, was access to and custody over the Western Wall/al-Buraq of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif in Jerusalem, where the Zionists had been challenging Muslim control since the beginning of the Mandate, and especially since autumn 1928.
On 15 August 1929, the Haganah and Revisionist Betar movements organized demonstrations at the Wall, prompting counter protests by Muslim worshippers on 16 August. The following week, several violent incidents between groups of Jews and Palestinian Arabs and swirling rumors further fueled tensions. On 23 August, demonstrations after Friday prayers quickly turned violent and spread through Jerusalem’s Old City and then into the suburbs, leaving seventeen Jews dead. The following morning, the violence spread to Hebron, where a concerted attack on the Jewish Quarter left more than sixty Jews dead and scores wounded. In the next few days, isolated clashes and attacks were noted in Haifa and Jaffa, and though the situation seemed to be calm by 27 and28 August, on the afternoon of 29 August violence erupted once again,this time in Safad. Some forty-five Jews were killed or wounded in Safad before British police and military put down the riots there, effectively bringing this outbreak of popular violence in Palestine to a close.
Strikingly, Jerusalem, Hebron, and Safad were home to three of Palestine’s oldest Jewish communities, their Jewish inhabitants having lived for generations as a recognized component of Palestinian Arab society. These cities were also among Palestine’s four Jewish holy cities(the fourth being Tiberias), and as such the religious Jews who populated them were largely (though not completely) disconnected from the growing Zionist presence in Palestine.Most explanations of the 1929 riots follow one of two paradigms. The first sees them as the expression of Muslim fanaticism and Arab anti-Semitism, a particular instance of a continuous and constant ethno-religious conflict which, though at times held in check by political power, was constantly in danger of breaking out into open violence. The second places them in the context of the developing political conflict in Palestine, focusing either on the role of the British administration and its failure to anticipate or stave off the violence, or on the role of Haj Amin al-Husayni, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who during this period emerged as the preeminent political leader of the Palestinians.Each approach has flaws. The first assumes certain innate religious identities with essential characteristics (particularly Jewish vulnerability and Muslim violence) and conflates the 1929 rioting in Palestine with violence against Jews in medieval and modern Europe and elsewhere in the Arab world. At the same time, this paradigm tends to minimize the specific context of the event, thus offering a limited understanding of the causes without fully explaining why violence occurs at certain times but not at others. The second approach overemphasises the role of immediate political events in the violence and ignores deeper social structures. Although it offers far greater insight than the first, its explanation of the 1929 violence solely as a product of recent political developments is also limiting.This article approaches the communal violence of 1929 from a different angle. Instead of searching for “essential” core characteristics by which particular communities defined themselves, it sees communities as most often defined by their boundaries, the points at which they come up against other communities. From this perspective, communal violence can be viewed as an attempt to reinforce, redefine, or re-establish boundaries marked in geographical space, including by signifiers such as clothing and language, and other practices.More broadly, the article seeks to rescue the events of 1929 from essentialist or exclusively political interpretations and, in so doing, to restore to the notions of “religious” and “nationalist” the complexity that is their due. Neither religion nor nationalism exists as a unifed, homogenous, or static system; rather, each emerges and changes in keeping with the practices and discourses of those who claim them. To think of the 1929 riots in terms of“Muslims attacking Jews” or “Palestinians resisting Zionists” tells us little either about how the violence was intended or how it was interpreted by its perpetrators and its victims, all of whom saw themselves and the “other” in more complicated terms shaped by experiences and expectations developed over years or even generations. These experiences and expectations, based on lived daily life far removed from the realm of high politics, include notions of community and its boundaries, and are major factors in how individuals on all sides interpreted the events.Throughout, I will use the term “communal” to avoid imposing exclusively religious or national identifications on the participants and observers. Exploring communal boundaries in Hebron, Safad, and Jerusalem prior to the events of 1929, and how these boundaries shaped and were reshaped by these instances of communal violence, will help to elucidate this complexity
/* Must read in depth accounts of the 1929 Riots */
When zionist mention you the 1929 Riots and the tragic massacre of the Hebron Jews, post them the article and recall that with the 133 Jews murdered by Arabs, 116 Arabs were murdered by Jews. And that MOST of the 500 or so Jews of Hebron were saved, most of them by their Arab neighbors … Also of the 67 victims in Hebron, 12 were Sephardim (the Old Hebron families) 55 were Ashkenazim, mostly recent immigrants Europeans & Americans. So to say that Arabs “decimated” the Jewish community in Hebron is a blatant DISTORTION of the facts and Historically FALSE .. You’ll note that zionists never express any gratitude for the 430+ Jews saved in Hebron most of whom were saved by Arabs, nor do they mention the 116 Arabs killed during the 1929 Riots.. We also need to remember that it was sparked by the incitement of the Hagana and Betar (the Revisionist organization) taunting Arabs at the Al-Buraq Sanctuary of the Haram al-Sharif (Western Wall) … Same trick used by Ariel Sharon in 2000 to spark the Second Intifada …