The Western Wall is one of the holiest of Jewish sites, sacred because it is a remnant of the ancient wall that once enclosed the Jewish Second Temple. The Jews, through the practice of centuries, had established a right of access to the Wailing Wall for the purposes of their devotions. As part of the Temple Mount the Western Wall was under the control of the Muslim religious trust, the Waqf. Muslims consider the wall to be part of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, and according to Islamic tradition the place where Muhammad tied his horse, Buraq, before his night journey to heaven. There had been a few serious incidents resulting from these differences.
As a result of an incident, which occurred in September 1925, a ruling was made which forbade the Jews to bring seats and benches to the Wall even though these were intended for worshippers who were aged and infirm. The Muslims linked any adaptions to the site with "the Zionist project," and feared that they would be the first step in turning the site into a synagogue and taking it over.
Several months earlier Zionist leader Menachem Ussishkin gave a speech demanding "a Jewish state without compromises and without concessions, from Dan to Be'er Sheva, from the great sea to the desert, including Transjordan." He concluded, "Let us swear that the Jewish people will not rest and will not remain silent until its national home is built on our Mt Moriah", a reference to the Temple Mount.
In September 1928, Jews praying at the Wall on Yom Kippur placed chairs and a mechitza, consisting of a few wooden frames covered with cloth which separated the men and women. Jerusalem's British commissioner Edward Keith-Roach, while visiting the Muslim religious court overlooking the prayer area, pointed out the screen, mentioning that he had never seen it at the wall before. This precipitated emotional protests and demands from the assembled sheiks that it be removed. Unless it was taken down, they said, they would not be responsible for what happened. The screen was described as violating the Ottoman status quo that forbade Jews from making any "construction" at the Western Wall area and played into Muslim fears of Zionist expropriation of the site, though such screens had been put up from time to time. Keith-Roach told the beadle that the screen had to be removed because of the Arabs' demands. The beadle requested that the screen remained standing until the end of the prayer service, to which Keith-Roach agreed. When the Jewish beadle failed to remove the screen as agreed, ten armed men were sent in, urged on by Arab residents who were shouting, "Death to the Jewish dogs!" and "Strike, strike". A violent clash with worshipers took place, and it was destroyed.
The intervention drew censure later from senior officials who judged that excessive force had been exercised without good judgement, although the British government issued a statement defending the action.
The internal politics of both sides had been willing to adopt extreme positions and to make use of religious symbols to whip up popular support.
Zionist literature published throughout the world used the imagery of a domed structure on the Temple Mount to symbolize their national aspirations. Zionists had appropriated an Islamic minaret from the Ottoman period on the old city wall as a symbol for their propaganda. A Zionist flag was depicted atop of a building very reminiscent of the Dome of the Rock in one publication, which was later picked up and redistributed by Arab propagandists.
Haj Amin al Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem distributed leaflets to Arabs in Palestine and throughout the Arab world which claimed that the Jews were planning to take over the al-Aqsa Mosque. The leaflet stated that the Government was "responsible for any consequences of any measures which the Moslems may adopt for the purpose of defending the holy Burak themselves in the event of the failure of the Government...to prevent any such intrusion on the part of the Jews." A memorandum issued by the Moslem Supreme Council stated, "Having realized by bitter experience the unlimited greedy aspirations of the Jews in this respect, Moslems believe that the Jews’ aim is to take possession of the Mosque of Al-Aqsa gradually on the pretence that it is the Temple", and it advised the Jews "to stop this hostile propaganda which will naturally engender a parallel action in the whole Moslem world, the responsibility for which will rest with the Jews".
The Shaw Commission stated that some sections of the Arabic Press had reproduced documents concerning the Wailing Wall which "were of a character likely to excite any susceptible readers." In addition, it stated that "there appeared in the Arabic Press a number of articles, which, had they been published in England or in other western countries, would unquestionably have been regarded as provocative." One consequence was that Jewish worshippers frequently were subjected to beatings and stoning.
In October 1928, the Grand Mufti organised new construction next to and above the Wall. Mules were driven through the praying area often dropping excrement, and waste water was thrown on Jews. A muezzin was appointed to perform the Islamic call to prayer directly next to the Wall, creating noise exactly when the Jews were conducting their prayers. The Jews protested at these provocations and tensions increased.
Zionists began making demands for control over the wall; some went as far as to call openly for the rebuilding of the Temple, increasing Muslim fears over Zionist intentions. Ben-Gurion said the wall should be “redeemed”, predicting it could be achieved in as little as “another half a year”. During the spring of 1929 the Revisionist newspaper, Doar HaYom ran a long campaign claiming Jewish rights over the wall and its pavement. On 6 August the British Palestine Police Force established a police post beside the wall. On 14 August the Haganah and Brit Trumpeldor held a meeting in Tel Aviv attended by 6,000 people objecting to 1928 Commission's conclusion that the Wall was Muslim property.
On Thursday, 15 August 1929, during the Jewish fast of Tisha B'Av, several hundred members of Joseph Klausner's Committee for the Western Wall, among them members of Vladimir Jabotinsky's Revisionist Zionism movement Betar youth organization, under the leadership of Jeremiah Halpern, marched to the Western Wall shouting "the Wall is ours". At the Wall they raised the Jewish national flag and sang Hatikvah, the Jewish anthem. The Shaw report later concluded that the crowd was peaceful and allegations that the crowd were armed with iron bars were not correct, but that there may have been threatening cries made by some "undesirable elements" in the Jewish procession. The authorities had been notified of the march in advance and provided a heavy police escort in a bid to prevent any incidents. Rumours spread that the youths had attacked local residents and had cursed the name of the Prophet Muhammad.
On Friday, 16 August after an inflammatory sermon, a demonstration organized by the Supreme Muslim Council marched to the Wall. The Acting High Commissioner summoned Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini and informed him that he had never heard of such a demonstration being held at the Wailing Wall, and that it would be a terrible shock to the Jews who regarded the Wall as a place of special sanctity to them. At the Wall, the crowd burnt prayer books, liturgical fixtures and notes of supplication left in the Wall's cracks, and the beadle was injured. The rioting spread to the Jewish commercial area of town.
Inflammatory articles calculated to incite disorder appeared in the Arab media and one flyer, signed by "the Committee of the Holy Warriors in Palestine" stated that the Jews had violated the honor of Islam, and declared: "Hearts are in tumult because of these barbaric deeds, and the people began to break out in shouts of 'war, Jihad ... rebellion.' ... O Arab nation, the eyes of your brothers in Palestine are upon you ... and they awaken your religious feelings and national zealotry to rise up against the enemy who violated the honor of Islam and raped the women and murdered widows and babies."
On the same afternoon, the Jewish newspaper Doar HaYom published an inflammatory leaflet describing the Muslim march, based partially on statements by Wolfgang von Weisl, which "in material particulars was incorrect" according to the Shaw report. On 18 August, Haaretz criticised Doar HaYom in an article entitled "He who Sows the Wind shall Reap the Whirlwind": "The poison of propaganda was dripping from its columns daily until it poisoned the atmosphere and brought about the Thursday demonstration....and this served as a pretext to the wild demonstration of the Arabs."
The next day an incident which "in its origin was of a personal nature" was sparked when a young Sephardic Jew named Abraham Mizrachi was fatally stabbed by an Arab at the Maccabi grounds near Mea Shearim, in the Bukharan Quarter, following a quarrel which began when he tried to retrieve his lost football from an Arab field. A Jewish crowd attacked and severely wounded the policeman who arrived to arrest the Arab responsible, and then attacked neighbouring Arab houses and wounded their occupants.
Mizrachi died on 20 August and his funeral became the occasion for a serious anti-Arab demonstration. It was suppressed by the same force that had been employed in the initial incident. A late-night meeting initiated the following day by the Jewish leadership, at which acting high commissioner Harry Luke, Jamal al-Husayni, and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi were present, failed to produce a call for an end to the violence.
Over the following four days period, the Jerusalem police reported 12 separate attacks by Jews on Arabs and seven attacks by Arabs on Jews.
On 21 August, the Palestine Zionist Executive telegrammed the Zionist Organization stating describing the general excitement and the Arab fear of the Jews: "Population again very excited and false alarms caused local panics in various quarters but no further incidents course of day. Arabs also excited and afraid Jews. Desirable insist with home Government need of serious measures assuring public security. We are issuing appeal to public keep calm, refrain from demonstrations, and observe discipline, but feel embarrassed by militant attitude. Doar Hayom and also part of youth influenced by Revisionist agitation. Can you speak to Revisionist leaders?"
The Shaw report found that the "outbreak in Jerusalem on August 23 was from the beginning an attack by Arabs on Jews for which no excuse in the form of earlier murders by Jews has been established."
The next Friday, 23 August, thousands of Arab villagers streamed into Jerusalem from the surrounding countryside to pray on the Temple Mount, many armed with sticks and knives. Harry Luke requested reinforcements from Amman. Towards 09:30 Jewish storekeepers began closing shop and at 11:00, 20–30 gunshots were heard on the Temple Mount, apparently to work up the crowd. Luke telephoned the Mufti to come and calm a mob that had gathered under his window near the Damascus Gate, but the commissioner's impression was that the religious leader's presence was having the opposite effect. By midday friction had spread to the Jewish neighborhood of Mea She'arim where two or three Arabs were killed. The American consulate documented the event in detail, reported that the killings had taken place between 12:00 and 12:30. The Shaw report described the excited Arab crowds and that it was clear beyond all doubt that at 12:50 large sections of these crowds were bent on mischief if not on murder. At 13:15, the Arabs began a massacre of the Jews. Reacting to rumors that two Arabs had been murdered by Jews, Arabs started an attack on Jews in Jerusalem's Old City. The violence quickly spread to other parts of Palestine. British authorities had fewer than 100 soldiers, six armoured cars, and five or six aircraft in country; Palestine Police had 1,500 men, but the majority were Arab, with a small number of Jews and 175 British officers. While awaiting reinforcements, many untrained administration officials were required to attach themselves to the police, though the Jews among them were sent back to their offices. Several English theology students visiting from the University of Oxford were deputized. While a number of Jews were being killed at the Jaffa Gate, British policemen did not open fire. They reasoned that if they had shot into the Arab crowd, the mob would have turned their anger on the police.
Yemin Moshe was one of the few Jewish neighbourhoods to return fire, but most of Jerusalem's Jews did not defend themselves. At the outbreak of the violence and again in the following days, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi demanded that weapons be handed to the Jews, but was both times refused. By August 24, 17 Jews were killed in the Jerusalem area. The worst killings occurred in Hebron and Safed while others were killed in Motza, Kfar Uria, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. There were many isolated attacks on Jewish villages, and in six cases, villages were entirely destroyed, accompanied by looting and burning. In Haifa and Jaffa, the situation deteriorated and a police officer succeeded in warding off an attack on the quarter between Jaffa and Tel Aviv by firing on an Arab crowd.
The administrative director of Haddasah hospital in Jerusalem sent a cable to New York describing the casualties and that Arabs were attacking several Jewish hospitals.
In a few instances, Jews attacked Arabs and destroyed Arab property. These attacks were in most cases in retaliation for wrongs already committed by Arabs in the neighbourhood in which the Jewish attacks occurred. A Police officer opened fire on an Arab crowd and succeeded in beating off an attack on the quarter which lies between Jaffa and Tel Aviv. The worst instance of a Jewish attack on Arabs occurred in this quarter, where the Imam of a mosque and six other persons were killed.
According to the Shaw Report, the disturbances were not premeditated and did not occur simultaneously but spread from Jerusalem through a period of days to most outlying centres of population.
Later on 23 August, the British authorities armed 41 Jewish special constables, 18 Jewish ex-soldiers and a further 60 Jews were issued staves, to assist in the defense of Jewish quarters in Jerusalem. The following day, Arab notables issued a statement that "many rumours and reports of various kinds have spread to the effect that Government had enlisted and armed certain Jews, that they had enrolled Jewish ex-soldiers who had served in the Great War; and the Government forces were firing at Arabs exclusively". The Mufti of Jerusalem stated that there was a large crowd of excited Arabs in the Haram area who were also demanding arms, and that the excited crowd in the Haram area took the view that the retention of Jews as special constables carrying arms was a breach of faith by the Government. The Government initially denied the rumours, but by 27 August they were forced to disband and disarm the special constables.
On 20 August, Haganah leaders proposed to provide defence for 600 Jews of the Old Yishuv in Hebron, or to help them evacuate. However, the leaders of the Hebron community declined these offers, insisting that they trusted the A'yan (Arab notables) to protect them.
On 24 August 1929 in Hebron, Arab mobs attacked the Jewish quarter killing and raping men, women and children and looting Jewish property. They killed 65–68 Jews and wounded 58, with some of the victims being tortured, or mutilated. Sir John Chancellor, the British High Commissioner visited Hebron and later wrote to his son, "The horror of it is beyond words. In one house I visited not less than twenty-five Jews men and women were murdered in cold blood." Sir Walter Shaw concluded in The Palestine Disturbances report that "unspeakable atrocities have occurred in Hebron.
The Shaw report described the attack, "Arabs in Hebron made a most ferocious attack on the Jewish ghetto and on isolated Jewish houses lying outside the crowded quarters of the town. More than 60 Jews – including many women and children – were murdered and more than 50 were wounded. This savage attack, of which no condemnation could be too severe, was accompanied by wanton destruction and looting. Jewish synagogues were desecrated, a Jewish hospital, which had provided treatment for Arabs, was attacked and ransacked, and only the exceptional personal courage displayed by Mr. Cafferata – the one British Police Officer in the town – prevented the outbreak from developing into a general massacre of the Jews in Hebron."
The lone British policeman in the town, Raymond Cafferata, who, "killed as many of the murderers as he could, taking to his fists even", was overwhelmed, and the reinforcements he called for did not arrive for 5 hours–leading to severe recriminations. Hundreds of Jews were saved by their more benevolent Arab neighbours, who offered them sanctuary from the mob by hiding them in their own houses while others survived by taking refuge in the British police station at Beit Ramon on the outskirts of the city. When the massacre ended, the surviving Jews were evacuated by the British.
This massacre had a deep and lasting effect on the old and newer Jewish communities in Palestine.
The Hebron Yeshiva, a branch of the famed Slobodka yeshiva, was also attacked during the riots. On Friday, 23 August, an Arab crowd gathered outside it and threw stones through the windows. Only two people were inside, a student and the sexton. The student was grabbed by the Arab crowd, who stabbed him to death; the sexton survived by hiding in a well. The next day, a crowd armed with staves and axes attacked and killed two Jewish boys, one stoned to death and the other stabbed. More than 70 Jews, including the Yeshiva students, sought refuge in the house of Eliezer Dan Slonim, the son of the Rabbi of Hebron, but were massacred by an Arab mob. Survivors and reporters recounted the carnage that occurred at the Slonim residence. Moses Harbater, an 18-year-old was stabbed and two of his fingers were severed. He described at a later trial of some Arab rioters how a fellow student had been mutilated and killed. Forty-two teachers and students were murdered at the yeshiva.
The Hadassah Medical Organization operated an infirmary in Hebron. The Beit Hadassah clinic had three floors with the infirmary, the pharmacy and the synagogue on the top floor. The rioters destroyed the pharmacy and torched the synagogue and destroyed the Torah scrolls inside.
On 26 August, the Nebi Akasha Mosque in Jerusalem was attacked by a group of Jews. According to the Shaw Report, the mosque was a "sacred shrine of great antiquity held in much veneration by the Moslems". The mosque was badly damaged and the tombs of the prophets which it contained were desecrated.
The kibbutz of Mishmar HaEmek was attacked on 26 August by an Arab mob, which was dispersed by the locals and British police. On the following day the British authorities ordered the kibbutz members to evacuate. On 28 August an Arab mob attacked the empty kibbutz again, burning its barn, uprooting trees and vandalizing its cemetery. The members of the Kibbutz returned on 7 September.
In Safed on 29 August 18 Jews were killed (some sources say 20) and 80 wounded. The attackers looted and set fire to houses and killed Jewish inhabitants. The main Jewish street was looted and burned. −
The Shaw report stated:
"At about 5:15 pm, on the 29th of August, Arab mobs attacked the Jewish ghetto in Safed…in the course of which some 45 Jews were killed or wounded, several Jewish houses and shops were set on fire, and there was a repetition of the wanton destruction which had been so prominent a feature of the attack at Hebron."
An eyewitness describing the pogrom that took place in Safed, perpetrated by Arabs from Safed and local villages, armed with weapons and kerosene tins. He observed mutilated and burned bodies of victims and the burnt body of a woman tied to a window. Several people were brutally killed. A schoolteacher, wife, and mother and a lawyer, were cut to pieces with knives and the attackers entered an orphanage and smashed children's heads and cut off their hands. Another victim was stabbed repeatedly and trampled to death.
The Safed massacre marked the end of the disturbances.
A list of all the Jewish communities attacked during the riots.
During the week of riots from 23 to 29 August 133 Jews and 116 Arabs were killed and 198 Jews and 232 Arabs were injured.
More than 60 Jews were killed at Hebron, and the British police had to open fire to prevent outrages in Nablus and Jaffa. A police officer succeeded in warding off an attack on the quarter between Jaffa and Tel Aviv by firing on an Arab crowd. Arabs attacked the Jewish quarter in Safad, killing or wounding 45 persons. Many of the 116 reported Arab deaths were as a result of police and military activities.
According to the Shaw Report, during the week of riots from 23 to 29 August 116 Arabs and 133 Jews were killed and 232 Arabs and 198 Jews were injured and treated in hospital. The Jewish casualty figures were provided by the Jewish authorities. The Arab casualty figures represented only those actually admitted to hospital and did not include "a considerable number of unrecorded casualties from rifle fire that occurred amongst Arabs". The Shaw report found that, "many of the Arab casualties and possibly some of the Jewish casualties were caused by rifle fire by the police or military forces". Arab notables accused the Government forces of firing at Arabs exclusively.
The riots produced a large number of trials. According to the Attorney-General of Palestine, Norman Bentwich, the following numbers of persons were charged, with the numbers convicted in parentheses.
Of those convicted of murder, 26 Arabs and 2 Jews were sentenced to death. The Arabs included 14 convicted for the massacre in Safed and 11 for the massacre in Hebron. The Jewish policeman Simchas Hinkis was convicted for the murder of five and wounding of two when a mob broke into a house between Tel Aviv and Jaffa to avenge the murder of six Jews. Joseph Urphali was convicted by two separate trials, and lost his appeal twice, for the shooting of two Arabs from the roof of his Jaffa house.
Some of the Arab convictions were overturned on appeal and all the remaining death sentences were commuted to terms of imprisonment by the High Commissioner except in the case of three Arabs. Atta Ahmed el Zeer, Mohammad Khaleel Jamjoum and Fuad Hassab el Hejazi were hanged on 17 June 1930.
Collective fines were imposed on the Arabs of Hebron, Safed, and some villages. The fine on Hebron was 14,000 pounds. The fines collected, and an additional one hundred thousand pounds, were distributed to the victims, 90 percent of them Jews.
A few dozen families returned to Hebron in 1931 to reestablish the community, but all but one family were evacuated from Hebron at the outset of the 1936–39 Arab revolt in Palestine. The last family left in 1947.
The Arabs in the region, led by the Palestine Arab Congress, imposed a boycott on Jewish-owned businesses following the riots.
A commission of enquiry led by Sir Walter Shaw took public evidence for several weeks. The main conclusions of the Commission were as follows. [Material not in brackets is verbatim.]The fundamental cause, without which in our opinion disturbances either would not occurred or would not have been little more than a local riot, is the Arab feeling of animosity and hostility towards the Jews consequent upon the disappointment of their political and national aspirations and fear for their economic future. ... The feeling as it exists today is based on the twofold fear of the Arabs that by Jewish immigration and land purchases they may be deprived of their livelihood and in time pass under the political domination of the Jews.
In our opinion the immediate causes of the outbreak were:-
The outbreak in Jerusalem on the 23rd of August was from the beginning an attack by Arabs on Jews for which no excuse in the form of earlier murders by Jews has been established.
The outbreak was not premeditated.
[The disturbances] took the form, in the most part, of a vicious attack by Arabs on Jews accompanied by wanton destruction of Jewish property. A general massacre of the Jewish community at Hebron was narrowly averted. In a few instances, Jews attacked Arabs and destroyed Arab property. These attacks, though inexcusable, were in most cases in retaliation for wrongs already committed by Arabs in the neighbourhood in which the Jewish attacks occurred.
[In his activities connected to the dispute over the Holy Places] the Mufti was influenced by the twofold desire to confront the Jews and to mobilize Moslem opinion on the issue of the Wailing Wall. He had no intention of utilizing this religious campaign as the means of inciting to disorder.
...in the matter of innovations of practice [at the Wailing Wall] little blame can be attached to the Mufti in which some Jewish religious authorities also would not have to share. ...no connection has been established between the Mufti and the work of those who either are known or are thought to have engaged in agitation or incitement. ... After the disturbances had broken out the Mufti co-operated with the Government in their efforts both to restore peace and to prevent the extension of disorder.
[No blame can be properly attached to the British government for failing to provide armed reinforcements, withholding of fire, and similar charges.]
- The long series of incidents connected with the Wailing Wall... These must be regarded as a whole, but the incident among them which in our view contributed most to the outbreak was the Jewish demonstration at the Wailing Wall on the 15th of August, 1929. Next in importance we put the activities of the Society for the Protection of the Moslem Holy Places and, in a lesser degree, of the Pro-Wailing Wall Committee.
- Excited and intemperate articles which appeared in some Arabic papers, in one Hebrew daily paper and in a Jewish weekly paper...
- Propaganda among the less-educated Arab people of a character calculated to incite them.
- The enlargement of the Jewish Agency.
- The inadequacy of the military forces and of the reliable police available.
- The belief...that the decisions of the Palestine Government could be influenced by political considerations.
The Commission recommended that the Government reconsider its policies as to Jewish immigration and land sales to Jews. This led directly to the Hope Simpson Royal Commission in 1930.
Commission member Henry Snell signed the report but added a Note of Reservation. Although he was satisfied that the Mufti was not directly responsible for the violence or had connived at it, he believed the Mufti was aware of the nature of the anti-Zionist campaign and the danger of disturbances. He therefore attributed to the Mufti a greater share of the blame than the official report had. Snell also disagreed with the commission on matters of Jewish immigration, and did not support restrictions on Jewish land purchases. Regarding the immediate causes of the outbreak, Snell agreed with the main findings of the commission.
The commission was headed by Sir John Hope Simpson, and on 21 October 1930 it produced its report, dated 1 October 1930. The report recommended to limit the Jewish immigration due to the lack of agricultural land to support it.