Destroyed Synagogue in Hebron (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The summer of 1928 seemed, at its onset, to be a continuation the relative calm that resided over Mandatory Palestine since the 1921 Jaffa riots. The economic hardships that had plagued the region were subsiding, Jewish immigration continued without hindrance, and the British reported that relations between Arabs and Jews were improving. That was, until, an altercation at the Western Wall reignited the flames of conflict.

On Yom Kippur, Jewish worshippers erected a screen to divide the men and women as is in accordance with Jewish custom, which led to Arab grievances regarding the infringement of the status quo at the Western Wall. Back and forth arguments between the Jewish and Arab communities ensued and climaxed in the summer of 1929 with violent Arab riots against Jews.

On August 23, 1929, an Arab mob of hundreds set out from morning prayers and launched an all-out assault on Jerusalem’s Jews, who were reassured the previous day by British authorities that the situation was under control. By the end of the day, 17 Jews lay dead and numerous more injured.

On the following day, Arabs attacked the ancient Jewish community of Hebron and massacred 67 Jews. The British High Commissioner, John Chancellor, would later write 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." Up until that point, Hebron had been one of the oldest continuously lived-in Jewish communities in the world, but after the massacre the Jews were forced to flee, only to return years later after Israel liberated the ancient city in 1967.

Violence soon spread to other cities, notably Safed, where 18-20 Jews were murdered. By the time the seven-day butchery subsided, 133 Jews were killed and another 339 wounded. Many Arabs were also killed, the majority at the hands of the British Police who tried to quell the riot, amounting to 116 dead and 232 wounded.

Like in the past, the British issued a commission to “inquire into the immediate causes which led to the recent outbreak in Palestine,” and to make recommendations as to the steps necessary to avoid a recurrence. The commission, headed by Sir Walter Shaw, concluded that the outbreak of violence occurred when Arabs attacked Jews due to no direct instigation; however, the “underlying and fundamental cause of the disturbance was to be found in the Arab opposition to the Jewish national home, and particularly to Jewish immigration and land settlement.”

Like the previous commissions following the Nebi Musa and Jaffa riots, the Shaw Commission determined that although the Arabs were the aggressors, the underlying cause of the conflict was Zionist expansion.

Based on the recommendation given by the Shaw Commission, England sponsored another inquiry “to examine on the spot the questions of immigration, land settlement and development.” The Hope Simpson Inquiry, headed by venerated British parliamentarian John Hope Simpson, suggested suspending immigration, a proposal that subsequently resulted in the Passfield White Paper, named after colonial secretary Lord Sidney Webb Passfield.

The Passfield White Paper was an official edict passed in 1930 that drastically limited Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine. Although unintentionally, the British government yet again demonstrated to the Arabs that violence can be a useful method to achieve their political goals.

While the Arabs hailed the decision, the Jews did not. Prominent Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, who long held excellent relations with England, resigned as head of the Jewish Agency in protest, while other Zionist organizations voiced their indignation. Feeling internal and external pressure, Prime Minister MacDonald issued a new statement of policy in 1931, known as the Ramsay MacDonald Letter, which re-emphasized the British commitment to the Zionist cause while essentially annulling all the anti-Zionist provisions of the Passfield White Paper.

The 1929 Arab Riots is noted by many as a watershed in Jewish-Arab relations and the history of the Yishuv. The indiscriminate attacks on the Old Yishuv, which until that point enjoyed cordial relations with the Arabs, changed the perception of many who thought that the Arabs only had qualms with the “new Jews” entering the land.

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