This Week in History: The 1929 Hebron Massacre

Spurred by rumors of an impending takeover of Al-Aksa Mosque, a mob slaughtered 63 Jews while over 400 were saved by local Arab families.

hebron pogrom 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
hebron pogrom 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In mid-August 1929, tensions between Jews and Arabs in British Mandate Palestine were growing, tensions that would soon lead to one of the worst massacres of Jewish civilians in Palestine or the future State of Israel - the Hebron Massacre.
The Jewish community of Hebron had been living continuously in the city for hundreds of years prior to 1929, it being home to one of Judaism’s holiest sites - the Cave of the Patriarchs. Yeshivot (seminaries) regularly brought a steady flow of religious students to the city and dozens of families had lived among the local Arab population peacefully for centuries. The coexistence in Hebron was in fact common to a handful of ancient cities spread throughout the land.
But in 1929, over a decade after the Balfour Declaration, as the push for the fulfillment of Jewish nationalism began picking up steam with accelerated immigration, tensions began growing and violent incidents became more frequent.
On August 15, a group of Jews organized themselves to assert sovereignty over the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and held a march near the Temple Mount accented by nationalist flags and songs. News of the heavily protected march put on by the Beitar movement, considered by local Arab and Muslim authorities to be provocative, quickly spread throughout the land and fictitious rumors that Arabs had been killed sprouted and circulated. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem told his followers that Jews were planning to reconstruct the Jewish temple on the site of the Al-Aksa Mosque.
Violence suddenly broke out in Jerusalem and was threatening to spread to other regions.
In Hebron, which had been spared much of the violence that was taking place in the rest of the land, local Arabs, spurred by the Mufti and the rumor mill, began staging small-scale attacks on the local Jewish community. Despite an absolute minimal police presence, the Jewish community of Hebron continued to believe that the good relations they enjoyed with their Arab neighbors would spare them from the threat of violence that was hanging in the air of the ancient city.
An elderly American Jewish immigrant, Aharon Reuven Bernzweig, who was visiting Hebron with his wife at the time, later wrote to his family of the mood: “We had forebodings that something terrible was about to happen - but what, exactly, we did not know.”
“I was fearful and kept questioning the local people, who had lived there for generations. They assured me that in Hebron there could never be a pogrom, because as many times as there had been trouble elsewhere in Eretz Israel, Hebron had remained quiet. The local population had always lived very peacefully with the Arabs.”
On Friday, August 24, the local Jewish community’s faith that it would be spared any violence began to crack. Some 700 local Arabs gathered in a city square, intent on traveling to Jerusalem to protect the Al-Aksa Mosque from a rumored attack by Jews. That afternoon, a young Hebron yeshiva student was stabbed to death. The Jews of Hebron began worrying and many went into hiding.
The next morning, on Saturday, the violence escalated. The lone British policeman stationed in the city, with fewer than two dozen Arab officers under his command, vainly attempted to calm the growing mob. Mounted Arab deputies tried dispersing the crowds but they were woefully undermanned and ultimately unsuccessful. Desperate requests for backup from police in other cities were answered but did not arrive in time.
Over 500 Jews were in Hebron that day. Mobs began going door to door in a pogram-esque search for Jews, breaking into houses and literally slaughtering all whom they found.
But more than 400 of the remaining Hebron Jews were saved by some two dozen Arab families who hid them in their homes, protecting them from the blood-thirsty mobs. 
In his letter, Bernzweig described how a neighboring Arab family protected him and 33 other Jews in their home as the mobs came time and again, demanding that any Jews be handed over: “Five times the Arabs stormed our house with axes, and all the while those wild murderers kept screaming at the Arabs who were standing guard to hand over the Jews. They, in turn, shouted back that they had not hidden any Jews and knew nothing.”
Later that day, Arab policemen rounded up the surviving Jews and brought them to a police station where they were kept and protected for nearly three days before being evacuated to Jerusalem.
Some 435 Hebron Jews were saved that day by local Arab families and ultimately by police, but 63 were slaughtered by the mob armed with with knives and swords.
The incident marked the end the Hebron Jewish community’s continuous presence in the city for hundreds of years. A number of members of the community did return to Hebron two years later but fearing another massacre, the British evacuated them once again in 1936 at the start of the Great Arab Revolt.
Jews would eventually return to live in Hebron, but never again with the quiet coexistence that prevailed up until 1929.