Category Archives: Holy Land and Israeli History

Hoover and Hebron

Writing about any aspect of the Jewish-Arab conflict inevitably exposes the writer to charges of political leanings. While historians strive for objectivity, the readers of a blog typically are also interested in the blogger’s personal perspective. I hope that this post, and others I write, will inspire you to go learn more about a topic; to challenge my ideas, and be challenged by them in turn.


Where should a discussion of the 1929 Hebron attack against the Jews begin? I find it often useful to focus on individuals who trigger change and shape events.

Amin al Husseini, 1929.
Amin al Husseini, 1929.

In 1921, Haj Amin al-Husseini was appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and he rallied Arab nationalism against nascent Zionism. In 1924, the Moslem Wakf began shedding doubt on the Jewish connection to the Western Wall, and in 1928 the Mufti claimed that the Jews were trying to take control of the mosques on the Temple Mount.

One week before the Hebron Massacre in August, 1929, a demonstration was held by the Jews to affirm their connection to the Western Wall. On Friday, August 23, inflamed by rumors that Jews were planning to attack al-Aqsa Mosque, Arabs attacked Jews in the Old City of Jerusalem. Rioting spread to the cities of Safed and Hebron, which both had a small Jewish minority.

Jewish residents fleeing the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1929 Riots.
Jewish residents fleeing the Old City of Jerusalem during the 1929 Riots.
The Jewish Ghetto in Hebron, 1921.
The Jewish Ghetto in Hebron, 1921.

On August 24, Arabs mobs attacked the Jews of Hebron. Armed with axes, knives and iron bars, they screamed “Kill the Jews!” They broke into homes and stabbed and mutilated the Jews they found. The mob included respected Arab merchants who killed their friends, clients, and business associates. Torah scrolls were burned. And while it is often stressed that many Arabs hid their Jewish neighbors, reliable accounts placed the number of such cases at 19.

Here you can read survivor testimonies; more details about the riots can be found here.

Sixty-eight Jews were killed, including a dozen yeshiva students from New York and Chicago; scores were wounded or maimed. Soon after, all of Hebron’s Jews were evacuated by the British authorities. Both Jews and non-Jews across the world were horrified by the massacre. The Shaw Commission was a British enquiry that investigated the riots; here is their description:

“About 9 o’clock on the morning of the 24th of August, 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.”

President Herbert Hoover
President Herbert Hoover

President Hoover sent a message of condolence to the Jewish community; yet his personal correspondence on this matter was much cooler:

“I wish to thank you,” he writes, “for sending your very interesting observations on the situation in Palestine.”

 I could end with observations on the shock of Hebron’s Jews who had maintained close relations with their neighbors for many years; on the fallacy of treating the Arab-Israel conflict as political and not theological, or on the obvious falsehood that the root of the conflict is in Israel’s occupation of Arab lands. Yet I prefer to leave you, the reader, to explore this topic, and draw your own conclusions.



David Ben-Gurion on “Aliyah”

The story of Jewish immigration to the State of Israel (“Aliyah” in Hebrew) is unparalleled in history. When Israel declared independence in 1948, its Jewish population numbered 650,000; within three and a half years this number more than doubled by a huge influx of 690,000 immigrants. From 1948 to today, more than 3.5 million Jews immigrated to Israel.

For thousands of years Jews living in all corners of the globe dreamed of returning to their national homeland, and when the opportunity arose, they responded – albeit in varying degree. Broadly speaking, Jews living in Arab countries left en masse, while Jews from more democratic countries immigrated in smaller numbers.

Jews from North America tend to immigrate to Israel more for religious or ideological reasons, and less for financial or security ones. During the early decades of Israel’s existence a few thousand North American Jews immigrated and stayed, but this number leaped following the Six-Day-War. Between 1967 and 1973, 60,000 North American Jews immigrated to Israel.

Today, an organization called Nefesh B’Nefesh promotes Aliyah from English-speaking countries by providing financial assistance, employment services and streamlined governmental procedures. Their flagship events are charter flights full of immigrants (Olim) every summer, which are greeted by IDF soldiers, friends, and family, and are widely broadcast in Israeli media.

Aliyah has always been a big deal in Israel, and from the early days of the State, Israelis would ask Jews the world over – Nu, so when are you coming?

A month after the Six-Day-War, a well-known David writes to a lesser-known Ruth:

     “Our country was built by three generations of pioneers, and it is not yet finished – it is only a beginning.  We must get a large immigration from the free countries, mainly from the United States, to take part in its building – it will take at least another generation or more.

     “When are you coming to Israel?”


Israel Independence Day: JFK, Truman, & the Partition Plan

Immediately after the United States voted in the U.N. for the partition of Palestine into two states – Arab and Jewish, the State Department convinced President Truman to halt all military shipments to the Middle East. At the time Britain was arming the Arabs, and no one was arming the Jews…

What of even-handedness?

The very day after Truman reassured Chaim Weizmann – the international face of Zionism – of his commitment to partition, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. announced that the U.S. recommended abandoning the partition plan, and called for U.N. rule in Palestine.

What of commitment? Consistency of policy?

Here we can see the notes from a memorable speech given by a first-term Congressman from Boston on April 4, 1948. The speaker denounced the “unfortunate reversal… of our policy towards Palestine” as “one of the most discouraging aspects of recent American foreign policy.” He reminded his audience that “since the end of the first World War successive Presidents and Congress have ‘reaffirmed’ the solemn promise of the Balfour declaration” and demanded “explanation from the Administration” as to the “sudden reversal of our position in relation to the partition of Palestine.”

The speaker was the young John F. Kennedy, who had traveled as a student to Jerusalem in 1939, and written at length to his (virulently anti-Semitic) father about the historical intractability of the political situation.

I believe that to this day the United States is torn between an attitude of fraternity with Israel – a nation that shares its deepest values, surrounded by so many nations at fundamental odds with the U.S.A. – and an attitude of realpolitik, where loyalty and common ground mean so little…

Exhibition About the Beginnings of U.S. Diplomacy in the Holy Land

In the mid-19th century, the United States began to take a more active role in the East – first in Istanbul, and then in Jerusalem. The appointment of consuls was often dictated by personal or partisan alliances – the spoils system – and from 1857 until the outbreak of World War I, 16 American consuls served in Jerusalem.

In a collaboration between the National Library of Israel and the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, a new exhibition called “Dreams and Diplomacy in the Holy Land,” tells the fascinating story of these consuls and how they shaped the relationship between the United States and the Holy Land.  The documents displayed at this exhibition are presented to the public for the first time, and they tell some riveting tales.

The first consul – Warder Cresson, was recalled even before he reached Jerusalem. Nevertheless, he presented himself as consul, divorced his American wife, converted to Judaism, and established a Jewish family in Jerusalem. Consul Victor Beauboucher, a Frenchman who volunteered to fight in the American Civil War, was not even an American citizen. Consul Selah Merrill, a scholar and theologian, devoted most of his three terms of office in the city to a tireless war against American citizens: the founders of the American Colony in Jerusalem. He suspected them of heresy, and his bitter struggle led him to go so far as disinter their dead from the cemetery on Mount Zion in order to sell the land to Germans who wanted to build a church there.

Dreams and Diplomacy in the Holy Land can be viewed in part online and will remain on display at the National Library of Israel through March 2014.