a history of pogroms in Palestine

BACKGROUND & NOTES

Before I begin, I want to make something ABUNDANTLY CLEAR: the intent of this post is not to demonize Palestinians, and I’ll be extremely upset if someone uses it in this manner. Virtually every nation that has ever had a significant Jewish population has massacred its Jews. Palestinians are not an outlier in this regard.

The reason for this post is to provide context on the current situation in Israel-Palestine. The pogroms — particularly the pogroms in the 1920s — fundamentally shifted Zionism, Palestinian Arab-Jewish relations, and even the relationships between the different Jewish communities in Mandatory Palestine. This context is important if we are to understand how we got here. After all, the partition of the land was suggested in the first place because of worsening Arab violence toward the Jews.

It’s very much worth noting that this antisemitic violence was often incited by hateful leadership. In fact, while Jews officially remained second class citizens until the Ottoman Empire abolished the dhimmi system in the mid to late-19th century, relations between Palestinian Arab peasants and Jews — including new Ashkenazi arrivals — were often decent or even quite good. My own grandfather had some really heartwarming stories.

So what is a pogrom? A pogrom is an anti-Jewish massacre or riot. While the word was coined in the 1880s in response to violence against Jews in the Russian Empire, the history of anti-Jewish massacres dates back 3000+ years and spans nearly the entire globe. The word “pogrom” comes from Russian, meaning “to destroy, to wreak havoc, to demolish violently.”

 

1517 HEBRON & SAFED POGROMS

In 1517, during the tail end of the Ottoman-Mamluk War, the Ottoman troops attacked the Jewish community of Hebron (some historians suggest, however, that the perpetrators were actually the Egyptian Mamluks). Hebron is second holiest Jewish city and had a continuous Jewish community dating back thousands of years.

A local Jew, Japheth ben Manasseh, recounted the massacre a year later, describing how local Jews were raped, beaten, and killed. He wrote: “In the seventh month, on the holiday of Succoth in 1517, the cruel tyrant; the Wrath of the Holy One Be He, Murad Bey, deputy of the Sultan and ruler of Jerusalem, decided in his heart to take out his fury on the Jews in his city and those living in Hebron. And he said 'I will take booty from them and take the Jews in the two cities captive so long as they have the power to see me.' And he carried out his decree.”

Jewish businesses and homes were looted and destroyed. Jews tried to arm themselves in self-defense but were largely unsuccessful. The surviving Jews fled to Beirut, only returning to Hebron 16 years later.

A similar pogrom took place in the city of Safed (Tzfat), which at the time, had some 300 Jewish families. The retreating Mamluks accused the Jews of allying with the Ottomans, and as such, they were brutally slaughtered, with the local Arabs joining in on the violence. Similarly, Jewish homes and businesses were plundered and the surviving community fled. A few years later, however, the community reestablished itself with the financial help of the Egyptian Jewish community.

 

1660 SAFED & TIBERIAS POGROMS 

In 1660, serious violence erupted between the pro-Ottoman Druze and Druze rebels. Though the Jewish community was not involved, the local Arabs used the unrest as an opportunity to massacre the local Jewish population of Safed; similarly, the Druze enacted a pogrom against the Jewish population of Tiberias.

Most historians agree that the Jewish community of Safed was essentially decimated, although historian Gershom Scholem argues that reports of complete destruction were exaggerated. We do know, however, that many in the community were massacred and that the survivors fled to adjacent villages and cities, including Sidon and Jerusalem.

The community in Tiberias, however, was fully destroyed, with the entire Jewish community fleeing, essentially turning it into a desolate ghost town for many years.

 

1834 HEBRON & SAFED POGROMS

In 1834, in the midst of the Peasants’ Revolt in Palestine, an Egyptian army general launched an assault against Hebron to eliminate the last pockets of resistance. The assault succeeded. However, despite the fact that the Jews of Hebron had not been involved in the revolt, the army chose to attack the Jewish community, indiscriminately raping and slaughtering Jews. In the end, 12 Jews were killed, including 5 young girls. Ancient synagogues were desecrated and Jewish homes were ransacked. Jewish assets were also stolen, leaving the community destitute for years to come. The violence united the local Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities. The Jews referred to the massacre as “the great destruction.”

In Safed, a 33-day-long massacre took place at the hands of the local Arabs who took advantage of the power vacuum. Historians believe that the antisemitic rants of a local Muslim cleric named Muhammad Damoor were a factor in inciting the violence, with some suggesting that the pogrom was premeditated. For example, he had stated earlier that year: “true believers [will] rise up in just wrath against the Jews, and despoil them of their gold and their silver and their jewels.”

Witnesses described the horrifying violence, including the rape and slaughter of Jewish men, torture, the beatings of rabbis, the destruction and desecration of synagogues, and the looting of Jewish assets. Women and children were robbed of their clothes and fled naked to nearby fields until the violence passed. The only Hebrew printing press in Palestine was destroyed. Some 500 were killed and hundreds were seriously injured. Though not many, a few local Arabs did try to protect the Jews.

 

 

1838 SAFED RIOT

Just four years after the 1834 Safed pogrom, the local Arabs and Druzed once again attacked the Jewish community of Safed. Notably, in 1837, an earthquake had already destroyed the Jewish section of town and killed thousands.

Describing the 1838 violence, a Jewish doctor wrote: “We huddled together in Rebbe Avraham Dov's house...The women were hysterical and the children crying. The Rebbe asked me to write a note in Arabic to the mayor, pleading with him not to forsake us in this desperate time. I did so, but his answer was mere lip service...”

The rioters believed that the Jews had hidden treasures, so they plundered the Jewish quarters for 3 days. Only a few Arabs offered the local Jews protection. Though thankfully there were no fatalities, the riot prompted virtually the entire Jewish community to flee the city.

 

1920 NEBI MUSA RIOTS

Due to the changing geopolitical landscape of the Middle East (e.g. the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Sykes-Picot agreement between the United Kingdom and France) and the influx of Jewish immigrants and refugees into Palestine, local Arab leaders began escalating Arab-Jewish tensions. In March of 1920, a widespread demonstration against the Jews of Palestine resulted in the looting of businesses and Arab attacks against Jews. Rioters carried antisemitic slogans, including “Palestine is our land and the Jews are our dogs!” and “de@th to Jews!”

Worried, the Jewish community appealed to the British for protection, but the request was denied. Jewish groups then began arming themselves and practicing self-defense.

On April 4th, during the Nebi Musa festival, 60,000-70,000 Arabs congregated in Jerusalem and some began attacking Jews. Amin al-Husayni, the British-appointed Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (who later became a Nazi-sympathizer), delivered a virulently antisemitic speech. A riot broke out, with Arabs completely ransacking the Jewish Quarter and desecrating and burning Torah scrolls. Jews were raped and murdered, and the British were extremely slow to respond, only restoring order 4 days later. Christians painted crosses on the outside of their homes so that the rioters would know to spare them. In the end, 4 Jews were killed and 216 were severely injured. 300 Jews had to be evacuated from the Old City.

Jews immediately accused the British of complicity, some going so far as to claim that the British had encouraged the Mufti to incite the violence. To make matters worse, a British commission then blamed the Jews for the violence, instead of the Arabs. Frustrated with the British, the Jews formed the Haganah, the precursor to the IDF, to defend themselves.

 

1929 HEBRON & SAFED MASSACRES

During the British Mandate, Jews had virtually no control of Jewish holy sites, including the Kotel, also known as the Western Wall, the holiest site where we are currently allowed to pray. On Yom Kippur, 1928, the Jews — with the permission of the British — put up a barrier at the Kotel to separate the men and women praying. The barrier was only meant to stay up for 25 hours. Though the Kotel has no significance in Islam, this infuriated the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. He instructed Muslims to disrupt Jewish prayer at the Kotel in any way they could. Rumors spread that the Jews were trying to take control of Temple Mount, which escalated tensions and resulted in antisemitic violence, including a stabbing.

In August of 1929, the Haganah offered protection to the Jewish community of Hebron, a mixed Ashkenazi-Sephardi community. The community, largely religious and apolitical, refused, as they believed that the Arabs would only target Zionists. Unfortunately, the opposite happened. The local Arabs offered to spare the Sepharadim of Hebron if they gave up the Ashkenazim; the Sepharadim refused. As such, 67-69 Jews were brutally massacred. The descriptions of the violence are hard to read: a boy’s head was torn off, a 7-year-old was tied to a door and tortured for hours on end, women were raped, many were mutilated, and 7 men were castrated. Out of 20,000 Arabs in the city, only 28 families protected Jews, at great risk to themselves. The survivors were evacuated by the British. Historian Hillel Cohen considers the 1929 Hebron Massacre the true beginning to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, marking the point of no return in the complete disintegration of Jewish-Arab relations. The pogrom united the various Jewish communities of Palestine under the Zionist cause, as they realized that no matter where they stood politically, the Arabs would target them anyway.

Riots and pogroms spread to other cities, including Jerusalem and Safed. Overall, 133 Jews were killed. The extremist Jewish paramilitary (or as some call them, terrorist) groups, the Irgun and Lehi, were formed in response to these massacres.

 

1936 JAFFA RIOTS

On April 15, 1936, followers of an antisemitic Syrian preacher shot 3 Jewish men, with only one surviving. In response, members of the Irgun shot two Arabs. By the 17th of April, violence between the Jews and the Arabs escalated.

On April 19th, the unfounded blood libel that “many Arabs had been killed by Jews” resulted in an Arab attack against the Jews of Jaffa. A mob attacked Jewish businesses, and Jews were killed in the streets.

Jews were mercilessly stabbed and beaten. Jewish businesses were destroyed. The rioting lasted 3 days until it was suppressed by the British military. 9 Jews were killed. 12,000 Jews fled Jaffa; many then had to stay in refugee camps. As a result of the violence, the Jews of Jaffa demanded that their neighborhoods be incorporated into Tel Aviv, which would offer them greater protection.

Historians mark this event as the beginning of the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt in Palestine. In May of 1936, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem called for a general strike against the Jews, calling Zionists terrorists and comparing them to Nazis (an odd comparison, considering the Mufti was an actual Nazi sympathizer himself). Throughout the course of the revolt, Arabs killed some 500 Jews.

 

1938 TIBERIAS POGROM

During the 1936-1939 Arab Revolt, 70 armed Arab rioters entered a Jewish neighborhood in Tiberias and slaughtered 19 Jews, including 11 children. The Jews were virtually protection-less, with only 15 Jewish guards protecting a neighborhood of over 2000 people. Two of the guards were killed during the pogrom.

Jewish homes and the local synagogue were set on fire. In one of the homes, a mother and her five children were massacred.

A British representative stated: "It was systematically organized and savagely executed. Of the nineteen Jews killed, including women and children, all save four were stabbed to death. That night and the following day the troops engaged the raiding gangs.”

After the attack, the Irgun proposed a joint retaliatory attack with the Haganah. However, the Haganah did not agree, as its policy was to abstain from offensive (vs. defensive) violence. As such, no retaliatory attack took place.

25 days after the pogrom, local Arabs murdered the Jewish mayor of Tiberias.

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