The Palestine Riots and Massacres of 1929

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The Palestine Riots and Massacres of  1929

In the summer of 1929 the Arabs of Palestine initiated rioting and massacres against the Jewish population in several towns. The targets were not Zionists who had dispossessed Arabs of their lands, but for the most part Jewish communities of the "old Yishuv," communities that had lived in Palestine for many hundreds of years. The pogroms were of the same general character as pogroms that had taken place sporadically  in Palestine for hundreds of years, usually referred to euphemistically by Jews of Safed, Tiberias, Jerusalem and Hebron as "Meoraot" - "events." The worst massacres took place in Safed, Hebron, Jerusalem and Motza. Like the pogroms of past ages, these "disturbances" featured angry crowds stirred up over a religious or other dispute, Imams preaching "Kill the Jews wherever you find them" and mobs screaming "Aleihum" (get them) and "Itbach Al Yahood" - murder the Jews. In a few days, over a hundred Jews were murdered and several hundreds were wounded.

The racist riots of 1929, like those of 1920 and 1921, were distinguished from those that took place under the Ottoman Turks by two features. Supposedly, Palestine was now under a British Mandate, and being built as a Jewish national  home, a place of refuge and safety for Jews. The occurrence of the riots did tremendous damage to the Zionist cause, far beyond the actual loss of lives and property, because they it seem that Palestine was unsafe for the Jews after all, just like everywhere else. The second feature was that the riots were part of the anti-Zionist agitation stirred up by the Husseini family, even though they were not directed against Zionist settlers, but against the old communities.

Throughout the 1920s, tension had been brewing between Palestinian Jews and Arabs for some time, with little or no action by the mandate government to alleviate it. The Arabs of Palestine had come to be dominated by two clans, the Husseinis and the Nashashibis. The Husseinis controlled the Palestine Arab Executive and Supreme Muslim Council. Haj Amin El Husseini was Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. The Nashashibis became the mu'aridan, the opposition. The Husseinis hoped to further their position by exploiting hatred against the Jews. The issue that generated tension was not land purchases or Jewish immigration. Though there had been large land purchases in the Valley of Jezreel, there was not much Jewish immigration during this period. The issue of contention was an imagined Jewish threat to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, centering around Jewish attempts to improve the facilities of the nearby wailing wall, a remnant of the Jewish temple, where they gathered for prayer. The wailing wall is part of the West Wall, Al Buraq, where according to Muslim belief, Muhammed tethered his horse when he was miraculously transported to Jerusalem. Thus, it is holy to Muslims too.

There is no doubt that the mosque built on the site of the temple was never a source of joy for Jews, but Jewish tradition holds that the temple can only be rebuilt when the messiah comes. The Zionists certainly had no designs on the mosque itself. The wailing wall however, because of its proximity to the mosque of Al Aqsa, was long a source of friction. Islamic law holds that no non-Muslims may pray in proximity to a mosque while prayers are held in the mosque, because that would disturb the prayers of the faithful. The Jews of Jerusalem had gotten many warnings during the hundreds of years of Muslim rule, about prayer at the wailing wall or in synagogues in the Jewish quarter that supposedly disturbed the prayers of the Muslims. This "Holy Place" was a natural place of contention.

In 1922, a Palestinian delegation to the Hajj (pilgrimage) in Mecca had declared:

The Islamic Palestinian Nation that has been guarding al-Aksa Mosque and Holy Rock since 1,300 years declares to the Muslim world that the Holy Places are in great danger on account of the horrible Zionist aggressions... The Zionist Committee, which is endeavoring to establish Jewish rule in Palestine and to rob al-Aksa from the Muslims on the plea that it was built on the ruins of Solomon's Temple, aims at making Palestine a base of Jewish influence over the [Arabian] peninsula and the whole East.

In 1928, the Muslims tried to get the British to confirm their rights over the Western Wall, including the space used by Jews for worship. Husseini had helped to organize refurbishing of the long neglected mosques in Jerusalem now he initiated new construction activities in October of 1928. Bricks from the "construction" fell "accidentally" on Jewish worshippers in the wailing wall area below. The Arabs drove mules through the prayer area. Muezins (the announcers of the mosques) who called the faithful to prayer turned up the volume in their PA systems so as to disturb the Jewish prayer.

The Zionist community, especially the right, took up the challenge. Right-wing Zionists of the revisionist movement demanded Jewish control of the wall. Some even demanded rebuilding the temple, alarming the Muslims even more and providing a factual basis for the agitation. On August 14, 1929, about 6,000 Jews paraded in Tel Aviv and that evening, about 3,000 gathered at the wall in Jerusalem for prayer, a huge crowd for the then very cramped space. The next day the right-wing Betar revisionist youth paraded by the hundreds, carrying billy-club batons. Rumors circulated that the Jews were about to march on the Haram as Sharif - the Al-Aqsa mosque compound. The Arabs circulated inflammatory leaflets, apparently printed earlier. One read, "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." The Jews had killed no-one, and had attacked no-one.

On Friday August 16, after an inflammatory sermon, a mass of Arab demonstrators proceeded from the mosques to the Western Wall, where they burned prayer books. The British High Commissioner, Sir John Chancellor, was on leave in England. The acting British  High Commissioner, Harry Luke, ignored the problem and claimed that "only pages" of prayer books had been burned.

The British were woefully unprepared to deal with disturbances. In all of Palestine there were 292 British police. In Hebron, there was a single British police officer commanding a tine force of Arabs, many of them old, and one Jew.

On August 17, a riot in the Bukharian Jewish quarter of Jerusalem left one Jew dead. The funeral, held August 20, turned into a mass demonstration with cries for vengeance. Beginning on August 22, Arab villagers, armed with sticks, knives and guns, gathered in the Haram as Sharif. Following Friday prayers and the usual inflammatory sermon on August 23, they poured out into the streets of Jerusalem and proceeded to murder and loot. By the time the riots were over in Jerusalem on August 24, 17 Jews were dead. The rioters opened fire simultaneously in several neighborhoods, evidence indicating that the massacres were probably orchestrated by the Supreme Muslim Council.Near Jerusalem, the small town of Motza was attacked by Arabs who killed every member of the Makleff family but one. A very young boy, Mordechai Makleff, hid under a bed. He grew up to be Chief of Staff of the IDF for a brief time during the War of Independence. Several settlements next to Motza had to be abandoned. In other settlements, the inhabitants were protected by friendly Arab neighbors. Kibbutz Hulda was evacuated by the British. Arab marauders burned the kibbutz. The British killed 40 Arabs there. The worst fury of the Arabs, however, was directed at the tiny ancient Jewish community of Hebron, where 64-67 Jews were massacred in a few hours of rioting on August 24, 1924. 

The British flew in additional reinforcements from Egypt and elsewhere. The riots spread to Tel-Aviv and Haifa and Safed.  In Safed, 18 Jews were killed and 80 injured.

In all 133 Jews and 116 Arabs were killed in the riots, 339 Jews and 232 Arabs were injured. Most of the Arabs were killed by the British police and some by the Haganah in self defense. There were also instances of Jewish atrocities. Jews broke into a mosque and destroyed a Quran. In Tel Aviv, Arabs killed four Haganah men, so the Haganah retaliated by raiding an Arab house and killing four people. 

The riots of 1929 changed the attitudes of Jews to the Arabs. Arthur Ruppin, who had helped found the Brit Shalom peace group, which advocated a binational state, withdrew from the group. He could no longer believe in Jewish-Arab coexistence. The writer Shai Agnon wrote, "I do not hate them [the Arabs] and I do not love them; I do not wish to see their faces. In my humble opinion we shall now build a large ghetto of half a million Jews in Palestine, because if we do not, we will, heaven forbid, be lost."

The massacres of 1929 had thus launched two themes that were to recur in the history of Israel and Palestine: agitation related to the al-Aqsa mosques and the Jewish desire for separation from the Arabs of Palestine, for self-protection.

The British were horrified by the massacre. However many of the British personnel had no great love for Zionism or Jews, and the British government was unwilling to subsidize Palestine, which would be required to support a large police force, and no desire to incur the enmity of the Arab world. They refused adamantly to allow any independent legal Jewish self defense force.

The immediate consequences of the riots were that the British caved in to every demand of the Arabs. Though only a small number of Jews had immigrated to Palestine under the mandate, the British accepted at face value the claim of the Mufti that these immigrants, rather than the world economic depression, were at fault for the real or imagined woes of the Arabs of Palestine. In the year 1930, when unemployment reached 25% in some countries, Palestinian Arabs had an unemployment rate of 4%. This "misery" was the "fault" of the Zionist immigration. These were the findings of the Shaw commission which investigated the "causes" of the riots, and of the Hope-Simpson report, which was commissioned to justify the policy changes. Simultaneously with the Hope-Simpson report the British Government issued the Passfield White Paper, which made it clear that Britain intended to sharply curtail Jewish immigration. The Passfield White Paper of 1930 caused an uproar in Parliament however. Moreover, the League of Nations indicated that Britain would be violating the terms of its mandate to foster a national home for the Jewish people if it curtailed immigration. Consequently, Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald soon backed down and wrote a letter to Chaim Weizmann, read publicly in Parliament, which "explained" that "His Majesty’s Government never proposed to pursue such a policy."

The British also issued a set of discriminatory regulations that restricted Jewish rights in the wailing wall, returning the situation to the same state as existed under the Ottoman Empire, when Muslim - Jewish relations were governed by the inferior dhimmi status of Jews in Islam. 

Ami Isseroff


See here for a General history of Zionism and the Creation of Israel

See here for details about  the Arab-Israeli conflict and History of Israel and Palestine.

See also Zionism and its Impact

This history is based in part on:

Morris, B., Righteous Victims, Alfred Knopf, New York  1994 pages 111-120.

Segev, T., One Palestine Complete,  Henry Holt, N.Y. 1999, pp 294-327

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