The Arab-Israeli conflict exploded into its modern manifestation with the Jerusalem riots of 1929, centered around the use of, access to, and ownership of, the Western Wall.
For several hundred years the Ottoman sultans allowed Jews to pray at the Western Wall in a tacit agreement known as the “status quo”: Jews can have access to the Western Wall but can’t make any alterations to the site. By the 1920s, as the Jewish population grew, more Jews sought access, increasing tensions.
On Yom Kippur in 1928, the Jews put up a temporary divider between men and women at Wall, per Jewish religious custom. The British forcibly removed it following Muslim complaints. Throughout 1929 both sides ratcheted up their rhetoric. Grand Mufti Amin al-Husseini’s anti-Jewish propaganda inflamed Muslim fears (that have persisted to this day) about the Jews destroying Muslim holy sites. He made opposition to the Jews on a religious level a central component of the emerging Palestinian national movement. Leading Zionists responded with their own calls for the Jews to aggressively access the Western Wall to return the site to Jewish hands.
All of this came to a head in August, 1929, when the Arabs attacked the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem, killing several dozen Jews. The attacks spread all over Palestine and in some places were catastrophic. In Hebron the Jews had such good relations with their Arab neighbors that they didn’t think anything bad would happen. Although hundreds of Arabs did indeed hide their Jews neighbors from a rampaging mob, the Jewish community was utterly wrecked, Jews of every age not only murdered but also tortured. All in all nearly 30 Jewish communities were attacked throughout Palestine. Probably more than 130 Jews were killed. Perhaps slightly less Arabs were also killed — a few killed by Jews in self-defense or in a few cases retribution, but most Arabs were killed in fights with the British police and military. It was, without a doubt, the worst tragedy yet in the growing Arab-Jewish conflict.
The British, the Jews, and the Arabs, all drew their own conclusions from the 1929 riots, and acted accordingly.
The British investigatory Shaw Commission blamed the Arabs for the violence. Yet because the Zionists had been allowed so much immigration, and had bought up so much land, the Arabs, said the Commission, were justified in fearing a permanent Jewish takeover of Palestine. Subsequent British waffling on the Balfour Declaration and unrestricted Jewish immigration led to an outcome that pleased no one. Their muddled policy flip-flops had the effect of first raising Arab hopes, then dashing them, and at the same time leaving the Jews confused and outraged.
As for the Arabs, they were learning that violence against the Jews in the name of opposition to Britain’s policies could have the effect of getting those policies changed; the British would cave in to Arab demands.
For the Jews, the 1929 riots crystallized their thinking. For Jabotinsky and his followers, the Haganah’s policy of havlagah, “restraint” from initiating attacks on the Arabs, wasn’t working in the Jews’ defense. The Jews needed to meet violence with violence. They formed a separate paramilitary faction, one that would go on to have a bloody and very controversial history in pre-state Israel. They called themselves the National Military Organization, or, in Hebrew, the Irgun.
The Western Wall back then wasn’t today’s large, visitor-friendly plaza but instead a cramped alleyway behind a neighborhood of homes that backed up to within a few feet of the wall itself.
One single British policeman fought back against the Arab rioters in Hebron, protecting as many Jews as he could and killing as many of the attackers as he could before he ran out of bullets.
During Purim in March 1929, the Graf Zeppelin, the world’s largest airship, floated over Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem. The trip was organized by prominent Jewish Zionists in Germany and Vienna as a celebration of the revival of Jewish culture in Palestine.
Amin al-Husseini: Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, he served as both the Muslim religious leader in Palestine, and the political leader, since he was recognized by the British government as the top Muslim representative. He instigated a lot of the violence against Jerusalem’s Jewish community.
THE BIG IDEAS
Since Ottoman times the Muslims preserved Jewish access to the Jewish holy sites in an arrangement known as “the status quo.” This allowed Jews access to their holy sites, like the Western Wall, on the condition that they could make no changes. This prevented Muslim worry that the Jews would gradually take control of the sites if they were allowed to make additions. Some version of the “status quo” remains in effect to this day between the State of Israel and various Muslim authorities.
In 1922 the League of Nations made Palestine a Mandate of the British Empire, meaning that Britain had the responsibility of preparing the colonial territory and its inhabitants for future statehood. They also had the responsibility to protect the rights of minorities living in those territories, since the majority population was supposed to be the one eventually taking over. From 1922 until Israel was established in 1948, Palestine was often referred to as Mandatory Palestine, or the British Mandate. This meant that the British authorities got involved in disputes between Muslims and Jews.
In the context of the 1929 and burgeoning Arab nationalism in the Middle East, Amin al-Husseini injected a fierce strain of anti-Semitism into the movement in Palestine. By inflaming Muslims against the Jews over holy sites, he turned what had been an economic and political rift into a full-blown religious conflict that sparked the anger of Arabs throughout the Middle East. Anti-Semitism became an official strategic and tactical tool of the Arab national movement: al-Husseini’s hatred of the Jews was made inseparable from Arab nationalism and the cause of opposing the British Mandate. The Arab political parties and paramilitary organizations that he created in the 1930s were thus oriented violently against the Jews, which was to have major consequences later in the decade.