The Pogrom That Started the Palestinian Arab-Israeli Conflict

The opening shot - exactly one hundred years ago in 1920.

Exactly one hundred years ago, in April, 1920, marked the opening shot of the Arab Israeli conflict. It was a pogrom against Jews in Jerusalem and its surrounding areas. The pogrom, also called by some the Nebi Musa riots, took place between Sunday, April 4, and Wednesday, April 7, 1920. It cost the lives of five Jews, and 200 others were injured. The violence was instigated by the British occupation administration and led by the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin el-Husseini, who later became Hitler’s ally. The Jaffa riots a year later (May 1-7, 1921) killed 47Jews and wounded 146. Much like these days, the Arab-Palestinian terrorists used knifes to kill vulnerable Jews, such as women, children, and the elderly. A British investigative commission called the pogrom “cowardly, and treacherous.” 

The pogrom was not a mere criminal affair, it was motivated by religious and nationalist sentiments that denied Jewish rights to sovereignty anywhere in the region. The Arab (the term Palestinians didn’t exist at the time, and Jews were actually called Palestinians) attackers carried such slogans as “Death to the Jews”(Atbach al-Yahud), “Palestine is our land, and the Jews are our dogs.” The Jaffa riot was proceeded by the August, 1929 riot, which wiped out the ancient Jewish community in Hebron, and killed 133 Jews. Known as the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939, it was led once again by Haj Amin el-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem. This time the death toll was much greater, estimated by historian Benny Morris to be about 300 Jewish dead.

The pogrom of April 1920 occurred at a confluence of several historical and political events. In Syria, the Hashemite Emir Feisal, son of Hussein the Sharif of Mecca, was ensconced in Damascus, awaiting with his Arab tribesmen army for the fulfillment of British promises. Under the Mc Mahon-Hussein Correspondence, an Arab state in the Levant, including the native Arabia, was promised by the British to Hussein. At the same time, Britain and France, in 1916, concluded the Sykes-Picot Agreement which divided the former Ottoman Empire between them. The British government had also come out with the Balfour (at the time British Foreign secretary) Declaration in 1917, that promised a National Home for the Jewish people in their ancestral home - Palestine. The Balfour Declaration promises were confirmed at the San Remo conference in April, 1920. 

Immediately upon entering Syria, the French army encountered local Arab revolts. In March, 1920, Feisal was proclaimed King of Syria. A month later, the League of Nations allocated Syria (and Lebanon) to be a French Mandate. The French then kicked out Feisal and his Arab army. On March 1, 1920, before the Jerusalem pogrom, Shiite Arabs from southern Lebanon attacked Tel-Hai in the northern Galilee, in which the Jewish hero Joseph Trumpeldor was killed along with five fellow defenders of the Jewish community. The pogrom in Jerusalem was also part of an Arab nationalist campaign which considered Palestine to be part of Southern Syria. In addition, it was anti-Jewish, and an anti-Jewish Immigration act in which Islamic and Arab nationalist sentiments were stressed.

It was the Mufti Haj Amin el-Husseini who incited the blood libel that the Al-Aqsa mosque was in danger from the Jews who wanted to destroy it. This gave impetus to the rise of the Arab-Palestinian nationalist movement, which planted the Palestinian Arab conception that Jews can only be tolerated as “Dhimmis” (protected and subjugated people), but a Jewish people cannot be recognized as eligible for a sovereign state. Thus, the Palestinian Authority today, under the leadership of Mahmoud Abbas, still does not recognize Israel as the national state of the Jewish people.

The 1920 April pogrom in Jerusalem was an “eye opener” for many naive Jews who believed at the time that the quarrel with the Arabs was just about the newcomers, immigrants from Europe, and that nothing would happen to the old Jewish residents who were actually a majority in Jerusalem. It was dispelled by the wholesale murders and attempted murder of Jews, whether ‘old settled ones’ or newcomers, Sephardic or Ashkenazi, secular or religious, rich or poor, all that mattered was that the victim was a Jew.

The fact that the British authorities at the time, deliberately withdrew its soldiers from the Jerusalem, and enabled the Arabs to carry out the pogrom, ended the naïve belief that the Jewish community in Palestine could be protected by a foreign power. The result was that in December, 1920, the Haganah (Defense) was formally launched to protect Jewish towns, villages, and kibbutzim. It did not however become an effectively organized force until a decade later. 

In 1920, reality struck the Yeshuv (The Jewish community in Palestine). Many who believed hitherto in the possibility of a bi-national state in Palestine between Arabs and Jews were shocked by the ferocity of the Arab hate and violence. Even those belonging to ‘B’rith Shalom,’ the group of intellectuals who believed in a bi-national state, realized after 1920, that it was a conflict between two national groups over the same land.

Leaders of the Yishuv in Mandatory Palestine realized that counting on the earlier existing Ha’shomer (armed guards) had little effect and wasn’t enough. Chief among them was Eliyahu Golomb, who was the architect of the Haganah, the underground military organization for the defense of the Yishuv between 1920-1948. Golomb convinced Ben Gurion (founder and future first Prime Minister), then a leader of the Labor Zionist movement, and subsequently the General Secretary of the Histadrut, the Zionist Labor Federation, that the Ha’Shomer was too weak for the needs of the community.

The subsequent violent encounters with the Palestinian Arabs forced the Yishuv, the Haganah, and later the Jewish State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to understand that survival depended on a strong military force. Golda Meir, the late Israeli Prime Minister, put it best when she said, “If the Arabs put down their guns there would be no more fighting. If the Israelis put down theirs, there would be no more Israel”

What then has changed in the 100 years since the pogrom of 1920? Not much, albeit, Palestinian Arab terror is no longer an existential threat. The Palestinian Arabs aim however remains the destruction of the Jewish state. Moreover, the same notion that existed in 1920, that the Jews are a religious group and not a national one that deserves sovereignty, still holds. To the extent that peace agreements have been signed between Arab states (Egypt and Jordan) and Israel, they were based on the recognition that Israel is too powerful to destroy. But it is not a recognition of Israel’s legitimate rights of self-determination in its historical homeland. Both the Arab states and the Palestinian Arabs recognize that what the Jews built in Israel cannot be erased. Thus, Israel’s relations with the Arabs in the territories or the wider Arab world is not based on love and understanding but rather on mutual economic, military, intelligence-sharing, and environmental interests.

A century after the beginning of the Palestinian Arab - Israeli conflict in 1920, Palestinian Arabs anti-Jewish and anti-Israel religious (Islamic) and nationalist elements of hostility, and refusal to compromise remain unfortunately, essentially the same.

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Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons


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