For Jews, the month of April is so crowded with anniversaries—from the Exodus from Egypt to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising—that it’s easy to miss one, especially this year, with the coronavirus pandemic sucking up so much attention. But even were this not so, one might be forgiven for having overlooked the hundredth anniversary, on April 4, of the outbreak of the Nebi Musa riots in Jerusalem. Named for the Muslim festival memorializing the birth of Moses on which they began, the riots left five Jews dead, 211 injured, and at least two women raped.
With a century’s distance, it is apparent that much remains unchanged about Arab antagonism against the Jews. In attending to the political interests served by the riots, the way in which they were instigated, and their aftermath, we can see similar elements of anti-Jewish strategy that have been deployed ever since. My purpose in marking this centenary is not to provide a dispassionate recapitulation of the events, but to offer the affair’s history as context for today’s defenders of Israel so that they may identify recurring patterns in the behavior of their adversaries.
To understand this episode, we must first put it in its proper context. The land on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean had belonged to the Ottoman empire until its dissolution during World War I. Planning ahead in November 1917 for the aftermath of the war, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, which called for “the establishment in Palestine”—then but a vaguely defined geographic area—“of a national home for the Jewish people.”
Of course Britain was not the only political power making plans for that land. Inside the Arab world, debates about what to do with it had coalesced into two main opinions: one imagined Palestine as part of an Egyptian sultanate, perhaps still under Ottoman rule; the other wished for the creation of a kingdom of Syria that would include not just Palestine but also modern-day Lebanon and Jordan. In Jerusalem, the historian Simon Sebag Montefiore quotes a Jerusalemite soldier named Ihsan Turjman (whose wartime diary was later published under the English title Year of the Locust) as envisioning an Egyptian princedom that included not just Palestine but also the Hejaz—the region, currently governed by Saudi Arabia, on the east coast of the Red Sea. By contrast, Khalil Sakakini, an Orthodox Christian writer and activist who championed Arabic cultural revival and later supported the Third Reich, was a vocal partisan of the Syrian option.
For Arabs on both sides of the debate, one thing was clear. The Balfour Declaration, with its acceptance of Jewish national aspirations, was a nonstarter. Less than clear was the meaning of the Declaration’s purposefully vague term “national home,” but it was evident that whatever it meant it would change the longstanding relationship between the Jews and the non-Jews who had, for centuries, ruled over them—a change that most Arab leaders deemed unacceptable.
One month before the riots in Jerusalem would break out, on March 8, 1920, Faisal, the third son of the grand sharif of Mecca and a leader of the British-led and funded “Arab Revolt” against the Ottomans, had himself crowned king of Syria in Damascus. Hoping to garner favor with Britain, back in June 1918 Faisal had told the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann that he supported the Balfour Declaration. His support didn’t last. As the late diplomat and author Conor Cruise O’Brien observed, “Once Faisal and his followers realized, in the second half of 1919, that the British were not really backing his claim to a throne in Damascus, [his previous] claim to a united Syria, including Palestine, revived, and Arab nationalism took a pan-Syrian and very militant turn.” Among his first acts as king was a declaration calling for France and Britain to remove themselves from western and southern Syria—that is, the territories now occupied by Lebanon and Israel, respectively. He even created and assembled a “General Syrian Congress” which, of course, supported his claims. His hope was to present the European powers with a functioning state to which they could then give their post-facto stamp of approval.
While Faisal was busy with these machinations, Palestine remained under the control of the British Occupied Enemy Territory Administration (OETA), a military government established in October 1918. Many leading OETA officials supported Faisal in his claims not only to Syria proper but also to Palestine. To some of them, giving Faisal Syria seemed the best way to strengthen British and frustrate French designs on the territory, and throwing Palestine into the bargain would help guarantee his success. Others backed Faisal precisely because they wished to undermine Balfour—whether out of practical considerations, hostility to Jews and Zionism, or some combination.
Thus the OETA sought to assist Faisal in presenting London with a fait accompli in the form of a “United Syria” under his rule. Already in early 1919, the Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky observed, “The Palestine authorities are acting in a manner which clearly tells the Arabs that the [Balfour] Declaration need not be fulfilled.”
It was under these circumstances that a group of pro-Faisal Arab activists instigated street action, hoping to influence the ongoing intra-Arab and intra-British debate about the fate of Palestine. On April 4, 1920, at the peak of the Nebi Musa festival, for which tens of thousands of pilgrims annually streamed into the area, anonymous Arabic-language notices began circulating in Jerusalem stating, “The Government is with us, [the British general Edmund] Allenby is with us, kill the Jews; there is no punishment for killing Jews.” Then, as the American foreign-policy expert Bruce Hoffman documented in his 2015 book Anonymous Soldiers:
By mid-morning, a large Arab crowd had gathered just outside Jaffa Gate. Egged on by tendentious speakers from the nearby Arab Club, the crowd began to chant the rhyming Arabic couplet “Palestine is our land, the Jews are our dogs!”
Holding up a picture of Faisal, Haj Amin al-Husseini—whom the British would appoint grand mufti of Jerusalem the next year—shouted, “This is your king!” Others in the crowd proclaimed, “Faisal is our king!” A newspaper editor and enthusiastic Arab nationalist, Aref al-Aref, cried “If we don’t use force against the Zionists and against the Jews, we will never be rid of them.” The frenzied crowd began shouting “We will drink the blood of the Jews.” The two ingredients—packed streets and fervent instigation—combusted. The pogrom had begun.
Thousands of Arabs ran through the Jerusalem streets, throwing stones at Jews, destroying Torah scrolls, setting a yeshiva and several houses on fire, breaking into buildings, looting, and so on. They did so for four days, from April 4 to April 7, with little intervention from the British authorities until the very end. By the time the riots were over, five Jews and four Arabs were dead, and hundreds more Jews injured, some critically.
Zionist leaders were outraged. Beforehand, several had expressed concerns about the increasingly tense situation—only to have those concerns dismissed. When the bloodshed erupted, Jabotinsky approached the military governor of Jerusalem, Ronald Storrs, requesting permission for armed members of the Haganah, a recently created Jewish self-defense organization, to be deployed to protect lives and property. Storrs refused. British troops even barred Haganah members from entering the Old City in order to defend their fellow Jews.
Some Jewish leaders, including Jabotinsky and others on the Zionist right, interpreted the British reaction to Nebi Musa as evidence of broken faith. They now doubted Britain’s commitment to the Balfour Declaration, and their doubts would continue to grow in subsequent years.
Indeed, in the riots’ wake, the new civilian governor, Herbert Samuel, pardoned both Husseini and Aref, as well as Jabotinsky, who had been charged, along with nineteen Jewish defenders, with illegal possession of weapons and who had in a gesture of “evenhandedness” initially received the same sentence as Husseini. And, as mentioned, the British later tried to appease Husseini by naming him grand mufti and leader of the Supreme Muslim Council—overtures he would repay by allying himself with Hitler.
A precedent had been set. The Nebi Musa riots were followed by yet more anti-Jewish violence during the era of British rule, violence which would culminate in the revolt of 1936-39, and which would then resurface in 1947.
As for Faisal’s dream of a “Greater Syria,” it would never come to fruition. French forces deposed him on July 25, 1920, and thereafter Syria and Lebanon went one way, Jordan and Palestine another. Subsequently, many of his supporters would come to see a separate Palestinian Arab state as the only practicable antidote to Zionism.
But that belated and freedom-loving desire for an independent Palestinian state did not inspire the anti-Jewish violence that occurred 100 years ago. When trying to make sense of Arab violence in the Middle East, whether recent or historical, Western analysts tend to fall back on predictable clichés: riots result from resentment, oppression, poverty, or perhaps “ancient hatreds”; where the riots involve Palestinians, they are also the result of frustrated national aspirations. Sometimes there are elements of truth in these clichés, but most often they obscure more than they illuminate, especially when combined with the equally misguided tendency to see Arab politics solely through the prism of Western or Israeli policies.
In the case of the Nebi Musa riots, none of these explanations fit. To the extent that national aspirations were involved, they had nothing to do with Palestinian statehood, and everything to do with the incorporation of Palestinian Arabs into Greater Syria. Nor did accusations of mistreatment figure into the incitement that set them off. Rather, the riots were, first, an attempt to influence Arab opinion by showing support for the Syrian rather than the Egyptian solution. Second, and more importantly, they were intended to influence British opinion in the same direction.
Today, when Palestinian Islamic Jihad or Hamas fire rockets at Israel, or the Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud Abbas incites Jerusalem Arabs to violence, the proximate cause often has as much to do with internal Palestinian politics as anything else. The relatively muted response to America’s decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem shows just how much Westerners exaggerate the importance of their decisions.
But that is not to say that international actors have no influence at all, and this brings us to the second lesson of the Nebi Musa riots: when powerful figures encourage anti-Zionists to think their cause might be successful, the result is often the shedding of Jewish blood. By their manifest lack of commitment to the terms of the Balfour Declaration, local British authorities signaled to Arab leaders that some inconvenient disturbances might suffice to move the needle in London. The mandatory government then made matters worse with its demonstrations of “evenhandedness,” which amounted to meting out the same punishments to the instigators of violence and those who sought to defend themselves against it—and then pardoning everyone.
Were this not bad enough, the British rewarded Husseini for his role by creating the position of grand mufti of Jerusalem and bestowing it upon him. He concluded, not unreasonably, that the risks of instigating pogroms were low, and therefore resorted to this tactic in 1929 and then again from 1936 to 1939. Only the outbreak of World War II convinced Britain that it could not tolerate further unrest, and that it was necessary to crackdown vigorously.
The parallels to more recent history are clear. When the so-called international community—that is, Europe sometimes joined by the U.S.—signals its willingness to pressure Israel to make concessions regardless of Palestinian behavior, to respond to terrorism with rhetorical “evenhandedness,” and to forgive or overlook incitement to violence, it sends a clear message that there is a low cost to terrorism, corruption, intransigence, and anti-Semitism.
It is even worse when Western nations bestow honors on the worst actors, as Britain did upon Husseini and as when Yasir Arafat was invited to speak at the United Nations in 1974 only two years after the Munich massacre. Arafat was crowned head of the Palestinian state-in-the-making at Oslo in 1993 and then given a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. Palestinian leaders thus have every reason to conclude, as they did a century ago, that “there is no punishment for killing Jews.” And while Mahmoud Abbas has less blood on his hands than Arafat, his frequent and well-documented encouragement of riots, stabbings, and car-rammings haven’t detracted from his standing in European diplomatic circles.
These admonitions are distilled in the Nebi Musa riots of 1920. The consequences of our failure to heed them are all too evident.