Remembering Jaffa’s Forgotten Pogrom

Ninety-five years ago, bloody anti-Jewish riots took place in Jaffa, then one of Mandatory Palestine’s most important cities and home to large Jewish and Arab populations. The Jaffa “events,” as they euphemistically became known, constituted one of the opening sallies of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Ofer Regev writes:

On May 1, 1921 . . . hundreds of Arabs rampaged through the streets of Jaffa with clubs, knives, metal bars, and pistols. With an unstoppable drive for murder, the rioters stabbed helpless Jews to death, cruelly beat infants and the elderly, raped women and girls, and burned and looted anything they could get their hands on. Forty-three Jews died that day, and many others were wounded or died later on from their injuries. The British police showed themselves to be embarrassingly helpless and hapless in the face of the killers. . . .

During the days of rage, poor and rich, secular and religious, new immigrants and veteran residents were murdered or attacked. They came from all communities and occupied all points on the political and economic spectrum. Among the dead, there was only one common denominator: they were all Jews.

On March 8 of this year, Taylor Force, a twenty-nine-year-old American officer, walked peacefully along the beach. He was stabbed to death while walking in the exact area where the events of 1921 broke out. Force was not an IDF soldier, a “settler,” or even an Israeli citizen. The reason Taylor was murdered was simple, primitive, and transparent—he looked Jewish.

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Remembering Jaffa’s Forgotten Pogrom

This piece was first published on the Hebrew-language website Mida on May 6, 2016, rendered into English by Avi Woolf, and republished here with permission.

On May 1, 1921, 95 years ago, hundreds of Arabs rampaged through the streets of Jaffa with clubs, knives, metal bars, and pistols. With an unstoppable drive for murder, the rioters stabbed helpless Jews to death, cruelly beat infants and the elderly, raped women and girls, and burned and looted anything they could get their hands on. Forty-three Jews died that day, and many others were wounded or died later on from their injuries. The British police showed themselves to be embarrassingly helpless and hapless in the face of the killers.

 

Before the Storm

At the beginning of the 20th century, Jaffa was the most important center of Zionist activity in the land of Israel. Some 10,000 Jews lived in the port city, the largest such community there. They were integrated into the cultural, societal, and economic life of the bustling city, and they collectively paid more in taxes than any other ethno-religious groups, even though they were not represented on the city council. The Palestinian branch of the Zionist movement and the central branch of the Anglo-Palestine Bank operated out of Jaffa. The city was a social and economic center for members of the Jewish agricultural settlements and it enjoyed a thriving Hebrew culture.

In the summer of 1914, World War I broke out, bringing with it four terrible years in which Jaffa’s residents experienced persecution, expulsion, hunger, and death. Towards the end of the war, the land of Israel was conquered by General Allenby’s Egyptian Expeditionary Force, bringing an end to 400 years of Ottoman rule. The British conquest brought a great deal of hope to the Jews. Jaffa’s Jews returned to their homes after many months of internal exile during which hundreds of them had died. The young author Tzvi Shatz wrote, in a burst of prophetic enthusiasm: “Our national dawn is breaking.”

In the beginning of 1919, even before Jewish immigration to the country was renewed, a “Muslim-Christian Association” was founded in Jaffa to rally the Arabs against the Balfour Declaration. At its head was Omar al-Bitar, Jaffa’s mayor. The association published, openly and officially, dangerous words of anti-Semitic incitement, and secretly started to amass arms and train volunteers.

On February 27, 1920, anti-Zionist demonstrations were conducted throughout Palestine. The government, which was committed to the rules of free expression and democracy, allowed the demonstrations to proceed. Such permission was seen as a form of governmental approval for the content of the demonstration as well. For the first time, the demonstrators shouted the phrase al-dawla ma-ana, “the government is with us.”

In 1921, the Arab journalist Issa al-Issa returned to Jaffa. Issa, before leaving for several years to Damascus, had edited the newspaper Falastin in Jaffa until 1914. Under his direction, the paper published such sharp incitement against the Jews that even the Ottoman authorities banned the publication. Upon his return, the British gave him permission to renew the publication of his paper.

Abdullah Dajani, one of Jaffa’s Arab leaders, was terrified of the danger inherent in granting official permission to distribute Issa’s words of hatred. With his friend, the Jewish agronomist Shmuel Tolkowski, Dajani tried to get the approval rescinded, but to no avail. Jaffa’s residents interpreted this move as governmental support for the paper’s anti-Semitism.

 

Planned Spontaneity

Back to May Day, 1921. In honor of International Workers Day of this year, a demonstration of Aḥdut Ha-Avoda workers was held. Members of the Socialist Workers Party (MFS) did not participate, as they supported the Bolshevik version of socialism and strongly opposed Zionism.

MFS members insisted on speaking to each other in Yiddish, tried to move closer to Arab nationalism, and preached the solidarity of the Jewish and Arab proletariat. They also held a parade of their own to mark the day, and at one stage (after a run-in with Aḥdut Ha-Avoda members), they proceeded onwards to the Manshiah neighborhood in north Jaffa where both Arabs and Jews lived. However, on their way, they ran into a group of Greek Orthodox Arabs, who were marching to commemorate Easter. A mass brawl broke out.

While the communists barely made it out, the Arab masses set out to the clock square in Jaffa. On their way, they attacked Jews they happened to encounter, angrily beating industrialist and entrepreneur Dov (Boris) Goldberg, who had gone down to the port for business purposes. The rioters then fought among themselves over the spoils—the gold teeth that had been ripped from his mouth—and left him there wounded and bleeding. He died two years later from medical complications stemming from his injuries.

The worst event on that bitter day took place at the immigrants’ house which operated at the top of al-Ajmi Street. The house, which had a large internal courtyard, was rented by the Zionist Commission as a home to absorb new immigrants, just arrived at Jaffa port, during their first days in the country. The house was run by Haim Feinberg; a family of five, the Cherkevskiis, lived there and took care of the building’s maintenance. The day before the riots, an Arab neighbor had warned Duba Cherkeskii to leave the place with her family before the “spontaneous” attack began. Duba decided to stay put with her husband, but she sent her three children to a safer place.

At one o’clock in the afternoon, an Arab mob started throwing stones at the house, which at the time housed some 100 immigrants at the time. Feinberg ordered the gates of the courtyard closed and to prepare to defend the premises. The residents dismantled iron bars from the courtyard gates to use as weapons and stationed guards at each of the entrances.

They bravely fought the attackers who surrounded the house. “The hail of stones became thicker; bricks were tossed at us as well,” Feinberg later testified. “The mob tried to break through the gate.” Suddenly an armed police force appeared (apparently with empty rifles) commanded by Khana Bardakush. But the police did not try to clear out the rioters but rather the opposite: they threw a bomb into the courtyard, killing one of the defenders. The police breached the gate with the butts of their rifles and yelled to the other rioters: “Why are you standing there? Slaughter them all!”

As soon as the gate was breached, the small courtyard became a bloody whirlwind of murder and looting at every turn. The immigrants were beaten with iron bars and stabbed until they were lifeless. Nissel Rosenberg, a clerk from the Immigration Office, appealed time and again to the police commander at the port, Major John, for a rescue escort for the house. He testified that on the way, they ran into Jewish corpses and wounded. When they reached the building, Major John pulled out his pistol and fired one shot in the air. The attack ceased at once.

Nissel Rosenberg later testified of what he saw:

On the first floor, the belongings of the immigrants were scattered and outside stood male and female Arabs and their children dividing the spoils. The courtyard looked like a place that had been destroyed and many wounded were on the ground. Next to the door was the body of Mrs. Cherkevskii and it was clear that the murderers had raped her. We found eleven killed and a large number of wounded.

The Cherkevskii’s three children were at a relative’s at the time; they would now grow up as orphans with neither mother nor father.

Among those killed in the battle was the pioneer Yitzḥak Hiller. His nephew, the architect Shmuel Giller, has spent many years studying the bloody events at the immigrants’ house. Giller stresses that the historical importance of the events there has not earned its rightful place in Zionist memory:

In contrast to the story of the courtyard of Tel Ḥai [a village in the northern Galilee, attacked by an Arab militia in 1920], which became a national symbol, the story of the courtyard in Jaffa is mentioned as just another bloody episode between us and the Arabs. The young immigrants, who had just gotten off the boats, had to defend themselves with metal bars against an angry mob armed with knives and cinderblocks, and they did so heroically for 40 minutes. I took it as a mission to give back the Jaffa courtyard its lost honor.

The campaign of murder did not stop at the immigrants’ house. The famed author Yosef Ḥayim Brenner, spent the night of the riots holed up in the large farmhouse in at the edge of the city, along with the five other men who lived there. When morning came, the house’s residents left the courtyard and crossed the nearby Muslim graveyard, where they encountered the funeral march for Daoud Zinati, an Arab child who had been killed a day before in exchanges of fire in Jaffa. The six men were beaten with hoes and stabbed to death. Later the nearby towns of Petaḥ Tikvah and Hadera were also attacked.

In the wake of the riots, the thousands of Jews living in Jaffa felt in clear and constant danger for their lives and safety. Within a few months, the city was empty of Jews. Many of them settled in the new, adjacent city of Tel Aviv. They left behind them homes and businesses, orchards and workshops, a fabric of life and deep roots. The Arabic language has a unique word for this sort of crisis—nakba.

 

Just Don’t Call It a Pogrom

The British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel wished to moderate impressions and called the horrific pogrom “events.” The Jewish community adopted this terminology, and used it to describe similar events in coming years. This, apparently, because of the revulsion at using the Diasporic term “pogrom.”

Samuel appointed a commission of inquiry headed by then-Supreme Court President Thomas Haycraft, which summoned 291 witnesses and carefully recorded all their accounts—no matter how exaggerated or outlandish they were. At the end of two months of deliberations, the commission published a report which put the blame on the Jews, stating that the Arabs started the violence but that they did so because of a real fear of harm to their livelihood due to the Jews taking over their lands. The British government adopted the commission’s conclusions, publishing the first White Paper, which limited the rights that had been granted to Jews until then.

The commission’s conclusions, which were written by Secretary Harry Luke (whose original name was Haim Lukach) were not a solitary voice. Over the years various scholars and propagandists tried to offer reasons to explain away and even justify the violence. There were those who claimed that it was a national struggle against Zionism, a response to the Balfour Declaration. There were those who claimed that the violence was due to the loose morals of the immigrants, who acted in untraditional ways when it came to romantic relationships.

These statements do not fit the facts. The first casualties were Communists, who strongly opposed the creation of a Jewish state and even collaborated for this purpose with Arab radicals. During the days of rage, poor and rich, secular and religious, new immigrants and veteran residents were murdered or attacked. They came from all communities and occupied all points on the political and economic spectrum. Among the dead, there was only one common denominator: they were all Jews.

On March 8 of this year, Taylor Force, a twenty-nine-year-old American officer, walked peacefully along the beach. He was stabbed to death while walking in the exact area where the events of 1921 broke out. Force was not an IDF soldier, a “settler,” or even an Israeli citizen. The reason Taylor was murdered was simple, primitive, and transparent—he looked Jewish.

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Syria’s Downing of a Russian Plane Put Israel in the Crosshairs

Sept. 21 2018

On Monday, Israeli jets fired missiles at an Iranian munitions storehouse in the northwestern Syrian city of Latakia. Shortly thereafter, Syrian personnel shot down a Russian surveillance plane with surface-to-air missiles, in what seems to be a botched and highly incompetent response to the Israeli attack. Moscow first responded by blaming Jerusalem for the incident, but President Putin then offered more conciliatory statements. Yesterday, Russian diplomats again stated that Israel was at fault. Yoav Limor comments:

What was unusual [about the Israeli] strike was the location: Latakia [is] close to Russian forces, in an area where the IDF hasn’t been active for some time. The strike itself was routine; the IDF notified the Russian military about it in advance, the missiles were fired remotely, the Israeli F-16s returned to base unharmed, and as usual, Syrian antiaircraft missiles were fired indiscriminately in every direction, long after the strike itself was over. . . .

Theoretically, this is a matter between Russia and Syria. Russia supplied Syria with the SA-5 [missile] batteries that wound up shooting down its plane, and now it must demand explanations from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. That won’t happen; Russia was quick to blame Israel for knocking over the first domino, and as usual, sent conflicting messages that make it hard to parse its future strategy. . . .

From now on, Russia will [almost certainly] demand a higher level of coordination with Israel and limits on the areas in which Israel can attack, and possibly a commitment to refrain from certain actions. Syria, Iran, and Hizballah will try to drag Russia into “handling” Israel and keeping it from continuing to carry out strikes in the region. Israel . . . will blame Iran, Hizballah, and Syria for the incident, and say they are responsible for the mess.

But Israel needs to take rapid action to minimize damage. It is in Israel’s strategic interest to keep up its offensive actions to the north, mainly in Syria. If that action is curtailed, Israel’s national security will be compromised. . . . No one in Israel, and certainly not in the IDF or the Israel Air Force, wants Russia—which until now hasn’t cared much about Israel’s actions—to turn hostile, and Israel needs to do everything to prevent that from happening. Even if that means limiting its actions for the time being. . . . Still, make no mistake: Russia is angry and has to explain its actions to its people. Israel will need to walk a thin line between protecting its own security interests and avoiding a very unwanted clash with Russia.

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