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Pre-State Israel: The Hebron Massacre

(August 23, 1929)

For many years, the small Jewish community in the ancient city of Hebron lived in peace with their tens of thousands of Arab neighbors. But, on the night of August 23, 1929, the tension simmering within this cauldron of nationalities bubbled over and for a period of three days, Hebron turned into a city of terror and murder as the Arab residents led a rampaging massacre against the bewildered and helpless Jewish community.

By the time the massacre ended, 67 Jews lay dead - their homes and synagogues destroyed - and the few hundred survivors were relocated to Jerusalem.  The aftermath left Hebron barren of Jews for the first time in hundreds of years.

The summer of 1929 was one of unrest in Palestine as Jewish immigrants were arriving in increasing numbers and the agitations of the mufti in Jerusalem spurred on Jewish-Arab tensions. Just one day prior to the start of the Hebron massacre, three Jews and three Arabs were killed in Jerusalem when fighting broke out after a Muslim prayer service on the Temple Mount. Arabs spread false rumors and libels throughout their communities, saying that Jews were carrying out "wholesale killings of Arabs."

Hebron Massacre
Collage of massacre photos.

Hebron had up until this time been outwardly peaceful, although tensions hid below the surface. The Sephardi Jewish community (Jews who were originally from Spain, North Africa and Arab countries) in Hebron had lived quietly with its Arab neighbors for centuries. Theses Sephardi Jews spoke Arabic and had a cultural connection with the the Arabs of Hebron. In the mid-1800s, Ashkenazi (native European) Jews started moving to Hebron and, in 1925, the Slobodka Yeshiva - officially called the Yeshiva of Hevron Knesset Yisrael-Slobodka - was opened.

Yeshiva students lived separately from both the Sephardi Jewish community and from the Arab population.  This isolation fed the Arab views that these "Zionist immigrants" were suspicious and thus hated. Despite the general suspicion, however, one yeshiva student, Dov Cohen, still recalled being on "very good" terms with the Arab neighbors. He remembered yeshiva boys taking long walks late at night on the outskirts of the city and not feeling afraid even though only one British policeman guarded the entire city.

On Friday, August 23, 1929, that tranquility was lost.

Arab youths began the riots by hurling rocks at the yeshiva students as they walked by. That afternoon, student Shmuel Rosenholtz went to the yeshiva alone. Arab rioters broke in to the building and killed him.  Rosenholtz's was but the first of dozens of murders.

On Friday night, Rabbi Ya’acov Slonim’s son invited any Jews fearful of the worsening situation to stay in their family house. The rabbi was highly regarded in the community, and he kept a gun. Many of the Jews in the community took this offer for shelter.  Unfortunately, many of these people were eventually murdered there.

Hebron Massacre
Destruction at the Avraham Avinu Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter

As early as 8:00 a.m. on Saturday morning - the Jewish Sabbath - Arabs began to gather en masse around the Jewish community. They came in mobs, armed with clubs, knives and axes. While the women and children threw stones, the men ransacked Jewish houses and destroyed Jewish property. With only a single police officer in all of Hebron, the Arabs were able to enter Jewish courtyards with literally no opposition.

Rabbi Slonim, who had tried to shelter the Jews, was approached by the rioters and offered a deal. If all the Ashkenazi yeshiva students were given over to the Arabs, the rioters would spare the lives of the Sephardi community.

Rabbi Slonim refused to turn over the students.  The Arabs killed him on the spot.

By the end of the massacre, 12 Sephardi Jews and 55 Ashkenazi Jews were murdered.

A few Arabs did try to help the Jews. Nineteen Arab families saved dozens if not hundreds of Hebron's Jews. Zmira Mani wrote about an Arab named Abu Id Zaitoun who brought his brother and son to rescue her family. The Arab family protected the Manis with their swords, hid them in a cellar along with other Jews they had saved, and eventually found a policeman to escort them safely to the police station at Beit Romano.

Hebron Massacre
Jewish Home in Hebron Plundered

The Beit Romano police station turned into a shelter for the Jews on the morning of Saturday, August 24. It also became a synagogue when the Orthodox Jews gathered there said their morning prayers. As they finished praying, they began to hear noises outside the building. Thousands of Arabs descended from Har Hebron, shouting "Kill the Jews!" in Arabic. They even tried to break down the doors of the station.

For three days, the Jews were besieged in Beit Romano by the rampaging Arabs. Each night, ten men were allowed to leave the building and go to Hebron’s ancient Jewish cemetery to conduct a funeral for any Jews murdered that day.

Violence throughout Palestine instigated by the Arabs resulted in the death of 133 Jews and 110 Arabs (most killed by British security forces).

Following the massacre, the surviving Jews of Hebron were forced to leave their city and resettle in Jerusalem. A number of Jewish families tried to move back to Hebron, but were removed by the British authorities in 1936 at the start of the Arab revolt.

In 1948, Israel gained its independence from Britian, but Hebron was captured by King Abdullah's Arab Legion during the War of Independence and ultimately annexed to Jordan.

When Israel finally regained control of the city in 1967, a small number of survivors from the massacre again tried to reclaim their old houses. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan supposedly told the survivors that if they returned, they would be arrested, and that they should be patient while the government worked out a solution to get their houses back. Years later, settlers moved to parts of Hebron without the permission of the government, but for those massacre survivors still seeking their original homes, that solution never came.

Sources: Arutz Sheva (August 1, 1999); Jerusalem Post (July 23, 1999).
Collage Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. From top-left, clockwise: Shlomo, son of Eliezer Dan Slonim, aged 1, survives with wounds to his finger and forehead; The Holy Ark of the Sephardi Synagogue of Abraham is ransacked; A survivor reflecting in the aftermath of the slaughter; Family Kolstein recover from their injuries.
Bottom: Memorials to murdered rabbinical students in the old Jewish cemetery.
Photos Courtesty of United States Library of Congress Archives