Murdering Jews in the land of Israel Is Not New—Only the Numbers Have Increased

When Arabs protested the Balfour Declaration in 1921, Sir Herbert Samuel, the Jewish first High Commissioner in Palestine, responded that Jews were expected to immigrate to Palestine within certain fixed limits “to help with their resources and efforts to develop the country, to the advantage of all its inhabitants.” [1]

Jewish immigration, Winston Churchill assured them, was being monitored regarding the numbers and character of the people. The country was “greatly under-populated,” which allowed for more people to build a life there. The work already accomplished by the Jews during the last 20 to 30 years could not be “brutally and rudely overturned by fanatical attacks of the Arab population” launched against Jews in Jaffa, Rehovot, Petach Tikva and other Jewish areas in May 1921. [2]

Despite its initial pro-Zionist orientation, the British government gradually “whittled down” the Balfour Declaration, reflecting the hostility towards Zionism of many in the government. By 1921, immigration had practically ceased, the “bulk” of the British officers in Palestine were not sympathetic to Zionism, and the Zionists were not receiving the concessions needed to establish a national Jewish homeland.

Public hostility in Britain according to Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen, General Allenby’s Chief Political Officer and later involved in the creation of the British Mandate, thought, was a result of the failure to understand the purpose of Zionism, fear of its potential financial cost and a general antisemitic British temperament that quickly translated into anti-Zionism.[3]

To pressure the British to end Jewish immigration, anti-Zionist riots broke out in Mandatory Palestine in 1920-1921, killing several Jews. In April 1920, during a religious festival (al-Nabi Musa) in Jerusalem, many Arabs, led by Al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni, the Mufti of Jerusalem, attacked Jews in the Old City. On May 1, 1921, there was a riot in Jaffa, after which the Arabs attacked Jews in Petah Tikvah and Hadera, pillaging and destroying a significant amount of property. The disturbances, which shocked the Jews and the British, lasted several days and demonstrated the Arabs’ fierce opposition to continued Jewish immigration into the country, [4] and their insistence on remaining part of Syria. [5]

In view of the intensity of the attacks during which 88 people were killed and 238 injured, Sir Herbert Samuel [6] brought in the army to quell the disturbances. Many were arrested and heavy fines were levied against Arab villages involved in the riots. However, he also sought to ease Arab hostility and insisted that the Zionists demonstrate no ill-will toward the Arabs. This had to be done through economic development and by making conciliatory declarations that would assuage Arab fears of Jewish immigration and Jewish political dominance. “Unless there [was] very careful steering, it [was] upon the Arab rock that the Zionist ship may be wrecked,” Samuel concluded. [7].

Another response to the riot was a meeting at the Colonial Office in London on November 29, 1921, arranged between Dr. Chaim Weizmann and members of the Arab Delegation from Palestine. This meeting, and others, ended in failure as the two groups were unable to reconcile their differences about the proposed Mandate and the future structure of Palestine. [8]

Jews saw Samuel’s capitulation to violence as appeasement and proof that their criticism of the British administration in Palestine and their disillusionment with the British were justified. Samuel further alienated the Jews of Palestine on June 3, 1921, in his first major address after the riots. Samuel tried to assure the Muslim and Christian inhabitants that he would implement whatever measures required to prove that their rights were “really safe.”


The British Government, he said, which is the “trustee under the Mandate for the happiness of the people of Palestine, would never impose on them a policy which that people had reason to think was contrary to their religious, their political, and their economic interests.” [9]

Chaim Weizmann had no illusions about Samuel. “He is meek and mild and timid. Still he is, with all that, the best we can have in the circumstances.” [10]

The Jewish press reflected the community’s anger toward the British, and their profound concern that these riots were like the ones they had experienced in Russia.

Berl Katznelson, a leading figure of the Zionist labor movement, declared, “The pogrom against Israel in Eretz Israel is still continuing.” Ben-Gurion concurred: “We who experienced the pogroms knew quite well that without the wish of the authorities and their open or clandestine backing, actively or passively, the task of the pogrom cannot succeed.” [11]

When the riots occurred in 1921, Samuel held the Jews responsible and brought them to trial. The British claimed this was a clash between communist and anti-communist Jewish demonstrators on May Day, which the Jews dismissed as absurd.

The British also sought to obscure the fact that the Arabs had been the sole aggressors. Arab policemen involved in the riots were not punished, while Jews attempting to defend themselves were arrested when they harmed their assailants. Stolen property was not returned, and those who killed Jews were not tried. Jewish immigration was halted, and those caught trying to enter the country were sent back to their ports of origin. This was another example of where the British encouraged the oppressors, rewarded violence, and penalized the victims. [12]

British reaction reminded Jews of the Russian government’s response to pogroms. First, the British took their time in responding to the al-Nabi Musa riots and behaved with a combination of apathy and “criminal neglect.” Then they arrested Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the Zionist activist, and his men who were attempting to organize their own self-defense in Jerusalem. Jabotinsky had established the Jewish Legion under British auspices during World War I. At the end of the riots, the British tried to reduce tensions by prohibiting the Jews from holding a public funeral for the victims.

Most of the rioters were not tried, whereas when Jews were apprehended with weapons, they were given substantial sentences. Eventually, the convictions were rescinded, but in the context of a general amnesty for the rioters and the Jews. This prompted Berl Katznelson to refer to the Jewish victims by the ancient Hebrew idiom harugei malkhut (those slain by the government), a term used for the Ten Martyrs who were tortured and executed by the Romans. [13]

Dr. Grobman is the resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME.)

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