An official ceremony took place last week in the old Jewish cemetery in Hebron to mark 90 years since the Tarpat disturbances which resulted in 67 Jews being killed by their Arab neighbours.
The brutality precipitated an exodus and Jews only returned to Hebron after the Six Day War in 1967.
The disturbances originated in Jerusalem during Yom Kippur the previous year, when British police removed a bench separating men and women at the Western Wall. This ignited suspicion and anger over who ultimately controlled the Wall.
Nearly a year later, on Saturday 24 August 1929, Hebron became the killing field of Mandatory Palestine.
It began with an assault on the Slobodka yeshiva, which had relocated from Lithuania a few years previously.
More than a third of all those killed had sought refuge in the residence of Eliezer Dan Slonim. He believed that his high standing and good personal relations with Arab notables would protect him and his family.
Hebron’s Muslim population was decidedly conservative in outlook. A prohibition was in force against Jews entering the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a site holy to both Jews and Muslims.
A synagogue in Hebron after it was desecrated by Arab rioters (Photo: Library of Congress)
Jews were only allowed to reach the seventh step of the stairway leading up to the Tomb – and this in itself was promoted as a sign of Muslim goodwill to Jews.
Rank did not matter: in 1839 Sir Moses Montefiore was forcibly barred from treading on the eighth step.
It was only in 1862 that the Prince of Wales — later Edward VII — became the first non–Muslim to enter the shrine, an implicit recognition of British imperial power.
By 1929, the Jewish population of Hebron was mixed — Mizrahi, Maghrebi and Ashkenazi religious. Many had been living there for generations and felt part and parcel of Arab culture. There were even eight American students at yeshiva — all were killed that year.
Today ultra-nationalists in Israel rightly recall the terrible fate visited upon these Jewish civilians. However, very few were actually Zionists.
A Jewish home plundered by Arab rioters in Hebron, 1929 (Photo: US Library of Congress)
The second Lubavitcher Rebbe had encouraged his followers to settle in Hebron in the early 19th century but in later years his community stood, to quote Hillel Cohen, a Hebrew University academic, “in the vanguard of the battle against Zionism”.
It meant that by 1904, the city’s rabbis had even refused a Zionist group permission to hold a memorial service for Herzl.
But the mob in 1929 made no distinction between Zionist and anti-Zionist, between the long-time resident and the newly arrived.
Some individuals such as Yehuda Leib Schneerson were saved by Arab neighbours, but Prof Cohen argues that the assailants blurred any differences.
In their eyes, what united all these Jews was a desire to turn Palestine into a Jewish homeland — even if some disparaged the notion of a Jewish state.
On the eve of the slaughter and the murder of his family and friends, Eliezer Dan Slonim told a Haganah unit that no protection was required.
Significantly, other settlements did not experience the fate as Hebron because the Haganah was always present.
Several decades later, following Israel’s conquest of the West Bank, Rabbi Moshe Levinger led a group of students, some posing as Swiss tourists, to celebrate Passover in 1968 at Hebron’s Park Hotel.
They never left. Even Ben-Gurion then called for the retention of Hebron — he called it “the sister of Jerusalem”.
Last week’s commemoration was accompanied by calls by the Israeli far right to accelerate building in the West Bank.
Coming on the eve of the election, Benjamin Netanyahu has grown receptive to such appeals since he wishes to form a workable coalition.
During the last year, the Israeli government has approved constructinga new neighbourhood in Beit Romano in Hebron.
There have been new legal opinions that may facilitate building residential units at the old market place in the city.
Last month, Jewish settlers of French origin marched through Hebron, chanting “There is only one flag from the Jordan to the Sea – the flag of Israel”.
Today a few hundred Jews live in the centre of Hebron, in the midst of a quarter of a million Arabs. Tension is ever-present and their presence a source of controversy for many diaspora Jews.
Even so, Jews in 2019 no longer subscribe to the humiliation of previous centuries. Today they do not fear, moving beyond the seventh step to pay homage to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah.
Jewish Chronicle 5 September 2019