Monday, July 20, 2020

The Forgotten Pogrom

@AmericanZionism

Author Note: Please follow @americanzionism on Twitter

Abstract

A major pogrom took place in the city of Tiberias in Mandatory Palestine on October 2, 1938 during the height of the Arab Revolt. Tiberias had a significant Jewish majority and a diverse population of both Mizrachi and Ashkenazi Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Although this massacre is not as well knows as the massacres in Hebron, Safed, or Jerusalem, it was nevertheless one of the most disturbing and brutal events that took place during the British Mandate period.

Keywords: Israel, Mandatory Palestine, Arab Revolt, Tiberias, Pogrom

The Forgotten Pogrom

1938 was an especially violent year in the Holy Land. It was the midst of the first de facto Intifada of the Jewish/Arab conflict, a violent nationalist uprising called the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939. Lead by the father of Arab nationalism in Palestine, Jerusalem Mufti Haj Amīn al-Ḥusaynī, the Arabs founded the Arab High Committee and set three key demands – end all Jewish immigration, ban all land sales to Jews, and give Arabs control of 100% of Mandatory Palestine, leaving them to deal with the Jews. A steady stream of incitement in schools, Arab press, and houses of worship ensued, along with a call to boycott Jewish products. It did not take long for the incitement to turned into violence. In April 1936, Arab terrorists attacked a Jewish bus and killed two. This event unleashed a Pandora's box of tit-for-tat violence which saw the death of many Jews and Arabs. This latest wave of Arab attacks on Jews and the unrealistic demands of their leadership led the British to establish the Palestine Royal Commission in 1937, known colloquially as the Peel Commission. The Peel Commission concluded that the Jews and Arabs in Mandatory Palestine simple could not live together and “Partition offers a chance of ultimate peace. No other plan does.”1 They recommend partition of the land into an Arab state and a Jewish state, with the Arabs receiving the bulk of the land between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea and the Jews receiving a sliver of land on which they were the majority (Exhibit 1). The secretary of the Arab High Committee al-Ḥusaynī made it clear that the Arabs would not accept any partition. He testified “The Arab case in Palestine is one which aims at National independence.” 2 In the commission’s final report in July 1937, in the midst of this wave of violence against the Jewish community, the commission noted that “The only solution of the problem put forward by the Arab Higher Committee was the immediate establishment of an independent Arab Government, which would deal with the 400,000 Jews now in Palestine as it thought fit.” 3 Given the Mufti’s association with Hitler, his role in founding a Bosnian unit of the Nazi SS and planning for an Einsatzgruppen in the Middle East, and his direction of the Arab Revolt, it is not hard to imagine the tragedy that “as it thought fit” would have meant. The Arabs ultimately rejected the Peel Commission’s recommendation for partition. The Jews accepted a less than ideal and far from equitable agreement.

Tiberias

Tiberias was a predominately Jewish city for much of its existence. It is located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, in Northern Israel, and is surrounded by hills. It is one of the four holy cities in Judaism. It holds such an import place for Jews that Maimonides, the most famous of Medieval Jewish rabbis and philosophers, loved and respected by Jews as well as gentiles, asked that after his death in 1204 Jews take his remains to be buried in Tiberias. His tomb remains to this day.

In the 1896 comprehensive census done by geographer and orientalist Vital Cuinet, the population of the city of Tiberias was 7,433 with 5,700 Jews (77%), 1,400 Muslims, and 330 Christians, and the greater Tiberias district has a total population of 10,052, with 6,700 Jews (67%), 2,259 Muslims, and 1,093 Christian.4 Similar demographic proportions existed before the Cuinet survey, and afterwards. This was a quintessentially Jewish area in the Holy Land. Of note is that the Tiberias Jewish population was made up of many Mizrachi (Middle Eastern) Jews including those whose families lived in the Holy Land for innumerable generations.

The Pogrom

There were many violent attacks in Tiberias on Jews during the Arab Revolt of 1936-1939. The one that stands out for both its brutality and organization is the Massacre of Jews in the city of Tiberias on October 2, 1938. There were other attacks in Tiberias in 1938 before the Pogrom. In May, a Jew was killed in by an explosion, and in September three Jews were murdered, and a Jew and an Arab were wounded by four Arab terrorists.5 Dozens of similar attacks like these occurred all around Mandatory Palestine that year. But the Tiberias massacre in October was different. Its ruthlessness had not been seen since the violent attacks in Safed and Hebron in 1929.6

On October 2nd, an Arab terrorist cell occupied the hills surrounding Tiberias.7 It is not exactly clear how many terrorists were involved in the attack, but it must have been anywhere from many dozen to over 100. They waited for the cover of darkness to begin their well-planned operation. At 9pm, the terrorists cut the telephone lines into Tiberias so that the victims could not call for assistance. Two terrorist cells hiding in the hills tactically entered city from the north and south (exhibit 2). Five minutes later, the terrorists remaining in the hills sounded a shrill whistle loud enough so both cells could hear it. This signaled the beginning of the attack. The small local police force was taken by surprise. The terrorists first hit the office of the British district commissioner, the police station, and the quarters where British police were housed hoping to weaken or eliminate any defenses. Tiberias was a poorly defended city with only a couple dozen British police officers and a small number of supernumerary Jewish constable called Notrim or Ghaffirs. In a harbinger of what the future could hold for Jews in Israel in a single bi-national state where Jews no longer have sole control over their security, just three months before the attack, Moshe Sharett (Shertok), Head of the Jewish Agency at the time, had petitioned the British government to arm additional Jews. He also asked for mobile patrols around Tiberias and other Jewish towns and cities. Both requests were rejected by the British and the concern by the Jewish Agency was deemed “exaggerated.”

After attacking the police and government offices, in stereotypical pogrom style, the attackers went to the central synagogue and set it on fire. The caretaker of the synagogue Ezekiel Katz, 42, was trapped inside and burned to death. The terrorists also burned down the local post office before making their way to the Jewish neighborhood of Kiryat Shmuel, north of the old city, armed with bombs, rifles, daggers, and torches. That is when the “systematically organized and savagely executed”8 carnage began. Even children were not spared. The terrorists set fire to several Jewish wooden homes. They entered the house of Joshua Ben-Arieh where he, his wife Shoshanna, and one of their sons, Arieh, were stabbed to death and then set on fire. There younger son Moshe, only 18 months old, was shot to death. Visiting the Ben-Arieh family were three siblings –Chaim age 12, Rivkah age 10, and Ezra age 8. The terrorists stabbed and burned to death all three children. While Shimon Yochanan Mizrahi was on patrol in another part of town, terrorists stormed his house and killed his wife Rachel, 26, and all five of their children ages 12, 5, 3, 2, and 1. The terrorists also attacked a third house, the home of Menachem Kabni, 60, and his wife Dora, 40. Both were American citizens. Mr. Kabni had been the beadle of a synagogue in New York for 30 years. Rabbi Asha Werner, who had been visiting Tiberias at the time, reported that the terrorists stabbed the couple to death and burned their bodies.9 Miraculously, Mr. Kabni’s sister Esther managed to escape the execution. In total, the terrorists set six Jewish houses on fire and savagely murdered anyone they could find inside. Two supernumerary Jewish constables, Israel Bookman and Zvi Chatzkeleviz, and an additional Jewish man, Jacob Gross, died in a gun fight valiantly trying to stop the attacks. Several other Jews were seriously injured. All but four of the victims were stabbed to death10 and set on fire.

So diabolical and well planned was the attack that police and troop reinforcements did not arrive in Tiberias for 25 hellish minutes because the Arabs who had whistled from the surrounding hills fired on them on the road to the city. The first to arrive were the Trans-Jordan Frontier Force stationed in the village of Samakh. They managed to fight their way through an ambush and road obstructions set near the hot springs to the south.11 The fighting and pogrom lasted until 11pm, two grueling hours, until the British police and armed forces, along with Jewish constables, were able to repel the terrorists. British troops then pursued the attackers to the nearby village of Lubya.12 Fighting continued until morning and the terrorists suffered 50 casualties.13 When all was said and done, twenty-one Jews were murdered, including seven men, three women, and, as The Times (UK) reported on October 4th, eleven “Jewish Children Butchered”.14

The massacre could have been much worse. A brigade of Jewish constables from a nearby Jewish village called Mizpah encountered a terrorist cell on their way to attack the city and engaged them. They managed to kill six of the terrorists and seized one German and four English rifles, along with ammunition.15 16

Immediately after the Pogrom the British Mandatory government placed a curfew on the city. It was only allowed to be broken for a funeral procession for the victims that walked past the ruins of the still smoldering synagogue while the dead body and destroyed Torah scrolls lay inside.17 Chief Rabbis Dr. Isaac Herzog and Dr. Jacob Meir sent a joint appeal to British secretary Malcolm MacDonald, “Palestine Jewry is deeply horrified at the Tiberias massacre and sacrilege. In G-d's name, we appeal to you to end the terror.”18 The Jewish Agency’s Mr. Sharett would add, “The murders were a terrible price to pay for arousing the authorities to take urgent measures.”19

Even after such a horrendous pogrom that saw infants shot, stabbed, and burned to death, the attacks on Jews did not stop. The Arabs did everything they could to make Tiberias vulnerable. They set rock barricades and other obstacles on the road to the city so that British reinforcements would have a difficult time arriving (exhibit 3). Less than a month later, on October 27th, the Jewish Mayor of Tiberias Zaki El Hadef was shot to death by an Arab terorist in the middle of the old city, in broad daylight.20 What was unique about Mr. El Hadef is that he presided over a council that consisted of four Jews, two Muslims, and one Christian. He came from an ancient Mizrachi family that settled in Tiberias in 1715. He spoken both Hebrew and Arabic fluently and was by all accounts loved by all the residents of the city. He was a man for all people who at the start of the Arab Revolt in 1936 managed to pass a motion in the municipal council appealing for peace. Nevertheless, like Sadat and Begin would suffer after him, he could not save himself from extremist violence (exhibit 4).

After the Pogrom at Tiberias, Moshe Sharett of the Jewish Agency, who would go on to become the second prime minister of Israel, sent a message to the Arab Palestine Defense Committee in Damascus, a message that would be repeated over and over by Jewish leaders but which always fell on deaf ears – that the Jews in Palestine extend a hand of peace and cooperation to the Arabs of Palestine, but if it is not accepted the Jews will not be intimidated and the Arabs should know that violence and murder will not deter the Jews from re-establishing their homeland in the land of Israel.21

“Zionism cannot be deterred by threats of killing, and the fact the Jews have stood in Palestine for 3 years against all onslaughts is an eloquent testimony that they cannot be intimidated. If the Arab neighboring countries ever resort to the practice of massacring Jews they would not prevent the realization of Zionism, but would only disgrace themselves, just as the killing and burning of women and children at Tiberias will only remain as a shameful stain on the record of the Palestine Arab. We see a possibility for a full and fruitful cooperation in Palestine embracing Jews and Arabs as well as neighboring countries for the good of everyone concerned, but on the essential condition that the basic rights of the Jewish people in Palestine are recognized. The realization of Zionism can only be to the benefits of the Arabs. The Jewish return to their ancient home is dictated by historical necessity, and no danger or threat would deflect the Jewish people from the path or stifle their surge for freedom.”22

The word pogrom often conjures up images of poor Jews in Eastern Europe being slaughtered or of Kristallnacht. People do not often think of what happened to the Jews in Mandatory Palestine as pogroms, but that is exactly what they were. The massacre in Tiberias in 1938, both by virtue of not being as well known as the massacres at Safed and Hebron, and of not being thought of as a pogrom, an organized massacre of Jews, makes this the Forgotten Pogrom.

References

The Evening Star, Washington D.C. October 3, 1938

The Evening Star, Washington D.C. October 30, 1938

Jewish Telegraphic Agency News Bulletin, United States, Vol. IV, No. 154, October 4, 1938

REPORT by His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the Council of the League of Nations on the Administration of PALESTINE AND TRANS-JORDAN for the year 1938, United Kingdom, December 31, 1938

The Times, United Kingdom, October 5, 1938

The Times, United Kingdom, October 14, 1938

The Times, United Kingdom, October 31, 1938

The Times-News, Hendersonville, NC, October 4, 1938

The Times-News, Hendersonville, NC, October 18, 1938

Footnotes

1. “Palestine Royal Commission Report”, July 1937, p. 537

2. From “Palestine Royal Commission Notes of Evidence taken on Tuesday, 12th January 1937”, p. 292

3. Ibid, p. 298

4. “Syrie, Liban et Palestine, géographie administrative, statistique, descriptive et raisonnée”, Vital Cuinet, p. 111

5. “REPORT by His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the Council of the League of Nations on the Administration of PALESTINE AND TRANS-JORDAN for the year 1938”

6. “Massacre at Tiberias, Jewish Children Butchered, Victims Burned”, The Times, United Kingdom, Tuesday, October 4, 1938, p. 14

7. Jewish Telegraphic Agency News Bulletin, United States, Vol. IV, No. 154, October 4, 1938
The Evening Star, Washington D.C. October 3, 1938

8. “REPORT by His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the Council of the League of Nations on the Administration of PALESTINE AND TRANS-JORDAN for the year 1938”

9. “U.S. Citizen and Wife Among New Holy Land Dead”, The Times-News, Hendersonville, NC, October 4, 1938

10. “REPORT by His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the Council of the League of Nations on the Administration of PALESTINE AND TRANS-JORDAN for the year 1938”

11. “Massacre at Tiberias, Jewish Children Butchered, Victims Burned”, The Times, United Kingdom, Tuesday, October 4, 1938, p. 14

12. Jewish Telegraphic Agency News Bulletin, United States, Vol. IV, No. 154, October 4, 1938

13. “REPORT by His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the Council of the League of Nations on the Administration of PALESTINE AND TRANS-JORDAN for the year 1938”

14. “Massacre at Tiberias, Jewish Children Butchered, Victims Burned”, The Times, United Kingdom, Tuesday, October 4, 1938, p. 14

15. Ibid.

16. Jewish Telegraphic Agency News Bulletin, United States, Vol. IV, No. 154, October 4, 1938

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. “Ambushed Mayor Dies”, The Evening Start, Washington DC, October 30, 1938.

21. “Jewish Reply to Arab Threats, Refusal to be Intimidated”, The Times (UK), October 14, 1938, p. 13

Exhibits

Exhibit 1

partition_map

 

Peel Commission Partition Recommendation 1937

 

Exhibit 2

 

lake

Topographical Map of Tiberias and the Kiryat Shmuel Neighborhood

 

Exhibit 3

 

har

The Times-News, Hendersonville, NC October 10, 1938

 

 

Exhibit 4

zaki

 

The Times (UK), Obituary of Zaki El Hadef, October 31, 1938.



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