A British Cover-Up?

At the end of August 1929, nearly 80 Jews were killed in Hebron and Safed in an outbreak of Arab violence, instigated by the Mufti of Jerusalem. In all, 13q Jews and over 120 Arabs died in the disturbances. The investigating Shaw Commission, set up by the British- government, emphasised that the root of the violence was, in fact, Jewish immigration, and this laid the political foundations for the government to row back from its commitments as enshrined in the Balfour Declaration.

The commission’s report singled out a march to the Western Wall on Tisha b’Av by Jewish youth which, it asserted, precipitated the Arab response. Last year, the National Archives released in camera testimony to the Shaw Commission which paints a more complex picture and fortifies Zionist claims at the time that the British were attempting to cover up their own shortcomings.

The Ottoman Turks allowed the Jews access to the Wall and the Mandate continued this custom. However, both’ Jewish and Arab nationalism increased after the First World War. The Mufti argued that the Jews wished to appropriate the Temple Mount as well as the Wall and to construct the Third Temple on its site. Despite repeated explanations that the Jews wished only to gain access to the Wall and had no desires on the Mount, the claim was made time and again to exacerbate hostility towards the Zionists.

In 1928, the Jews brought in benches and screens for Yom Kippur to construct a mechitzah, to separate the prayer areas for men and women. The British responded to Muslim protests and ordered the removal of the offending benches. By Yom Kippur, this had still not been carried out and the British forcibly intervened and removed the benches amid a scuffle with the attendant Jews. This was considered to be not only an insensitive affront to religious Jews, but also by the Zionists as further British backtracking on the question of Jewish status.

During the following year, the Mufti encouraged a campaign of harassment of Jewish worshippers at the Wall through an orchestrated cacophony of music and noise. New building works were constructed towards this end, and the narrow walkway in front of the Wall was transformed into a thoroughfare for the local Arab inhabitants. All this was perceived as legal under the law since the pavement in front of the Wall, the surrounding courtyard and its dilapidated dwellings all formed part of the property of a Muslim charitable trust.

Professor Joseph Klausner, an expert on the Second Temple period and dose politically to Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionist movement, established a “Pro-Wailing Wall Committee” on the eve of Tammuz 17. The traditional Three Weeks, leading to Tisha b’Av, then became the period for a political campaign by nationalists and religious Zionists. The Zionist leadership, including Jabotinsky, had already left the country for the Zionist Congress in Zurich. The British High Commissioner, Sir John Chancellor, was also abroad.  The political vacuum created thereby allowed Klausner’s committees to pursue a more radical agenda in the run-up to Tisha b’Av. This included incendiary articles, mass meetings and a march to the Wall, despite warnings of the consequences from prominent Labour figures such as Meir Dizengoff.

On advice from his associates and clearly fearing a repetition of the incident on Yom Kippur, Harry Luke, the acting High Commissioner, decided that the best course of action was to permit the procession to the Wall but that the youth should not demonstrate, produce flags, shout slogans, march in military formation or raise the Zionist flag at the Wall. Apart from hoisting the flag, the youth agreed and the protest was both quiet and orderly.

During the in camera testimony to the Shaw Commission, Luke acknowledged that if he had taken a different view following the Yom Kippur incident in 1928 and supported Jewish historical claims for access to the Wall over Muslim legal ones, he would have been unable to enforce’  such a policy, given the negligible military forces at his disposal.

Both Luke and the Colonial Office were unsympathetic to Zionist claims. Luke told the commission that he found “the Jews with whom the government have to deal officially quite incapable of seeing more than just their own demands.”

There was also an editing and detailed alteration of the reports of the officers in charge in Hebron and Safed. Police criticism of Arab attitudes as well as the names of those who had been involved in violence, were deleted. Comments which referred to “Jewish vulnerability and non-aggression” were removed, as was mention of the British failure to provide adequate police to protect the civilian population. So many police and government officials were absent because they were on holiday: this failure was also Luke’s responsibility — and this too was airbrushed from the official report.

Jewish Chronicle 23 July 2004

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