Part II The 1929 Palestine Riots: A Conflicted Jewish Historiography

By William M Mathew

IV: Commissions & Reports; White Paper & Letter

These, 1929-31 – from Shaw and Hope Simpson to Passfield and MacDonald – have been cited in the opening paragraph above. Hillel Cohen`s approach is merely to list them, largely without comment. At no point does he query the ability, motives, or integrity of the various commissioners and politicians. `Mar.1930: The Shaw Commission issues its report, pegging the Arabs as assailants but clearing the mufti of having instigated the attacks. The report also states, however, that the larger context for the outbreak of violence is Jewish immigration….Oct.1930: Lord Passfield issues his White Paper. Its principal provision: limits on Jewish immigration. Feb.13 1931: Following Zionist lobbying, Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald declares that Jewish immigration will not be restricted`. With Naomi Cohen, however, the comment is much more judgmental and, indeed, ad hominem, denying reason or justice to the Arab cause or fairness to British officials. As before, the assertions for the most part lack documentary sourcing.

The first official body to visit Palestine after the riots, specifically to investigate their causes, was the Commission of Inquiry chaired by the jurist Sir Walter Shaw, former Chief Justice of the Straits Settlements in Singapore, and comprising three members of parliament, Conservative, Labour, and Liberal. The Commission took evidence for several weeks in October-December 1929 from 140 witnesses, submitting its report to the British government in March 1930. The disturbances, Shaw declared, with a clear sense of Arab culpability, `took the form, in the most part, of a vicious attack by Arabs on Jews accompanied by wanton destruction of Jewish property. A general massacre of the Jewish community at Hebron was narrowly averted. Jews attacked Arabs and destroyed Jewish property. These attacks, though inexcusable, were in most cases retaliation for wrongs already committed by Arabs…`. But the fundamental energising cause, it was suggested, was `the Arab feeling of animosity and hostility towards the Jews consequent upon the disappointment of their political and national aspirations and fear for their economic future`. Attention was drawn in particular to immigration and consequent land alienation, the Commission reminding the government of `the doctrine accepted by the Zionist Organization in 1922 that immigration should be regulated by the economic capacity of Palestine to absorb new arrivals`.

Omitting any direct reference to the Report, Cohen observes that certain individuals `knew Sir Walter Shaw as “half deaf, very slow” and “of reactionary and anti-semitic type” – Chaim Weizmann dismissing his submission as an `iniquitous document`. Her view is that the Report `made light of Arab guilt`, `sided with the Arabs against the Zionists`, `whitewashed the Mufti and the Palestine Arab Executive as well as the British officials in Palestine`, and was an exercise in `appeasing the Arabs`. It also seems that the Commission had `gone beyond its instructions and had dealt with matters of policy like immigration and land acquisition` – as though these were not pertinent to its enquiries. (The remark is oddly similar to that of the American Zionists Stephen S. Wise and Jacob de Haas in their contemporary polemic The Great Betrayal [New York: Brentano`s, 1930]: `The Shaw Commission…exceeded its instructions in order to provide the basis for a new policy`.)

It was this very focus on immigration that led on, logically, to the further enquiries conducted by a Commission under Sir John Hope Simpson, formerly of the Indian civil service and vice-president of the British Army`s Refugee Settlement Committee in Greece, much involved there in the traumatic population exchanges with Turkey. In October 1930 it presented its Report on Immigration, Land Settlement and Development, its 128 pages representing one of the most extended official statements yet on the evolving economy and society of British Palestine. It drew particular attention to the ethnically exclusivist policies adopted by the Jewish National Fund: `the result of the purchase of land in Palestine by the Jewish National Fund has been that land became extra territorial. It ceases to be land from which the Arab can gain any advantage either now or at any time in the future. Not only can he never hope to lease or cultivate it, but, by the stringent provisions of the lease of the Jewish National Fund, he is deprived for ever from employment on the land….It is impossible to view with equanimity the extension of an enclave in Palestine from which the Arabs are excluded`. The conclusion was that limits should be placed on further Jewish immigration, and, following Shaw, that the numbers permitted should bear close relation to the absorptive capacity of the Palestine economy.

The immediate consequence, in the same month, was the issuance of a White Paper in the name of the Labour colonial secretary, Lord Passfield, asserting the need for tight immigration controls. `Clearly, if immigration of Jews results in preventing the Arab population from obtaining the work necessary for its maintenance, or if Jewish unemployment unfavourably affects the general labour position, it is the duty of the Mandatory Power under the Mandate to reduce, or, if necessary, to suspend such immigration until the unemployed portion of the “other sections” is in a position to obtain work….From the Jewish leaders, His Majesty`s Government ask a recognition of the necessity for making some concessions on their side in regard to the independent and separatist ideals which have been developed in some quarters in connection with the Jewish National Home`. But there was to be no dilution of the Balfour Declaration itself: the national home policy still stood, albeit with an revised sense of timing and a refined awareness of Arab sensitivities.

For the political Zionists, however, these proved to be explosive remarks. Their dismay at the notion that Arab interests were to be taken into account alongside their own seemed to challenge all the most ingrained assumptions about their privileging under the Balfour Declaration: there could, they held, be no equality of basic rights between the two communities. In Chaim Weizmann`s words, lobbying the government in London, `the obligation of the Mandatory Power is towards the Jewish people of which the one hundred and seventy thousand are merely the vanguard. I must take issue, as energetically as I can, with the formulation of the obligation of the Mandatory Power as an obligation towards both sections of the Palestine population`. (Trial and Error. The Autobiography of Chaim Weizmann (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1949; emphasis added).

Naomi Cohen reflects such sentiments, virtually without historiographical mediation – and yet again without specific documentation. `The very appointment of Hope Simpson did not augur well for the Zionists. The Englishman hardly qualified as an expert. He knew virtually nothing about Palestine and understood less about the Zionist cause. When in Palestine Hope Simpson lived with the high commissioner and quickly identified with Chancellor`s point of view [Sir John Chancellor – who indeed was unsympathetic to Zionism]. He liked the Arab “fellah”, with whom he could sympathize, but he found the Zionist attitude “repellent”`. His `disastrous` report, in the event, `was completely slanted to the Arab side`; his mission apparently `loaded from the very start`. Later remarks of Hope Simpson`s that Jews had much more propaganda power internationally than Arabs, and that they showed communistic tendencies in their Palestine kibbutzim, Cohen describes as sounding `downright antisemitic`– but then her books documenting vigorous Zionist lobbying in metropolitan capitals, without any Arab equivalence, give obvious unprejudiced proof of the first; and Chaim Weizmann`s recorded remark that Zionism could be seen as a form of `constructive Bolshevism` seems untroubled confirmation of the second.

The Zionist conviction, Cohen writes, was that the commissioner, following instructions from his superiors, would `write a pro-Arab report that would appease the Arabs and capitalize on the disaffection of the non-Zionists` – this, we learn, `verified by a study of British manuscript sources. It shows that the Colonial Office…had decided on the lines of Hope Simpson`s report even before he set foot in Palestine.` These are interesting, and not entirely new, claims, but are here supported only by reference, without quotation, to a single article in the Proceedings of the Sixth World Congress of Jewish Studies, dated 1976.

As for the subsequent Passfield White Paper with its proposals, following Hope Simpson, to limit Jewish immigration, `the original promise of the Balfour Declaration and mandate`, Cohen suggests, `was seriously undone` – both Zionists and non-Zionists being `shocked and outraged`. Passfield himself `was known to the Jews as a confirmed anti-Zionist` and `consistently hostile`, his formulations `totally negative` as far as the Jews were concerned. (Some of this reaction, it may be noted, was reflected in sentiments expressed during a long House of Commons debate on Passfield in mid-November 1930, this opened in intemperate fashion by David Lloyd George, prime minister at the time of the Balfour Declaration, charging the government with anti-Semitic behaviour and the effective revoking of the mandate, with some other members also critical, though in less belligerent terms. The general tenor of the exchanges, however, from, among others, the Zionists Leo Amery and Sir Herbert Samuel [first British high commissioner in Palestine], was careful and judicious, Hope Simpson being praised for, in Amery`s words, his `most able, lucid and valuable document`, and Passfield criticised mainly for his over-emphasis on the negative aspects of the commissioner`s findings – Samuel accusing him of picking out `of the Hope Simpson report the particular passages which would establish a case against Jewish colonisation`. Summing up the debate, the Labour first lord of the admiralty, A.V. Alexander, described `the so-called case against the Government` as `a very damp squib`. [Hansard, Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 17 November 1930.])

A measure of policy change, however, was on its way. Responding to intense Jewish lobbying against the Passfield proposals, much of it in private meetings with ministers (privileges not accorded to Arab representatives), Ramsay MacDonald issued his famed `Letter` on the question – addressed to Chaim Weizmann – on 13 February 1931. Hillel Cohen, as observed, simply notes MacDonald`s statement to the effect `that Jewish immigration` would `not be restricted`. Naomi Cohen is a little more nuanced, observing that while the government had `backtracked` under Jewish pressure in London, `the Passfield White Paper was not officially repudiated; an anti-Zionist policy was on the books…`.

The government disclaimed `any intention of permanently ending Jewish immigration, freezing Jewish settlements, giving Arabs preference over Jews in land resettlement, or insulting Jewish labor institutions`. These, however, had never been the Passfield proposals: rather the more extreme interpretations placed on Passfield by anxious or hostile Zionists. It is, in fact, difficult to see the MacDonald Letter as quite the repudiation of Passfield as some have portrayed it – what Tom Segev (One Palestine, Complete. Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate [transl. Haim Watzman, New York: Owl Books, 2000]) has described as `this stunning turn of events`, `a humiliating defeat, running against the best political thinking and Britain`s own interests`. It certainly led to a more relaxed policy on immigration (with numbers rising particularly rapidly in the years 1933 to 1935, though falling back to mid-1920s levels in 1936 to 1939), but the Letter was couched in terms broadly supportive of Passfield`s key points. The colonial secretary himself recorded in a note to Lord Amulree, secretary of state for air, three days before the Letter was sent: `You can have no idea of the amount of time and wrangling that has gone into every line of the letter. The Jews quibbled and fought over every sentence`. The aim overall was `to get a statement which the Jews would accept…and not doing anything to incense the Arabs….The present letter to Dr Weizmann really takes nothing back, and contradicts nothing in the White Paper. But Dr Weizmann saw fit in October to use it as a means of stirring the emotions of World Jewry…`. (Norman Mackenzie [ed.], The Letters of Sydney and Beatrice Webb, Vol. III, Pilgrimage 1912-1947 [Cambridge etc.: Cambridge University Press, 1978]).

`A double undertaking is involved`, MacDonald wrote, `to the Jewish people on the one hand, and to the non-Jewish population of Palestine on the other`. The latter`s rights were `not to be impaired or made worse. The effect of the policy of immigration and settlement on the economic position of the non-Jewish community cannot be excluded from consideration`. The government still `felt bound to emphasize the necessity of the proper application of the absorptive principle`, any consequent control of immigration being `not in any sense a departure from previous policy`. There was not, as some had claimed, any `prohibition of acquisition of additional lands by Jews, but simply the possibility of `such temporary control of land disposition and transfers as may be necessary not to impair the harmony and effectiveness of the scheme of land settlement to be undertaken`. On the matter of the exclusion of Arab labour from Jewish agricultural and other enterprise, that `principle of preferential, indeed exclusive, employment of Jewish labour by Jewish organizations is a principle which the Jewish Agency are entitled to affirm`. This was certainly, for the Zionists, an encouraging clarification of official policy: `But it must be pointed out that if in consequence of this policy Arab labour is displaced or existing unemployment become aggravated, that is a factor in the situation to which the mandatory is bound to have regard`.

Much of the spirit and detail of Passfield had, clearly, been retained by MacDonald. Chaim Weizmann later wrote (Trial and Error, cited above), in fairly modest terms, that the Letter constituted `an official reversal of policy`, though `did not take the form of a retraction of the White Paper`. He accepted it nonetheless – for which, he recorded, he was `bitterly attacked in the Zionist Congress of that year`, where it was held that only a further White Paper could have given the formal assurances required. Revisionist Zionists, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky, `spoke of the letter contemptuously`, and in July of 1931 Weizmann was removed from his position as president of the Zionist Organization.

The MacDonald Letter as it happens is not the subject of significant disagreement between Hillel Coen and Naomi Cohen – the latter no longer having resort to impugning the motives of the British authorities.

V. End Note

Beyond all the political specifics as treated above, and the sharp differences, by both tone and content, between the two Cohens and their respective nationalist and universalist perspectives, it is as well to note, as implied at the outset, that the authors are not explicitly arguing against each other: indeed, in the case of Naomi Cohen, the judgments that we have examined do not constitute major parts of her narratives, these focussed – and persuasively so – on Zionism`s failure to win effective support in the United States prior to the 1940s. This is of great interest in its own right, since it highlights one of the grosser miscalculations of the authors of the Balfour Declaration, namely that the national home policy would help persuade the United States, heavy with Jewish numbers and financial resources, to commit more decisively to the cause of winning the war in Europe. Assumptions that the Jewish communities in America were widely persuaded of the case for political Zionism in Palestine, with Washington the likely target of powerful Zionist lobbying, are shown by Naomi Cohen to have been entirely misplaced (although there did occur a flurry of enthusiastic Zionist opinion in the immediate aftermath of the Declaration). The point is also convincingly argued by James Renton in his The Zionist Masquerade. The Birth of the Anglo-Zionist Alliance (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), and both authors give particular emphasis to the extent and influence of the insistently anti-Zionist Reform Judaism in American Jewry, its followers eager to deny the charge that they might be `hyphenated Americans`, of questionable commitment to the values and interests their country of residence.

In the case of Hillel Cohen, his careful, detailed documentation of the riots, incident by incident, is also part of a wider concern – namely to show how the sheer horror of the killings, and the fact that the assaulting Arabs drew little distinction between the old communities of resident Jews and the newly arrived incomers from eastern Europe, brought about the effective unification of the Jewish population of Palestine – thus explaining his reason for naming 1929 his `Year Zero`, `the year in which relations between Jews and Arabs changed radically, the year that shaped the consciousness of both sides for decades after`. It was `the attacks on Jewish communities in 1929 that forged the Yishuv – the Jewish community in Palestine under the British Mandate. Jews who had kept their distance from the Zionist movement drew closer to it`, the victims of the massacres coming `largely from the ranks of the long-established Mizrahi, Maghrebi, and religious Jewish communities that predated the Zionist influx`. There is nothing in Naomi Cohen`s books that suggests she would take issue with this critical conclusion: a further element of harmony, by default.

The last word, historical as well as historiographical, can be left to Hillel Cohen: `in Jewish historical memory the riots of 1929 became emblematic of Arab savagery, serving as ostensible proof that Arabs thirst for Jewish blood. At the same time, in the view of the Arabs, the disturbances were a legitimate national uprising. It is important to understand how two different publics can understand the same events in such different ways`. Cohen himself straddles that critical divide.

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