Avoiding what happened in May of 1921 was exactly why Jews had immigrated to the territory then known as Palestine. In Europe, especially in the territories of the Russian empire, Jews had been repeatedly victimized by pogroms whipped up by anti-Semitic agitators. Surely, that would not be their fate in their historic homeland, where, only a few years earlier, Great Britain—then the greatest power on Earth—had pledged to assist them in reconstructing a national home for the Jewish people.
But on May 1, 1921, an anti-Jewish pogrom took place in Jaffa. Similar attacks at Rehovot, Kfar Saba, Petach Tikvah and Hadera, then rippled across the country during the next few days. By the time the violence ended, 47 Jews had been slain and another 146 injured. Among the assailants, some 48 Arabs were killed by Jewish defenders and by British forces that belatedly came to their assistance.
When compared to the oceans of Jewish blood that have been spilled in the following 100 years, both in the land that is now the State of Israel and elsewhere, those four dozen souls lost may not seem like much. But at the time, the scale of the killings was shocking both to the fledgling yishuv and the rest of the Jewish world.
The attacks were important not just because of the lives lost or the way it happened as Arab mobs stormed a hostel in Jaffa and other Jewish outposts. It mattered because it had been inspired by agitators who sought to send a message to the Jews that not only were they not welcome, but that they could be killed with impunity. It was also an attempt to influence the British to betray the promise they had made in the November 1917 Balfour Declaration.
Though it is an essential part of Israel’s pre-state history, the 1921 riots are not widely known or understood by most of those who pontificate about the Middle East. Still, the centennial of what happened in Jaffa deserves recognition—and not merely to keep alive the memory of those early Zionist heroes who fell in that week. Rather, its importance lies in the fact that though so much has changed in the 10 decades since then, Jews and Arabs are still essentially locked into conflict because the same delusion that motivated the agitators of that slaughter is still helping to fuel the ongoing violence and make peace impossible.
The carnage that began on May 1, 1921 was not the first instance of Arab violence directed at Jews who had returned to the land of Israel. Since the earliest days of Zionist settlement in the late 19th century, Jewish immigrants had been subjected to sporadic attacks. The previous year, in March of 1920, the Jewish settlement of Tel Hai in the northern Galilee had been attacked by Shi’ite Arabs from Lebanon, leading to the death of six of its defenders, including their commander, Joseph Trumpeldor.
The next month, riots instigated by Haj Amin al-Husseini (the future Mufti of Jerusalem) and other Arab leaders had taken place in Jerusalem as mobs were incited to storm the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, reportedly chanting “Palestine is our land, the Jews are our dogs.”
While acts of murder, rape and assault were committed, including the ransacking of a yeshivah and the desecration of a Torah scroll, only five Jews were killed. Just as ominously, the British Army was slow to act to stop the violence and actually prevented the Haganah, a fledgling force seeking to defend the Jewish community that had been organized by Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, was prevented from coming to the aid of those in danger. Indeed, Jabotinsky was later tried and imprisoned for possessing illegal weapons.
The following March, only weeks before the slaughter in Jaffa, Winston Churchill, then the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, visited the country and rebuffed the efforts of Arab leaders to get him to abandon the Jews in a memorandum filled with anti-Semitic tropes. He rejected their entreaties saying:
“It is manifestly right that the Jews should have a National Home where some of them may be reunited. And where else could that be but in this land of Palestine, with which for more than 3,000 years they have been intimately and profoundly associated? We think it will be good for the world, good for the Jews and good for the British Empire. But we also think it will be good for the Arabs who dwell in Palestine.”
Churchill would divide Palestine, giving the 78 percent of the land on the Eastern bank of the Jordan—then called Transjordan and now Jordan—to Emir Abdullah al-Hussein, whose family had fought with the British against the Turks in World War I and whose descendants still rule that kingdom. The land to the West of the river would be the British Mandate where the Jewish National Home would be built.
But the Arabs were unpersuaded by Churchill’s gestures or his wise advice that the newfound prosperity created by the Jewish settlers could be of great benefit to their Arab neighbors.
Sadly, Churchill, who was a friend to the Jews and Zionism throughout his life, was in the minority on this issue among British leaders. The May 1921 riots would impel the British to begin backing away from their promise. Their appeasement would lead to further pogroms in 1929 and 1936, as well as to a 1939 White Paper that would serve to help trap more Jews in Europe where they would die in the Holocaust.
Ultimately, the Zionist enterprise was too strong and too necessary to the survival of the Jewish people to be allowed to die. It would prevail, despite Arab violence and obstacles created by the British eventually triumph, though it would take much suffering and struggle to accomplish this historic task with the creation of Israel in 1948.
But the point to be gleaned from this history is more than academic.
These unhappy anniversaries of Arab attacks are important because their descendants, who now call themselves Palestinians (a term that was only used by Jewish inhabitants of the country before 1948) are still largely operating under the same deluded belief that more bloodshed will alter the outcome of a struggle that was actually decided 73 years ago. The random attacks on Jews currently carried out today by Palestinians, and the incitement by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, are reminiscent of the same hate spewed by Arab leaders in back 1920 and 1921. They still think that somehow the world will help them reverse the verdict of history and enable them to eliminate what the Jews have built. Their hopes for the demise of an Israel that is a regional military superpower and the possessor of a First World economy are nothing but a sick fantasy.
While we should commemorate those Jews who died a century ago, it is just as, if not more important, that the Palestinians should remember what happened and draw the proper conclusions from those events. It is long past time for them to listen to Churchill’s advice and make their peace with the revived Jewish presence. That’s what the Arabs of the Gulf States have done as part of the Abraham Accords, and this new alliance has enhanced both their security and their economies. Until then, the Palestinians will remain in the clutches of corrupt and violent leaders who use the conflict to stay in power until they learn the lessons of this sad centennial.
Nor are they the only ones who need to learn this history. Those Americans who seek to pressure Israel or to buy into the anti-Semitic libels of the Jewish state spewed out by the Mufti’s successors are only prolonging the agony of both sides, rather than promoting peace. Those who ignore this history and what it means—whether out of ignorance or a malevolent anti-Semitism—are equally responsible for the continuance of a conflict that should have been resolved long ago.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS —Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
Be a part of our community
JNS serves as the central hub for a thriving community of readers who appreciate the invaluable context our coverage offers on Israel and their Jewish world.
Please join our community and help support our unique brand of Jewish journalism that makes sense.