A History of Violence – By Arie Dubnov

Arie Dubnov on Hillel Cohen’s Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict

Hillel Cohen, Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1929, trans. Haim Watzman, Brandeis University Press, 2015, 271pp., $29.95
Hillel Cohen, Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1929, trans. Haim Watzman, Brandeis University Press, 2015, 271pp., $29.95
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If Israel/Palestine is to be compared to a powder keg, Jerusalem/al-Quds, no doubt, is its igniting fuse. There are times, though, when the calendar itself is as combustible as the holy geography, as during the deadly weekend of August 16-17, 1929, which a two-week long bloodbath. First frictions were felt on Thursday, Tisha B’Av, the Jewish fast commemorating the destruction of the Temple, as a procession from the Revisionist-Zionist Betar Youth movement, calling to redeem the Western Wall, walked through the narrow streets of the Old City. Heat and tension continued rising the following day, Friday the 16th, which was also Prophet Mohammad’s birthday. Some Muslims, who were celebrating the occasion on al-Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary) in front of al-Aqsa Mosque, staged their own demonstration. Descending to the Wall, they burned Jewish holy books. The following day, news about the blasphemous act sparked clashes between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem’s Bukharan neighborhood, outside the Old City. One Jew, Avraham Mizrachi, was killed. A number of Arab homes were torched by Jews. Within a week violence spilled over. The lynching of Arabs and Jews along the margins of the Old City on the following Friday was followed by attacks on Jewish neighborhoods in the main mixed cities — Haifa, Jaffa, Safed — as well as on other Jewish villages and settlements across the country. The Arab Executive Committee reported that a body of a Muslim woman, ‘Aisha al-‘Atari, was found near the Jewish neighborhood of Me’ah She’arim in Jerusalem with two large stones lying on her crushed skull. With the tense atmosphere, rumors that the Jews were planning to demolish al-Aqsa in order to build their Temple in its place began to spread across the country. On Saturday, August 24, the Makleff family was brutally murdered in Motza by Arab villagers from nearby Qalunya. At the very same time a massacre of the Jews in Hebron took place: sixty-seven defenseless, mostly non-Zionist orthodox Jews affiliated with the local Lubavitcher Yeshiva, were killed, many in a grisly manner. Many others survived, sheltered in the homes of twenty-eight Arab families. The next day, Shiekh ‘Abd al-Ghani ‘Awn, the imam of the Abu Kabir neighborhood mosque, next to Tel Aviv, was slaughtered together with his family by a group of Jews led by Simha Hinkis, a Jewish policeman. Numerous acts of savagery continued until the end of the month. When quiet was restored in September, the body count was 133 Jews and 116 Arabs killed, and almost twice as many injured on both sides.

These lethal August days are chronicled in merciless, forensic precision by Hillel Cohen in Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1929. Cohen has produced a brilliant book — meticulously researched, exhilarating, intimidating and more than occasionally disturbing. Cohen (b. 1961) himself is a colorful figure. A Jerusalemite, he was born to a mixed Ashkenazi-Mizrahi religious-Zionist family (Polish on his mother’s side, Afghan on his father’s), and studied in Jerusalem and later at the Yeshivah high school of Bet-El bet, a West Bank settlement adjacent to Ramallah and the nearby Jalazone refugee camp. It was there that he picked up on spoken Palestinian Arabic, further perfected during the years he worked in construction alongside Palestinians from Hebron and its surroundings. It was under these circumstances that he was first exposed to the ways in which Palestinians narrate their past, and the role the year 1929 plays in Palestinian collective memory. His writing career began soon after, when he switched to journalism and became a correspondent on East Jerusalem affairs for Kol Ha’ir, the now defunct Jerusalem local weekly newspaper, known at the time for providing a stage for a group of talented, mostly progressive and often biting young writers. These experiences, alongside the academic training he received at the Hebrew University, provided the basis for his previous book, Kikar ha-shuk rekah (The Marketplace is Empty; translated as The Rise and Fall of Arab Jerusalem), looking at the demise of the dream of making Jerusalem a capital of Palestine and key site around which Palestinian national identity would be groomed in the wake of the Oslo Accords and the Al-Aqsa Intifada. This disturbing account, highly relevant for understanding the roots of the recent cycle of violence, revealed a systematic plan of crushing any possibility of Palestinian self-rule in today’s Eastern Jerusalem. It was preceded by an impressive historical trilogy, starting with Ha-Nifkadim ha-Nokhehim (Present Absentees), offering a history of the 1948 Palestinian refugees within Israel, the critically acclaimed Army of Shadows, tracing pre-Statehood Palestinian collaboration with Zionism, from 1917 to 1948, and Aravim tovim (Good Arabs), focusing on the methods of domestic surveillance and the system of collaborators within Arab communities established by the Shin Bet, Israel’s notorious internal security services, up to 1967.

Not shying away from controversial topics, Cohen demonstrated in these studies an uncanny ability to debunk widely accepted clichés. They also sharpened his distinctive style as a narrator of the past. Instead of intimidating and verbose academic prose, Cohen brings the qualities of journalistic reportage in a good sense: absorbing, thriller-like depictions of secret and semi-secret operations, accurate fact-checking, colorful retellings of past events written in the first person, and coupled with a deep historical empathy for all sides in the story. It is a style that may cause some academics to raise an eyebrow, but is likely to be appreciated by those who like their historians to be detectives of the past, as much as by those who believe that much of the work of the historian is to disturb the comfortable plotlines which rest on a clear division between virtuous “goodies” and vicious “baddies” — a tendency much exaggerated in the narratives both Israeli and Palestinian historians produce when recording the fraught history of the Israeli-Arab conflict. Indeed, Cohen resists the temptation of serving his history black-and-white colors. He insists on showing its grey colors, to reveal the chaos and the confusion, the inconsistencies, the ambivalent attitudes, the aspirations as well as the fears — whether factual or fabricated — that shape human actions. He offers his readers, in other words, a very human past, riddled with contradictions. Indeed, he could be accused of offering an all too human account: Cohen is one of those narrators who suffers from such an acute case of historical empathy that at times he seems to blur the lines between villains, heroes and victims.

These qualities find their way into Year Zero, and are well captured by Haim Watzman, his sensitive translator. In this book, Cohen tries to accomplish three different tasks. First, on the most prosaic level, he, as historian-cum-detective, aims to set the record straight. Not because the cataclysmic events of summer 1929 have been forgotten, nor due to paucity of writing on the subject. Quite to the contrary: because the historical accounts produced subsequently by Israelis and Palestinians were often based on what Cohen describes as “similar techniques of denial, repression, and cherry-picking” Cohen resists the temptation of seeing the 1929 riots as a sudden outburst of brutality. Indeed, the second task Cohen takes upon himself is to understand what preceded the communal violence, to reveal the intricate ways in which the bloody events grew out of the fears and hopes of members of the two intertwined communities. Following the chronology is unlikely to capture that dimension. Instead, Cohen takes his readers on a tour of the sites of memory — violent geography extending from Jerusalem to Tel-Aviv/Jaffa, Hebron, Motza, and Safed — interweaving present and past. This form of narrative is linked to the book’s third argument, embedded in its title: that 1929 marks a sharp turn in the collective anxieties and aspirations of both Jews and Arabs. Scarred and traumatized, members of both communities could no longer look at their neighbors without hostility following the bloody events. The aftermath of 1929 for Cohen signifies the beginning of a new era of self-imposed communal segregation: it brought earlier forms of Jewish-Muslim interaction to a halt and replaced them with deep mistrust and animosity. Intercommunal differences were hardened and redefined. In the case of the Yishuv (the Jewish population of pre-statehood Palestine), 1929 also marked the realization that they must be better prepared for the next cycle of bloodshed. Alas, what makes 1929 into a watershed moment, the Jahre Null in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, was that it initiated the countdown towards the 1948 War — labeled the War of Independence by the Zionists, Nakba (the disaster) by the Palestinians. It is, no doubt, a deeply pessimistic account. The violence, according to Cohen, marked the point of no return. It put an end to earlier forms of interconnectedness and turned Palestine’s Arab and Jewish communities into closed, clearly demarcated, solidified and antagonistically opposed entities.

Aftermath of the Hebron Massacre, 1929. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Aftermath of the Hebron Massacre, 1929.
Image via Wikimedia Commons

The path that led Mordechai Makleff, one of the three children who were able to escape and survive the Motza massacre, to become the third Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, was emblematic in that respect. The friendly relationship between the Jews of Motza and their Arab neighbors prior to the slaughter is often mentioned in Zionist accounts, and so is the promise given to Mordechai’s father, Arieh-Leib, by the sheikh of Qalunya, that Motza would not be attacked. When giving his testimony, to the reporters of Davar, the Hebrew daily, Mordechai’s brother, Haim, was likely unaware of the real estate disputes that clouded these neighborly relations. Nor did the surviving brother know about the news that was spread the day before about Jews killing Muslims who emerged from prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque (news grossly exaggerated by rumors that described the murders as a large-scale massacre). According to their accounts they were saved by a family friend, the elderly Rabbi Shach, who was a guest of the family for the Sabbath and was also among those murdered. Palestinian sources offer a different story, one in which the Makleff children were rescued by their Arab neighbors who knew their father, fondly called Nimr, since he had settled in Motza, 25 years earlier.

Cross-examining contradictory testimonies, however, can only take you only so far when larger national meta-narratives are involved. The view of Jews in Palestine as land-grabbing colonialists and emissaries of Western imperialism, and the constant equation of Arabs with inflamed mobs, composed of illiterate, backward people, exploited by land-owners and manipulated by blood-thirsty religious clerics, clouds the stories members of the two communities tell themselves and pass to the next generation. Not writing to please apologists of violence from either camp, Cohen looks at the way in which these underlying ideological assumptions were formed. He makes the invention of these larger meta-narratives into an integral part of the historical story he unpacks, while scrutinizing the mythologies on which they are based mercilessly. He reminds his readers that contrary to the conventional Palestinian narrative that regards the riots as a reaction against unrestricted Jewish immigration and settler colonialism, the majority of the Jewish victims in 1929 were, in fact, not newcomers from Eastern Europe but came from the ranks of the Mizrachi, Maghrebi, and the non-Zionist religious Jewish communities that predated the waves of Zionist immigration. The slaughter of Eastern European yeshiva students in Hebron, in that respect, is an exception, though victims here were also mostly non-Zionists. Often, the butchers were long-established neighbors of their victims. In a majority of the cases, Jewish victims were unarmed and murdered in their houses. At the very same time, he shows that Jews lynched innocent citizens. Departing from the “official” Zionist narrative that portrays all killings committed by Jews as acts of self-defense, he treats Simha Hinkis, the Jewish policeman from Jaffa, harshly: a murderer of innocents, using killing as an instrument of vengeance.

In a way, one can read Year Zero as an unintentional, highly disturbing and pessimistic sequel to Jonathan Gribetz’s Defining Neighbors and Michelle Campos’s Ottoman Brothers. Contrary to commonly held perceptions about the inevitability of the conflict in Palestine, the early encounters of Jews and Arabs described in these works reveal a rich discourse and lively dialogue. By using race and religion as their main point of reference, Gribetz argues, members of the two communities were able to articulate their differences but, at the same time, also to speak of an affinity and shared lineage bringing the two Abrahamic religions closer to each other. The religions and racial imaginations, in other words, could be used not only as the great dividers but also as the great unifiers, allowing one to imagine a primordial similarity, bridging the differences between the communities. The promise of “civic Ottomanism,” Campos shows, was equally enticing. It allowed Muslims, Christians, and Jews to envisage their political future, as imperial citizens, together. Year Zero’s story is the story of the radical breakdown of these earlier beliefs and expectations. It shows how the patchwork of communal identities, ideas, and historical experiences we find in late Ottoman Palestine were consolidated in British Palestine into binary opposition between Jews and Arabs. It tells the story of a sharp transition from neighborly intermixture to communal bifurcation and antagonism, and shows how shared political visions and semi-romantic notions crashed into the hard rock of ethno-religious strife. Violence, Cohen shows, consolidates communities. After 1929 it became practically impossible for a Jew in Palestine to opt out from the Yishuv. Violence forced individuals to take sides, and therefore after 1929 very few Jews continued to think of themselves as hybrid Arab-Jews. Segregation, in this sense, did not begin when physical barriers and walls were constructed. Mental barriers are erected first. And violence breeds more violence: for many of the senior officers who fought the War of Independence in 1948, like Makleff, the 1929 riots were a formative experience.

What was the role of Palestine’s Christian Arabs in the events? The Mandatory police investigating the “communal disturbances” counted the casualties by religion, and included four Christians who died in the August events, and fifteen who were wounded. Who were these Christians? Were these bystanders, mistakenly identified as Muslim or active participants in the acts of communal violence? Were they following the orders of Christian or Muslim clergy? Cohen provides details about one of them, Hanna Karkar from Lydda, who was killed, most likely beaten to death, by Jews near Mea She’arim in Jerusalem. Some Palestinian sources turned him into a martyr. In the legend they produced Karkar was a truck driver who was working for the British, who deliberately killed himself, together with a good portion of British soldiers who were assisting the Jews, in a heroic suicide. The story, Cohen shows, has nothing to stand on. The anecdote reveals a larger and more persistent story that Cohen, immersed in an effort to portray a symmetrical, mirror-like image of the hopes and fears of Jews and Muslims in 1929, only hints at. Binary views of the Israeli-Arab conflict — accentuated in post-9/11 Islamophobic narratives that suggest an innate violent tendency in Islam — ignore the multiple identities of Palestinians during the Mandate. It makes it almost impossible to comprehend that pre-statehood Palestine was a site of contention in which one could identify a tripartite, inherently asymmetrical relationship between Jews, Muslims and Christians. Why are the latter left out of the equation? Cohen leaves this question open. It would be worthwhile, however, to read his account in tandem with some to the recent literature produced by researchers such as Laura Robson, Noah Haiduc-Dale, and others, trying to shed light on this third, invisible minority in the story of the Arab-Israeli conflict. These works pay greater attention to the new politicized vocabulary that Palestine’s Christian Arabs in general and the Greek Orthodox Church (Palestine’s largest of the Christian denominations) in particular adopted starting in the early 1920s, in order to recast the community as central to Palestinian nationalism. The Karkar story and its mythologization seem to be part of these larger processes. What matters here is the function of the fiction: Karkar’s legend may have persisted due to a fabrication that turned him into a symbol of a joint Muslim-Christian struggle against the western intruders. The tendency to treat Christian Arabs concomitantly with Muslim Arabs, it seems to me, is inherently connected to such modes of hyper-nationalist storytelling. But giving voice to Christian Arabs only if their story is connected to the political campaign led by Muslim Arabs is a form of marginalization, not empowerment. Though left underdeveloped, the anecdote seems to strengthen Cohen’s key argument about the hardening of communal separatism post-1929 and the turning of the conflict into an intractable zero-sum competition between two rival national entities.

The main drawback in Cohen’s narrative strategy, however, is that it forces him to write the colonial state apparatus out of the story. That is in spite of the fact that it is the colonial archive, after all, that allowed him to reconstruct the events more accurately and to move beyond the partisan, zero-sum narratives of Israelis and Palestinians. To be fair, Cohen does mention that bullets fired by the British armed forces felled most of the Arabs who died in August 1929, and that perpetrators from both sides were judged by British judges and defended by British attorneys. He also scrutinizes the perceptions, language and underlying assumptions of the British colonial sources. Nevertheless, the crux of Cohen’s argument relies on a bottom-up view of the conflict, shifting the story away from the echelon of diplomats, governors and nationalist leaders to the everyday interaction of ordinary people. He shows that outbursts of violence are understood poorly if regarded solely as the result of intervention or manipulation from above. However, one does not need to subscribe to rigid top-down explanations to acknowledge the ways in which the state’s bureaucracy, its legal mechanisms, and selective policing techniques create an incubator for communal strife. The British mandatory system in Palestine offers a fascinating, ultimately tragic example in that respect. It had developed a policy driven by a desire to maintain a delicate balance between members of all three Abrahamic religions, and by a vision of Palestinian society as divided along communal lines. To a large extent, this was the rationale behind the creation of a separate Muslim-run institution, the Supreme Muslim Council, invented in an attempt to recreate the supposed communal structure of the Ottoman millet system. This institutional innovation gave enormous powers to the mufti of Jerusalem — yet another British creation — Hajj Amin al-Husayni and, ultimately, triggered the process by which the Christian-Palestinian power transferred oversight over Islamic affairs to the local Muslim community. These innovations and inventions also originated in violence, a product of the riots at the Nabi Musa festival in 1920, nine years before Cohen’s story begins. Understanding these British creations provide a crucial religious and institutional backdrop against which that the subsequent struggle between the Supreme Muslim Council and Zionists over the Western Wall from 1928-29 emerged.

Writing the British Empire back into the narrative is crucial for yet another reason, seen most clearly in the conclusion of Moderchai Makleff’s story. The callous massacre of his family stood, no doubt, behind his strong belief in the need for Jews to protect themselves. But he did not need to wait until 1948 to put this principle into practice. Nor did this self-reliance preclude cooperation with the British. A decade prior to 1948, Makleff — then fresh out of high-school — joined the Special Night Squads, a special operations counterinsurgency force led by Orde Wingate that the British created in cooperation with the Yishuv in order to fight Arab terrorists during the 1936-39 revolt. Targeted assassinations, as well as the use of force upon entry into villages suspected of harboring rebel fighters (including indiscriminate shooting), were part and parcel in this “dirty war.” Two years later, in 1940, Makleff joined the British army. He became an officer, seeing action in Northern Africa and in Italy, and ended the war with the rank of Major. During the 1948 war he served as a senior operation officer in the Carmeli Brigade, playing a major role in operation Bi’ur Hametz (“Passover Cleaning”) during which Haifa’s Arab neighborhoods were conquered. When he became the IDF’s third Chief of Staff four years later, in 1952, Makleff returned to the behind-enemy-lines deep-penetration and surprise attack methods he had learned from the British in the Galilee during his service in the Special Night Squads, employed this time against the Palestinian fedayeen crossing the border into Israel from Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. The permission given to Unit 101, an elite commando unit established in 1953 by a young Captain named Ariel Sharon, to employ unconventional warfare methods, including raids and ambushes against civilian targets, drew on this colonial legacy. Paying homage to Orde Wingate, the unit was given the same name Wingate gave to the task force he commanded during WWII that relied on irregular Ethiopian forces fighting Mussolini’s troops in Abyssinia. A devout Christian, Wingate fondly called his unit “The Gideon Force.”

So was the earthquake of 1929 the singular event from which the Arab-Israeli conflict emerged? One can expect that two years from now, when the centenary of the British conquest of Palestine and the Balfour Declaration will be marked, a flood of new studies will probably shift Cohen’s periodization backwards, returning us to 1917 as the epochal date, as Jonathan Schneer did not so long ago. Ultimately, inscribing a date of birth for a fraught, complicated conflict like the Israeli-Arab conflict is bound to oversimplify. Nor will confirming a birth date help us solve the basic moral dilemma with which Cohen concludes his account. Jews, as a persecuted people whose property and lives were in constant danger, had a right to take refuge in the Land of Israel; but this right did not strip the Arabs of their own rights in Palestine. A moral tragedy, ultimately, is the clash of right and right. Moral bankruptcy is the justification of murderous violence against civilians in the name of such rights.