Remembering the 1920 Passover Pogrom in Israel
On November 2, 1917, the British issued the Balfour Declaration, which supported the idea of Jewish statehood in “Palestine.”
Just two years later, local British administrators challenged that policy. Measures were adopted opposing Jewish statehood, such as the prohibition on publishing the Hatikvah anthem, as well as prohibiting Jews from owning firearms, which were needed for defense. In April of that year, Jerusalem was placed out of bounds to all Jewish soldiers during the holiday of Passover.
These gestures against the Zionists no doubt encouraged violence against them. And during the Passover holiday on April 4, 1920, local Arabs were primed for confrontation in Jerusalem.
It was also the Muslim holiday of Nebi Mussa, and thousands had gathered near the Jaffa Gate, brandishing weapons. Araf el-Aref, the editor of the Arab nationalist newspaper Al-Surria al-Janubiyya whipped up the crowd. The crowd responded that they would “drink the blood of the Jews.” One local Arab leader, Musa Kazim Husseini, shouted that, “The Jews are our dogs,” adding, “The Muslim religion was born with the sword.”
A riot soon began, as the mobs entered the Old City and set upon the terrified Jewish community. For the most part, the British stood idly by. When they did respond and made arrests, the Arabs were quickly released. When members of the recently disbanded Jewish Legion attempted to intervene, they were arrested. Following almost three days of mayhem, five Jews were murdered, and 211 were wounded, some critically.
The authorities did arrest one of the instigators, Amin Al-Husseini, but he managed to escape to Syria. Otherwise, British policy in the immediate aftermath of the pogrom showed little change. They rejected the Jews’ demands to dismiss the Arab police officers who participated in the riot. The British even interfered with the burial of the Jewish victims.
The British also arrested twenty members of the group of Jewish defenders, including their leader Zev Jabotinsky. Jabotinsky was tried on the trumped up charges of “banditism, instigating against the people of the Ottoman Empire,” and received a fifteen year sentence. All of the sentences were later dropped due to an international outcry.
The Jews as a whole accused the British of complicity in the pogrom, which they believed was partly motivated by antisemitism. One member of the Jewish Legion, Leon Chafetz, wrote, “The Jewish soldiers were not permitted to defend the lives of their brethren in the Holy City, This edict came from an administration which contained individuals who were outspokenly anti-Semitic, who did not believe in the Balfour Declaration.”
It is reasonable to presume by their coordinated lack of response that the British also had prior knowledge of the planned violence. Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann and one British administrator maintained that members of the British administration incited the violence by actually encouraging the rioters. It was the beginning of a long journey to come for the Jews of Israel.