Revisiting the Chevron Massacre

Last Wednesday, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s bodyguards were working overtime.

The prime minister was visiting the city of Chevron for a government-sponsored event. It was the first time in 20 years that Netanyahu had set foot in the city, and for good reason. The officials responsible for his security were doubly concerned about allowing him to venture into a place where he could be threatened by bloodthirsty Palestinians or by Jewish extremists. Their fear of Palestinian violence was understandable, since Netanyahu is always a prime target, but there was another element at play in this case: The Palestinians were outraged by the mere fact that he dared visit Chevron.

This fury was not exclusive to the more militant Palestinians; those considered moderate were also piqued by Netanyahu’s presence. Even Abu Mazen protested against it. Nabil Abu Rudeineh, the official spokesman of the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, asserted that Netanyahu’s visit to Chevron was a dangerous escalation and an affront to Muslim sensitivities, describing the ceremony on Wednesday as “a continuation of the attacks on the places that are holy to Islam and Christianity in Yerushalayim and in Chevron.”

Abu Rudeineh went on to declare, “We are warning you about the dangerous ramifications of this intrusion, which was carried out by Netanyahu to attract votes from the extremist Israeli right, and which was prepared as part of the plans to conquer and Judaize the ancient city of Chevron, including the Cave of Machpelah,” and appealed to the world for support in the face of the Israeli “occupation.”

The official ceremony held in Chevron marked the 90th anniversary of the massacre of 1929, a murderous rampage with few parallels in history, in which the Arabs butchered the members of the Jewish community of Chevron and the talmidim of the Chevron yeshiva. Sixty-seven Jews were killed al kiddush Hashem in that dreadful pogrom. The memorial ceremony was attended by many dignitaries, including the prime minister. President Rivlin was also originally scheduled to attend, but he withdrew from the event when he concluded that it was merely a political show. Like many others, Rivlin realized that the ceremony would not have taken place without the specter of the election around the corner. If not for the upcoming election, even Netanyahu himself would not have visited Chevron.

Netanyahu Praises the Arabs

But the Palestinians were mistaken in their assessment. Netanyahu did not make any concrete promises during his historic appearance in Chevron. And that is not to say that there weren’t high expectations in advance of his visit. Two major issues are on the table in Chevron: the refurbishment of Me’oras Hamachpeilah and Jewish construction in the city. The prime minister was expected to address both issues, but did not say a word about either. His comments were limited to the obvious and predictable: “We have come here to give expression to our victory. Ninety years ago, a terrible slaughter was carried out by bloodthirsty rioters. They were certain that they would be uprooting us from this place forever, but they were sorely mistaken.” Netanyahu even sought to curry favor with the Arabs. “We must give praise to the minority of people among the Arab populace who tried to protect their Jewish neighbors,” he said. “They risked their lives to act ethically. Sixty-seven Jews were murdered and dozens were wounded. And it was precisely those moments of despair and destruction that gave us strength.”

The Jewish residents of Chevron listening to Netanyahu’s speech were not impressed. They had been hoping to hear good news regarding their own interests, but had no such luck.

Still, Netanyahu had to make a statement of some kind. After all, he is seeking support at the polls from the Jews of Chevron, not from its Palestinian populace. “Beit Hamachpeilah was opened to Jewish residents last week,” he said, “and we are dealing with other important subjects regarding the accessibility of Me’oras Hamachpeilah and the rights to Jewish property. We have not come to displace anyone, but no one will displace us either. We are not strangers in Chevron; we will remain here forever.”

Yuli Edelstein, the Speaker of the Knesset, was much less restrained in his own speech; he’s less concerned about the world’s reaction to his comments. From Edelstein’s remarks, one might have thought that he himself is a resident of Chevron; in fact, he resides in one of the settlements.

“We must impose Israeli sovereignty on Chevron,” he declared. “Ninety years after 1929, we must declare openly that the time for Chevron has come. The time has come for Chevron to be under Israeli sovereignty! The time has come for the Jewish settlement in Chevron to grow to include many more thousands of people. The time has come for a visit to Meoras Hamachpeilah to become the easiest thing, the most comfortable thing, and the most natural thing for anyone in the country to do. The time has come for Chevron to be a major city in Israel, as it deserves to be, as the victims of the 1929 massacre deserve, and as we all deserve.”

Naturally, Edelstein’s remarks drew a loud ovation from his audience. He continued, “This official ceremony in Chevron is a step toward Israeli sovereignty. The redemption of Jewish homes in Chevron is another important step. But we must do more. We must act with determination, with pride, and with the sense of connection that stems from our eternal bond with this place. We must do everything possible so that the next ceremony, which will be held to mark the hundredth anniversary of the riots of 1929, will take place on sovereign land belonging to the State of Israel, because the time has come. Right now, this area is under the control of the Waqf, the Arab municipality of Chevron, and the Palestinian Authority. The Jews are no more than guests in Chevron!”

High Expectations

What did the Jewish residents of Chevron, along with everyone else passionate about Me’oras Hamachpeilah, expect from the prime minister? There were two things: a permit to build Jewish homes in the wholesale market in Chevron and construction to increase the accessibility of Me’oras Hamachpeilah. Both of these are being prevented by the local Palestinian government. Two days before the prime minister’s visit, I was contacted by Shai Glick, a resident of Chevron and director of an organization called B’Tzalmo, who asked me to contact the prime minister in my capacity as a journalist and to ask if he planned to address those issues during his speech. Glick has been working for years to improve the state of affairs at Me’oras Hamachpeilah. (I interviewed him on the subject in November 2018.)

Passions were running high in advance of the prime minister’s arrival in Chevron. Orit Struk, a resident of the city who is a prominent activist and former member of the Knesset (and likely to return to her Knesset seat after the next election) was fiercely critical of Netanyahu for his silence. “The leader of the right-wing camp should approve both of these things immediately,” she declared.

At the cabinet session that Sunday (10 days ago), the new Minister of Education, Rafi Peretz, approached Netanyahu and whispered, “You are going to be in Chevron tomorrow, and you need to come with good news—either that Me’oras Hamachpeilah will be made accessible to visitors or that the wholesale market will be settled.” In response, Netanyahu asked Peretz to determine which of the two would be more important and to relay his findings. Struk and her associates, meanwhile, took umbrage at the implication that it was acceptable to settle for one of the two.

The Jewish community of Chevron responded with a vehement statement: “The Jewish-owned land occupied by the wholesale market has been waiting for 90 years. Out of that time, nine months [since the attorney general approved the construction of Jewish homes there] have been completely unnecessary. There is no justification for a delay of even one more day, certainly not for accessibility…. It is simply a disgrace! And no, we are not waiting for more statements. We are interested only in actions.”

Characteristically, Netanyahu did not take action on either subject. All he did was declare that the permit for construction at Me’oras Hamachpeilah would be approved.

Betzalel Smotrich also weighed in. “We must be clear about this,” he said. “The approval of the construction of a Jewish neighborhood in the wholesale market is much more important and significant for the settlement in Chevron. Netanyahu must issue approval for it…. It isn’t enough for him to have his picture taken with the local authorities in Yehuda and Shomron before the election. The homes must actually be built. Netanyahu cannot be allowed to choose the easy and trivial alternative of improving accessibility to Me’oras Hamachpeilah in place of building Jewish homes in the market.”

Before Netanyahu’s visit, nine right-wing members of the Knesset called upon him to return the land on which the market was built to its rightful Jewish owners. The market is situated on property stolen from Jews during the 1929 massacre, when the Jewish neighborhood in the city was destroyed. Nine months ago, the attorney general confirmed that the land is considered Jewish-owned property. But nothing changed Netanyahu’s determination to refrain from making any promises. The Palestinians, with their shrill protests about an Israeli “conquest,” had anticipated more than the prime minister was willing to do.

“After Ten Minutes, There Was Silence”

There is no need to describe the horrific slaughter in detail. Even 90 years later, we are all still living in the shadow of the 1929 massacre, just as we live in the shadow of the Holocaust, the Inquisition, and all other persecutions of the Jewish people throughout the generations. But here is a basic overview of its events.

The massacre took place on a Shabbos, in the month of Menachem Av 5789/August 1929. At the time, there were 800 Jews living in Chevron, including the talmidim of the Chevron yeshiva, who had come to Eretz Yisroel from the Slabodka yeshiva in Kovno. After the British conquest of Israel and the increase in Jewish immigration, tensions had begun to develop between the Jews and the Arabs in Chevron. There were daily incidents of Arab harassment of Jews, including verbal abuse, physical assaults, and the throwing of stones at the windows of Jewish homes. The Jews were also barred from davening at Me’oras Hamachpeilah.

In August 1929, Arabs throughout the country began attacking Jews, including in the city of Chevron. The police commissioner in Chevron at the time of the massacre was a Briton who had arrived in the city three weeks earlier. His entire police force consisted of 18 mounted policemen and another 15 officers patrolling the city on foot. There were warning signs of the impending violence, but the British commander did not have the necessary experience to prevent it—nor, perhaps, did he have the will to do so.

On the morning before the Shabbos of the pogrom, Rav Meir Chodosh, the mashgiach of Chevron, became aware of the planned slaughter when his wife overheard a group of Arabs planning the attack. He warned Reb Eliezer Don Slonim, the foremost askan in the community, about what he had heard. Slonim proceeded to speak with his Arab friends, who promised him that no harm would befall the Jews of Chevron. Of course, that promise was not fulfilled, and the violence began on Friday evening. At 4:00 p.m., the Arabs began throwing stones at the Chevron yeshiva, marking the beginning of the pogrom. On Shabbos morning, an armed Palestinian mob descended upon the Jewish community in Chevron.

It did not take long for hundreds of Arabs armed with knives, axes, and clubs to begin attacking Jewish homes. They first targeted the Abushadid home, killing Eliyahu Abushadid and stabbing three other men to death. The women and children in the home were also stabbed and seriously wounded. Next, they broke into the home of Chacham Yosef Kastal, where they murdered the rov and set the house on fire. Rav Chanoch Chason, the rov of the Sephardic community, was killed along with his wife. The local pharmacist, Benzion Gershon, who had provided his services to many Arabs, was tortured to death along with his wife and daughter.

Many of the Jews sought refuge in the home of Eliezer Don Slonim. Slonim, who was armed, did not shoot at the rioters. Instead, he called out to them in an effort to calm them. An eyewitness related, “We all ran to reinforce the door, and raced around the house like crazy people…. The screams of women and the cries of babies filled the air…. We piled up tables and crates … but when we saw that the rioters had broken the door down with axes … we began running from room to room, but wherever we went, we were pelted with stones….

“When I entered one of the rooms, I saw my mother standing next to a window and screaming for help. I looked through the window and saw a wild Arab mob laughing and throwing stones…. I grabbed my mother and hauled her behind a bookcase…. I also placed another girl there, along with a 12-year-old boy and a bochur from the yeshiva, and then I hid there myself…. Choked with fear, we sat huddled together and listened as the Arabs rampaged through the room, hearing the sounds of their singing mingled with the cries and moans of their victims. Ten minutes later, there was silence…. We heard some loud gunshots, presumably from the police.”

Murder and Mayhem

On that horrific Shabbos, Chevron was transformed into a killing field. Until it happened, no one would ever have believed that such a terrible pogrom could take place in Eretz Yisroel, where the British police preserved the order. The uninjured residents of Chevron, who numbered about 500, gathered in the police station and sat there mourning and weeping until Monday, when they were evacuated to Yerushalayim along with the wounded. The injured victims were hospitalized in Yerushalayim, and seven of them subsequently passed away.

The massacre was a massive collective trauma. The entire Jewish nation mourned its murdered children. The front page of Do’ar HaYom, an Israeli newspaper published at the time, was dedicated to the massacre. The story was printed in the form of a mourning notice, bearing the title, “Let the Jewish People Remember Its Martyrs and Heroes, Whose Blood Has Soaked the Soil of Their Homeland.”

Another eyewitness account was later published. I will quote a few lines of this chilling account: “The murderers attacked the Kapiluto-Borland home. They surrounded the house, and hordes of rioters came from the mountaintops and broke down the back door of the Borland home. At the same moment, the front door was also broken down. The yeshiva bochur Avrohom Dov Shapira tried to fight back with a knife, until he was murdered. The young iluy Tzvi Heller was beaten with clubs with murderous cruelty. He screamed to them, ‘I am just a child; why are you killing me?’ But the murderers became even more vicious and stabbed him fiercely. He died of his wounds in Yerushalayim.

“The bochur Moshe Aharon Rips asked his murderers for a few minutes to recite Viduy; he was felled by their axes and clubs while he was in the middle of davening. Shmuel Eizik Bernstein and Yissachar Eliyahu Sanderov, two other bochurim from the yeshiva, were also murdered there. The former died of his wounds while he was being taken to the hospital, and the second, whose mouth was split in two and whose head had been viciously bashed, died after convulsing for a full day. As he was in his death throes, he whispered, ‘I am the third korban in my family. My brother and sister were killed during the war by air raids….’”

The witness to the massacre continues, “Two yeshiva bochurim who were in the Borland home were miraculously saved. They threw themselves into the pools of the victims’ blood on the floor and the Arabs thought that they were dead…. Upstairs, Eliyahu Kapiluto was severely wounded. And then the door to the Kizelstein home was opened, and an American yeshiva bochur, Zev Greenberg, who tried to fight his murderers, was taken outside and brutally killed. The entire family hid in the darkened kitchen. The murderers burst into the room and attacked them with hammers, clubs, and knives, beating and stabbing them mercilessly….”

I will end the description there. Ninety years later, the people of Israel continue to bleed. The Arabs have not let up in their efforts to murder us, although the events of 1929 have never been repeated.

Twenty-Four Yeshiva Bochurim Killed!

There is good reason that this horrific episode has been etched into the collective national memory of the Jewish people. There have not been many cases in which such horrific cruelty was demonstrated. We know that Yishmael is a murderer by nature, and our seforim teach us that cruelty is an innate component of his personality, but still…. The evil that those Arab murderers demonstrated was even worse than that of vicious beasts.

The Arab murderers did not even take pity on people whom they knew personally, even those who had been kind to them in the past. Even Jews who had shared their own food with these same Arabs were viciously beaten and murdered. There is no possible way to account for such inhuman brutality.

The rioters crushed Eliezer Don Slonim’s head with a metal bar and then tortured and killed the other Jews in his house. In addition to Slonim’s wife and son, they also killed his father-in-law Rav Orlansky, the rov of Zichron Yaakov, and his wife. The only surviving member of the family was Slonim’s young son, one-year-old Shlomo, who lay on the floor beneath the bodies of his family members. Screams of terror filled the streets, as Jewish blood flowed freely in Chevron. The baker Noach Immerman was burned to death when the murderers forced him into his own oven.

The stories of the atrocities committed during this pogrom could fill volumes. Indeed, books have been written about it. Just to sum up the numbers: There were 67 fatalities, including women and small children. Twenty-four of the murdered Jews were talmidim in the Chevron yeshiva. Forty-four other Jews were seriously wounded and 21 were lightly wounded, while 263 Jews were saved by their Arab neighbors. The funerals for the murdered Jews were held on motzoei Shabbos, on the instructions of the British authorities. The victims were buried in the old cemetery in Chevron, along with severed limbs and clothing or other items that were soaked with blood. May Hashem avenge their deaths!

The British government tried to prevent anyone from taking pictures, but some images were captured on film anyway. Twenty years ago, a series of pictures that had been taken immediately after the slaughter were released for the first time. Those images attest to the horrors of those events—some of the sights are impossible to bear. Unfathomable pain radiates from the eyes of the wounded victims. We are including only a couple of pictures along with this article, to preserve the memory of those horrific events.

Only five Jews were permitted to attend each levayah. The British also took the opportunity to eliminate the Jewish community in Chevron; the survivors were forced to relocate to Yerushalayim. The homes and property of the Jews of Chevron were stolen by the Arab rioters. The Avrohom Avinu shul and the old Jewish cemetery were both desecrated, and the Chevron yeshiva relocated to Yerushalayim. It was only after the Six Day War that Jews moved back to Chevron.