As Israelis and Palestinians struggle with a 21st-century peace process, the world must face the forgotten history that was so pivotal in determining the present crisis. In many ways, a turning point was the day Arabs massacred Jews because they dared to sit at the Western Wall while praying. This simple act of prayer was so unacceptable to Arabs that it helped launch a worldwide crisis of hate that provoked a global Islamic jihad, forged an Arab-Nazi alliance during the Holocaust and still echoes to this day.
The year was 1929. Jewish Palestine was still being settled by torrents of Eastern European refugees.
The League of Nations Mandate for Palestine included the provision for a Jewish homeland. The Balfour Declaration, widely endorsed by many nations, was a matter of international law. But the Arabs in Palestine refused to coexist with Jews in any way except as second-class dhimmis (non- Muslim subjects of a Shari'a law state).
Islam had been at war with the Jewish people since its defining inception in 627 when Muhammad exterminated the Jews of Medina and launched the Islamic conquest that swept north and subsumed Syria-Palestina.
For centuries, Jews and Christians in Arab lands were allowed to exist as dhimmis, second-class citizens with limited religious rights. These restrictions were enforced by the Turks who, until World War I, ruled the geographically undetermined region known as Palestine, which included Jerusalem.
When the Ottoman Empire fell, after World War I ended in 1918, the British were obligated by the Mandate to maintain the Turkish status quo at the Western Wall. That status quo, according to numerous decrees under Shari'a, maintained that Jews could pray at the Wall — the last remnant of the Temple — only quietly and never sit, even in the heat. Nor were Jews allowed to separate men from women during prayer.
The Jews revered the Wall as their holiest accessible place and a direct connection to God. But under Turkish and Arab tradition, the Wall was not the Jews' holy site.
Rather, it was revered by Muslims as al-Buraq, the place where Muhammad tethered his winged steed during his miraculous ascent to heaven. During that miraculous journey, according to Islamic tradition, Muhammad flew through the air on his magnificent horse to the farthest mosque. The farthest mosque was in Jerusalem, hence al-Aksa, meaning "the farthest." Therefore, the Western Wall became preeminently a Muslim holy place, only available for Jewish visitation with permission and under strict guidelines that would not connote independent worship or ownership.
In 1928, on Yom Kippur, Jews decided to bring benches and chairs to sit on while they prayed, and they also brought a mehitza, in this case a flimsy portable partition to separate men from women. This provoked outrage among Arabs, and the British even tried to pull chairs out from under people to force them to stand. The offense catapulted Haj Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem, to sudden international Islamic importance, as Muslims everywhere — from India to London — objected to Jews sitting. Husseini even convened an emergency international conference of Muslims in Jerusalem to stop Jews from sitting at the Wall to pray.
The mufti and his machinery also began a nonstop protest movement against the perceived Jewish encroachment on the Wall. As the chief religious authority, it was Husseini who directed that the muezzin, the man who calls Muslims to prayer from the minaret, position himself within earshot of the Western Wall pavement, and then dial the volume up to rile Jews during prayer and prove Islamic dominance.
At the same time, it was Husseini who directed the revival of the cacophonous dhikr ceremony, complete with repetitive shouts of "Allahu akbar," as well as loud gongs and cymbals, once again disrupting Jewish prayers with strategic noise. The mufti also was the one who permitted mules to be herded through the Jewish prayer area, dropping dung and creating the feel and smell of what one Jerusalem newspaper termed "a latrine."
On Aug. 15, 1929, when Jews again marked Tisha Be'av by sitting, as well as chanting "The Wall is ours," the Arabs began yet another in a series of bloody massacres.
The massacres in several cities culminated in unspeakable atrocities at Hebron.
It began in Jerusalem. "Itbach al-Yahood! Itbach al- Yahood!" Slaughter the Jews. Slaughter the Jews. With knives and clubs, the mob attacked every Jew in sight, burned Torah scrolls and yanked supplication notes to God from the cracks in the Wall and set them aflame.
Attacks spread throughout the land. Jews were stabbed, shot, beaten with rocks, maimed and killed in various towns and suburbs. The chaos continued for days. With thousands of dagger- and club-wielding Arabs swarming throughout the city hunting Jews, wire services transmitted headlines such as "Thousands of peasants invaded Jerusalem and raided all parts of the city."
Martial law was declared. Armored cars were brought in from Baghdad. British airplanes swept in to machine-gun the Arab marauders. Violence continued to spread throughout Palestine. Jews fought back and retaliated with bricks and bars and whatever they could find. Then, on Aug. 23 and 24, 1929, Hebron became a bloody nightmare.
Arab mobs went from house to house, bursting into every room looking for hiding Jews. Religious books and scrolls were burned or torn to shreds.
The defenseless Jews were variously beheaded, castrated, their breasts and fingers sliced off and, in some cases, their eyes plucked from their sockets.
Infant or adult, man or woman — it mattered not.
The carnage went on for hours, with the Arab policemen standing down — or joining in. Blood ran in streamlets down the narrow stone staircases outside the buildings. House to house, room by room, the savagery was repeated.
One young boy, Yosef Lazarovski, later wrote of the horror: "I remember a brown-skinned Arab with a large mustache breaking through the door. He had a large knife and an axe that he swung through the doorjambs until he broke through. [He was] full of fury, screaming, 'Allah akbar!' and 'Itbach al-Yahood!'…
My grandfather tried to hold my hand, then [he tried] to push me aside [and hide me], screaming, Shema Yisrael… and then I remember another Arab… with an axe that he brought down on my grandfather's neck."
Not a single victim was simply killed. Each was mutilated and tortured in accordance with their identities, the specific information provided by local Arabs. The Jewish man who lent money to Arabs was sliced open and the IOUs burned in his body. The Jewish baker's head was tied to the stove and then baked. A Jewish scholar who had studied Koranic philosophy for years was seized, his cranium cut open and his brain extracted. Another man was nailed to a door. Some 67 Jews were brutally murdered.
London dispatched special investigative commissions which determined that under the Shari'a status quo, Jews were not permitted to sit. Jews were even blamed for provoking the massacres by deliberately sitting.
The mufti used the Wall controversy to continue his campaign against the British and the Jews. As part of that war, he led a broadly accepted, international and popularly accepted Arab and Islamic alliance with Nazi Germany. Eventually, when the British tried to arrest him, he fled to Iraq. There, the mufti and Nazi agents helped inspire the 1941 Farhud, a two-day spree of killing, looting and raping the Jews of Baghdad.
Once the British finally helped restore order, the mufti fled again, this time to Germany, where he was taken under the personal auspices of Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler. He formed a 8,000-man plus Muslim Waffen-SS division, which partnered with the bloodthirsty Ustasha in Croatia to commit the most heinous crimes in the hell that was the Holocaust. The Ustasha wore Jewish eyeballs on necklaces.
The alliance with the Nazis spanned every aspect of the war, from intelligence offices in Paris to plans, to parachute units, to artillery battalions, to a plan to exterminate all Jews in Palestine. This alliance was more than one man, the mufti of Jerusalem — it was a movement of popular international Islamic fervor that stretched across the Middle East and Europe.
After the fall of Hitler, the legacy of hate continued in the postwar expulsions of a million Jews from Arab lands.
Periodically, the fervor that ignited the massacres of 1929 surfaces even today. Intifadas arise, riots erupt and the Arab rallying call, spoken and collectively remembered, continues to be in Jerusalem — where Jews should not be permitted to sit at the Western Wall when they pray.
Edwin Black is the author of IBM and the Holocaust. This article is drawn from his recently released book, The Farhud, Roots of the Arab-Nazi Alliance During the Holocaust (Dialog 2010).