Jaffa Gate.
Inside Jaffa Gate, 1929. Photo by U.S. Library of Congress
Text size

Historian Shelomo Dov Goitein is considered the preeminent scholar of the Cairo Genizah. He was born in Germany, went on to become one of Hebrew University's first scholars of Islam, and eventually settled at Princeton University.

In July 1929, Goitein got married in Jerusalem and went on a honeymoon, which brought him to Berlin. When he arrived, letters from Israel awaited him. His acquaintances, mostly scholarly yekkes like himself, told him that the country had been swept by a wave of violence that climaxed with the massacre of Hebron's Jewish community.

Goitein died 26 years ago; his children, Eilon Goitein and Ayala Gordon, kept his personal papers. The siblings recently began sorting through their father's estate and came across the letters from 1929.

The letters, in German and Hebrew, were written by Goitein's acquaintances in Jerusalem mainly to put his mind at ease. "We are alive and well and inform you that the disaster passed us by," wrote Gershom Scholem, the scholar of Jewish mysticism, who was working at the university library at the time.

Likewise, Islam scholar David H. (Zvi ) Baneth wrote: "There is no doubt that aside from the horrors that occurred, the situation in the country in general and in the settlements in particular is depicted more harshly abroad." He mentioned several exaggerated rumors: No, Joseph Klausner's home had not burnt down completely, and his library and that of S.Y. Agnon were almost wholly preserved.

"Among the dead there are none of our mutual acquaintances except for [the Jerusalem attorney and Bible scholar] Harold Wiener. He of all people, the Arab lover who was rumored to have spent large sums of money on educating the Arabs," Baneth wrote.

Teachers college director Ben-Zion Dinaburg, who later became Education Minister Dinur, recounted that the Arabs who attacked Jews in Jerusalem operated like military units. He got a good look at them; at least 13 of them were carrying rifles. Baneth disputed this: "Evidently the Arabs have very poor organization and no strategic leadership," he wrote. He also described the murderous exploits of Jews: "Nearly every Arab seen in the Jewish neighborhood or on Jaffa Road from the post office westward - that man was a dead man ... When I heard about such murders by Jews on the first Shabbat of the riots, I began fearing that we were in danger too, because if Jews are doing this, Arabs certainly will too and how will they not exact their vengeance?"

Scholem and Baneth tried to prevent a gang of rioters from Mea She'arim from burning down an Arab lawyer's house, but "all the vigor" on their part was to no avail, Baneth recounted. Toward the end of his letter, Baneth's tone became soothing again: "Now there is no longer any fear of coming to the country, unless one contemplates the future and despairs of building the land." Many were forced to vacate their apartments; Baneth was staying at Scholem's home.

Baneth and Scholem were among the supporters of Brit Shalom, a movement founded in the 1920s that called for resolving the dispute over the Land of Israel by establishing a joint "binational" state for Jews and Arabs. The violence only strengthened their resolve: "We are at home all the time and [the educator] Ernst Simon and I are preoccupied with the Arab question," Scholem wrote to Goitein. "We are for negotiations straight away!! ... We hope that the Jews (who have lost their minds ) will soon let go of the boycott, which horrifies us more than it does them. But for the moment the nerves rule and not the brain."

Baneth wrote: "One cannot imagine what form the shared lives of the two peoples will take in the future unless Zionist politics changes absolutely."

But the 1929 letters that Goitein's children's found, some of which have been published in the Ben-Zvi Institute's bimonthly journal Et-Mol, also reflected the political dispute over the conflict's future. A man called Abba Shmueli from Jaffa, whose identity is still unclear, described the Arab rioters as "partners of Brit Shalom," and wrote to Goitein: "How do you hold out a hand to the man who tortured my sister, a daughter of Israel, in front of her husband and then killed both of them and their baby boy? What peace? You say peace and there is no peace. There is only one means, political-economic: To work vigorously and bring hundreds of thousands of Jews into our country within a short time. If we are half a million here, then Brit Shalom's partners will have no choice but to hold their tongue."

To put a stop to religious fanaticism in the country, Shmueli recommended destroying both mosques and synagogues.