How the 1929 Arab Massacres of Jews Shaped a Generation of Israeli Leaders

More than 130 Jews were killed in Jerusalem, Hebron and elsewhere. Children would write about their experiences, and Haaretz noted that ‘we know that the whole of the Arab nation in this land wasn’t responsible’

Safed Jews at a funeral after the massacres of 1929.
Central Zionist Archives

“At noon we heard terrifying shouts, and there were Arabs leaping out of their houses like wild animals, their faces set on slaughter.” This is how Mordechai Makleff, who later became the army’s chief of staff, described the massacre in which his father and mother, one brother and two of his sisters were killed by Arabs who invaded their home in Motza near Jerusalem.

This incident, which took place on August 24, 1929, was one of the most serious of that year’s Arab attacks, whose 90th anniversary falls this weekend.

Makleff, then a 9-year-old boy, put his memories on paper four years later in an essay for his school in Jerusalem. The piece was recently discovered in the Jerusalem municipal archives, 40 years after the author’s premature death.

“Makleff’s essay reveals the feelings of fear, sleeplessness, panic, cruelty and suffering that accompanied this traumatic event, and also the heavy personal price he paid,” said Zehavit Schenkolewski, a historian who teaches in the Criminology Department at Ashkelon Academic College. She discovered Makleff’s essay while researching children’s writings about those traumatic events.

The essay opens on an optimistic note. “I spent my youth in the village of Motza. There I was born, and there I found my ease. I loved to plow the dry land of Israel. I planted crops, reaped, picked grapes. That life was very pleasant for me,” Makleff wrote.

“I especially loved to walk with my parents under the olive tree with its many branches, which spread its shade great distances. We would talk there, and I would feel as if the olives blown off by the wind were telling me to take them, so I’d bring them home. I liked to walk with my dog, to hike through the hills. Toward evening was the best time ... all the children would gather and talk about the Land of Israel and its development.”

But this peaceful life was cut short. On August 23, 1929, Arabs leaving mosques at the end of Friday prayers began attacking Jews in the Old City of Jerusalem. The riots stemmed in part from a dispute over Jewish prayer at the Western Wall.

Mordechai Makleff, the third chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.
Hugo Mendelson / GPO

Makleff and his family were aware of the approaching danger, but his father chose to stay home rather than flee.

“Then, one Friday evening, the local residents learned that Arabs from the surrounding area were carrying out an onslaught that night,” Makleff wrote. “Night soon arrived. I couldn’t sleep, but divine providence protected our lives, and that night passed quietly.”

But the next day – Saturday August 24, the second day of the riots – Arabs from the village of Qalunya, on whose land Motza had been built, attacked Motza’s homes, including that of the Makleff family, which lay on the community’s outskirts. “A cruel hand seized my late father, who was devoted to me and our homeland,” Makleff wrote.

Nor did the attackers spare his mother. “She was stabbed many times, until she died in great agony,” he wrote. “Thus were my two sisters and my brother slain, while I remained alone, orphaned of both mother and father.”

In addition to his parents, Arieh and Haya, and his siblings, Moshe, Mina and Rivka, rabbis who had been staying at their home were also killed. But Mordechai survived because he managed to jump from the second story. His brother Haim and his sister Hanna also survived.

That day, 66 Jews were killed by Arabs in Hebron. By the end of the week, 133 Jews had been killed and hundreds wounded in riots in Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Hebron, Motza and Safed.

Hillel Cohen, in his English-language book “Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1929,” wrote that the vast majority of the Jews were unarmed people killed in their homes by Arab assailants. In contrast, most of the 116 Arabs who died were killed while attacking Jewish communities, either by British forces or by the Haganah, the main pre-state militia.

A 1933 essay on the 1929 Arab riots by the eighth-grader Mordechai Makleff, who later became the Israeli army's third chief of staff.
Jerusalem municipal archives

The Arab riots of 1929 were a formative event in the Zionist consciousness and influenced the generation of officers who led the War of Independence in 1948. But for Makleff, they were also the formative event of his childhood.

Later, as a teen, he was active in the Haganah, and when he was old enough, he joined Orde Wingate’s Special Night Squads, which fought the Arabs during the upheavals of 1936 to 1939. During World War II, he joined the British Army and fought the Germans, some of that stint as part of the Jewish Brigade.

During the War of Independence, Makleff commanded the Carmeli Brigade, which took part in the fighting in northern Israel. And in 1952, when he was just 32, the boy saved from a massacre became the third chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.

Wise children

Makleff’s family didn’t know about the essay Schenkolewski found in the archives. “For our children, this was the first time they’d heard about those events in the first person,” said his grandson, Ron Makleff.

He said the essay helped him separate the story’s political aspect from its personal one. “There’s a tendency to think of 1929 in the political terms of Zionism and colonialism and the roots of the conflict,” he said. “That’s true, but the personal dimension of this story has gotten rather lost. Because of that, I found the essay he wrote at the end of the eighth grade very moving and important.”

Schenkolewski said she shares the view of many scholars worldwide that “children should be recognized as individuals with understanding and the ability to make judgments and make their voices heard.” This is why she focused her current research on essays by children describing their experiences during the events of 1929.

“Often, adults’ viewpoints stem from interests, certainly in a mobilized society like that of the Yishuv during the Mandate,” she said, referring to the pre-state Jewish community under the British Mandate. “But children’s viewpoints, which are more innocent, paint a portrait of reality that’s closer to the historical truth.”

Haaretz’s archives contain another essay about the same incident, written by Makleff’s brother Haim. That piece provides additional details about what happened.

“Suddenly, I heard screams from our house, and I ran there, but before I arrived, I saw groups of Arabs approaching the house and throwing stones,” he wrote. “My brother Moshe went out to ask them what they wanted. They shot him and killed him on the spot. My sister Rivka, who was standing on the balcony, was also killed by gunfire.

“My father and mother went out to see where my brother Moshe was. My father was killed by gunfire on the spot, and my mother was stabbed. I tried to get into the house. The Arabs continued throwing stones. All the Arabs burst into the house; that’s where they killed my sister Mina, 24, by shooting .... Afterward the house was burgled, and the loot was taken to the Arab village.”

Later, Haim returned to the house to try to treat the wounded, “but I didn’t find a single living soul except my mother, who was lying on the ground, seriously wounded.” She died of her injuries.

“About two hours after the murder, the Arabs came and burned down the houses .... We tried to get the dead bodies out of the burning house, but they shot at us from the village.”

Jewish funerals after the massacres of 1929.
Jewish National Fund

Days of bloodshed

Haaretz used harsh words to describe the riots. Under the banner headline “Days of bloodshed in the land,” the paper wrote, “The holy blood of our brothers and sisters, who were tortured and massacred, still boils on every wall and pillar of the cities and farming communities of our land, which were abandoned to murder and looting. The sighs of the widows and orphans still shake the air of our land. The smoke of the fires still towers, rising from our destroyed farms and our burned homes.

“Our stolen property, soaked with the sweat of our brows and honest human labor, our animals, our produce and our tools, are still in the unclean hands of the thieves and oppressors. Thousands of refugees from the towns and villages of Judea are still wandering around in their nakedness, devoid of everything, in hunger and thirst, everywhere we turn.”

In other children’s essays that were published in student newspapers of the time, Schenkolewski found evidence of the tense atmosphere that preceded the riots. As far back as 1926, one student at Jerusalem’s Tachkemoni School – the same one Makleff attended – described an experience that occurred when he and his father visited the Western Wall.

“We were still praying when a stone was thrown and hit me in the leg,” he wrote. “After that stone, many other stones were thrown. I saw that in a remote corner, a few Arabs were standing and throwing stones at our brothers, who were praying. Warm tears flowed from my eyes at the sight of this terrible act.”

In another essay, Yitzhak Mizrahi of Jerusalem’s Bucharim neighborhood described how his dog was shot dead in the courtyard of his home on August 19, 1929. “Suddenly we heard the sound of shot after shot,” Mizrahi wrote. “My sister and I immediately went inside because we were scared. Only the poor dog remained outside.”

He described how a bullet flew over the fence and hit the dog straight in the ear. “A torrent of blood poured out of him. He gave one long, terrible bark and fell to the ground dead,” Mizrahi wrote. “What crime did this innocent beast commit that he should be killed by those murderers?”

Yitzhak Rivlin was 9 when the riots erupted in 1929. In an issue of the student newspaper, he described what happened to him in Hebron, where he was visiting his grandparents.

His essay began on Friday, August 23, the day before the massacre. On that day, when he went to the market with his grandfather to buy food for Shabbat, “everywhere we looked we saw gangs, gangs of Arabs who threatened us that on Shabbat they would slaughter us.”

Rivlin’s grandfather reassured him. But the next day, “When I woke up, I looked out the window and saw a huge Arab mob. All of them were carrying swords, sticks, knives and other types of weapons. I was very frightened; I called my grandmother over and told her about this terrible thing.”

His grandmother “shut the windows, and we each sat in our place, silent and trembling. We were constantly hearing wretched people calling for help, but there was no one to save them. Our fear kept growing.”

But at this point, the story took a sharp turn and became one of salvation. The Arab owner of the house, Ibrahim, invited the family to take shelter with him.

“When we heard this, our eyes lit up, and we quickly went down to hide in his cellar, while he stood in the doorway and guarded us,” Rivlin wrote. Thus he and his family were saved.

Haaretz also left an opening for hope, even in those dark days. When the riots had ended, it wrote:

“We know that the whole of the Arab nation in this land wasn’t responsible for the acts of murder and theft. We know that in cities and villages there were people with understanding hearts, our neighbors, who didn’t take part in the slaughter and even protected their Jewish neighbors and rescued some of them from the murderers’ hands.

"We know that there are special individuals within the Arab nation, members of the honorable intelligentsia, who were no less shocked by the sight of this bloodshed than European public opinion was.”