The session was, unfortunately, quite characteristic of the sorry state of academic scholarship on issues of the Arab-Israel (or Jewish-Muslim) conflict. The moderator, Dmitry Shumsky and the three other discussants - Israel Bartal, Vered Vinitzky-Serussi and Raef Zarik - were all of one persuasion, to the left in varying degrees, and cheered and applauded the book. It's not that because I am at an opposite ideological pole that I criticise this lack of balance. The fact is that the book came under sharp criticism by Anita Shapiro, Benny Morris, Avi Becker, Eliezer Schweid, and others. These are not lightweights. And yet, the people at the Hebrew University who organized the event seemingly could find no one who disagreed with the book's scholarship, methodology or conclusions to speak? Were they cowed or are they of a special frame of mind that tolerates no deviation from the 'line'?
As for the book, to provide insight, one reviewer noted last January
Cohen realized that from a Palestinian perspective, the story of Tarpat is different from the one he knew. And this is what interested him: How did it happen that the Arabs perceived reality so differently from the Jews?
Another reviewer sums it up so:
he presents information not known before or not sufficiently highlighted. That the Arab attackers felt provoked by Jewish moves to change the prevailing arrangements in the Western Wall prayer space, that rumors of atrocities committed by Jews against Arabs fueled the wrath of Arab rioters, that Jewish attacks on Arab pedestrians in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv preceded or coincided with the Arab attacks, that Jews also murdered Palestinians in the course of the events, though not on a large scale, that many Palestinian residents helped their Jewish neighbors by standing up to the attackers and preventing them from harming Jews, that no solid evidence exists that the Palestinian leadership – especially Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the grand villain of Zionist historiography – incited the rioters, let alone that they operated on its instructions, that the British forces did not facilitate the attacks and usually tried to stop them but were not always quick enough, and so on.
In short, Cohen's book seeks to even out the playing field by turning events on their head, which doesn't bother Haaretz's Uri Misgav.
Is all that not really known? Of course not. That narrative was and has been the Arab version since before 1929. It's all been published. Almost nothing in his book has not appeared in previous books although for sure there are additional research elements that he brought to light and for that, history is enriched, especially his readings from the Arabic both contemporary accounts and others.
His book does lack a full review of sources.
For example, this article, "The "Western Wall" Riots of 1929: Religious Boundaries and Communal Violence" by Alex Winder in the Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. XLII, No. 1 (Autumn 2012), provides additional background and information and while sympathetic to the Arab cause, it also affords an insight into the element of the integration, or not, of the Oriental Jews within the Arab majority, a theme highly prominent in his book. It does not fully support Cohen's narrative and even undermines it.
Hillel, who is a friend who I have known for over 30 years since he was a teenager, I think, is quite sincere but his paradigm in unchageable no matter what he says of his ability to be both a Zionist and its critic, an unfair critic to my mind. He almost cried when he said that today's situation parallels to an extent the 1929 period and he foresaw, if nothing appropriate is done, hundreds of dead in the near future.
His book, I found, on one level, is very detailed and tells the story is an absorbing fashion and, indeed, Hillel informed the attendees that he purposefully wrote it for the younger generation, those who do not know the history. On another, there are no maps. too few pictures, no replication of newspaper headlines and the such.
There are also minor matters. On p. 190 he mentions a desecration of a mosque, the Awkashi mosque (it's located behind Yeshayahu St.),
but no picture of the desecration although one would think that there would be one. It indeed happened but too what extent? Today, it would be no more than a 'price-tag' incident, serious but not equal to hacking off people's limbs. By the way, incidents like this were not unknown in the British empire. In August 1913, there was the Kanpur riots in India.
Seems incendiary situtations were not unique to the Arab-Zionist struggle.
On p. 124, he notes a bomb having been set off near the house of a sheikh involved in inciting against Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall but writes "On one of the nights of 1927...". It took me less than an hour to find out that that incident occured on the night of August 31/September 1 and I have a scanned newspaper clipping. Oh, and it was a Hagana operation. Am I a better researcher than a Doctor who lectures at a University?
My copy is fulll of notations. He deals with the attack on the Georgian Quarter opposite the Damascus Gate
and positioned on this modern view (the two views are in opposite directions)
and attempts to suggest that Hews first attacked Arabs there rather than Arabs who poured out of the Damascus Gate, incited by immams at the Temple Mount, who began to sweep up the street heading for Meah Shearim. He also tries to re-time events that also there attacks on Arabs preceeded attacks on Jews. It's as if he's a conspiracy theorist.
The book is invidious and the conclave was an embarrassment.
On another of his books.