Saturday, October 15, 2016

Hillel Cohen’s Research Zeros

I have reviewed "Year Zero of the Arab–Israeli Conflict 1929"  by Hillel Cohen and it appears here: Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Volume 10, 2016.

It was trimmed down due to the space considerations and revised but here is my original full review text pre-edited:

Cohen’s Research Zeros

2015, 288 PPS.

In Hillel Cohen’s English-language volume of reoriented Zionist history, the crucial problem with the book is where he places the starting point in the Arab-Israel conflict. He insists that the “zero” belongs in 1929, the year of the murderous riots when 133 Jews, at least, were killed by Arabs. By example, if one looks at the index, the year 1920 is missing. The violence somehow begins in 1921, ignoring Arab anti-Jewish/Zionist violence from the 1880s and the murder of a Jew, Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref for buying property in Jerusalem in 1851.

During the Pesach week in early April that year, the Muslim religious festival of Nebi Mussa, at which thousands of Muslims had gathered, was exploited by the future Mufti, Haj Amin El-Husseini, and resulted in a murderous rampage through Jerusalem’s Old City alleyways as well as the near-by neighborhood, when Jews were killed and injured.  This was accomplished with the compliance, if not outright encouragement, of high British officials. To gloss over this event which, to my thinking, is the true start of the "conflict" as one of political violence which eventually burst out during the 1929 riots, not even assigning it to backdrop status, is an unfortunate reflection on his scholarship and any smidgen of academic objectivity.

If for Cohen, that year cannot at all have been the beginning of the clash between competing national heritages and cultures, is a position that leads a more knowledgeable reader to a sorry conclusion: that his entire presentation is purposefully skewed. His chronology, or his version of a chronology, is his tool of distortion.

For example, in his first two pages of an introduction, he justifies his selection of 1929 yet inexplicitly does not address why not any other date.  His “Chronological Overview of Events”, p. xix, ends at May 1931. He could have noted – and I think he should have - that in December 1931, Haj Amin El-Husseini, incidentally one of the main inciters of the 1920 riots, convened the World Islamic Congress. That body called on Muslim states to boycott any trade with the Jewish community in Palestine and more importantly, it resolved that "Zionism is ipso facto an aggression detrimental to Muslim well-being…[and is] ousting Moslems from the control of Muslim land and Muslim Holy Places". This event was attended by 130 delegates from 22 countries. Politically, this was the true turning-point in casting the conflict from a nationalist competition to one of a clash of theologies as well as a pan-Middle East concern.

Framing the conflict is very important for Cohen for, as he writes, “if the framework were to change and Jews and Arabs were both to recognize the other side’s right to live in equality, freedom and security, as well as its equal right to sovereignty, regardless the past, then it would become possible to look at history in a new way.”  While that is an unobjectionable viewpoint, Cohen should also be thinking that a new way is not necessarily the correct one.  “Old” is not always wrong.

Cohen has also posited that two main points of his 1929 case study are that a main goal in commemoration is not to memorize the victims but to claim a status of victim and, more importantly, to portray the rival as an aggressor and victimizer. A main mechanism of that is to exclude those who were killed by one's party by referring to the 'big picture' where each party sees itself as the one under attack and that even massacres or lynches can be defined 'self-defense'”.

Excluding elements of that eruption of crazed violence by Arabs, mostly against a Jewish population that was, in part, not identified as “Zionist”, was mainly defenseless men, women and children and was done by stealth by Cohen is his major fault.
To illustrate this, on page 77, he recalls the Jewish Agency’s dead of its Political Department Haim Arlozoroff’s November 1931 attempt to forestall the upcoming Muslim Congress which did turn into a blatant campaign of incitement as well as a vehicle of the distribution of a false narrative of events in Jerusalem but disconnects it from the event.  However, Cohen prefers that we know nothing of that Conference, if it was a part of the riots of the previous two years and how it affected the events of the future.

As one book reviewer (Allan Arkush) has it, “Cohen’s analysis of the situation in 1929 goes very much against the grain of the usual Zionist narrative and even the non-partisan historical research concerning this period.”  In itself, that is not a crime.  What does serve as a basis for a charge of guilt, in my opinion, is the way he presents facts, avoids facts, hides facts and alters facts.  Arkush notes, “there is no hint that the Zionist movement in the late 1920s was a sinking or even a foundering ship. There is no mention of anything that might have induced the Arabs of Palestine to doubt that the Jews would have the power to take control of their land. And there is less discussion of the mufti and his “year-long campaign” than there ought to be”.

He also points out that

“Cohen clearly wishes to undermine the Jews’ longstanding conviction that they were the victims in 1929. Rejecting the common attribution of the anti-Jewish riots of that year to the Palestinian Arabs’ shocking penchant for violence, he attempts to provide an unbiased view of the situation that produced them…the Palestinians…were manifesting their understandable frustration with the Zionists’ attempt to usurp their homeland…”.

Arkush also draws our attention to Cohen’s words in the Afterword:

[T]he [persecuted] Jews had a right to take refuge in the Land of Israel…”.  It was Benny Morris who called Cohen out of this as “nebulous post-Zionism”. Cohen seems not to be able to accept the foundations – the cultural, religious, legal, historical and ethnic foundations – that justify the right of Jews, as they did do over the centuries, to return to their homeland, the right to build and plant in it and to assume all the trappings of a state, including the right to defend the Jewish people from terror and aggression, as well as colonial oppression by the Mandate Power which reneged on its obligations as fixed by the League of Nations.

Indeed, Cohen’s book succeeds in shattering any comfortable national narrative to which one might cling. But that result was achieved by unscrupulous methods. In a February 2013 article in Haaretz based on his book, he asserts that the Arabs main “failing” in 1929 was that the result of the rioting was the unifying of all the disparate factions within the Jewish community under the banner of Zionism, a situation that doomed the Arabs. I know he is not expressing callous regard for the deaths of dozens of Jews, many done in horrible ways, but to think that he considers Zionism so shallow an ideology that it was only Arab rape and slaughter that could have coalesced all the different Jews to support Jewish statehood is shocking in its lack of faith as well as lack of recognition of the inchoate power of Jewish longing for a return to Zion.
But one must deal with the ‘minor’ errors he displays in order to grasp just how his thesis is a major failure even if seemingly petty and pedantic.

On p. xxi, in his casualty count, he fudges figures in his effort to portray Jews negatively. He writes “about twenty of the Arabs killed [out of 116] were not involved in attacks on Jews. They were killed in lynching and revenge attacks carried out by Jews, or by indiscriminate British gunfire”.  But how many Arabs does he claim were actually murdered by Jews?  And how many killed by Jews in a criminal situation?

His assertion on p. 19, that “Zionism [viewed] those fighting it as an inflamed and ignorant mob”, is unsupported and his too sweeping a prejudice as to be worthy of an academic.

On p. 24 he terms the boycott of the 1923-24 British initiative of legislative assembly by Arabs as a “success” with a negative impact.  But had the Arabs adopted that offer, Zionism would have been doomed. 

Lechi’s January 1942 Yael Street anti-police operation, described on p. 32, is in error. Yehoshua Cohen, who was to set off the final charge that would kill Geoffrey Morton decided not to do so not due to “cold feet” but because too many bystanders had collected and he decided not to cause the deaths of innocent persons. That, of course, contradicts the heartless and remorseless portrayal of the Stern Group that he may prefer.
The many pages he devotes to the Hinkis incident is a case of disproportionality of the one versus many dozens of Arabs.  No balance.

On p. 44, Cohen has it that Balfour “disregarded the national rights of the Arabs” as opposed to religious and individual rights.  But that was the whole point.  All the rest of the Middle East was to be Arab with one Jewish state and that national homeland’s “historic connection” with the Jews superseded that of the Arab occupiers who conquered it in 638CE.  Arab rights, when legitimate, were indeed recognized but not when not legitimate.  Cohen is playing an anachronistic game here.

The correct spelling of the name, p. 47, is Chelouche.

That (p. 57) Zionism is a product of Palestinian nationalism, shaped by it again is outlandish in that Zionism came first.

On p.61, despite Cohen’s Arabic mastery, I would have written “uttermost” instead of farthest, remote. And the claim, p 62, that the Quran and the Torah are equal in not mentioning Jerusalem is a trick.  The Jewish Bible has hundreds of mentions.

On p. 71, there’s a typo: founded. And as I already noted above, the “one night in 1927” on p. 72, was the evening of August 31 as a simple web check will reveal.

The account on pgs. 73 – 88 of the socialist Davar Cohen would have us believe but that of the Revisionist Doar Hayom is suspect. Odd academic decision that.

The picture on p. 81 is not dated nor is that lack explained.

On p. 87 why is there no mention of the ultra-Orthodox community vis a vis rumors. Are they not part of the narrative?  Cohen posits on p. 87 that “each side claimed that the British favored the other”. Well, did they? Is there no analysis of the British role in the riots and the events leading up to them?

Questioning, on p. 87, a difference in barbarism is of course relevant, especially the scale, the incitement, the belief in rumors.

His terming, on p. 92, of a more well-grounded possibility is but a personal unsupported judgment call.  Indeed, is it a reasonable case (p. 93) that the Mufti’s anti-Semitism develop only in mid-30s?  Or should he not have provided a basis for this?  Rana Barakat’s dissertation is perhaps persuasive to Cohen, but given the Mufti’s 1920 activity, and as I mentioned above, a chapter non-existent in his book, this is an outrageous claim for Cohen to push. 

To claim, on p. 95, that the riots in Jerusalem were not “a series, each one caused by a previous one” is unproven.  They needn’t have been coordinated to be a series.  But for sure the rest in other locations were as emissaries of the Mufti were either sent to or contacted by telephone.

He avoids, on p.101 to note the 1944 British Labour Party transfer resolution, to move Arabs out of the Palestine Mandate area to Iraq. Was that too extreme for such a moderate institution to adopt? Or was in uncomfortably indicative that Arabs didn’t deserve full sympathy, even from socialists?

Cohen’s “Jewish underground plot” on p. 111 is really an “underground” or one person who was, perhaps, eliminated by the underground for the reason that the idea was dangerous and wrong?  Does he present real proof or relates a story?

A mix-up and a misidentification on p. 119.  Not the Shaw Commission. No. An International Commission of Inquiry for the Wailing Wall.

If, on p. 122, there were “rumors”, who spread them?

Do we really have to accept that we have no way, p. 124, of determining all the details of the Hebron massacre?  All the accounts are equally untruthful? And yet Cohen seems to be able to accept some, but not others.

He also can be lazy in his research. On p. 124, he notes a bomb having been set off near the house of a sheikh involved in inciting against Jewish worshipers 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 occurred on the night of August 31/September 1 and I have a scanned newspaper clipping.  Oh, and it was a Hagana operation. 

Regarding the legacy of Deir Yassin, p. 127, he skips the attempted murder of the neighboring Jews in the 1914 attack which resulted in a death sentence passed on one of the Arab ringleaders.

On p. 155 he does not identify Rabbi Ben-Hamo as a Kach follower.

He seems to attempt to push for sympathy for the Hebron rioters when, on p. 161, he notes that indeed, there were murderers who chose not to kill small children.  But others did. And see on p. 174 the tale of the Maklef children which contradicts his attempt to soften Arab terror.

Almost sarcastically, he puts it to us, on p. 178, that both Jews and Arabs proclaim they hold the high moral ground but avoids the responsibility for making a considered judgment himself.

On p. 187, Cohen does not answer the question of why would Meah Shearim Jews, nominally non-Zionist and pacifist, kill al-Dajjani prior to outbreak Arab riots? If not they then who? Could his timeline been off despite his documentation?  He also does not ask, on p. 193, why would rumours like those spread about what was happening on the Temple Mount and nearby be so believed?  Was it a British failing? A Jewish one? A Muslim one?

On p. 210, Cohen misses, in “their own wolf”, misses the reference to Jabotinsky who Ben-Gurion termed “Hitler”. Jabotinsky’s name, Ze’ev, translates as ‘wolf’.

Do Arabs, p. 215, really not have a religio-nationalist view?

On p. 218, discussing the visit of the Admor of Chabad to Hebron just prior to the outbreak of the riots, Cohen writes that “the Admor seems”?  “Seems”? Why not reference his diary which had been published in book form and has also been uploaded at Chabad web sites as well as being the subject of a Haaretz profile in 2004?

And on that same page, he “knows”, or rather, according to Cohen “we” all know that “there was a range of thinking in the “Palestinian community”.  But do we know?  And was that range similar to the differences of opinions and thinking in the Jewish community?  Or were there but a very few, who were very much not at all influential and there is no, as suggested, a mirror-image existing between the two societies?

On p. 221, he hides Abdel Shafi’s later identification with PLO terrorism.

On p. 222, he opposes Jabotinsky’s analysis as “unconvincing” and that there is “no evidence” regarding Arab stockpiling of weapons, organizing armed units and purchasing arms.  A careful researcher would have added “that we know of” to that statement but more importantly, did they need to do that? They had no weapons left over from the Great War?  Where did their weapons and organization come from in 1920 and 1921 and in various murderous deeds up until 1929?

On an academic level, his book lacks a full review of the 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.  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.

His book, I found, on one level, is very detailed and tells the story is an absorbing fashion. At a seminar I attended where he spoke, indeed, Hillel informed the attendees that he purposefully wrote it for the younger generation, those who do not know the history.  And yet there are no maps, too few pictures, no replication of newspaper headlines and such which would hold attention and provide further insight.

There are also minor matters. On p. 190 he mentions a desecration of a mosque, the Awkashi mosque (it's located behind Jerusalem’s Yeshayahu St.), but no picture of the desecration although one would think that there would be one and of course, there is more than 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 of intra-communal violence were not unknown in the British empire. In 1931, there were the Kanpur riots in India which resulted in the deaths of over 400 people and left a city devastated. In six days, from March 24th to March 30th 1931, eighteen mosques were burnt, forty-two temples plundered and over 250 houses damaged and thus, it would appear that incendiary situations were not unique to the Arab-Zionist struggle.

Indeed, the parallel mutual distrust trust between Hindu and Muslim communities to what was happing in Mandate Palestine had evolved into riots all across India in the 1920s. In 1923, India experienced eleven riots, in 1924, eighteen, in 1925, sixteen riots and in 1926 there were thirty five riots. In the twelve months from May 1926 to April 1926, 40 more riots occurred across various cities. In 1927, as of August, some 300 had been killed and 2500 injured.

An earlier riot of 1923 was caused when the members of Hindu Mahasabha took out a procession and passed in front of a mosque, playing loud music. The Muslim community objected, starting a skirmish between the two parties. Is there not an echo of the Western Wall controversy there? Is it relevant to his deconstructionist revision of Zionist history?  Does Cohen care?

In dealing with the attack on the Georgian Quarter opposite the Damascus Gate, again, no map, he attempts to suggest that Jews first attacked Arabs there rather than Arabs who poured out of the Damascus Gate, incited by Muslim preachers 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 preceded attacks on Jews.  It's as if he's a conspiracy theorist.

Cohen’s book, while informative and highlighting elements of the 1929 riots that were either played down or ignored in previous studies, really does not contribute any new groundbreaking research finds.

What he does do he present a post-modern reinterpretation, seeking almost beyond the bounds of scholarship, to engender sympathy for the Arab cause, a hallmark of contemporary post-Zionism.


I have now read a Hebrew-language article by Dr. Moshe Ehrenwald, formerly a researcher at Yad Tabenkin. It appears in Issue 203 of Ha-Ummah, Fall 2016, p. 95.

In it, Ehrenwald points to a good number of instances when in the wake of the 1929 riots, Jews were arrested and incarcerated, some for months, on false charges, based on Arab testimonies, and many had to go through a court process before being released.  All of the material except for one case is not included in Cohen's book.  Details are brought about Arab attacks on Mekor Baruch, Mekor Chaim, Sanhedria and other neighborhoods.

In one instance, on the basis of testimony by Arabs that a Jew named Slominsky was charged with shooting at the car of the French consul and only after 18 days did the police bother asking the diplomat about the case and learned that no one had shot at his car.  In another case, a Jewish lawyer was arrested due to Arab witnesses who claimed he had distributed poisoned figs to Arabs which resulted in two Arabs dying. He managed to prove he was no where in the vicinity of the "crime" at the time.  He includes two additional instances that occurred in Tzfat.

Another interesting element is the testimony of Yisrael Buchweitz of Mekor Baruch who claimed that a day before the riots broke out, he was warned by a Bet Tzafafa resident that his neighbors will be coming to slaughter the Jews and that was repeated by Haim Schwartzbier and by Shlomo Ziserman who was informed at 12:30 by an Arab acquaintance to clear out his cows as there was an attack coming.

There are also additional details about the D'jani killing in Meah Shearim and the timing.

The book is in Cohen's bibliography those instances of judicial misbehavior above are not included.


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