Western Wall Riots

Following a decade of relative calm under the British mandate, a religious dispute concerning prayers at the Western Wall of the ancient Jerusalem temple turned political. A yearlong disagreement over use of religious space brought demonstrations and counterdemonstrations, diplomatic intervention, and failed opportunities for negotiation. The chaos finally erupted in a day of violence that left several hundred Jews and Arabs dead, and the British were forced to begin reevaluating their policies toward the two peoples.

Summary of Event

On Yom Kippur in September, 1928, Jews erected a portable screen to separate the men and women who prayed at the Western Wall. The narrow, eleven-foot passageway between Muslim houses and the two-thousand-year-old retaining wall for Jerusalem’s ancient temple had become increasingly crowded as new waves of Jewish immigrants arrived under the British mandate. The wall was also sacred to Muslims: The site was the foundation for Al-Aqsa Mosque, Al-Aqsa Mosque[Al Aqsa Mosque] and Muslims believed that Muḥ;ammad had tethered his horse to the wall on his night journey to paradise. Muslims protested the screen’s installment, and the British responded, but an overzealous constable, Douglas Duff, roughed up a number of Jews while removing the screen. As a result, both Jews and Arabs found themselves offended by a seemingly minor incident, and they became increasingly sensitive to threats about their own safety. [kw]Western Wall Riots (Aug. 23, 1929)
[kw]Riots, Western Wall (Aug. 23, 1929)
Western Wall riots
Wailing Wall riots
Jerusalem, Western Wall riots
Riots;Western Wall
[g]Palestine;Aug. 23, 1929: Western Wall Riots[07300]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 23, 1929: Western Wall Riots[07300]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Aug. 23, 1929: Western Wall Riots[07300]
[c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Aug. 23, 1929: Western Wall Riots[07300]
[c]Colonialism and occupation;Aug. 23, 1929: Western Wall Riots[07300]
Chancellor, Sir John
Luke, Sir Harry Charles
Duff, Douglas
Ḥusaynī, Amīn al-
Jabotinsky, Vladimir
Kook, Abraham Isaac
Weizmann, Chaim
Shaw, Sir Walter

Over the next months, both sides engaged in a war of words. Jewish leaders raised the issue of purchasing the Western Wall, some called for the building of a new temple, and Chaim Weizmann, head of the World Zionist Conference, wrote a public letter stating that the only solution was for European Jews to pour into Palestine. Vladimir Jabotinsky, leader of the Zionist Revolutionary Party, took a more extreme position: He helped organize a group of young men to confront Arabs in demonstrations. The group’s name, Betar, Betar was a reference to the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 c.e.), in which the Romans defeated the Jews, whose army withdrew to the fortress at Betar. Jerusalem mufti Amīn al-Ḥusaynī established a committee to defend the wall and appealed for limits on Jewish immigration.

British high commissioner Sir John Chancellor was aware of the dispute and met with representatives of both sides, but tempers rose again in July of 1929, when the Arabs began a building project near the wall. On the evening of August 14, the ninth of Ab in the Jewish calendar (the day commemorating the destruction of Jerusalem’s temple in 70 c.e.), crowds of Jews gathered at the wall, and they were joined the following day by Betar youth. The two groups turned a religious commemoration into a political rally, raising the Zionist flag and singing the “Hatikva,” the Zionist national anthem. On the next day, a Friday, a group of Muslims left their prayers to march to the wall, where they beat Jews and burned prayer notes left in the wall.

The following Wednesday, a young Jewish teen, Avraham Mizrahi, Mizrahi, Avraham was murdered while chasing a stray soccer ball. In retaliation, a young Arab was clubbed in the head. The Mizrahi funeral turned into a demonstration in which Constable Duff and the British police tried to keep control, but their actions resulted in charges of police brutality. On August 22, with Chancellor out of the country, his deputy Sir Harry Charles Luke tried to use dialogue to defuse the situation. Meeting first with the mufti and then with Abraham Isaac Kook, Luke appealed for calm. Later, he invited three Muslim community representatives and three Jewish community representatives to his home for a long afternoon of dialogue. Eventually, the group came up with a statement recognizing the shared nature of the wall, but they were hesitant to release the statement until after the weekend. By then, unfortunately, it was too late.

On Friday, August 23, the situation escalated out of control. Rumors spread that Jewish groups planned to attack Al-Aqsa Mosque. In response, al-Ḥusaynī appealed to Muslims to defend the holy places. Since it was a Friday, the day for Muslim prayers, crowds of worshippers poured into Jerusalem from outlying areas, but this time they came with sticks and knives. At 11:00 a.m., before prayers began, shots rang out from the area around Al-Aqsa Mosque. The mufti called for peace, but other speakers riled up the crowds. A Muslim mob left the platform area and flooded into the streets to attack passing Jews. At the same time, reports from the Jewish neighborhood of Mea She’arim stated that several Arabs had been murdered there.

The British police were unable to control the violence. Years of relative calm had created the attitude that a small police force was sufficient, and so there were only 150 British police officers and 1,500 local forces for the whole country. Jewish immigrants had organized the Haganah Haganah defensive force, and by nightfall, eight Jews and five Arabs had been killed, and several dozen people were injured on both sides of the conflict. Jewish residents of outlying areas such as Talpiot were evacuated.

The worst of the violence occurred not in Jerusalem but in Hebron, where Orthodox Jews were unarmed and the police force was small. Jews were outnumbered in the city: There were approximately six hundred Jews and approximately twenty thousand Arabs. Word had reached Hebron of the troubles in Jerusalem, but the situation in Hebron had remained calm throughout most of the day. However, at 4:00 p.m., Arabs gathered near the Jewish yeshiva and began throwing stones. When the only student present attempted to leave, he was stabbed to death.

It was not until Saturday morning that things got out of hand in Hebron. At first it seemed as though this southern town might be spared, as carloads of young men left to join the fray in Jerusalem. However, groups of Arabs began to gather outside Jewish homes. At the Heichal residence, two young men were killed while running toward a policeman for safety. Because it was the Sabbath, some had gathered at their rabbi’s house for prayers, but rioters broke down the doors with hatchets and proceeded to slaughter nearly everyone inside. In a matter of two hours, sixty-four Jews had been killed. Reports of atrocities were gruesome—for instance, two elderly rabbis were castrated, and a young child was decapitated.

The situation would have been much worse if many of Hebron’s Muslim families had not sheltered Jews in their own homes. As it was, the rioters dispersed only when the previously unarmed police retreated to arm themselves with rifles and began shooting into the crowds.

Jerusalem remained a focal point throughout the riots, and violence continued that day until reinforcements could arrive from Amman and Cairo. Jews in Safed suffered a fate similar to those in Hebron, and in Jaffa, Zionist forces attacked a mosque, where they killed a religious leader and six others. In the end, there were 249 fatalities—133 Jewish and 116 Arab—and 600 wounded.


The British responded to the riots with a commission, headed by Sir Walter Shaw, that investigated the riots’ causes and made recommendations on ways to avoid such problems. While public opinion had condemned al-Ḥusaynī for inciting the riots, the commission cleared him of direct responsibility. Instead, it focused on more general issues, such as the creation of a landless class of Palestinian peasants following increased Jewish immigration and land purchases. It also recommended that Jewish immigration be limited, that restrictions be placed on land purchases, and that the Balfour Declaration—Britain’s 1917 promise for the creation of a Jewish homeland—be removed as a justification for the mandate. British high commissioner Chancellor agreed with the findings of the Shaw Commission, Shaw Commission but lobbying efforts in London convinced British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald MacDonald, Ramsey to ignore the findings.

The riots inspired Palestinian leaders to increase efforts to create political unity within the generally fragmented Arab population. Al-Ḥusaynī began to seek the support of other Arab leaders of the Middle East, and he invested his own money in building the new Palace Hotel outside the Jaffa Gate of Jerusalem so that foreign dignitaries could gather to discuss the Palestinian cause. A change in strategy soon emerged, however, as Arabs began to focus their energies on the British rather than on the Jews. For Zionist leaders, the immediate need was to expand the Haganah as a defense force. They also resolved to continue land purchases and to increase Jewish immigration, especially after the Jews of Hebron had to be evacuated, an act that left that city without a Jewish community. Western Wall riots
Wailing Wall riots
Jerusalem, Western Wall riots
Riots;Western Wall

Further Reading

  • Morris, Benni. Righteous Victims: A History of the Zionist-Arab Conflict, 1881-1999. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. A reevaluation of the history of the period using original sources.
  • Pappe, Ilan. A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Concerned that Israelis and Palestinians have separate histories shaped by their own ideologies, Pappe writes an interwoven story that focuses on the lives of the victims, not the powerful.
  • Segev, Tom. One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate. Translated by Haim Watzman. New York: Metropolitan, 1999. The author, a columnist for Ha’aretz newspaper, compiles a comprehensive journal of the three decades of the British mandate. Drawing upon personal letters and diaries as well as official reports, he presents a thorough report of the 1929 riots.
  • Sherman, A. J. Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine, 1918-1948. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Looks at the period from a British perspective.
  • Smith, Charles D. Palestine and the Arab-Israeli Conflict. 2d ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Designed as a textbook for undergraduate college classes; gives a balanced introduction to the conflict.

First Kibbutz Is Established in Palestine

Balfour Declaration Supports a Jewish Homeland in Palestine

League of Nations Establishes Mandate for Palestine

Great Uprising of Arabs in Palestine