Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Con­flict: 1929

Hil­lel Cohen
  • Review
By – December 16, 2015

What inspires some­one to wake up one day and kill their neigh­bor? How do com­mu­ni­ties inter­nal­ize and remem­ber peri­ods of intense vio­lence and hatred? How do those mem­o­ries shape our iden­ti­ties and rela­tion­ships going for­ward? These are the types of ques­tions posed by Hil­lel Cohen in Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Con­flict: 1929. Cohen focus­es on one year, 1929, and the wide­spread vio­lence that erupt­ed through­out British Pales­tine. He takes the read­er into this crit­i­cal yet all-too-often over­looked era in the his­to­ry of the Arab-Israeli con­flict, and how the vio­lent events that ensued were described by dif­fer­ing par­ties, then and now.

As the title indi­cates, 1929 is, in many ways, year zero” of the Arab-Israeli Con­flict. It is the first peri­od of Arab” vs. Jew” major clash­es. As a result, Cohen argues, these riots helped found the Yishuv as a sin­gle uni­fy­ing enti­ty, encom­pass­ing all Jews and Zion­ist activ­i­ty in the region. It is also the first major con­flict over the Tem­ple Mount, and own­er­ship of over­lap­ping holy spaces. In total, the inten­si­ty of the vio­lence dur­ing such a short peri­od of time, the depth of the ide­o­log­i­cal divides, and the result­ing us vs them” men­tal­i­ty set the stage for future con­flict well before 1948.

Cohen does not take the read­er on a chrono­log­i­cal jour­ney through the events of 1929 and their pre­cur­sors. He acknowl­edges this up front, and through­out the text intro­duces the read­er to oth­er sources that can pro­vide that more tra­di­tion­al his­tor­i­cal explo­ration. His work focus­es, rather, more specif­i­cal­ly on the events of 1929 in the con­text of his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ry: not just what hap­pened, but how it was described in the media of the time, how indi­vid­u­als involved described it in the imme­di­ate after­math, and how each side inter­nal­ized a spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive going for­ward. Cohen’s exten­sive use of pri­ma­ry sources draws the read­er into the con­flict and com­pels the read­er to see each vio­lent inci­dent from a mul­ti­tude of per­spec­tives. With­out in any way jus­ti­fy­ing the extreme vio­lence or the views of the per­pe­tra­tors — or attempt­ing to equate or ratio­nal­ize indi­vid­ual attacks — Cohen suc­cess­ful­ly helps a con­tem­po­rary read­er under­stand the com­plex­i­ty of the con­flict as it was both expe­ri­enced and remembered.

Cohen’s book could not be more rel­e­vant. We have returned to an era when neigh­bor kills neigh­bor, when labels such as Arab” and Jew” and Pales­tin­ian” pre­clude more per­son­al con­structs of who we are and in what we believe. We have returned to an era of extreme, unremit­ting vio­lence, where all sides feel they are under attack, phys­i­cal­ly or polit­i­cal­ly. Year Zero is a high­ly intel­lec­tu­al yet acces­si­ble explo­ration of a for­ma­tive peri­od in the his­to­ry of the Arab-Israeli Con­flict, and the cre­ation of iden­ti­ty and his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive. While not writ­ten about con­tem­po­rary events, its thought­ful, holis­tic approach sheds great insight on con­flict today in ori­gins, prac­tice, and memory.

Relat­ed Content:

Joy Get­nick, PhD, is the Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of Hil­lel at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Rochester. She is the author of the Melton School of Adult Jew­ish Learn­ing Beyond Bor­ders: The His­to­ry of the Arab-Israeli Con­flict, has taught his­to­ry at area col­leges, and pre­vi­ous­ly worked in the JCC world and as the direc­tor of a teen Israel trav­el sum­mer program.

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