Jews and Arabs in Tzfat
According to the Crusader writings, both Jewish and Arab communities existed in Tzfat when the Crusaders built their fortress on Tzfat’s Citadel in the 13th century. Throughout the following centuries, relations between the two communities saw periods of peace broken by periodic Arab uprisings and riots. During the early part of the 20th century the two communities co-existed side by side, conducting commerce together and sending community representatives to serve together to deal with bureaucratic affairs pertaining to the ruling British.
Arab-Jewish Relations in the 1920s
Years of Arab agitation against the immigration of Jews into the Land of Israel and attempts to prevent Jews from praying at Jewish Holy sites in Jerusalem resulted in a Jewish demonstration in August 1929 in Jerusalem. During the demonstration Jewish activists marched and asserted the right of Jews to pray at the Western Wall. The Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini, told his followers that the Jews were preparing to take over the Al Aksa Mosque. His words spread throughout the country and Arabs rioted, killing Jews in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Hebron, Jaffa and other settlements and towns.
The Arabs in Tzfat maintained two separate communities, the Christian Arab community and the Muslim Arab community. During the 1920s the Muslim Arabs were influenced by anti-Jewish sentiments emanating from Jerusalem. When the Mufti of Jerusalem urged his followers to attack Jews, the Arabs of Safed heeded his call.
Safed Arab Pogroms
On August 23rd 1929 riots began in Jerusalem, Hebron, Haifa, Jaffa and in other areas of the Land of Israel, then called “Palestine.” The Jewish leadership warned the British that Safed Jews would present a visible target but the British took no notice. On August 29th the iman of the central Safed mosque issued a scathing sermon against the Jews and urged his followers to take action. The Arab worshippers streamed out of the mosque, crossed the central market square that separated the Arab and Jewish Quarters and began to methodically kill Jewish residents of the Quarter.
Over the course of three days the Arabs of Safed, together with Arabs in nearby Arab towns, burned, pillaged, and murdered Tzfat Jews. Eighteen Jews were killed and approximately 40 were wounded. Two hundred homes were looted and burned. The main damage occurred in the western part of the Old Jewish Quarter, the traditional Sephardic Quarter of Tzfat.
British soldiers and administration officials allowed the rioting to continue for three days. They did not interfere and made no effort to enter the Jewish Quarter to put an end to the pogrom. Some Jewish residents took refuge in the Saraya (today, the Wolfson) building where the British maintained their administrative headquarters. The British did not actively defend the Jews who were huddled in the Saraya courtyard. Arabs easily climbed up the Saraya walls and shot into the crowd of Jews in the courtyard below.
Following the riots the British decided to separate the Jews and the Arabs by creating a no-man’s land in-between the quarters. They built a staircase that descended from the main street, Jerusalem street, cutting the no-man’s land in half. British sentries guarded the stairs from a look-out post at the top of the stairs. Even so, over the course of the next 19 years, periodic Arab marauders managed to cross over the stairs and murder Jews in the Jewish quarter. In 1936 Arab intruders slaughtered the entire Ungar family while they ate dinner.
Many Jews left Safed but other Jewish residents actively prepared for further attacks. The British policy was to prevent the Jews from possessing weapons, even for purposes of self-defense. The Jews of Tzfat began to prepare “slicks” -- underground hiding places for weapons -- among the old homes and ruins of Tzfat. The Irgun and the Haganah, two Jewish defense organizations, operated clandestinely in Safed, training the residents in the art of self-defense.
The next round of Arab riots occurred in Palestine in 1936 but the Jews of Safed were ready and successfully maintained relative calm in the city.