The August 1929 disturbances resulted in serious damage to life and property, leaving the Mandatory Government as well as the Zionist Yishuv shaken. On 4 September 1929, the very day the riots ended, the British Colonial Secretary, Lord Passfield, appointed a committee to investigate the disturbances. The Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, was very clear about its task- to uncover the immediate causes of the riots and to recommend how to prevent a similar occurrence in the future. In October the group—consisting of three members of parliament headed by Sir Walter Shaw—sailed to Palestine. Six months later, in March 1930, they presented their findings, known as the report of the Shaw Commission.

Even before the report was finished, Zionist leaders were apprehensive of its results. They were concerned that the committee would deal not only with its authorized agenda, but that it would embark on issues of general policy that would harm the Zionist cause. Their fears grew as they received information from the Yishuv on the commission’s progress. Anxious of what the outcome might be, Zionist representatives in London turned to several pro-Zionists in the Labor Party and the opposition, and even to the Prime Minister, in an attempt to influence the British Government. MacDonald assured them that the Shaw Commission should not and would not report on matters of major policy.

However, the report of the Shaw Commission justified the Zionists’ apprehension and proved that their attempts to influence the Government had been futile. While the report did maintain that the outbreak of the riots had been an attack by Arabs on Jews, all other findings tended to favor the Arab position. The report stated that the outbreak was not premeditated and that the Mufti had had no intention of utilizing the religious campaign over the Wailing Wall to create disturbances. The general conclusion was that the riots erupted because the Arabs felt their political and national aspirations, as well as their economic security, threatened. Finally, the report stated that the Arabs’ sense of insecurity was caused by the establishment of a Jewish National Home, and particularly by the Jewish immigration and land settlement. Only one of the commission’s members—Henry Snell of the Labor Party—objected to these conclusions, claiming that the Mufti and his men had in fact been responsible for preplanning the riots and inciting the mobs.

Indeed, the commission had dealt with matters outside its limits, justifying the treatment as the only way to advise on the prevention of a recurrence of the riots. The result being against the Zionist cause, they said, was incidental. The truth, however, was more complicated than it seemed. While the Zionists had been attempting to influence the Government in their favor, Chancellor—the High Commissioner in Palestine—had contacted Shaw. He warned him that if nothing were done for the Arabs, he would resign from his office. Passfield, too, shared the view that Mandate policy should be revised in favor of the Arabs, or, at a minimum, that the Shaw Commission should avoid directly blaming the Mufti. The High Commissioner and the Colonial Secretary were aware that if the Mufti were accused, it would be necessary to dismiss him and place him on trial. The political outcome of this would be disastrous for Britain. It would divert the Arabs’ hatred from the Jews onto the Mandate Government and trigger hostility from Muslims worldwide, undermining British authority in the Middle East and in India. Placed in this context, the Shaw Commission’s reluctance to blame the Arabs is clear; its reluctance to blame the Mandatory Government is also understandable. The result, therefore, was to point to Zionism as the root of the problem.

Although MacDonald thought differently, appreciating the degree to which the report was harmful to the Zionist cause, he would not alter it, and the damage was done. The reactions to the Shaw Commission in the Zionist camp reflected the Jews’ concern and anger. The Va’ad Leumi and the Jewish Agency rejected the conclusions presented in the report, pointing out the extent to which the commission had turned a blind eye to the Arabs’ responsibility for the riots. In addition, Weizmann intimated for the first time of his possible resignation from his position as head of the Jewish Agency in protest against Passfield’s position. All Zionists agreed that the Shaw Commission signified a worrying change in the Mandatory Government policy, and the Hope-Simpson report and Passfield White Paper which soon followed were further proof of this.

Primary Source

Report of the Commission on the Palestine Disturbances of August, 1929, London- HMSO, Cmd. 3530, March 1930, pp. 3–6.


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