By Neri Livneh
What really happened to the Jews of Hebron in 1929? Noit Geva,
whose grandmother survived the massacre, thought she knew. But in
making a documentary film about the carnage, she found a different,
more complex story
Noit Geva was 33 years old before she learned the details of the
enormous trauma that had darkened her grandmother's life and
continued to have a strong influence on her father - a trauma that
concerned not only her family history, but also the complex story of
the city of Hebron in particular and the history of Zionism in general.
Now that Geva and her husband Dan have completed their
documentary film, "Things I Saw in Hebron" (Dvarim She'ra'iti
be'Hevron), about the slaughter of the Jews of Hebron in August
1929, she knows more. A lot more.
Noit Geva's grandmother, Zemira Mani, who was the granddaughter
of Hebron's Sephardic chief rabbi, Eliyahu Mani, survived the
massacre. An Arab from Hebron saved her. "My attitude was - 'How
nice! Good leftist that I am, this story of an Arab saving my
grandmother really suits me to a tee," says Geva. "And here, despite
the fact that I basically set out to make a film about the
humanitarianism of the Arabs, I ended up with a film about the horrors
that they perpetrated. But it's not a question of mentality. It's a
question of leadership. Religious extremists on all sides are the ones
responsible for the carnage. In short, as always, reality is very
complex, and it's all shades of gray. And we urgently need to find a
solution for peace."
Noit, 33, hardly remembers her grandmother Zemira, who died when
she was four years old. Noit herself grew up in Rehovot, the second
of four children. Her father, Asher Meshorer, is a biology professor
and her mother lectures on Yiddish literature at Bar-Ilan University. "I
knew that my father grew up in Jerusalem and that his mother was
born in Hebron. But in general, talking about Hebron was taboo in
our house, just as it was taboo to talk about the Holocaust, since my
mother came to Israel in 1948, after the war."
Geva studied film and theater at Tel Aviv University. While she was
studying for her master's degree in communications at the Hebrew
University in Jerusalem, she worked for four years as a production
coordinator at the city's film school. That's where she met Dan Geva -
"the school's outstanding student, who asked me to tape one of his
productions. We've been a team ever since." The Gevas have made
several documentary films together (including an episode of "Tekuma"
- the recent television series depicting the history of the State of
Israel), moved to Hof Dor, and now have an 18-month-old daughter,
Toward the end of Noit's pregnancy, her father and his twin brother
Yaakov paid her a visit. It was then that they told her for the first time
that her grandmother Zemira's life had been saved by an Arab in
Hebron, and they suggested that she name her daughter after her.
They also told her that Zemira documented the story of her rescue.
After the birth of their daughter, Noit and Dan read Zemira's story
and realized they had excellent material for a film. They submitted the
story to the film competition sponsored by the Film Service, the
Jerusalem Cinematheque and Noga communications, won the
competition and received $100,000 to finance the production. The
film will have its premiere at the Jerusalem Film Festival and later be
aired on the Culture, Science and Nature Channel, as well as on
several foreign television networks.
Grandmother Zemira's testimony
This is what Noit's grandmother Zemira, who was 16 at the time,
wrote in an article published in Ha'aretz in 1929: "On Saturday,
August 24, at eight in the morning, I saw through the window that a
large group of Arabs was gathering next to the auto garage. New
groups were gathering all the time. They were all armed with sticks,
clubs and daggers. I heard yelling. An Arab stood on top of a car and
gave a short speech. We couldn't hear the speech, just a few
scattered words reached our ears. From their movements and their
shouting, I understood that they were arguing over whether to attack
the Jews in the Old City first, or those who lived outside of it."
"About a half hour later, I saw groups of Arabs coming back, carrying
packages on their backs. Women ran out barefoot and took the
packages from their husbands, then they ran home to hide them. Even
8- to 10-year-old children were carrying sticks and running after the
adults, to watch the massacre and to rob the victims. After about half
an hour, we heard a lot of noise from the courtyard - the sound of
doors bursting open and people screaming. Since the doors to the
courtyard were open, and there was not one policeman in the Jewish
courtyard, there was nothing to stop the Arabs from coming in. One
group attacked from the direction of the field - they broke doors and
"They said that most of the Jews in the ghetto hid in cellars or ruins
behind from the days of the earthquake. Old people, women and
children lay under the heaps of rubble, hiding from the killers. They
abandoned their homes and that's how they survived. My parents and
I remained in our home, and we expected to become the killers' prey
at any moment. We lived on the fourth floor, so it took them longer to
get to us. We heard moans and calls for help coming from the first
floor, but we couldn't go out. The field next to the house was filling up
with a mob of men, women and children. They started throwing rocks
at us. Windshields were shattered and the door was almost opened.
Suddenly we heard a knock on the door from the side of the
courtyard, and a calming voice saying, 'Don't be frightened, don't be
frightened.' My father went to the door and saw that it was an Arab
that he knew, Abu 'Id Zeitun. He had a club in his hand and a dagger
on his hip. Two more Arabs were standing behind him - I later
learned that these were his brother and his son.
"When I saw the daggers, I thought that they had come to kill us. My
faith that I would survive disappeared. So I ran to go up on the roof
so I could throw myself off. I started to climb. Suddenly, I felt myself
being pulled back. My parents went down the stairs, with the two
other Arabs defending them with their daggers, while he [Abu 'Id]
himself pulled me off the stairs. My mother and father called out to me
to follow them, because Abu 'Id was saving us. He held me in one
hand and a dagger in the other.
"On our way down the steps, I bumped into a body and almost
stepped on it: the hair was all disheveled, the man was dressed only in
a jacket, his chest was exposed, his pants pulled down and his
stomach showing. I took a glance: it was our neighbor - Hacham
Avraham. His head was laying on the last step. His twisted body was
dirty with blood and his hands and legs were jerking. Blood was
spurting from his guts and a rounded dagger was sticking out of his
Geva only had a few faint memories of her grandmother, such as her
custom of preparing a soup "that looked like it was made out of
blood" that was actually beet soup. But armed with what her
grandmother had written, and what she herself had read in "Sefer
Hebron" ("The Book of Hebron"), Geva decided to try to track down
survivors. "In 'Sefer Hebron,' there's a list of families that survived. I
took the list and I think I made a thousand phone calls until I was able
to locate 15 survivors. Most were small children at the time of the
riots, and most don't live in Israel. I decided to tell the story of the
riots through the survivors, through what my grandmother wrote,
through my father and his brother, and also through the children of
Abu 'Id Zeitun."
In the course of her research, Geva also learned about her father's
great-grandfather on his mother's side - Eliyahu Mani. Mani came to
Israel on foot from Baghdad in the middle of the 19th century. "He
was already married when he got here, and his three children were
born here. The youngest of them, Yaakov, who was also a rabbi, was
my father's maternal grandfather. Zemira, my father's mother, named
her twins Yaakov - after her father - and Asher.
"When we went around Hebron, people told me that Grandfather
Eliyahu was so accepted and admired by the Arabs that they called
him 'Sheikh.' And that when he died - 100 years ago - the Jews
buried him in the Jewish cemetery, but the Arabs wanted him to be
buried near them, so they stole the body and buried it in the Muslim
cemetery. The Jews had to snatch the body back and stand guard
over the grave."
And you never knew about any of this as a child?
"No. I didn't know anything. Because my father didn't tell me
anything, just like his mother didn't tell him anything. All she said to
him was that on that day - that is, on the day of the riots in Hebron -
she stopped believing in God."
History repeats itself
For Noit Geva, making the film was an educational experience. "Now
that I've made the film, I still know that there were Arabs who saved
Jews - for example, they saved my grandmother and there were
another 18 families aside from the Zeitun family who saved Jews, but
I also know that, apart from the Holocaust, the riots in Hebron
constituted the most awful horrors ever perpetrated upon the Jews.
The testimonies that I read in 'Sefer Hebron' are the worst things that
I have ever read. When we made the film, we took out the most
horrifying testimonies. [In the film], when I say, 'unnatural death,' it's
referring to a 13-year-old girl who is raped by 13 Arabs who,
afterward, hang her upside down by her legs, light a 'primus' stove
under her head and let her burn to death this way. Or to the castration
of old men and boys, to limbs being hacked off and eyes gouged out
of living people's heads. I took out these parts because I wanted
people to be able to watch the film, but the question that's constantly
torturing me is this: Okay, so there were riots. Let's say they incited
the Arabs and told them that the Jews in Jerusalem had killed
hundreds of Arabs, and that a great mass of Ashkenazi Jews had
come to evict them, and that anyway the Arabs decided to kill Jews in
response to all of this ... Let's say that's logical. But if so, why
castrate? Why rape? Why gouge out eyes? Why cut off limbs? They
could have just shot them."
And how do you answer this question?
"I don't have the answer. What's certain is that there are bad people
and good people - those who saved Jews - and there are bad people
and good people on our side, too. In the film, there is one survivor
named Meir Kedmi who was four years old at the time of the riots.
When Baruch Goldstein massacred the Arabs at the Cave of the
Patriarchs, Kedmi felt he had to go visit the wounded and tell them
that despite the fact that his family had been slaughtered in the 1929
riots, he was very sorry for what Goldstein had done. In the film, he
also says that afterward, he felt as if Goldstein's massacre closed a
circle with the Hebron riots."
The Gevas have screened the film a few times, and not all of the
viewers have understood Kedmi's statement in the same way. "Some
understood what he said about closing the circle as if he were saying,
'Now we're even' - in other words, Goldstein's deed is revenge for
the riots. Others understood it in the way that I did, which was that he
was basically asking the Palestinians for forgiveness for Goldstein's
behavior, that he was ashamed of Goldstein's behavior, but that the
horror doesn't only exist on one side. There's good and bad on both
The new Ashkenazim
In the Gevas' film, the survivors - now people in their twilight years
describe the Hebron that existed before the riots as a kind of paradise
surrounded by vineyards, where Sephardic Jews and Arabs lived in
idyllic coexistence. The long-time Ashkenazi residents were also
treated well by the Arabs. The only ones who really aroused the
Arabs' anger were the ones they referred to as the "Ashkenazim" -
students of the Lubavitcher Rebbe who came to redeem lands in the
Holy Land and established a community in Hebron.
According to the survivors, the Arabs used to share their fruit with the
Jews and bring their children to play with the Jewish children.
Everything was wonderful until the Muslim clergy started spreading
the rumor that Jews in Jerusalem were slaughtering Arabs. On Friday,
August 23, 1929, disturbances broke out in Jerusalem. The riots in
Hebron happened the next day.
The survivors interviewed in the film say that the Arabs from the
villages essentially wanted to kill only the new Ashkenazim. When the
riots started, representatives of the Arabs came to the Ashkenazi
rabbi, Rabbi Slonim , with a proposal: If he allowed them to kill 70
students from the yeshiva in Hebron, they would not kill the other
Ashkenazim or the Sephardim. Rabbi Slonim told them, "We Jews
are all one people." He was the first person to be killed in the riots.
Geva's grandmother came to Jerusalem as a refugee from Hebron
when she was 16. Her mother died a few weeks after the riots -
"literally, from heartbreak." Her father traveled to Baghdad to try to
raise money for the refugees from the riots, and he was killed there.
Zemira Mani was left all alone. She married Avraham Meshorer
(formerly Zingerman), who had emigrated from Poland in 1926. "And
this was a step down in honor to marry an Ashkenazi," explains Geva.
"Because in Hebron, the Sephardim were the elite. In Jerusalem,
suddenly the situation was reversed."
The clergy's guilt
When he was 11 years old, Geva's father - Asher Meshorer - found
the article that his mother had written for the newspaper. "My mother
basically lived her whole life under the trauma of the pogrom," says
Meshorer. "She would mention the word 'pogrom' once in a while,
but she refused to talk about it. She was a sad woman. Basically, she
was depressed. She was very intelligent and educated and she
functioned so well that no one noticed it."
The brothers learned what had happened to their mother from their
aunt. She too was born in Hebron, but left the city the day before the
riots. She also told them about the article in the newspaper. Asher
Meshorer: 0"My brother and I went to the B'nai B'rith library and
simply combed through the newspapers until we found the article. I
read it and I was stunned. I remember that I tried to talk to her. She
didn't want to tell us anything. All she said was that Abu 'Id saved
them. She said another thing - she said that the Arabs in Hebron were
friends of the family, and that it was the Arabs from the villages and
not the ones from Hebron who had done it. And she said that it all
happened because of the Ashkenazim. She apparently wasn't that
well versed in the issue of Zionism. She thought that it all happened
because in Hebron, there was an alienated Jewish community that
wore streimels, unlike the Sephardi community, which was deeply
rooted in the place. And the Sephardim spoke Arabic and dressed
like the [Arab] residents. The fact is that the slaughter was mostly
directed against the Ashkenazim. She talked very little about Hebron.
The little she did say had to do with the estrangement between the
How did the riots affect her attitude toward Arabs?
"Not at all. Her roots in the Land of Israel went way back. On her
mother's side, they'd already been here for 400 years. She didn't hate
Arabs at all. She just talked about a mob that had been incited. She
had harsh things to say about the Muslim clergy. She said that their
clergy, like ours, were inciting people. Her political views were on the
"The same, though not as extreme."
Meshorer says his daughter's film has "only sharpened my recognition
that human nature is the same all over the world - we're no different
from them and they're no different from us. As a biologist, I know that
anything can happen inside a mouse cage. It all depends on the
conditions in which the mice are placed. There are no good and bad
people. There are good and bad situations. I'm totally against
nationalism of any kind."
Return to paradise
Geva decided to take her father and her uncle on a tour of Hebron.
She located 'Id Zeitun, the son of the man who had saved their
mother. They went to him to thank him. 'Id Zeitun had some
documents in his possession proving that his family had saved the
Mani family and the Kastil family in the riots. Geva recounts: "We
came to him and my father told him that he was the son of Zemira
Mani. He immediately knew what he was talking about, and he
showed us the documents. Not that it's any great honor in Hebron
today to be known as an Arab who saves Jews. He also showed us
documents about where the house was in which the Jews were hidden
- the house where he lived with his father. The IDF confiscated the
house, and today it houses a kindergarten for the settlers. That's how
they repaid the family for saving Jews. They took their house."
In the film, 'Id Zeitun is seen inviting Yaakov and Asher Meshorer to
come back and live in Hebron. "If the kind of Jews who lived here
once lived here instead of the settlers," he says, "it would be very
good here." Asher Meshorer explains to him that, in the present
political situation, even though he loves Hebron, he wouldn't come to
live here because he wouldn't want his return to the city to be
interpreted as support for the settlements, to which he vehemently
Dan and Noit Geva also made use of a rare film that was preserved in
the Spielberg archive of the Jerusalem Cinematheque, a film that was
shot by Yaakov Ben Dov the day after the riots. "I asked at the
archive if anyone had ever requested the film, and I found that it had
only left the archive once before - when a group of religious
extremists who had gathered at some hotel wanted to see how Arabs
could never be trusted."
The Gevas' film imparts a totally different message. All the survivors
say they don't hate Arabs at all. At most, they fear an incited mob.
Survivors and their descendants both talk about the need to make
peace. That way, Hebron could return to what it once was - a cool
paradise encircled by vineyards, where Jews and Arabs live side by
side. Noit Geva: "I learned a lot about the issue of Ashkenazim and
Sephardim. I discovered who I am, where I came from. I also
discovered another thing - that the government wants the settlers to sit
in the place where peace-loving Hebron Jews once resided. It's a fact
that they let the settlers stay there, while they don't allow other Jews
who want to return to do so. The reality is very complicated. There's
no black or white. We have to find a solution for peace quickly.".
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