Banned by the British: Caricatures of the 1929 Palestine Riots

Meet the artist who risked time in prison by drawing the massacre of the Jews in the Land of Israel in 1929.

A human skull, bearing a threatening grimace, crudely drawn, in an almost childish fashion. Next to it rests a bloody knife. Spurts of blood that have fallen from the blade form puddles and stains on a black background, bringing to mind prehistoric cave drawings. It is unclear if this grotesque scene which we have been forced to witness has come to its end or if it is still unfolding before our eyes. “The blood is still fresh…” the viewer likely concludes, like a line from an old cop show.

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Nachum Gutman’s roaming artist’s hand was not known for its subtlety. Reality was the raw material which this Hebrew painter, known for his depictions of villages, kibbutzim and cities, sought to mold into visual art. With the release of his first book, In the Land of Lobengulu King of Zulu, in 1939, it began to inspire his writing as well.

Sometimes Gutman chose to represent reality directly, with the painting serving as a clear reflection of that which it was intended to portray. Other times, when the events were too chaotic to capture in a single painting, or too brutal to depict directly, Gutman would turn to satire, exaggerating those things which the heart and mind refused to absorb. This was the case with The Palestine Disturbances – News and Telegrams in Illustrations produced and published by Gutman in 1929 along with Nachum Eitan and Saadia Shoshani. The booklet served as a record of the murderous riots which became known in the Jewish Yishuv as the 1929 Massacres.

He was warned not to do it, that the British overlords would not be fond of the idea and that they would like the final product even less. He was told the drawings would speak for themselves if he would only agree to remove their English captions. His friends warned him that the long arm of the censor would reach him as well.

Gutman actually had some previous experience in preserving the dignity of authority figures. When he was only fifteen he painted a large portrait of Djemal Pasha at the urging of Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor Tel Aviv, to honor the visit of the Ottoman ruler of Greater Syria (a region which at the time included the Land of Israel).

When the riots began more than a decade later Gutman was already married and in his early thirties. Four years earlier he had returned from a period in Europe to settle in Tel Aviv with his wife Dora Yafeh.

Dorah and Nachum Gutman. Photograph from the book “The Hunter of Colors”, by Leah Naor, Yad Ben Zvi Publishing

The five years he had spent abroad (mainly in Vienna, Berlin and Paris) left their mark. The once shy youth, who had previously been popular mainly among associates of his father, the writer S. Ben-Zion, had now matured and developed his abilities and talents, becoming a well-known artist in his own right.

The first of the hostilities began in mid-August 1929, with an assault by an Arab mob on the Western Wall plaza following incitement by the Supreme Muslim Council. Jewish worshippers were expelled from the site and their Torah scrolls were set on fire. In the days that followed the floodgates of hatred and violence were opened. By the end of the week of riots, 67 Jews lay dead in Hebron and dozens of others had been killed in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Safed, Hulda and Be’er Tuvia.

The prevailing feeling among members of the young and vulnerable Jewish Yishuv was that the British government, which the Jews had been told to respect and protect, had not responded in kind. The Jews felt that that the British, for all their strength and might, had barely raised a finger to stop the riots – even after Jewish blood had begun to flow in the streets.

Without being asked to do so, Nachum Gutman began to formulate a response befitting his strong feelings about the events. In simple black ink he drew the riots – those that he saw and those that he read about, in rage and desperation, in the British Mandate press.

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He drew the acts of wild incitement that took place without interference.

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He drew the murders that were committed, with no justice for the perpetrators (the British judges were usually portrayed as turning a blind eye and in a few cases even expressing support for the crimes).

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He drew the Arab police reporting to their British officers: “All quiet, Sir!”

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He drew the hypocrisy contained in official British statements, among them a leaflet with a proclamation issued in Hebrew, English and Arabic by the High Commissioner John Chancellor that was dropped from Royal Air Force planes.

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When Gutman had finished the eighteen drawings that made up the booklet, he showed them to his wife Dora who looked at them doubtfully.

“You will never find a publisher who will agree to print these drawings. They’ll offend the Brits!” she told him.

Gutman knew this. “No Hebrew newspaper will dare to print a caricature offending the British authorities. They’ll shut down the paper immediately!”

Gutman knew that as well. He explained to his wife that ordinarily, he would prefer to paint beautiful, serene pictures of the Land of Israel, but not now. “Look what they’ve forced me to draw!” he told her.

Gutman gathered up the drawings and took them to Herzl Street in Tel Aviv. He laid them out on the sidewalk and waited. A crowd of emotional, stunned onlookers soon formed around them. The first to offer a response was the writer Avigdor Hameiri. He was hypnotized by a drawing depicting the looting of the city of Safed. All he was able to say was: “And in the paper they wrote: The Jews of Safed are in security in Government house. The city is quiet”.

Gutman quickly wrote the sentence down just below the drawing.

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Before long, Avraham Shlonsky and Uri Zvi Greenberg, both of them well-known poets in the Jewish Yishuv, also appeared on Herzl Street. Together with Gutman, they wrote provocative captions for each of the drawings, most of them based on real news items taken, almost without editing, from the press.

Only one drawing was added to the collection following the impromptu street exhibition. It received the caption: “The saviors of England’s honor.” This was also the only drawing not to include any hint of irony. Gutman had drawn a group of Oxfordian students who were in the country during the time of the riots and who had come to the defense of the Jewish victims.

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Emerging from the crowd that had gathered around the caricatures, Nachum Eitan approached Gutman and asked him a question which had not yet received an answer: “Where will you print the drawings?”

Eitan offered himself up as a publisher and his friend Saadia Shoshani as a printer (“I know him well. He’s brave. He’ll agree, surely.”). After two days of hard work the booklet was published – about half of the time it took for the British police to ban it. Before long though, an order was issued prohibiting any selling or viewing of the booklet.

Only the intervention of Mayor Dizengoff and other dignitaries of the Yishuv saved Gutman and his partners from facing prosecution. Shoshani’s printing press, which was shut down after the publishing of the pamphlet, reopened after he explicitly promised not to print it again. Shoshani passed the printing clichés on to Eliezer Levin-Epstein, the owner of a famous Warsaw-based printing press, where they were also translated into Yiddish. Thanks to the translation, the booklet achieved great success throughout the Jewish world. The drawings themselves were also printed separately in the international Jewish press.

Nachum Gutman’s free hand forced us to take a long hard look directly at the riots, which later historians, as well as those who experienced them, labeled as “the opening shot of the Arab-Jewish conflict”, a struggle we are still living with today.

This article is based on Leah Naor’s wonderful biography of Nachum Gutman, “The Hunter of Colors”, published in 2012 by Yad Yitzhak Ben Zvi Publishing.

Pictures courtesy of the Nachum Gutman Museum of Art.

“Burn them, as my world and everything I loved burned in Auschwitz’s crematorium”

Yehiel De-Nur felt that "Yehiel Feiner" was destroyed in the Holocaust, and so he wished to destroy the book he published before the Holocaust

Author Yehiel Feiner, born in 1909, is known as one of the greatest authors to write about the Holocaust and its aftermath. Feiner renamed himself Yehiel De-nur and later chose a pen name imbued with meaning: Ka-Tsetnik 135633, taken from KZ – the short form the Nazis used for “Konzentrationslager,” German for concentration camp. The name therefore literally meant – “Concentration camp prisoner number 135633”

Before the Holocaust, in 1931, Yehiel Feiner published a book of Yiddish poetry titled “Twenty-Two” (צווייאונצוואנציק in Yiddish). After the war, any time he heard there was a copy of the book available at the National Library of Israel, Ka-Tsetnik would come to the Library, borrow out the book, and destroy it. Ka-Tsetnik did this three times between 1953 and 1993.

Ka-Tsetnik’s letter to Shlomo Goldberg, 1993

In 1953 and 1964 he burned the available copies of his book. In 1993, he wrote a letter to Shlomo Goldberg, the manager of the library stacks at the time, about the third and last time he destroyed the book. He shredded the publication and sent the remains of the book together with the letter in an envelope to Goldberg.

Pieces of the copy shredded by Ka-Tsetnik

“I have another request: I placed here the remains of the ‘book.’ Please, burn them as my world and everything I loved burned in Auschwitz’s crematorium.”

It seems that Yehiel De-Nur felt that Yehiel Feiner had been destroyed in the Holocaust, along with everything dear to him. Moreover, De-Nur viewed everything Feiner created before the Holocaust as meaningless. As far as he was concerned, the Holocaust had utterly destroyed the world that existed before. Ka-Tsetnik, writing after the Holocaust, had nothing to do with Feiner and the work he created and published.

Ka-Tsetnik collapses during Adolf Eichmann’s trial, 1961. Photo credit: GPO

During Eichmann’s trial where De-Nur was a witness, Ka-Tsetnik called Auschwitz “another planet”. For Ka-Tsetnik there were three distinct worlds, before the Holocaust, during the Holocaust, and after the Holocaust and everything that he had created before the Holocaust could not be tolerated.

Yehiel De-Nur passed away on July 17, 2001. The Library still holds an intact copy of the book De-Nur tried so hard to destroy.

Hannah Senesh’s Final Letter

The letter addressed to her brother George was written in English to ensure it would pass through the British military censors.

Hannah Senesh at Kibbutz Sdot Yam

My dear George!

I send to you again a short letter to make you know, that we are quite ‘O-K,’ and that’s all. I guess all my acquaintances and relations are cross with me, that I never wrote and are perhaps even angry with me. Please try to explain the situation, if possible, if not they will forgive me later.

Hannah and George Senesh (Szenes), from the Senesh Family Collection in the Kibbutz Sdot Yam Archives.

To mother I do not write now either and your letters must replace the mine. For this reason, I give you the right even to forge my signature, hoping you will not use it for “high financial obligations.”

Letter sent from Hannah Senesh to her brother George. Click to enlarge the image. From the National Library of Israel collections

No use writing that I would like to see you, to talk to you and at least to write more detailed letters. I hope you know that very well, and I get your letters with great delay but sooner or later they reach me, and I am always ever so glad to hear about you. Thousand kisses to you and warm greetings to your friends from home.

From Hannah

Letter sent from Hannah Senesh to her brother George. Click to enlarge the image. From the National Library of Israel collections.

On May 20th, 1944, the Jewish paratrooper Hannah Senesh found herself in Croatia, not far from the Hungarian border. Two months earlier she had been parachuted into the region by the British Royal Air Force, in a desperate attempt to save Jews of neighboring Hungary from the Nazi death camps. On this day, Hannah Senesh sat down to write what would become the last letter she ever sent to her beloved brother George. At the time of writing, she had joined up with a group of local partisan resistance fighters.

In just a few short weeks, they would be be captured and tortured by Hungarian forces loyal to the Nazi regime. Six months later, Hannah would be executed by firing squad.

Hannah Senesh and her brother George Senesh . From the Senesh Family Collection in the Kibbutz Sdot Yam Archives.

Hannah Senesh’s last letter was written in English. This was because all letters were required to go through the British army censor before they were sent on to their intended recipients. Senesh wanted to be sure the letter would be approved without any issues so that it would make it to her brother.

Hannah Senesh was executed on November 7, 1944.


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Let My People Serve! How a Jew Became Mayor of London Against the Odds

David Salomons made it his life’s mission to put an end to the religious restrictions imposed on the Jews of England that forbid them from participation in political and civil life.

Anti-Semitic cartoon published when David Salomons ran for public office. From "Life of Sir David Salomons from Newspaper Cuttings 1831-1869", the National Library of Israel collections

For the Jews of England in the mid-19th century, the idea of holding public office was not only outlandish, it was practically impossible due to the religious restrictions, known as religious disabilities, imposed on the Jewish community that excluded them from participation in the political, municipal and civil life of the country.

For David Salomons, the emancipation of the Jews of England became his life’s mission. Born in London in 1797 to Levi Salomons, a prominent stockbroker, David joined the family business and under the tutelage of his father, he became a successful member of the stock exchange.

David felt that a person’s religious beliefs were meant to be private and should be of no public concern – assuming the principles were moral and in line with the views of the state – and that his beliefs and his religion should in no way limit his personal rights or ability to serve the public.

David Salomons. From the Abraham Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel

Eager to remove the religious restrictions imposed on the Jewish community, David decided it was time to break down barriers and boldly announced his candidacy for the Office of the High Sheriff. While his candidacy initially faced opposition, on June 24, 1835, David Salomons became the first Jew to ever be successfully elected to the sheriff’s office. Little did he know that this was just the beginning of the difficult fight he would face throughout his political career.

In order to officially take up his position as sheriff, David was required to take the oath of office – an oath including the phrase, “I make this declaration upon the true faith of a Christian.” This was an oath that no professing Jew could take. Thankfully, just as it seemed David would need to forfeit his seat, the government stepped in and the Sherriff’s Declaration Act was quickly passed, allowing David to take on the role without making the declaration. This declaration was hailed as a triumph over prejudice and a furtherance of civil rights and privileges.

Unfortunately, the law did not take David’s side when he was elected Alderman of the City of London in December of 1835. When David would not take the oath, his election was declared null and void and a new election was held.

Campaign poster. From Life of Sir David Salomons from Newspaper Cuttings 1831-1869, the National Library of Israel collections

David, with the help of other prominent Jews, petitioned the court to make changes to the law, to no avail. David took a chance and again ran for the position of Alderman – this time for the Portsoken Ward. This political race brought with it a new wave of anti-Semitic rhetoric that reared its ugly head in the articles and cartoons in the local papers. Though he was successfully elected, he was once again barred from holding office after refusing to take the oath.

Cartoon published in the local paper when David Salomons ran for Alderman of Portsoken. From Life of Sir David Salomons from Newspaper Cuttings 1831-1869, the National Library of Israel collections

Finally, after years of petitioning and legal action, in 1845, the Jewish Disabilities Removal Bill was successfully passed and a different declaration was composed for Jews elected to public office. Instead of professing to the Christian religion, Jews would vow not to act in a way that would undermine the power of the church.

The oath to be taken by Jews entering public office. From Life of Sir David Salomons from Newspaper Cuttings 1831-1869, the National Library of Israel collections

“I, being a person professing the Jewish religion, having conscientious scruples against subscribing the declaration contained in an act… do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare that I will not exercise any power or authority or influence which I may possess… to injure or weaken the Protestant Church as it is by law established in England.

The next time David ran for Alderman in 1847, he was granted his seat and was permitted to take office after reciting the new oath. That did not stop the anti-Semites from continuing their tirades against him in the press with journalists referring to Salomons as “only half an adlerman.”

The Lord Mayor, David Salomons. From The Abraham Schwadron Collection at the National Library of Israel

Years later, having served now as sheriff and alderman, and with no religious hindrances in his way, David was elected to the high office of Lord Mayor of London. On November 9, 1855, Mayor-Elect Alderman David Salomon was officially sworn in as Lord Mayor, taking a vow that did not deny his own faith.

Program for the Lord Mayor’s Show on November 9, 1855. From Life of Sir David Salomons from Newspaper Cuttings 1831-1869, the National Library of Israel collections

The Lord Mayor’s Show, a lavish procession and banquet celebration in honor of the new mayor, took place in accordance with tradition. The newly minted Jewish mayor was paraded through the streets with flag bearers, soldiers, drummers and trumpeters walking ahead of his carriage on the way to a bountiful banquet featuring over 1,000 bottles of wine and a decadent dinner. The cost of the celebrations totaled 2,813 pounds, approximately 100,000 dollars today.

The account from the Lord Mayor’s Show. From the National Library of Israel’s European Ephemera Collection

For the Jews of London, the celebration was about more than the appointment of a new mayor; it was a celebration of new rights and new opportunity.

Image from a souvenir featuring drawings of the full procession from the Lord Mayor’s Show on November 9, 1855. From the National Library of Israel’s European Ephemera Collection

Despite facing tremendous opposition and shocking anti-Semitic rhetoric, David Salomons never lost sight of his ultimate ambition: to bring equality and respect to the Jewish community of England.

His persistence and passion drove him to serve in the British parliament, a position that required even more changes in the law to allow for Jews to serve in the government on a national level. His dedication and determination to change the discriminatory laws helped pave the way for future Jewish British leaders and politicians to leave their marks on history.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.