Shabbat Nachamu in Jerusalem 1920

by Larry Domnitch
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The Haftorah (prophetic portion) read on Shabbat Nachamu, which follows Tisha B’Av expresses the age-old message of consolation conveyed by the prophet Isaiah to a bereaved nation soon to endure a prolonged exile. In Jerusalem in 1920, a reading of that Haftorah resounded throughout the holy city and infused the people of Jerusalem with a renewed sense of hope.

Following the First World War, British military authorities in the Land of Israel, showed hostility towards Zionism, despite the 1917 Balfour Declaration issued by the British government, which called for a Jewish homeland in the Land of Israel. During Passover 1920, pogroms were perpetrated by Arabs against the Jews of the Old City of Jerusalem under the complicit eyes of
the British authorities, which also enacted measures against Zionism. A few months later, with the transition of the British military occupation to a civil mandate, it appeared that British policy might be transitioning back to a pro-Zionist course.

Prime Minister, Lloyd George, appointed a Jew, and professed Zionist, Herbert Samuel, as the first British High Commissioner of British Mandated Palestine. On July 1, 1920, Samuel disembarked from a British battleship at the port of Haifa as the
new commissioner, or, as his biographer John Bowle put it, “the first Jewish ruler in Palestine since Hyrcanus the second” (whose reign ended 40 BCE) Samuel seemed to embody the hopes of the Zionist movement. A Zionist leader, Arthur Ruppin commented in his diary on a ceremony held nine days later on the Mount of Olives in honor of Samuel’s appointment. “Until now, pronouncements about a Jewish National Home … had only been words on paper; but now they rose before us embodied in the person of a Jewish High Commissioner. … Many of the Jews present had tears in their eyes.”

On the morning of Shabbat Nachamu, July 31, 1920, Samuel, surrounded by an entourage of advisors and guards, set out on foot towards the famous Rabbi Yehudah HaChasid Synagogue in Jerusalem. He entered the Old City and spectators gathered on the streets, which were adorned with flowers, to glimpse the man who represented their highest hopes and dreams.
As he passed, they applauded and cheered. A sense of euphoria overcame the crowd. Samuel entered the Synagogue, which was filled to capacity, prepared to chant the Haftorah. Soon, he was summoned, by the Gabbai with the words, “Ya’amod HaNasi Ha’Elyon” (May the High Commissioner rise). As Samuel stood up the entire congregation also rose to their
feet. Samuel made his way to the Bimah (podium) of the Synagogue and proceeded to chant the words of the Haftorah, echoing the words of Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort My people, says G-d. Speak to her heart of Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her time [of exile] has been fulfilled, that her iniquity has been conciliated, for she has received for the Hand of G-d double for all her sins.” The entire congregation quivered upon hearing the words that embodied their greatest hopes and dreams. An aid to Samuel described the scene as “a golden moment where the Jews in the synagogue felt as if the hour of redemption had arrived.”

Despite the euphoria, Samuel did not live up to the peoples’ expectations. As an act to mollify the enemies of Zion, he appointed Haj Amin Al Husseini – a vehement anti-Zionist responsible for inciting anti-Jewish riots, and later an ardent supporter of the Nazi regime and its genocidal plans against the Jews, to the position of Mufti (Muslim religious leader) of Jerusalem.

A British policy of appeasement was set into motion and thus, the restoration of the Land to the Jewish people would be a slow and arduous process filled with daunting challenges and obstacles.

The course of events, however, did not change the sentiment of that Shabbat Nachamu. It was a special moment for the Jerusalemites who were present, in which the age-old message of Jewish hope and redemption resonated.

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