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Response to Hillel Cohen’s Year Zero of The Arab-israeli Conflict

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Hillel Cohen’s ‘Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict’ is a conscious effort in discussing the riots that took place in Jerusalem in 1929 from a non-biased perspective. Cohen explores the riots through the different perspectives of the Jews and the Arabs. An Israeli professor specialising in Islam and Middle Eastern Studies, Cohen has written extensively about Arab and Israeli relations. What distinguishes this book from his other works such as ‘Good Arabs’ (Cohen, 2009), is how he views year 1929 as the pinnacle point of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In comparison, ‘Good Arabs’ examined a broader time frame of the Arab-Israeli conflict. 

This detailed and intricate account of the riots for some maybe hard to read. Not due to what’s written per say, (although this can be questionable at times), more so what Cohen wants us to get out of reading this book. Cohen consciously tells the story of the riots through a narrative that has no clear victim or perpetrator, (however, sometimes it feels like there is). An individual such as myself with embedded views of this conflict will struggle with this style of storytelling. Ultimately the 1929 riots brought about a level to the Arab-Israeli conflict that has not been seen yet. It must be noted here that, although as the title of the book may suggest, the riots were not responsible for Arab-Israeli conflict as a whole. This may create confusion for anyone who is unaware of the origins of this conflict. What it did create however is a life-long stamp on both memories of the Jews and the Palestinians, and detected how both groups view and interact with one another.

What stood out from the beginning is how the book is structured in such an incoherent and unchronological manner. Jumping from one period to the next and then returns to the present time in discussing important events that took place during the riots. Small subchapters were also used to discuss different stories, which is distracting to the reader. While Cohen states that this is a conscious act, it interrupts the flow of the book.

Cohen examines in depth the differences between how Jewish and Palestinian sources view the same event. This is clearly the book’s strength, however, it does lead to no definite right or wrong answer to the conflict, which may pose a struggle for some.

The main theme that Cohen emphasises is while both groups are in no way similar to one another, and produced more than one story in describing the events of 1929, very different pictures were painted. Jews viewed it as a ‘Monstrous slaughter’ of innocent people who were rightfully seeking refuge in their God-given homeland. Striking to read is the image portrayed that ‘Arabs are thirsty for Jewish blood’. Savagery is embedded within the Palestinian people and innately them. Palestinians saw themselves as victims of imperialism and colonisation. The 1929 riots were another attempt of European and Zionists forcibly de-possessing them of their land in which they have lived and cultivated for centuries. The riots therefore constituted a rational response to decades of violence which they have had to endure. Rightly so, Cohen shines a light on just how different both narratives are in discussing the riots and how both provide contradictory and unverified accounts, (again, this may be hard for some readers to accept). Most importantly, Cohen demonstrates that both narratives had very similar beginnings. Both only saw the deaths of their own people and not that of the others, and both refused to take on board any criticism that may have exposed them as being at all responsible. However, most importantly is how both groups viewed their actions as self-defence, and carried feelings fueled on national pride, protection, and devotion to their beloved holy site (the Western Wall / Wailing Wall).

While this appreciation of the contradictory narratives within the book is of great value, it can also serve as a disadvantage. Cohen occasionally would ask questions that he couldn’t answer. One example is, when discussing Hebron and Safed, quoting that “Jews were the obvious victims of the riot” (Cohen, 2015, p.258), he was unable to provide any reason as to why the Arabs were driven to kill Jews. Instead contradictory possibilities were provided. Firstly, there are no explanations as to why, which as we know already contradicts with the Jewish view of Arabs being innately murderous. Secondly he goes on to say that the reason for the murders was the Arab belief that the Jews were attempting to steal their land and identity, legitimising how the Arabs acted. Therefore creating confusion for the reader as to who are the real victim and perpetrator.

Cohen also states “studies of mass psychology show that there are deeds that we may well commit when we become part of a collective action”. These particular studies are not referenced at all in the book and Cohen does not delve further in discussing them, leaving the reader to ponder what could be the main motive

Finally, important to mention is the link Cohen makes between history and memory, a critical feature of the book. Sources rely on forged memories in recreating this event and its historical representations and relevance on today’s Arab-Israeli crisis. Cohen uses both primary and secondary sources in both the Hebrew and Arabic language within his discussion. Therefore, surprisingly there is no attempt made in evaluating the role these sources had in forging the memories which is at the heart of this book. Cohen instead suggests that both Jews and Arabs remember the riots through their own national lens. “people’s fundamental, overarching view of the world determines how they perceive historical details”. However, Cohen argues that massacres “do not get imprinted on the national memory automatically”. This statement leads us to ask the ultimate question of who or what imprinted these memories of the riots?

Regardless of the criticism Cohen received in presenting an unbiased view of events, mainly from his Hebrew and Jewish readership, he was determined to present a multiplex view of the past, and he did just that. I believe Cohen achieved his set objective, providing a two-way account of the riots from both the Palestinian and Jewish perspective. The book has obvious gaps, and many contradictions, however it shows us just how complicated this event was and still is today. Undeniably, Cohen skillfully looks at both primary and secondary sources to try to untangle the ever complex weave that is the 1929 riots, and the relationship between two very different people in a city that is filled with such religious significance.


  • Cohen, H. (2009). The Israeli security agencies and the Israeli Arabs, 1948-1967. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  • Cohen, H. (2015). Year Zero of the Arab-Israeli Conflict 1929. Brandeis University Press
  • Waltham,MA.(2016)., viewed 13 October 2019.
  • The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. (2012), Viewed 11 November 2019.

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Response to Hillel Cohen’s Year Zero of The Arab-Israeli Conflict. (2021, October 25). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 5, 2022, from
“Response to Hillel Cohen’s Year Zero of The Arab-Israeli Conflict.” GradesFixer, 25 Oct. 2021,
Response to Hillel Cohen’s Year Zero of The Arab-Israeli Conflict. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 5 Oct. 2022].
Response to Hillel Cohen’s Year Zero of The Arab-Israeli Conflict [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2021 Oct 25 [cited 2022 Oct 5]. Available from:
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