David O. McKay, Eyewitness to the Early Stirrings of the Israel-Palestine Conflict

David O. McKay as a young man, 1897.

Given the latest flare-up of the Israel-Palestine conflict, I thought it might be interesting to post LDS Apostle David O. McKay’s account of his visit to Jerusalem on November 2, 1921, the fourth anniversary of Britain’s “Balfour Declaration” proposing to establish in Palestine a national homeland for the Jews. Arab Christians and Muslims treated the anniversary as a “day of mourning,” and marched in the streets to protest the Declaration and do violence against Jews. McKay’s account is a fascinating snapshot of the earliest stages of what would become a decades-long conflict between Jews and Palestinians over ownership of the Holy Land.[1]

One interesting feature of McKay’s account is that it shows that Palestinian Christians were as angry about the Declaration as the Muslims were. This was baffling to McKay, as it might be to many Western Christians today. McKay probably should have known from the Mormon experience in Missouri, though, that Muslims have no monopoly on reacting violently to politically ambitious religious minorities.

Another interesting aspect of McKay’s account is his attitude toward the conflict, which was typical of early twentieth-century Christian Zionists and illustrates the troubling role that Christian Zionism played in creating the Israel-Palestine problem. In a startling passage, McKay seems to have been unconcerned that the streets would have to “flow with blood” in order for the Jews to achieve the supremacy he felt God had promised them. Though it should have been obvious that they were unwisely lighting a powder keg, McKay felt that the British were playing a divinely-appointed role in the restoration of Israel. He seems to have had little sympathy for Arabs whose land and self-governance the British were proposing to sign over to the Jews.

On a more sympathetic note, McKay’s account illustrates the persuasive power of the Zionist ideology. McKay’s bold prediction that the Jews would prevail militarily in the war for Palestine must have seemed exceedingly unlikely at a time when Palestine’s Jews were a cowering minority only barely protected from Arab violence by the presence of large numbers of British troops. Yet in the ensuing decades, McKay’s prediction has been dramatically fulfilled. I’d argue that the Zionist prophecy of Jewish supremacy was largely self-fulfilling, but one can nevertheless see why its success would convince many people of its religious validity.

Without further ado, I give you the account:

Wednesday, November 2, 1921

. . . Said Michael: “This is a day of mourning; today the Mohammedans and the Christians throughout Palestine unite in protesting against Lord Balfour’s declaration that Palestine shall be set apart as a gathering place for the Jews.”

This was a revelation to me! At first I was inclined to treat the matter lightly, not crediting our man with a thorough understanding of the matter; but the more we questioned him and the more clearly we discerned his bitter antipathy toward the Jews, the more convinced I became that we were going to witness this day a most significant demonstration.

Not a shop was open! Not a donkey or a camel did we see! Men and women were gathering in groups! We soon began to feel the spirit of tension in the city.

Michael was vehement—under his breath—in his protestations that the Jews shall never rule Palestine.

Said I, “Michael, standing here on the street of David, this 2nd of November, 1921, I want to tell you something to remember! No matter how much the Mohammedans and the Greek Christians oppose the Jews’ coming back to Palestine, the Jews are coming and will possess this land!”

“Never,” he cried with emphasis and bitterness. “The streets will flow with blood first!”

“The streets may and undoubtedly will flow with blood,” I answered, “but that will not prevent the Jews possessing their land. Don’t you believe your Bible?”

“I know the Bible says Jerusalem will be rebuilt,” was his admission, “but the time hasn’t come yet.”

“Yes, the time has come.” . . .

By this time, 11:30 a.m., there was a good deal of Moslem rowdyism manifest in the narrow streets of the city, and our guide was so worried that his mind was more on what was going to happen than on what happened over 1900 years ago. And so was ours in a very few minutes! As we walked up David Street, we met hundreds of Mohemmedans going toward the Mosque of Omar to pray. Suddenly behind them we heard imprecating yells and mingling with them cries for help. Hurrying forward, we saw two Jewish women, some children, and one or two men trying to escape from a mob with sticks and stones in their hands, pursuing them like hyenas after prey! I saw one fellow hurl a stone and strike a fugitive man in the back. The women’s faces were blanched with fear!

As the Jews fled past us, I raised my cane and cried to the pursuers to stop as they rushed by. Jumping in front of a youngster with a large stone in his hand which he was about to throw, I said, “What are you doing? Put down that stone!”

But he only defied me and tried to pass. Fortunately, policemen had come in behind us and had met the mob whose impetus was by this time broken, and they were being driven back; but they moved defiantly until an officer came with a whip of two lashes, which he used to good advantage. I have never seen blows given to men and boys that seemed to have been so merited!

A little farther on, we found the entrance to the street leading to what our guide said was the Jewish quarter, well guarded by about a dozen soldiers. Michael turned to the right, but we stopped, desiring to go into this part of the city to see what was going on.

“Come this way,” said Michael nervously.

“Let’s go up this street,” I suggested.

“No, you must not go there; it’s not safe!”

“Oh, it is safe enough.”

“If you go there, you go alone!”

“All right, Michael, here’s where you and we part company,” I said. “We’ll meet you at two o’clock!”

With a surprised look our guide turned away and walked rapidly out of the district.

The feeling in the street in which we now found ourselves was truly ominous. Recognizing us as Americans, the soldiers had permitted us to pass; but the huddling groups of foreign Jews seemed to eye us with suspicion. They were frightened but were consulting together and wondering what was going to happen. We tried in vain once or twice to talk to them, but none could understand English. Finally we approached a crowd in which a young man understood us and whom we could understand. In reply to our question as to what the trouble was all about, he said:

“The Mohemmedans and Christians are opposed to the Zionist movement, and they make this demonstration as a protest against Lord Balfour’s declaration that Palestine should be given as a place for the Jews.”

We had asked and received answers to only a few questions, when the men whom we could see assembled in an arched hallway, ejaculated in what seemed to me to be protesting tones.

“Are they objecting to your talking to us?”


“Well, tell them we’re Americans and favor the Jews coming back to Jerusalem. We’re Christians.”

“Then why do you wear that?” he surprised me by asking, and pointed to my stickpin—the star and crescent.

“That’s a present from my wife and has no Moslem significance.” They grouped around me, inspected it closely, and decided it had as much Jewish significance as Moslem, so we seemed to have won favor rather than to have lost it.

I shall never forget that scene in that Jewish street of Jerusalem—frightened women and children on balconies or peering out of windows—men moving about in groups expecting something, or consulting in lowered tones in ominous groups! I seemed to see not many years hence, those doorways and stone steps covered with blood in the great struggle that is impending, of which the spirit of this day is but the rumbling as of a pent-up volcano! I was glad to see the British “Tommies” around with helmets on their heads and bayonets fixed, and to see the armed motor cars pass through the streets. They had a subduing influence upon the rising spirit of what soon could be a frenzied mob.

When after lunch we met Michael, I said, “How do you do, Michael? You see we are still alive.”

“Don’t you think I was mistaken,” he said gloomily, “As soon as you left that street one man was killed and several others wounded!”


“By a bomb.”

And he told us the truth. A bomb had been thrown into the crowd, killing one man outright, mortally wounding two others and severely injuring several men.

Later in the day, near the Damascus Gate, three Jews were killed—clubbed and stoned to death in reparation and vengeance! Wild rumors were afloat, and the tension was high, so it was difficult to obtain the real facts of the situation. Official orders were cried throughout the city that no one would be permitted on the streets after 5o’clock p.m. And that order was implicitly carried out. At 6:00 p.m. the streets of Jerusalem were as deserted as a cemetery. Only the soldiers on guard and an occasional warning shot indicated the presence of the ominous spirit of the inhabitants of the Holy Land.

As I sat in my room thinking over the events of the day, only a hint of which I have here given, I was over-whelmed with the thought that we had witnessed on this 2nd of November the manifestation of a smouldering spirit of hatred which will some day in the near future cause much bloodshed!

I realized, too, the necessity of the presence of the British Government as the Protectorate of Palestine, and associated with all the events that have taken place since Lord Balfour’s declaration, the prophecy in the Book of Mormon that “The Gentiles shall be the means of restoring Israel to the Promised Land.”



[1] The transcription in this post comes from David O. McKay, Cherished Experiences from the Writings of President David O. McKay, compiled by Clare Middlemiss (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1955).


David O. McKay, Eyewitness to the Early Stirrings of the Israel-Palestine Conflict — 10 Comments

  1. This comment is not related to the main point of your post.

    I admire his gallantry. He put himself at risk to protect women and children by confronting a mob with his cane. That is a glimpse you don’t get from a political or religious discussion.

  2. I read this a couple of years ago. Sent my dad in Israel the book, as President McKay’s tour is his favourite moment in church history. I was just thinking of this passage the other day.

    The stars and crescent bit would indicate to me that these were Ashkenazi Jews, as Mizrahi Jews frequently used those symbols, but of course one can’t say for sure.

    I’m going to look and see if I can find any Hebrew material on that day. Would make for an interesting comparison.

  3. I found some information which I’ll post here. I’ll also ask my parents to send me some more.
    At any rate, the events of the 2nd of November were a lot more significant than their scope would suggest. I’m a little strapped for time, but the long and short of it is that in 1920-21 there was a series of severe riots in which many Jews were killed, including the avant-garde writer Y. H. Brenner in May of 1921. The Haganah was in its infancy, and fairly unprepared. Due to the energies of certain individuals, a small group organised the defence of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem with pistols and grenades. The man killed by the bomb (a grenade, actually) would have been the leader of the mob, a former officer in the Turkish army, but I haven’t found the name yet. The defence of Jerusalem that day was one of the early success stories of the Haganah and it helped chart the future philosophies of both that organisation and, later, the IDF. So, all in all, an interesting early eye-witness. Thanks!

  4. “One interesting feature of McKay’s account is that it shows that Palestinian Christians were as angry about the Declaration as the Muslims were.”

    At the turn of the century, the Arab Christians, particularly Greek Orthodox, were very active in publishing antisemitic editorials, more so than the Muslims. The Christians tended to be more educated, and closer to Western ideas than their Muslim counterparts. They played a pivotal, yet somewhat forgotten role in the nascent Arab nationalist movement. There was also a strong legacy of religious antisemitism.

  5. “He seems to have had little sympathy for Arabs whose land and self-governance the British were proposing to sign over to the Jews.”

    It is important to remember that McKay was also pro-Armenian, and rather anti-Turk, whom he conflated with Muslims in general. There are some interesting passages regarding this in Cannon’s “David O. McKay Around the World.”