American writer James Vincent Sheean’s first-hand reports on Palestinian-Jewish riots 65 years ago focused on the same themes as today’s conflict.

“The official…casualty lists showed 207 dead and 379 wounded among the population of Palestine, of which the dead included 87 Arabs (Christian and Moslem) and 120 Jews, the wounded 181 Arabs and 198 Jews.” No, it’s not some partial count or an incorrect update on the current Al-Aqsa uprising. In fact, the late, distinguished American journalist James Vincent Sheean included these all too familiar sounding words in his landmark nonfiction work Personal History published more than sixty-five years ago. His accounts were startling then and remain important now to any honest overview of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.

The 1935 book’s chapter entitled “Holy Land” provides his first-person account of the August 1929 provocations at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall and the Al-Aqsa Mosque that set off a firestorm of riots incredibly similar to the ones that have rocked Israel, the West Bank and Gaza since Ariel Sharon’s now infamous trek onto the mosque grounds last September 28.

“However ferocious the Arab mobs might be, however ghastly the results of their fanatical fury, I could never lose sight of the fact that they had been goaded beyond endurance…If they had killed me by mistake during these days (as they easily might have done), I should have protested with my dying breath that it was not their fault. No matter how deeply I was moved by the sufferings of the Jews, I had to retain what intelligence nature and experience had given me; and that intelligence represented the present disasters as a plain, inevitable result of the Zionist policy in an Arab country.”

The ongoing clashes since late September are obviously different from 1929 in that far more Palestinians have been killed and wounded by the Israeli military, which of course didn’t then exist. But the political and social dynamics that set off the present round of bloodshed are almost entirely identical to the causes of the conflicts more than seven decades earlier over the identical patch of ground: Jewish extremists (read Sharon and his supporters) have deliberately set off violent reactions by Palestinians who felt that their holy sites and sovereignty were being violated, scorned and challenged.

In this case, Sharon and his supporters hope to derail any chance of rekindling the battered peace process. In 1929, angry Zionists hoped to reclaim the Wailing Wall as their own (it was then owned by Palestinians) and to turn world opinion to their dream of a Jewish homeland as a calculated result of the ensuing casualties.

Sheean’s on-the-ground articles about Jerusalem in August 1929 appeared in the former New York World causing Jewish demonstrations at the newspaper and 3,000 letters of protest received in a single day at one point. That kind of reader response today on any subject is extremely rare, as it surely was in Sheean’s time. But his reportage points to the kind of painful truth deliberate journalists arrive at — a reality that flies in the face of accepted false assumptions.

In addition to the right of return for Palestinian refugees, the main point of contention in today’s stalled peace process is the final status of Jerusalem. Palestinians and the Islamic world will never accept Israeli sovereignty over the Al-Aqsa mosque grounds. And hardline Israelis are loath to accept Palestinian stewardship over land they also consider sacred because of its connection to the Wailing Wall and as the supposed site of the ancient Jewish Temple Mount. “The country was tiny and already inhabited: why couldn’t the Zionists leave it alone?,” asked Sheean. “It would never hold enough Jews to make a beginning towards the solution of the Jewish problem: it would always be prey to such ghastly horrors as those I saw every day and every night: religion, the eternal intransigence of religion, ensured that the problem could never be solved. The Holy Land seemed as near an approximation of hell on earth as I had ever seen.”

Make no mistake. In his time, Sheean saw enough close-up incidents of earthbound perditions to know the difference between good and evil and everything in between. From rebel strongholds in the Western Sahara, to revolution in China, to the Spanish Civil War, to early Communism in Russia, to Mussolini’s takeover in Italy, to Gandhi’s final struggles in India, to 1940’s civil rights in the American south, and so much more, James Vincent Sheean had a knowledge and understanding of the world’s political order that few people before the era of instantaneous mass communication ever attained.

Upon his death in March 1975, The New York Times obituary noted, “(Sheean) once said he wrote agains ‘the whole system of organized injustice by which few govern many, hundreds of millions work in darkness to support a few thousand in ease.’” And he was no anti-Semite. On the contrary, Jewish traditions and culture are praised in his works, especially in Personal History. Astonishingly, Sheean apparently was the only writer singled out by name in Nazi German decree for a total ban on his works. Other banned writers were accorded their anti-fascist bona fides by obvious associations to enemy organizations and states of the Third Reich. What greater personal real-world badge of honor for truth and integrity could there be than Sheean’s unique indictment? Pulitzer and Nobel Prize recipients have nothing on this man.

Sheean stayed on the ground in Jerusalem and traveled much of Palestine during the entire August 1929 conflict, quite unlike today’s television news anchors and feature reporters who drop in and out of the world’s hot spots usually for, what, hours at a time? And he didn’t flinch about reporting atrocities on both sides. “The horrors of Friday in Jerusalem were followed by something much worse: the ghastly outbreak at Hebron, where sixty-four Jews of the old-fashioned religious community were slaughtered and fifty-four of them wounded…They had nothing to do with the Zionist excesses.” If the August 1929 riots are remembered much today, it is only for these Hebron killings. Like the reporter he was, Sheean, however, gave context to that massacre: “But when the Arabs of Hebron — an unruly lot at best — heard that Arabs were being killed by Jews in Jerusalem, and that the Mosque of Omar (Dome of the Rock) was in danger, they went mad. The Mosque of Omar was in no danger at any time during the troubles, but Arab rumours throughout the country made it the crux of the matter.”

More than ever, Sheean’s Personal History remains an indispensable resource for anyone, reporter and layman alike, interested in the present Arab-Israeli Conflict. For most Americans with little knowledge of the causes and context of the Middle East violence exploding on their television screens daily, James Vincent Sheean has left an invaluable and timeless record. No more proof of this is needed beyond his prescient words which help to explain a seemingly unending cycle: “The disturbances of August, 1929, were sure to be repeated from time to time whenever the Zionist policy grew so obviously aggressive as to arouse popular indignation.”

The current mainstream media could fill a gaping historical vacuum by analyzing the parallels between the 1929 conflict and today’s troubles in Israel and Palestine. But then as now, a great leap of intellectual courage would be required by honest observers. And that’s a challenge Sheean knew to be more important than any street fight or military confrontation.

Portland, Oregon, December 2000.