Sir Herbert Samuel

This 1921 photograph shows Herbert Samuel in the centre with T.E Lawrence at Amman aerodrome.

Samuel's support for Zionism came as a surprise to those who knew him. He was not a believing Jew, although, partly out of deference to his wife, he observed the basic outward forms of the religion. Before the war he had evinced no public interest in Zionism. Yet in November 1914, immediately after the entry of the Ottoman empire into the war, he took the initiative, without prior contact with the Zionist Organization, in proposing to the cabinet that Britain sponsor the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine after the war. He promoted the idea both informally with fellow ministers and in a formal paper that was circulated to the cabinet (in which, however, the idea of a Jewish state was modified to a ‘Jewish centre’ under British protection). In December 1914 he met the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, inaugurating a political relationship that, while sometimes stormy, yielded rich fruit. Although out of office at the time of the Balfour declaration (whereby Britain undertook to facilitate the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine) in November 1917, Samuel's advocacy was an important element in the Zionists' success—particularly as against the fierce anti-Zionism of his cousin Edwin Montagu, secretary of state for India. In the spring of 1920 Samuel visited Palestine for the first time, and at the San Remo conference that April Lloyd George approved his appointment as first high commissioner in charge of the new civil administration to be established in Palestine under a League of Nations mandate.

Samuel's five years in Palestine were the most politically constructive of his career and, in a sense, its highest point. He had been knighted prior to his departure from England, but on arrival in Palestine on 30 June he was greeted by the small Jewish community as a veritable prince. He assumed authority from the military administration headed by General Sir Louis Bols, who demanded that he sign a receipt for ‘one Palestine, complete’: Samuel complied but added the common commercial escape clause, ‘E&OE’ (errors and omissions excepted).

One of Samuel's early acts as high commissioner, in August, was to visit Transjordan (at that time a political vacuum, owing to the French ejection of the emir Faisal from Damascus). Without authority, and rather against the spirit of Foreign Office instructions, he effectively annexed the territory, quadrupling the area under his control. The foreign secretary, Curzon, initially repudiated Samuel's action. That December, however, the region passed under the aegis of the Colonial Office and in March 1921 the colonial secretary, Churchill, visited Jerusalem and confirmed the addition of Transjordan to the mandatory area—with the proviso that it would be under the nominal rule of the emir Abdullah and would not form part of the Jewish national home established west of the River Jordan.

Samuel's main efforts as high commissioner were devoted to seeking the acquiescence of the Arab majority of the population in the implementation of the Balfour declaration. He proposed unsuccessfully a number of constitutional devices towards that end: a nominated advisory council that would include Arab and Jewish members, an elected legislative council with limited powers, and a representative Arab Agency after the model of the Jewish Agency established by the Zionists. None of these succeeded in damping down Arab nationalist opposition to Jewish immigration. Samuel sought to co-opt Arab nationalists by appointing some to official positions, most notably Haj Amin al-Husseini, whose election as grand mufti of Jerusalem was arranged in 1921 by the attorney-general, Norman Bentwich (Samuel's wife's nephew). In May that year violent anti-Jewish riots at Jaffa and elsewhere led Samuel to suspend Jewish immigration—an action bitterly criticized by the Zionists as a surrender to violence. Henceforward Zionist approbation turned to hostility and accusations that Samuel bent over backwards to accommodate Arab nationalism. A white paper issued in June 1922 (sometimes known as the Churchill white paper, but largely drafted by Samuel and Sir John Shuckburgh of the Colonial Office) tried to reassure the Arabs, but at the same time reaffirmed the commitment to the Balfour declaration and stressed that the Jewish national home meant that the Jews were ‘in Palestine as of right and not on sufferance’. The policy statement laid down the principle of economic absorptive capacity as the governing criterion for Jewish immigration. Over the following three years Samuel succeeded in calming the political atmosphere. By mid-1925, when his period of office ended, the Jewish national home was firmly established, Jewish immigration and land purchase were growing, and Arab nationalism seemed for the moment dormant.

Aged fifty-four, Samuel wanted to remain in Palestine, live in a house on Mount Carmel, and devote the rest of his life to writing philosophy. This wish was vetoed by his successor as high commissioner, Lord Plumer, who feared Samuel's presence would hamper his administration. Effectively expelled from the national home he had brought into being, Samuel found himself drawn back into the hurly-burly of British politics.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress

by Bernard Wasserstein

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