Winston Churchill in Jerusalem, 1921
by David Semple
Jerusalem was liberated from Turkish rule by General Allenby’s army on December 11 1917, when the last German troops left the city. Accompanied by T E Lawrence, Allenby walked through Jaffa Gate in a ceremony watched by rabbis, muftis, patriarchs, consuls and the Mayor of Jerusalem. Lawrence called it “the supreme moment of the war, the one which for historical reasons made a greater appeal than anything on earth.”
The Zionists were seen by Britain as an engine for the revival of the Middle East. Western Palestine, in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence of 1915, had specifically been excluded from the Ottoman territories promised to the Hashemite Arabs. In 1918, the Zionist Commission came to Palestine and Chaim Weizmann travelled over the desert with Lawrence to meet Emir Faisal, the Hashemite leader who started the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, near Aqaba. Weizmann told Faisal that the Jews would develop the country under British protection. Lawrence saw the Jews as “natural importers of Western leaven so necessary for countries in the Near East.” Faisal “accepted the possibility of future Jewish claims to territory in Palestine.”
When the three men met later in London, Faisal agreed that Palestine could absorb “four to five million Jews without encroaching on the rights of the Arab peasantry.” He approved a Jewish majority in Palestine provided he received the crown of Syria. There followed a written document in Paris in January 1919, signed by Faisal and Weizmann, in which the Emir agreed to “the fullest guarantee for carrying into effect the British Government’s Declaration of the 2nd of November 1917″ and enforcing all necessary measures to “encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale.” In a letter to the Zionists, Faisal wrote, “We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement” and that, “we will do our best, in so far as we are concerned, to help them through: we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home.” Faisal felt that “there exists room in Syria for us both and that neither can be a success without the other.”
Because of the terms of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, in which the French agreed with the British to the creation of independent Arab states after the war subject to British and French spheres of influence, Faisal only reigned briefly over an independent Kingdom of Syria in 1920 before the San Remo Conference proposed the setting up of the French Mandate in Syria and British Mandates in Mesopotamia and Palestine. Originally, the United States was meant to control these Mandates, but the American postwar administration refused to take this option up, preferring to retreat back into political isolation and stay out of European and Imperial affairs. Lloyd George and the French politicians, who had imperial ambitions in the Middle East, were relieved to see this American retreat from their responsibilities. In the Sykes-Picot Agreement, France was given a stake in Palestine and the former Ottoman vilayet of Mosul, but France agreed to transfer these spheres of influence to Britain during the Peace Conference in Paris.
The British military administration in Jerusalem under Colonel Sir Ronald Storrs, “the first military governor of Jerusalem since Pontius Pilate,” according to Michael Korda, continued from the end of 1917 until the summer of 1920. Storrs got on well with both Jews and Arabs, although he did complain about being “pogrommed.” He also warned Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader, that many British officers in Palestine were reading the infamous antisemitic book, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and that they believed it. A supporter of Zionism, Storrs tried also to protect the rights of Arabs in Palestine. His administration was, however, beginning to come unstuck after the Nebi Musa riots in April of 1920. This was during the same month in which Britain was officially assigned the League of Nation Mandates for Palestine and Mesopotamia, now called Iraq, at the San Remo Conference. The Palestine Mandate included the responsibility to carry out the terms of the Balfour Declaration of November 1917.
There is evidence that the Nebi Musa riots of 1920 were inspired by British officers high in the military Administration who were unsympathetic to Zionism. One such officer told Haj Amin al-Husseini, an anti-Jewish Muslim agitator from a distinguished Arab family in Jerusalem, “he had a great opportunity at Easter to show the world” that Zionism “was unpopular not only with the Palestine Administration but in Whitehall and if disturbances of sufficient violence occurred in Jerusalem at Easter, both General Bols and General Allenby would advocate the abandonment of the Jewish Home.”
The Nebi Musa Festival (Musa is Arabic for Moshe/Moses) at Easter was unique to Jerusalem. Al-Husseini declared his support for the Hashemite Emir Faisal, who that month had proclaimed himself to be King of Syria. The British administration withdrew their troops, together with members of the Jewish police, out of Jerusalem. The Jerusalem Arabs then came out onto the streets in a frenzied demonstration of Arab nationalism. This rapidly turned into an angry protest against the Balfour Declaration and the rise of Jewish immigration to Palestine. Then it became a full-fledged pogrom, the first of many such Arab pogroms which would discolour the landscape of Palestine over the next few decades of British rule. Amidst a crowd of nearly 70,000, their leaders incited the Arabs to use force against Jews. Arabs began attacking Jews in the Old City, shouting slogans like “Palestine is our land, the Jews are our dogs!” Six Jews were killed. The Jewish Quarter was plundered and many hundreds of Jews suffered injuries. Some Jews fought back, including former Jewish Brigade officer Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who was put in charge of Jewish self-defence in Palestine by the Council of Delegates of the World Zionist Organization. Both Jabotinsky and al-Husseini were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms, later to be released after the new High Commissioner gave a general amnesty for Arabs and Jews involved in the riots.
The military administration in Palestine was finally replaced by a civil administration under the first British High Commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel. Some of the Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s colleagues in London were having second thoughts about the Balfour commitments following the Nebi Musa riots. “Palestine is costing us 6 millions a year to hold,” wrote the usually enthusiastic Zionist-supporting War Minister, Winston Churchill, to Lloyd George in June 1920, “The Zionist movement will cause friction with the Arabs. The French…are opposed to the Zionist movement & will try to cushion the Arabs off on us as the real enemy. The Palestine venture… will never yield any profit of a material kind.” Churchill had been warning for some time that Parliament would not make sufficient funds available to hold the Middle East, arguing that Britain would not have enough troops available for the task. Thus he wanted to stop supporting the Greek campaign against Ataturk in Smyrna, in Asia Minor, and come to an arrangement with the Turks, to whom Lloyd George was hostile. Matters were made worse by the outbreak of an Arab uprising in Iraq just as Arab-Jewish relations in Palestine deteriorated badly. Over one hundred thousand British and Indian troops were required to crush the rebellion, driving the costs of Britain’s new imperial adventures in the region through the roof. To add to the problems in Iraq and Palestine, the French Army had kicked King Faisal out of Iraq during the summer. His older brother Abdullah then set out with hundreds of Arab followers into the desert to Ma’an, across the Jordan River to the east. From here Abdullah announced that he intended to attack the French Mandates of Lebanon and Syria in order to restore his brother to power.
Sir Herbert Samuel was a distinguished Liberal politician, and former Home Secretary. Samuel was one of the early proponents of creating a Jewish home in Palestine under British rule. He was also the first practising Jew to serve as a cabinet minister in a British government. Samuel later became leader of the Liberal Party during the early 1930s. Most significantly, he was the first Jew to govern the Land of Israel in almost two millennia. Precisely because he was Jewish, Samuel went out of his way to try to mediate even-handedly between the Zionist politicians and Arab leaders, an almost impossible task in the electric environment of Arab-Jewish relations during the Mandate. Then, during the following year, in perhaps the greatest act of misjudgement made by a British official in Palestine, Samuel appointed the same Haj Amin al-Husseini who provoked the April pogrom as Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the titular religious leader of the Palestinian Arabs.
The riots had elevated the influence of al-Husseini within the Arab community. He was able to use his family influence to get control over the mosques, the schools and the courts. There were several Arab families who competed for power in the Arab community of Jerusalem, including the Khalidis, the Nashashibi clan and the al-Husseinis. They had battled for influence under the Ottomans and went on to do the same under the British. After being appointed Grand Mufti, al-Husseini, an Islamist hater of Jews, emerged as the most influential and effective leader of Arab community in Palestine. Thus al-Husseini instigated a bitter century of conflict between Palestinian Jews and Palestinian Arabs. This later widened into a series of larger Arab-Israeli wars, initially incited by the Grand Mufti, but later continued by Muslim terrorist organizations like the PLO. The Grand Mufti was influenced by Turkish leader Mestapha Kemel, now in the process of driving the Greeks out of Anatolia as the Ottoman Empire collapsed. He organised Fedayeen suicide groups to terrorise Jews in the hope of driving them out of Palestine. Haj Amin al-Husseini did more to undermine the future of the Arab community in Palestine than any other Arab leader. He fought both Jews and moderate Arabs in order to undermine any hope of peace between these two antithetical and disparate communities, finally nailing his flag to the mast of Nazi Germany after starting an Arab Revolt against British rule on the eve of the Second World War. In the most delusional acts of Arab over-confidence he later turned down the most generous offer the Palestinian Arabs were ever receive from Britain for a Muslim Palestinian state.
In January 1921, Prime Minister David Lloyd George appointed Winston Churchill as Colonial Secretary. Churchill had been the most dynamic and controversial minister in the British wartime administrations. As First Lord Of The Admiralty he was responsible for the disastrous failure to break the eastern front against the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli, which was an imaginative plan to knock the Turks out of the war early, but did not come off according to plan, instead leading to a massive death toll of British and Commonwealth troops. However, he was also the brilliant Minister of Munitions who developed the army tank, which tipped the balance in Britain’s favour at the end of the war.
Lloyd George was the driving force in Britain behind the Balfour Declaration. He knew that Winston Churchill was a philosemite and that he would be the best person to sort out the disastrous situation in Iraq and Palestine. Churchill promised the Arabs that they would “share in the benefits and progress of Zionism.” Most importantly, he felt that the persecution of Jews in Russia created a problem for the whole world; a problem whose only solution was the creation of a Jewish home in Palestine. Churchill was a supporter of Jewish nationalism, as he had written early in 1920: “If, as may well happen, there should be created in our own lifetime by the banks of the Jordan a Jewish State under the protection of the British Crown which might comprise three or four million Jews, an event will have occurred in this history of the world which from every point of view be beneficial and would be especially in harmony with the truest interests of the British Empire.”
As Colonial Secretary, Churchill was given special responsibility for Britain’s mandates for Iraq and Palestine. Lloyd George told Churchill that it was of the utmost importance he reduce the administrative costs of governing these former parts of the Ottoman Empire. Just a few months earlier, however, Churchill had tried to convince Lloyd George to withdraw from northern Iraq for strategic reasons. He was a critic of the prime minister’s overall strategy in the region, saying that Britain had become over-extended in the Middle East. Now, as Colonial Secretary, he was given overall control of Middle Eastern policy. He now had to accept the fact that Britain was going to establish a long-term presence in the region. His new task was to reduce Britain’s direct commitments in the Middle East and arrange for Britain’s interests in the region to be protected by offering financial subsidies to local national rulers and defensive arrangements for them using squadrons of the Royal Air Force. Churchill thought his task would be made much easier if he was able to improve Britain’s relations with the Turkish national movement under Mustapha Kemal. Lloyd George was completely opposed to the Turkish takeover of Asia Minor, the former Ottoman territory of Anatolia. He saw Constantinople as a “hot bed of every Eastern vice.” In contrast to Churchill, Lloyd George thought that the Turks were “shifty”‘ and that Greece was now the “coming power in the Mediterranean.” But Churchill argued, “We ought to come to terms with Mustapha Kemal and arrive at a good peace with Turkey” instead of supporting Greek and Italian territorial claims in Anatolia. He continued to argue to Lloyd George that the Ottoman Empire should be restored to its pre-war frontiers, even suggesting the European powers renounce their claims on Syria, Iraq and Palestine. Lloyd George continued what Churchill called his “vendetta against the Turks” until the Chanak Crisis of 1922. By this time, Churchill had abandoned his support of Turkish nationhood and came round to supporting Lloyd George’s planned war against the Turks in support of Greece. This lead to the end of the Coalition Government in October 1922, together with the political downfall of both Lloyd George and Churchill.
Cairo Conference, March 1921
Churchill saw the dark side of extremism buried within the Muslim religion. Speaking about the new King in Arabia in the House of Commons two months after returning from Palestine, Churchill highlighted the Saud family’s membership of the Wahabi sect, “a form of Mohammedanism which bears, roughly speaking, the same relationship to orthodox Islam as the most militant version of Calvinism would have borne to Rome in the fiercest times of religious wars.” Churchill went on to say that the Wahabis “profess a life of exceeding austerity, and what they practice themselves they rigorously enforce on others. They hold it as an article of duty, as well as faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions and to makes slaves of their wives and children. Women have been put to death in Wahabi villages for simply appearing on the streets. It is a penal offense to wear a silk garment. Men have been killed for smoking a cigarette and, as for the crime of alcohol, the most energetic supporter of the temperance cause in this country falls far behind them. Austere, intolerant, well-armed, and bloodthirsty, in their own regions the Wahabis are a distinct factor which must be taken into account, and they have been, and still are, very dangerous to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina”.
Thus it was that in 1921 that Winston Churchill saw the future. He understood, much better than anyone of his generation, the danger to the West posed by Muslim fundamentalism almost a century ago.
Before setting out for Cairo and Jerusalem, Churchill received advise from his senior advisors that the seemingly contradictory promises made to Jews and Arabs were in fact not in conflict with each other at all. The McMahon-Hussein correspondence of 1915 had specifically included the Ottoman districts of Damascus, Homs, Hamas and Aleppo, but did not include either Palestine or Jerusalem. T E Lawrence, Sir John Shuckburgh (Deputy Secretary at the Colonial Office), and Hubert Young (Assistant Secretary in the Middle Eastern Department), had all participated in the Arab Revolt. They unanimously agreed that if Palestine east of the Jordan River was offered to the Arabs, then all the land west of the Jordan was available for the Jewish National Home. As far as Lloyd George and Sir Arthur Balfour were concerned, however, the Jewish “National Home” was always meant to mean a Jewish State. Thus was born the idea of making Trans-Jordan an Arab Palestinian state. According to Sir Henry McMahon, “It was as fully my intention to exclude Palestine” from the lands pledged to the Hashemites. He had not included the Jordan River as the most westerly border of Arab control as he hoped to find a proper border east of the river near the Hijaz Railway. Chaim Weizmann pleaded with Churchill to extend the border of Jewish Mandate deep into Trans-Jordania, which the Zionist leader insisted “has from the earliest time been an integral and vital part of Palestine”. Churchill, however, was not guided by Weizmann’s arguments.
The new Colonial Secretary set out for Egypt on March 1 to attend the Cairo Conference, which began on March 12.
The Semiramis Hotel was the first hotel in Cairo to be built on the Nile River. It was such a grand hotel that Egyptians called it their “Queen of the Nile.” Adorned with hanging gardens and beautiful rooms that reflected the cultures of three continents, Europe, Africa and Arabia, it was filled with life-sized ebony statues, red-carpeted staircases and exquisite chandeliers. Here amidst all the exotic splendour of Egypt during two weeks in March 1921, Winston Churchill and his officials carried out a series of meetings designed to set out a new policy for the Middle East. Military leaders and civil administrators pored over the often conflicting set of British policies laid out in British correspondence with the Hashemites, the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Churchill appointed T E Lawrence as a special advisor to the Colonial Office. “Lawrence of Arabia” was a strong supporter of the Sharifian solution, favouring the Hashemites as rulers of Iraq and Syria. Having suffered much guilt, because of the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot Agreement, in getting the King of the Hijaz’ support in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, Lawrence wanted to reward the Arabs with a degree of sovereignty in their own lands. Gertrude Bell, the eccentric English aristocrat who had explored the region during the war, was appointed Oriental Secretary to the High Commissioner of Iraq, Sir Percy Cox, who was also in attendance. Sir Herbert Samuel from Palestine and General Allenby, now High Commissioner of Egypt, participated in the conference, along with other senior British military and civil administrators.
In Cairo, it was Lawrence’s Sharifian plan that prevailed in the end. The British now felt it was imperative to bring the Hashemites back onside after the fallout from Faisal’s removal from the throne of Syria. Faisal and Abdullah were more of a threat to Britain left out of power than they would be in power. Tensions between Abdullah and the French were very high following the end of his brother Faisal’s brief reign as King of Iraq. The India Office, like the Cairo Office, now supported the concept of government in the Middle East through protectorates rather than through direct British rule. This strengthened support for the Lawrence’s Sharifian solution, wherein the Arab territories would be ruled by the sons of the Hashemite King in Arabia. Lloyd George greatly exaggerated the role the Arabs played in the conquest the Middle East during the war for political reasons, in order to get French support. Thus it was that Churchill was unaware of this and was prepared to accept Lawrence’s claim that Britain owed much to the military adventures of the Hashemites.
The Colonial Secretary had come to Cairo with a policy of reducing costs in the region. Unlike General Allenby, Churchill was wary of Arab nationalism. Allenby won the argument with regard to Egypt, however. The Allenby Declaration gave Egypt formal independence, subject to British rights of control over defence and the foreign policy of the Egyptian government. The Cairo Conference resulted in the complete makeover of the newly acquired British territories in the Middle East. Faisal was to be offered the throne of Iraq, subject to consultations with the people of Mesopotamia. The Kurdish areas in Mosul were to be absorbed into the new kingdom. This finally ended the idea, originally supported by President Wilson, of creating an independent Kurdish state. Also forgotten were the local ethnic minorities, including Assyrians and Christians, who one hundred years later would end up suffering so badly under the rule of ISIS.
Having accepted the proposals set out by the Middle Eastern Department in London, Churchill decided to separate Trans-Jordan from Palestine to form an Arab state. In the eastern part of the Palestine Mandate, across the River Jordan, the British feared the worst from Abdullah’s threat to attack Syria. They feared this could lead to a retaliatory French attack on Palestine. Churchill therefore took it upon himself to arrange to meet Emir Abdullah in Jerusalem, having decided to offer Abdullah a role to play in the eastern part of the Palestine Mandate which was to become known as Trans-Jordan.
Churchill was attempting to buy off Abdullah’s claims on Syria in return for the offer of a position in Palestine. In preparation for this, Churchill brought with him from London a memorandum which limited the Balfour Declaration to Western Palestine, west of the Jordan River, in return limiting the territory of Arab independence to only that east of the Jordan. The Balfour Declaration never contained details of the Jewish homeland’s geographical borders. What we see at Cairo is Churchill’s proposal of a “Two-State Solution” for Mandate Palestine, a Jewish country to the west of the river and an Arab country to the east. Abdullah’s rule over that part of the Mandate was originally meant to be for a temporary period. Today, his great-grandson sits on the throne of Jordan. Trans-Jordan would become “an Arab province or adjunct of Palestine,” according to Churchill. For Lawrence, Abdullah was “a person who is not too powerful, and who is not an inhabitant of Trans-Jordania, but who relied on His Majesty’s Government for the retention of his office.”
During the Cairo Conference, Winston Churchill met a delegation of Arabs from Palestine. Churchill refused to discuss any political matters with them. Instead, he proposed a meeting with them in Jerusalem. Churchill and Samuel left Egypt for the over-night train to Gaza on the evening of Wednesday March 23. They arrived in Palestine the next morning only to be greeted by an Arab demonstration against the British Mandate. Arabs crowds in Gaza shouted “Down with the Jews” and “Cut their throats.” The Colonial Secretary met the Mayor of Gaza, who presented him with a list of demands from Muslim-Christian associations in Haifa. As Churchill and Sir Herbert Samuel waved at the Arab crowd, they did not realize the crowd were chanting anti-Jewish slogans. They heard “Cheers for the Minister” not “Death to the Jews”. T E Lawrence knew what the Arabs were shouting, but he did not dare to repeat this to Churchill.
Upon arrival in Jerusalem, Churchill took up residence at the peak of Mount Scopus in Government House. He did preparatory work there over the next few days for his upcoming meetings with Arab and Jewish officials. To relax, he took up painting, a hobby he had acquired late in life. His painting, “A View Of Jerusalem,” was a picture he painted of the sunset of the Holy City.
Arab demonstrations against Jewish immigration broke out in Haifa the day after Churchill’s arrival in Jerusalem on Friday March 25. He now found himself in a nightmare world filled with Arab Jew-hatred, political violence and street demonstrations. All public meetings in Palestine were banned by the Mandate authorities during Churchill’s visit. This did not stop the Arab violence. Police tried to break up the demonstrators without success. More violence followed and the police fired on the Arab crowds. More anti-Jewish riots broke out after an Arab Christian boy and a Moslem woman were killed. There followed many injuries to both Jews and members of the police.
Two days after arriving in Jerusalem, Churchill visited the British Military Cemetery on the Mount of Olives. This cemetery was home to the graves of over two thousand British and Empire soldiers. After attending a service of dedication, he made a short speech. “It was a company of many people and diverse faiths which met to commemorate the victorious dead who had given their lives to liberate the land and bring about peace and amity amongst its inhabitants, but there remained the duty and responsibility on those who were present to see that the task was completed” said Churchill, “These veteran soldiers lie here where rests the dust of the Khalifs and Crusaders and the Maccabees. Peace to their ashes, honour to their memory and may we not fail to complete the work which they have begun.” Three volleys were then fired by the guard of honour. Then came the sound of the Last Post.
The Palestine to which Winston Churchill arrived in 1921, during the only visit to the Holy Land made during his entire lifetime, contained a Jewish population of just over 83,000 people, whilst that of the Arabs west of the Jordan River had already risen to 660,000, which was down to mass Muslim immigration from other parts of the Ottoman Empire during the years proceeding the British conquest. There were no Jews living east of the Jordan. Churchill’s primary reason for visiting Jerusalem was to meet Abdullah to offer him an Arab state in Trans-Jordan, subject to the Emir’s acceptance of a Jewish National Home in Western Palestine. He also wanted Abdullah to help in stopping anti-Zionist agitation in the Jewish area.
Together with Sir Herbert Samuel, Churchill met Abdullah in Jerusalem on Monday March 28 at Government House. Churchill made it clear to the Arab Emir that, if the Arabs did not interfere with the Zionist project in the territory west of the Jordan River, Britain would not apply the Zionist clauses in Eastern Palestine across the river. Churchill proposed to Emir Abdullah that the Trans-Jordan part of Mandate Palestine become an Arab province run by an Arab governor who would recognise British control over the Arab Administration. The Arab governor would report to Britain’s High Commissioners for Palestine and Trans-Jordan. Abdullah offered to take control of the entire Mandate Palestine, reporting direct to Sir Herbert Samuel. When that idea was rejected by Churchill, Abdullah suggested uniting Palestine and Iraq as the best way of uniting Jews and Arabs. This too was rejected by Churchill.
Abdullah raised fears that the Arab population felt they were being kicked out of Western Palestine to make way for Jewish immigrants. “The Allies appeared to think that men could be cut down and transplanted in the same way as trees.” Churchill tried to allay his fears: “Jewish immigration would be a very slow process and the rights of the existing non-Jewish population would be strictly preserved.”
He then went on to promise that “Trans-Jordan would not be included in the present administrative system of Palestine, and therefore the Zionist clauses of the mandate would not apply. Hebrew would not be made an official language in Trans-Jordan, and the local Government would not be expected to adopt any measures to promote Jewish immigration and colonisation.”
Churchill and Sir Herbert Samuel suggested to Abdullah that he may have a more important role to play in the greater region if he could successfully control Syrian nationalist agitation against the French. Churchill did not promise, but he did suggest to Abdullah that, should he prove to be a successful governor in Trans-Jordan, he may yet become Emir of Syria, perhaps at some point in the future. Abdullah agreed to halt his advance to Syria. In return, he would administer Trans-Jordan, the area east of the Jordan River, and he would receive cash subsidies from Britain. Churchill and Samuel made it clear that, if the Arabs did not interfere with the Zionist project in the territory west of the Jordan River, Britain would not apply the Zionist clauses in Eastern Palestine across the river.
Abdullah never gave up his ambition to control the whole of Palestine. He felt that he was the best person to guarantee the survival of a Jewish State in the Middle East, if that state were to be an independent political entity within a larger Hashemite Kingdom. Indeed, unlike the other Arab leaders in the region, Abdullah was willing to negotiate with the representatives of the Jewish Agency. It is fair to say that he was not at heart a Jew-hater, unlike most of the leaders of the Arab world. But Abdullah was a much smarter politician than his fellow Muslim leaders. He understood the value that the Zionists could add to the development of the Middle East, and in particular the Arab world, just as did Lloyd George, Churchill and other British leaders who supported the Balfour Declaration. Abdullah never gave up his hope that one day he would become the Emir of a united Arab state which included all of Syria, Iraq and Palestine. Sadly, the Jewish War of Independence and the rise of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, with the latter’s Islamo-Nazi ideology, put an end to Abdullah’s dreams of a greater Arab kingdom.
In 1937, Abdullah supported the proposals of the Peel Commission, which would have created an independent Jewish State in Palestine and merged the Arab parts of the Mandate with Trans-Jordan. These proposals were accepted by the Jewish Agency, but rejected by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti, together with other representatives of the Palestinian Arabs. During the last year of the British Mandate, Abdullah twice had secret meetings with Golda Meyerson (Meir) in order to reach a compromise with the Jewish Agency. The first meeting was in November 1947, before the United Nations vote regarding the partition of Palestine. The second meeting took place on May 11, 1948, in which meeting he asked the Jewish representatives to delay their Declaration of Independence. He asked Golda Meyerson, “Why are you in such a hurry to proclaim your state? Why don’t you wait a few years? I will take over the whole country and you will be represented in my parliament. I will treat you very well and there will be no war.” He then proposed the creation “of an autonomous Jewish canton within a Hashemite kingdom,” but “Meir countered back that in November, they had agreed on a partition with Jewish statehood.” Abdullah preferred to have a Jewish state as his neighbour to that of Palestinian Arab state run by the Grand Mufti, whom he despised. His proposal never would have worked, however, as the other Arab leaders were very wary of Abdullah’s ambitions to create a greater Arab kingdom. After the first Arab-Israeli War, Abdullah tried to make peace with Israel. His efforts were repaid by the assassin’s bullet in Jerusalem in July 1951. Abdullah, like Anwar Sadat after he signed the Egypt-Israel peace agreement three decades later, suffered the fate of all moderate Arab leaders who try to make peace with Israel.
Eastern Palestine thus came under Arab rule as Trans-Jordan, with Abdullah as Emir, just as the Kingdom of Iraq was conjured out of Mesopotamia and two other provinces for Abdullah’s brother, Faisal. The Hashemites got more than they deserved out of their bargain with the British, but were unable to deliver the promises they had made to support the Zionist policy set out in the British Mandate. Central to the mission statement in Churchill’s White Paper, laying out the policies of the Mandate, was the British commitment to building a Jewish Homeland in Western Palestine, which today includes Israel, Gaza and Judea and Samaria, called the “West Bank” by Jordanians after 1949. When the Churchill White Paper was approved by the League Of Nations on July 22 1922, the right of Jews to live in the whole of Western Palestine and to create an independent Jewish National Home was recognised under international law.
Faisal settled for the new Kingdom of Iraq, even though he never gave up his ambitions to rule a Greater Syria. His ambitions were kept in check by his equally aspiring brother Abdullah in Trans-Jordan, who had delusions of grandeur, wanting to unite Syria under his rule. Abdullah approached the Zionists in late 1921 and agreed to recognize the Balfour Declaration, allowing Jews to settle in Trans-Jordan, provided they were integrated into a united Palestine under his rule. This proposal was repeated a year later, after the League of Nation’s approval of the British Mandate, in London at a meeting with Weizmann and the Zionist movement. However, nothing came of it because the Jews already had a guaranteed homeland under the Mandate.
On the following day, Tuesday March 29, Abdullah went to the Temple Mount to visit the Mosque of Omar, a seventh-century Moslem shrine. The Emir tried to speak with a group of Arabs who gathered near him. They greeted him with hostility. “Down with the Zionists,” shouted the Palestinian Arabs, “Palestine for the Arabs.” The Arabs then started a demonstration against the Balfour Declaration.
At Mount Scopus, Churchill participated in a palm tree-planting ceremony at Hebrew University. Chief Rabbis Avraham Isaac Kook and Yaakov Meir presented the British diplomat with a Torah scroll. At the building site of the new university, he spoke about Zionism: “Personally, my heart is full of sympathy for Zionism. This sympathy has existed for a long time, since twelve years ago, when I was in contact with the Manchester Jews. I believe that the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine will be a blessing to the whole world, a blessing to the Jewish race scattered all around the world, and a blessing to Great Britain. I firmly believe that it will be a blessing also to the inhabitants of this country without distinction of race and religion. This last blessing depends greatly on you.”
Churchill then specifically asked the Jewish community here to look after the interests of all Arabs and Christians and other communities in Palestine. He continued: “On the one hand, we promised to give our help to Zionism, and on the other hand, we assured the non-Jewish inhabitants that they should not suffer in consequence. Every step you take should be also for the moral and material benefit of all Palestinians. If you do this, Palestine will be happy and prosperous and peace and concord will always reign; it will turn into a paradise, and will become, as is written in the scriptures you have just presented to me, a land flowing with milk and honey, in which sufferers of all races and religions will find a rest for their sufferings. You Jews of Palestine have a very great responsibility; you are the representatives of the Jewish nation all over the world, and your conduct should provide an example for, and do honour to, Jews in all countries. The hope of your race for so many centuries will be gradually realized here, not only for your own good, but for the good of all the world.” The Zionists were profoundly moved by Churchill’s speech.
The following morning, Wednesday March 30, Churchill met an Arab delegation in Jerusalem. The issue of Zionism aroused great hostility in the Palestinian Arabs. One of the Arab delegates was Musa Kazim al-Husseini, the former mayor of Jerusalem who handed the keys to Jerusalem over to several British officers several times before finally surrendering the city to General Allenby on December 11, 1917. Husseini’s nephew was none other than the rabidly anti-Jewish Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, he of the Nebi Musa pogrom.
Churchill’s response to Arab requests to veto the Balfour Declaration and stop any further Jewish immigration into Palestine was honest and brave: “You have asked me in the first place to repudiate the Balfour Declaration and to veto immigration of Jews into Palestine. It is not in my power to do so, nor, if it were in my power, would it be my wish.” He continued:
“It is manifestly right that the Jews, who are scattered all over the world, should have a national centre and a national home where some of them may be reunited. And where else could that be but in this land of Palestine, with which for more than 3,000 years they have been intimately and profoundly associated? We think it will be good for the world, good for the Jews and good for the British Empire. But we also think it will be good for the Arabs who dwell in Palestine.”
Churchill promised the Arabs that they would “share in the benefits and progress of Zionism.” Most importantly, he felt that the persecution of Jews in Russia created a problem for the whole world; a problem whose only solution was the creation of a Jewish home in Palestine. Aware of the Arab opposition to Zionism, Churchill thought that the Trans-Jordan experiment which came out of the Cairo Conference might allay the fears of this community. Zionism would be introduced at first on Palestinian land west of the Jordan River. The decision as to whether Zionism would be introduced in the other three quarters of Palestine east of the Jordan would be decided at a later date. For the moment, the Jewish national home would be “in” Palestine, rather than the whole of Palestine becoming the Jewish state.
This, however, was never enough to appease the Arabs, for what they objected to was the creation of a Jewish homeland in the first place. For the Arabs, Palestine was on Muslim land, now and forever. So it was written. Religious fundamentalism such as this, together with Arab racism, would continue to play a role in the their hatred for Zionism. Arabs view themselves as the master race and look down at Jews as inferior. This deep-seated prejudice, derived from Islam, was unlikely to be rooted out by the British. As long as Islam continues to exist in the Middle East, Arabs and Muslims will always be opposed to the existence of a Jewish State or a Christian State on what they deem to be Muslim land.
The Arabs knew that good relations with the wider Arab world and the wider Muslim world could depend on how good were British relations with the Arabs of Palestine. Churchill was blatantly warned that the Arabs were “the key to the East” for Great Britain. One Arab admitted to Churchill “the Arab is noble and large hearted; he is also vengeful, and never forgets an ill-deed.” This almost threatening note of menace was followed by a denunciation of Jews: “The Jew is the Jew all the world over. He amasses the wealth of a country and then leads its people, whom he had already impoverished, where he chooses.”
After the Arab delegation withdrew from Government House, a Jewish deputation arrived. They presented to Churchill a memorandum in which they thanked the British for helping them in rebuilding their national home. In the Jewish Memorandum, they assured the Colonial Secretary that “The Jewish people have full understanding of the aspirations of the Arabs with regard to a national revival, but we know that by our efforts to rebuild the Jewish National Home in Palestine, which is but a small area in comparison with all the Arab lands, we do not deprive them of their legitimate rights. On the contrary, we are convinced that a Jewish renaissance in this country can only have a strong and invigorating influence upon the Arab nation. Our kinship in language, race, character and history give the assurance that we shall in due course complete to a complete understanding with them.”
Churchill replied: “I am myself perfectly convinced that the cause of Zionism is one which carries with it much that is good for the whole world, and not only the Jewish people, but that it will also bring with it prosperity and contentment and advancement to the Arab population of this country.” After speaking about Arab fears of being dispossessed of their land, he concluded with these remarks: “I earnestly hope that your cause may be carried to success. I know how great the energy is and how serious are the difficulties at every stage and you have my warmest sympathy in the efforts that you are making to overcome them. If I did not believe that you were animated by the very highest spirit of justice and idealism, I should not have the high hopes which I have that eventually your work will be accomplished.”
Winston Churchill left Jerusalem that same day, Wednesday March 30. On his route to Lydda, from where he would take the train to Egypt, he stopped off in the new town of Tel-Aviv, the first Jewish city to be built in Palestine in two thousand years. Churchill was impressed with what he saw. If he were alive today, Churchill would not be disappointed at the achievements of the people of Israel, standing proud as the only liberal democratic society in the Middle East. Nor would he be surprised by the sea of hatred which surrounds the Jewish state on all its borders.
Winston Churchill went on to save the Balfour Declaration from being dropped into the dustbin of history during the following year in London. There took place several Arab meetings in London in protest against the government’s Zionist policy and talking about “the necessity of killing Jews” if the Arabs did not get their way.
In response to this, a motion was successfully passed in the House of Lords that tried to overturn the Balfour Declaration as “unacceptable to this House.” In the Commons debate on this motion that followed, Churchill declared: “It is hard enough, in all conscience, to make a new Zion, but if, over the portals of a new Jerusalem, you are going to inscribe the legend, ‘No Israelite need apply’, then I hope the House will permit me to confine my attention exclusively to Irish matters.” Churchill then made the case for Zionism, and succeeded in getting the Commons to reverse the Lords’ vote.
The Churchill White Paper reiterated the Zionist policy that stated: “The development of the Jewish National Home is not the imposition of a Jewish nationality upon the inhabitants of Palestine as a whole, but the further development of the existing Jewish community, with the assistance of Jews in other parts of the world, in order that it may become a centre in which the Jewish people as a whole may take, on the grounds of religion and race, an interest and pride.”
During the month of March 1921, Churchill had accomplished more than most political leaders of the first rank do in a lifetime. With the guidance of the famed Lawrence of Arabia, together with his brilliant team at the Middle Eastern Department, Churchill rolled out the creation of three modern Middle Eastern states; Iraq, Trans-Jordan and Israel. He succeeded in reducing the overhead costs involved in running these new countries by devolving powers to King Faisal, Emir Abdullah and the Jewish Agency, who built Israel within Palestine during the next twenty-five years of the British Mandate. He reduced the defence costs of the region by using the Royal Air Force to protect these new countries from external enemies. And, most important of all, Churchill kept his pledges to both Arabs and Jews. Lawrence was impressed with what Churchill had accomplished in 1921. “He executed the whole McMahon undertaking (called a treaty by some who have not seen it) for Palestine, for Transjordania and for Arabia. In Mesopotamia he went far beyond its provisions,” wrote Colonel Lawrence. “I do not wish to make long explanations, but must put on record my conviction that England is out of the Arab affair with clean hands.”
Over the next eighteen years, relations between the British, the Zionists and the Arabs in Palestine worsened. Sometimes it looked as if there was the chance of a deal between Arabs and Jews that would allow a Jewish state to live in the region in peace, without being threatened with invasion by the Arabs. Then, a change of mind in the Arab lands would demonstrate that Arab-Jewish co-existence was absolutely impossible. Often the Arabs offered hope, and then tired of the Palestinians. The Zionists were determined to build good relations with their Arab neighbours throughout the whole period of the British Mandate. These efforts ended in failure. The Arabs in the Mandate territories revolted against the British and the Jews. Then the British government almost threw the Balfour Declaration into the sands of history just as Neville Chamberlain had delivered Czechoslovakia into the arms of Adolf Hitler.