Churchill, Palestine and Israel, Part 1: 1917-1945

Churchill, Palestine and Israel, Part 1: 1917-1945

Remarks to Churchillians by the Bay, Rich­mond Cal­i­for­nia, 10 Feb­ru­ary 2024. This text is with­out end­notes, though they can be found in my two Time­lines on Pales­tine and Israel for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project: Part 1 (1945-46) and Part 2 (1947-49). Anoth­er ver­sion was pub­lished in The Amer­can Spec­ta­tor.

Palestine: “You deal with it.”

Click to enlarge: The Ottoman Empire at its apogee. (Lam­bian, Cre­ative Commons)

The best I can offer about Churchill and Pales­tine is what I learned from three great his­to­ri­ans: David Fromkin, Mar­tin Gilbert and Andrew Roberts. I also learned from King Ibn Saud of Ara­bia (not per­son­al­ly). I pro­pose to quote all of them. And, of course, Win­ston Churchill. His knowl­edge and expe­ri­ence con­tin­ue to instruct us across the decades.

David Fromkin was a lead­ing author­i­ty on Churchill  and the Mid­dle East through his book, A Peace to End All Peace. You should read it.  Twen­ty years ago dur­ing a Wash­ing­ton hur­ri­cane,  he lec­tured on Churchill and the mak­ing of the mod­ern Mid­dle East. Only four­teen turned up, and his talk was nev­er pub­lished. I cor­rect­ed that recent­ly on the Hills­dale Churchill web­site. As Casey Sten­gel said, you can look it up.

*Churchill and Pales­tine had a long asso­ci­a­tion, span­ning two world wars and thir­ty years. It began in 1917, when British For­eign Sec­re­tary Arthur Bal­four promised a “Jew­ish Nation­al Home” in Pales­tine. Almost simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, Lawrence of Ara­bia was offer­ing the Arabs sov­er­eign­ty over  a Mid­dle East ruled for near­ly half a mil­len­ni­um by the Turks. In return, Jews and Arabs fought along­side the Allies in the Great War.

Churchill and Pales­tine came togeth­er because Turkey end­ed up on the los­ing side. By war’s end, its Ottoman Empire was a sham­bles. Rev­o­lu­tions and con­spir­a­cies were sus­pect­ed among Arabs, Jews, Bol­she­viks and recidi­vist Turks. The only sig­nif­i­cant mil­i­tary pres­ence was a British army of about one million.

“At this tru­ly hor­ren­dous moment,” Pro­fes­sor Fromkin told us, “Prime Min­is­ter David Lloyd George turned to his Colo­nial Sec­re­tary Win­ston Churchill and said in effect, ‘You deal with it.’”

Decision at Cairo

The Cairo Con­fer­ence, 1921. Front, L-R: M. Steven­son, Gen. Wal­ter Con­greve (Com­man­der Egypt­ian Expe­di­tionary Force), Sir Her­bert Samuel (Pales­tine High Com­mis­sion­er), Win­ston Churchill (Colo­nial Sec­re­tary), Sir Per­cy Cox (Iraq High Com­mis­sion­er). 2nd row, L-R: Gertrude Bell (advi­sor), Sir Sas­soon Eskell (Iraq Finance Min­is­ter), Gen. Atkin­son, Jafar Pasha al-Askari (Iraq Defense Min­is­ter), T.E. Lawrence (Mid­dle East Dept.) Pub­lic domain, Beau­goss­es at the Eng­lish Wikipedia.

Churchill ener­get­i­cal­ly expand­ed his Mid­dle East Depart­ment,  includ­ing T.E. Lawrence and Gertrude Bell. They met in Cairo with Arab and Jew­ish del­e­gates to redraw the bor­ders of the for­mer Turk­ish empire.

The 1921 Cairo Con­fer­ence cre­at­ed the same Iraq, Jor­dan, Syr­ia and Lebanon that are there today. The French received League of Nations man­dates over the last two. An unen­thu­si­as­tic Britain accept­ed man­dates for Iraq and Pales­tine. East Pales­tine, 6/7ths of Pales­tine, became the Arab state of Trans-Jor­dan, mean­ing “across the Jor­dan Riv­er.” West Pales­tine, “from the riv­er to the sea” (and the Negev Desert)—slightly larg­er than Massachusetts—became a source of strife that has last­ed a century.

Now for Britain at least, despite what you may have heard, oil was not the objec­tive. Before the war, Churchill had secured the Roy­al Navy’s sup­ply by found­ing Anglo-Per­sian Oil Com­pa­ny (now BP).  They thought Iraq had oil, but Britain had no need for it, and France did not begin think­ing seri­ous­ly about oil until later.

To run East Pales­tine (Trans-Jor­dan) and Iraq, the con­fer­ence sent a Arab Hashemites, who were not indige­nous. Dr. Fromkin explained: “The feel­ing at that time was that when you brought in a king for a new coun­try, it ought to be some­body who is not from that country—not involved its inter­nal feuds. You look for an out­sider and a uni­fi­er.” His broth­er was sent to rule Iraq.

“Twice-promised land”

The Pales­tine Man­date includ­ed today’s Jor­dan as well as today’s Israel. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

A man­date is some­times said to be a polite word for a colony. That may have been how the French saw it, but for Britain, Iraq and Pales­tine were bur­dens. This is inci­den­tal­ly the ori­gin of the myth that Churchill want­ed to use poi­son gas on Iraqi rebels, which was cheap­er than using troops. Actu­al­ly he made a poor choice of words. He want­ed tear gas, but his care­less descrip­tion of it  as “poi­son” has left him no end of grief.

Churchill would hap­pi­ly have washed his hands of “Messpot,” as he called Mesopotamia, or Iraq. In 1922 he wrote, but didn’t send, a note to Lloyd George: “We are pay­ing eight mil­lions a year for the priv­i­lege of liv­ing on an ungrate­ful vol­cano, out of which we are in no cir­cum­stances to get any­thing worth hav­ing.” (£8 mil­lion then equals $725 mil­lion today.)*

King Faisal’s Iraq achieved nom­i­nal inde­pen­dence in 1932. Emir Abdul­lah’s Jor­dan took charge of East Pales­tine. Britain was left with trou­ble­some lit­tle West Palestine—today’s Israel, Gaza, Judea and Samaria (the last two known col­lec­tive­ly as the West Bank). For most of two decades Britain kept the peace. Super­pow­ers have a way of doing that.

West Pales­tine expe­ri­enced rel­a­tive pros­per­i­ty between the World Wars. But Jews and Arabs, who had lived between the Riv­er Jor­dan and the Mediter­ranean for thou­sands of years, had fought with the British and expect­ed pay­back. Britain had promised them both home­lands. West Pales­tine, wrote the his­to­ri­an Isa­iah Fried­man, was the “Twice-Promised Land.”

Two-State Solutions

Click to enlarge: The first Two-State Solu­tion, Peel Com­mis­sion, 1937. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

Worse, no one at Cairo in 1921 antic­i­pat­ed the mas­sive Jew­ish influx to West Pales­tine over the next 20 years. The caus­es were five­fold: dras­tic reduc­tion of Amer­i­can immi­gra­tion quo­tas; pogroms or expul­sions of Jews in Poland, Rus­sia and Arab coun­tries; the great depres­sion of 1929, Jew­ish per­se­cu­tions in Nazi Ger­many, and pow­er­ful Zion­ist recruit­ing of Jews to the Holy Land.

Until 1937 Britain had promised only a Jew­ish home­land, not a state. London’s idea was an Arab-run West Pales­tine with free­dom of reli­gion and Jew­ish autonomous dis­tricts.  But the sides could nev­er reach agree­ment, and the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion soared. In 1936 the Arabs began what they called “the Great Revolt,” three years of upris­ings against British authority.

In 1937 William Peel (grand­son of Sir Robert, founder of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Police) chaired a Pales­tine Roy­al Com­mis­sion. It aban­doned the for­mer one-state solu­tion. “There can be no ques­tion of fusion or assim­i­la­tion  between Jew­ish and Arab cul­tures,” Lord Peel declared. So the Peel Com­mis­sion pro­posed the first of at least eight two-state solu­tions. (The eighth by my count was at Camp David in 2000.)

Peel pro­posed a Jew­ish state in the west and north, com­pris­ing 20% of West Pales­tine. The Arab state, linked to Jor­dan in the east and south, includ­ed the West Bank and the Negev Desert. Jerusalem, with a cor­ri­dor to the sea, would be a British-admin­is­tered inter­na­tion­al city.

The Jew­ish lead­ers Chaim Weiz­mann and David Ben-Guri­on con­vinced the Zion­ist Con­gress to accept this. Both believed the area offered was too small, and hoped it could be expand­ed by nego­ti­a­tions. The Arabs, for whom any idea  of a sep­a­rate Jew­ish state was anath­e­ma, reject­ed the Peel pro­pos­al unanimously.

Economics trumps religion

Three more two-state solu­tions were advanced in 1938 by anoth­er com­mis­sion under Sir John Wood­head, a civ­il ser­vant. Weiz­mann offered a fifth solu­tion, leav­ing the Negev in the Man­date, which Churchill approved. The Jews, said, had “a way of mak­ing the desert bloom.”

No one was sat­is­fied. Wood­head had divid­ed areas  by major­i­ty pop­u­la­tion, but the aver­age Jew was three times as pro­duc­tive and paid three times the tax­es of the aver­age Arab. The Jew­ish areas were the back­bone of the econ­o­my. Most of the Arab wealth lay in large­ly Jew­ish areas. This is impor­tant for us to under­stand. The quar­rel then was at least as much eco­nom­ic as it was reli­gious. Anoth­er con­fer­ence in 1939 made no fur­ther progress.

In May 1939, four months before war, the Cham­ber­lain gov­ern­ment issued a Pales­tine White Paper. It restrict­ed Jew­ish immi­gra­tion to West Pales­tine to 75,000 for the next five years, after which the Arabs were to decide on future num­bers. This of course inflamed the Zion­ists, includ­ing Churchill. In tes­ti­mo­ny, Churchill had made one of his most crit­i­cized statements:

I do not admit that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a very long time… I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indi­ans of Amer­i­ca, or the black peo­ple of Australia…that a wrong has been done to those peo­ple by the fact that a stronger race, a high­er grade race, or, at any rate, a more world­ly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and tak­en their place.

King Saud: follow the money

Churchill has been exco­ri­at­ed for those words, and again his vocab­u­lary didn’t help. For Churchill, “race” meant a nation or group of peo­ple. Indeed some African Jews were dark­er than Arabs. Churchill was say­ing the skills of what he called the “Jew­ish race” were supe­ri­or to those of the Arabs. For exam­ple, the irri­ga­tion schemes of Jew­ish engi­neers brought pro­duc­tive agri­cul­ture to a long-bar­ren land. Again, the argu­ment was eco­nom­ic: fol­low the money.

One major Arab leader agreed with him. King Ibn Saud of Ara­bia said the Arab-Jew­ish con­flict was not reli­gious. What changed every­thing, he told Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt in 1945, was “the immi­gra­tion of peo­ple who were tech­ni­cal­ly and cul­tur­al­ly on a high­er lev­el than the Arabs, [who] had greater dif­fi­cul­ty in sur­viv­ing eco­nom­i­cal­ly. [That these] ener­getic Euro­peans are Jew­ish is not the cause of the trou­ble. It is their supe­ri­or skills and culture.”

Azzam Pasha, Sec­re­tary Gen­er­al of the Arab League, lat­er echoed the King: In Arab Pales­tine, he said,  the Jews may be “as Jew­ish as they like. In areas where they pre­dom­i­nate, they will have com­plete auton­o­my.”  Whether he meant that you must judge for yourself.

“All legitimate interests are in harmony”

Churchill and Palestine
Churchill with King Ibn Saud, 17 Feb­ru­ary 1945. The King believed eco­nom­ics was the prob­lem. It was “immi­gra­tion from East­ern Europe of peo­ple who were tech­ni­cal­ly and cul­tur­al­ly on a high­er lev­el than the Arabs, [who] had greater dif­fi­cul­ty in sur­viv­ing eco­nom­i­cal­ly. [That these] ener­getic Euro­peans are Jew­ish is not the cause of the trou­ble. It is their supe­ri­or skills and cul­ture.” (Wiki­me­dia Commons)
The Sec­ond World War now inter­vened. As the war wound down, West Pales­tine heat­ed up. By ear­ly 1945 Egypt, Syr­ia and Sau­di Ara­bia began ask­ing Churchill about his plans for the region. We turn now to Sir Mar­tin Gilbert’s Churchill and the Jews….

“Churchill,” he wrote, “con­tin­ued to seek a Zion­ist solu­tion where­by the 517,000 Jews, just under a third of the Arab pop­u­la­tion, would have their own State in which they would not be at the mer­cy of a hos­tile Arab major­i­ty, but able to gov­ern them­selves, albeit in only about a third of the area they had hoped for.”

Sir Mar­tin quot­ed King Saud’s words to Churchill: “I have con­tin­u­al­ly advised mod­er­a­tion to the Arabs with regard to Pales­tine, but fear that a clash might come.” When the war end­ed, Churchill replied,  good arrange­ments can be made so that “all legit­i­mate inter­ests are in harmony.”

King Saud remained pes­simistic. West Pales­tine Jews, he told Churchill, “intend to cre­ate a form of Nazi-Fas­cism with­in sight of the democ­ra­cies and in the midst of the Arab coun­tries…. Joshua cap­tured the land of the Canaanites—an Arab tribe—with great cru­el­ty and bar­bar­i­ty…. [They were] aliens who had come to Pales­tine at inter­vals and had then been turned out over two thou­sand years ago.”

A bet­ter schol­ar than I is need­ed to judge who was there first, or who turned out whom, but if Jews were expelled, then they too were refugees.

Con­clud­ed in Part 2….

Further reading

“‘Jar­ring Gong’: Ben­jamin Netanyahu on Win­ston Churchill,” 2023.

“When Did Churchill Become a Zion­ist?,” 2022.

“Churchill at the Stroke of the Pen: Jor­dan and the Indi­an Army,” 2021.

“Churchill and Lawrence: Con­junc­tion of Two Bright Stars,” 2020.

“Avari­cious Impe­ri­al­ists or Nation Builders? The Mid­dle East 100 Years On,” 2020.

One thought on “Churchill, Palestine and Israel, Part 1: 1917-1945

  1. Excel­lent work! I am grate­ful to have the nec­es­sary his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive and will share it widely.

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