Rescuing Balfour: Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office 1921-22, By William Mathew

                    Given the sheer improbability of the Balfour Declaration, its source in temporary war-time contingencies, its activation of inter-communal conflict in Palestine, and its exposure to increasing opposition both at home and in the Levant, the 1917 War Cabinet pledge to Zionism was in manifest danger of collapse in the early 1920s in advance of the final, formal settlement of the Palestine mandate. It is a matter of great significance that the man who more than any other – as will be argued here – saved and advanced that loosely worded governmental commitment, Winston Churchill, himself harboured the most serious reservations – political, imperial, financial – over his country`s sponsorship of a Jewish National Home, concerns that never quite left his ever-receptive political mind. If the individual who rescued the policy displayed fundamental equivocations – these relieved for the moment by the excitements of an office carrying major overseas responsibilities after recent years on the comparative periphery of government – much, one might suggest, is revealed about the intrinsic folly of the entire pro-Zionist enterprise.   In the recent half-century commemoration of Churchill`s death, little has been said about his Levantine legacy as Colonial Secretary in 1921-22. This short essay attempts to make good some of that deficit.


Winston Churchill, Colonial Secretary between January 1921 and October 1922 in David Lloyd George`s last administration, played a vital role in securing the British government`s long-term commitment to the terms of the Balfour Declaration of November 1917.   It can indeed be argued that without his efforts in the face of mounting domestic opposition in the press and Parliament the British could well have abandoned, or at least radically modified, their war-time promise to support the establishment of a Jewish National Home. The state of Israel might indeed be seen to owe its existence as much to Winston Churchill as to Arthur Balfour.   As Michael Makovsky writes in his Churchill`s Promised Land. Zionism and Statecraft (2007), `as colonial secretary Churchill implemented the Balfour Declaration, ensured that Jews retained the right to immigrate to Palestine…, advanced several significant and enduring intellectual defences of Zionism, insisted to the Palestine Arabs that they accept Zionism, and allowed the Zionists to establish durable national institutions – all of which set in motion the founding of the state of Israel in 1948`.

There is, however, a major conundrum here. Despite the powerful legacy, Churchill was not by any means a consistently vigorous supporter of the Zionist project.   In the years preceding and immediately following the Balfour Declaration his position was, to say the least, contradictory and, to the concerned observer, confusing and erratic. His position, Makovsky observes, was `at various times moderately supportive, ardently supportive, opposed, and indifferent`. Zionism was, for him, always subordinate to wider imperial concerns: `his attachment to the cause was weak. In the 1910s and 1920s, strategic, imperial, and political factors all led him to ignore Zionism and resent it`. The question then is: how could someone of such scepticism and periodic hostility prove crucial to the consolidation of Balfour and the launching of a trajectory towards the formation of an enduring Jewish polity in Palestine?

Churchill, in the context of these `predominating` anxieties and dispositions, made two major interventions as Colonial Secretary that proved absolutely decisive to the survival of the government`s Zionist commitments – the first, when he issued his celebrated White Paper (initially drafted by Sir Herbert Samuel and Sir John Shuckburgh) of 3 June 1922, asserting, among other things, that there had been no promise of political independence to Palestine in the form of the war-time McMahon-Hussein correspondence; the second, when he succeeded by a House of Commons vote a month later in overturning an earlier vote in the House of Lords in which a clear majority of peers had rejected Britain`s Palestine policy.


The reasons for Churchill`s recurring negativity are worth exploring in some detail, in part because they refer to the real dangers for Britain inherent in the sponsorship of the Jewish National Home, well reflecting contemporary concern that Zionist privileging in Palestine did not serve the British national interest; and in part because they highlight the appeal, for Churchill, of certain convenient arguments that, for a while, entered his idiosyncratic political calculus – and casting illumination on the man`s protean character as a widely distrusted maverick, carried along on the tides of wordy, exaggerated, and self-persuading rhetoric endlessly adaptable to the circumstances of the moment. Churchill`s own reflection, in his 1927 essay `Consistency in Politics`, was that `The only way a man can remain consistent around changing circumstances is to change with them while preserving the same dominating purpose`.

It is important to note at the outset that he played no part in the formulation of the Balfour Declaration. As Minister of Munitions at the time (following his post-Gallipoli exile to the Western Front), he was not in the Lloyd George War Cabinet, and there is no record of him having anything to say either privately or publically on the policy. In his subsequent war memoir, he had no comment to offer on the Declaration specifically or on Zionism generally, For a man rarely short of words, these are significant omissions, confirming that Palestine affairs were, for him, of comparatively minor importance. As for the broader issue of British mandatory control there, essential for any sponsorship of Zionist settlement, he had advised Lloyd George in a memorandum of October 1919 that all such close political involvements in the Middle East should be abandoned: `we should give up Palestine and Mesopotamia`, he insisted.   And even when settled into his tenure at the Colonial Office, he suggested that, in the light of continuing uncertainties in the region, it might `be impossible for us to maintain our position either in Palestine or in Mesopotamia`, and that `the only wise and safe course would be to take advantage of the postponement of the Mandates and resign them both and quit the two countries at the earliest possible moment, as the expense to which we shall be put will be wholly unwarrantable`.

Churchill was, first and foremost, an unreformed imperialist, hostile for most of his career to arguments in favour of progressive colonial independence, especially as these concerned policy on India – the seemingly indispensable prop to British economic survival, military power, and international prestige.   In his 1919 memorandum he had expressed serious misgivings over the likely damage that the Zionist project might effect on British imperial interests. Injustice towards Muslims in Palestine might rebound on the security of the raj. Writing of `the Jews, whom we are pledged to introduce into Palestine and who take it for granted that the local population will be cleared out to suit their convenience`, he warned that such eventuality would `act and re-act` on Britain`s position as `the greatest Mohammedan Power`, with her near-70 million Islamic subjects in India, causing the imperialists `immense expense and anxiety`. His general conclusion, applicable to the entire Middle East, was that the post-war partitioning of the Ottoman empire represented a critical error.   In this respect he parted company from many of his political contemporaries in London who saw (as I have argued elsewhere, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, July 2013) a strategic gain for Britain in control over Palestine and, with it, the capacity to protect the eastern flank of the Suez Canal against likely imperial rivals – this power possibly enhanced by the gratitude and loyalty of her new Zionist subjects.   But by Churchill`s perspectives, the Ottomans had been Britain`s traditional allies in the Middle East, ensuring that no other expansionist powers – most notably Russia – could comprise her Levantine access to India. Any dismemberment, as provisionally agreed at the San Remo and Sèvres Conferences of 1920, was not in the interests of the eastern empire. If some degree of territorial integrity was to be preserved for the Ottomans, Zionist plans would have to be abandoned.

A second set of worries, particularly affecting him when he entered the Colonial Office, were the military, and consequent monetary, implications of advancing Zionism at a time of major Treasury-imposed retrenchment in British finances. `I do not think that things are going to get better in this part of the world, but rather worse`, he observed in June 1921, in the same month urging that `unless some change is made we may be confronted with a situation beyond our capacity to cope with`. In a memorandum of August 1921 he wrote of his personal `perplexity and anxiety. The Zionist policy is profoundly unpopular with all except the Zionists. Both Arabs and Jews are armed and … ready to spring at each other`s throats`. The best he could say for the Balfour Declaration was that he stood `prepared to continue on this course, if it is the settled will of the Cabinet`: less than an unequivocal endorsement. There was, as he saw it, much `irritation, suspicion and disquietude` in `the hearts of the Arab population` resulting from Britain`s pro-Zionist commitments and their contradiction of `our regular policy of consulting the wishes of the people in mandate territories and giving them a representative institution as soon as they were fitted for it`.

Had it not been for `our promises in regard to it [Zionism]`, he lamented, the British garrison in Palestine could by then have been `sensibly reduced`. In early 1920 he estimated the cost at £9 million a year – `far beyond anything which Palestine could yield in return`.   And there were additional burdensome commitments in Turkey, Mesopotamia, and Persia.   `Do please realise`, he minuted to an aide in mid-1920, `that everything else that happens in the Middle East is secondary to the reduction of expense`.   In February 1922 he asked the British High Commissioner in Jerusalem, Sir Herbert Samuel, for a cut in expenditure on the Palestine gendarmerie: `it is increasingly difficult to meet the argument that it is unfair to ask the British taxpayer, already overburdened with taxation, to bear the cost of imposing on Palestine an unpopular policy`. Later in the 1920s, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he continued to cast a bleak eye on such outlays: `There is no excuse whatever`, he wrote in 1927, `for Palestine being a burden on the Exchequer of this country` – complaining about its remaining `in a dole-fed condition at the expense of our taxpayer…`.

A third worry derived from Churchill`s notion that Jews displayed a marked and historic proclivity towards revolutionary politics.   In the post-war period the particular spectre was Bolshevism. The idea that Jews might carry this political infection into British Palestine under the guise of Zionism was, for him, profoundly alarming.   Chaim Weizmann at the time privately expressed the opinion that Zionism was, indeed, `constructive Bolshevism`, recalling in his later memoirs that `Russians, Jews, Bolsheviks were different words for the same thing in the minds of most of the British officers in Palestine in those days…`.   The journalist Joseph Jeffries, in a series of Daily Mail articles in early 1923 entitled `The Palestine Deception`, dismissed as `preposterous nonsense` the idea that Zionist incomers in the Levant, overwhelmingly `Judaeo-Slav` and non-religious, could ever develop any loyalty to the British Empire, offering an extended roll-call of individuals heavily socialist in political complexion.

Churchill`s equating of Jewry with subversive ideology was powerfully expressed in a newspaper article of February 1920: `Zionism versus Bolshevism, A Struggle for the Soul of the Jewish People`. His words are worth quoting at some length, showing his penchant for dramatic overstatement and, in this instance, an easy resort to familiar anti-Semitic tropes. `The conflict between good and evil which proceeds unceasingly in the breast of man nowhere reaches such an intensity as in the Jewish race….It would almost seem…that this mystic and mysterious race had been chosen for the supreme manifestations, both of the divine and the diabolical` . `National` Jews, assimilated to varying degrees into European societies stood in stark contrast to `International Jews. The adherents of this sinister confederacy` had for the most part `forsaken the faith of their forefathers, and divorced from their minds all spiritual hopes of the next world. This movement among the Jews is not new. From the days of Spartacus-Weishaupt to those of Karl Marx, and down to Trotsky (Russia), Bela Kun (Hungary), Rosa Luxemburg (Germany), and Emma Goldman (United States), this world-wide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization…has been steadily growing….Although in all these countries there are many non-Jews every bit as bad as the worst of the Jewish revolutionaries, the part played by the latter in proportion to their numbers in the population is astonishing`.   The Jewish Chronicle, in a prompt response, accused him of reactionary political attention-seeking, `adopting the hoary tactics of hooligan anti-Semites`.

Zionism, then, as a possible threat to the political stability of the British Empire; as a likely source, through its local provocations, of inflated military and administrative expenditures; and as a carrier of seditious socialist politics. And even in office as Colonial Secretary he made a dramatic policy decision in March 1921 that caused much upset to the Zionist interest, detaching the largely desert tracts to the east of the Jordan as the separate kingdom of Transjordan under the rule of Hussein`s son Abdullah in Amman – which he had just occupied at the head of a small army.   In August of the following year the British government informed the League of Nations that it wished Transjordan to be excluded from all provisions relating to Jewish settlement.


How, in Churchill`s mind, were such serious anxieties transcended? What, to cite his own wordson the subject of `Consistency in Politics`, was, for him, the interplay of `changing circumstances` and `dominating purpose`.It can well be argued that, circumstantially, a progressive change of heart had much to do with his move in January 1921 from the War Office, where he had presided since 1918, to the Colonial Office – in the latter department given special responsibility for the affairs of Palestine (and Iraq) and, as such, open both to the `fiery energies`, as he described them, of Chaim Weizmann in London, and to the pro-Zionist advice of his permanent officials, most notably Sir John Shuckburgh. He had also had control over Palestine as War Secretary, following its military occupation in 1917-18, but by the early 1920s the issue of governance there had become a much more urgent matter as the League of Nations mandates were being defined and ideas formulated for the appropriate constitutional arrangements for the territory following Sir Herbert Samuel`s appointment as High Commissioner in 1920. Weizmann, as always, was on the alert; and Shuckburgh, who had been brought in from the India Office, was someone with whom the Zionist leader was in regular, insistent contact – declaring in 1924 that he saw Weizmann `constantly` when the latter was in London, and, showing him, by the account of one of Weizmann`s biographers, `unusual deference`. `The evidence from the first two years of the Middle East Department`s operations`, writes Sahar Huneidi, `suggest that the exceptional relations between Weizmann and the staff of the department were a significant factor in preventing the British government`s pro-Zionist policy from being revoked or modified`. And as Makovsky has observed, Churchill – a man with little knowledge of, or interest, in Middle East affairs – `mostly displayed a short attention span with Palestine matters … and relied heavily on his… staff for information, guidance, and policy implementation`.   Of these officials, Shuckburgh in particular played a leading role in setting the Levantine priorities. Also recruited to the Office were T.E. Lawrence, with qualified Arab sympathies, and the ardent Zionist, Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen.

Churchill himself was especially open to Weizmann`s entreaties, their mutual acquaintanceship stretching back for almost twenty years when, newly appointed as Under-Secretary-of-State for the Colonies in Herbert Asquith`s first Liberal administration of December 1905, he shared a platform in Manchester with Weizmann (then a Manchester University chemistry lecturer) at a public meeting to protest against recent pogroms in Russia. As a local M.P., first for Oldham after 1900, and for N.W. Manchester after 1905, he had energetically cultivated the large Jewish vote in the extended urban area, taking a stand in 1904 against the Aliens Bill of the then Prime Minister Arthur Balfour on account of its targeting of Jewish immigration – this just after formally switching his party allegiance from the Conservatives to the Liberals. Getting to know Weizmann, his almost exact contemporary (by age, a mere three days his senior), he appealed to him to help energise support among Jewish voters.

In 1915 their acquaintanceship was renewed when Weizmann was asked by Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, to provide the government with acetone, a solvent for cordite used in naval guns, which Weizmann had been attempting to produce by biological fermentation processes in his Manchester laboratory. `Mr Churchill was brisk, fascinating, cheery and energetic`, Weizmann records. `Almost his first words were: “Well, Dr. Weizmann, we need thirty thousand tons of acetone. Can you make it?”` Weizmann moved to a special laboratory in London in 1916, his work bringing him, as he later wrote, `into touch with all sorts of people, high and low, in the British Government`, affording `more opportunity to see British statesmen than had been the case when I lived in Manchester`. Further contacts between the two men came when Weizmann approached Churchill as War Secretary in 1919 on matters concerning military rule in Palestine. One of Weizmann`s biographers, Isaiah Berlin, has described him as an `irresistible political seducer`, Churchill himself offering acknowledgement of his powers when he pointed to him at a social event in the early 1920s: `He is your teacher`, he remarked to Clement Attlee, `he is my teacher, he was Lloyd George`s teacher – we will do whatever he tells us`. Weizmann – who recorded that Churchill was `of a highly impressionable temperament` – was duly appreciative: `To you personally,` he wrote in July 1922, `as well as to those who have been associated with you at the Colonial Office, we tender our most grateful thanks. Zionists throughout the world deeply appreciate…the great part you have played in securing for the Jewish people the opportunity of rebuilding its national home in…Palestine`.

As for Churchill`s `dominating purpose`, this was, as we have seen, two-fold: the protection of fundamental imperial interests, and the defeat of Bolshevism.   With both he, so to speak, flipped the coin, discovering by a combination of open-mindedness and circumstantial opportunism, that Zionism could, perhaps, be recruited for both objectives. Indeed, as early as 1908 he had expressed the conviction that the `establishment of a strong free Jewish State astride the bridge between Europe and Africa … would…be an immense advantage to the British Empire`, saying much the same again twelve years later in his `Zionism versus Bolshevism` already cited: `a Jewish State under the protection of the British Crown, which might comprise three or four million Jews…would, from every point of view, be beneficial, and would be especially in harmony with the truest interests of the British Empire`. And in July 1922 he offered the House of Commons some territorial specifics: `Palestine is all the more important to us…in view of the ever-increasing significance of the Suez Canal…`. Britain should, accordingly, accept the costs attendant on `the control and guardianship of this great historic land…`.

Too much, though, should not be made of these pronouncements: they were occasional and, to a degree, abstract. By Makovsky`s account, it took until the 1930s for Churchill to be convinced that Palestine served a positive imperial purpose, particularly in relation to India.   The negative aspects of the Palestine connection were never quite absent from his mind. But there were rhetorical and parliamentary purposes to be served, and it may well be that Churchill`s grand pronouncements were in part directed towards persuading himself that a powerful imperial case could be made both for British control of Palestine and for the sponsorship of a friendly Jewish polity – or as the journalist Joseph Jeffries sarcastically suggested, `a little loyal Jewish Ulster amid the enveloping hosts of Arabism`.

As for Bolshevism, the case against Jewry, as set out in his 1920 article, was balanced by a complementary case for Zionism – not so much as an infected body in the British imperial polity, but as a diversion from world revolution. `The struggle which is now beginning between the Zionist and Bolshevik Jews is little less than a struggle for the soul of the Jewish people….Positive and practicable alternatives are needed in the moral as well as in the social sphere; and in building up with the utmost rapidity a Jewish national centre in Palestine which may become … a symbol of Jewish unity and the temple of Jewish glory, a task is presented on which many blessings rest`. Zionism offered Jews a clear choice over their political redemption.

On the financial front, Churchill, as Colonial Secretary, had succeeded in reducing Middle East expenditure generally by 75 per cent over the period of his tenure. In Palestine specifically he told Parliament in July 1922 that he had managed to lower military and administrative expenditure there to a quarter of its 1920 level – and with more savings to come: `The year before last we were faced with a cost of £8,000,000: last year it cost £4,000,000: this year it was estimated at a cost of £2,000,000. I had long talks with Sir Herbert Samuel while he was over here. He promised me next year it will not be more than £1,500,000, and the year after that only £1,000,000`. In office Churchill had the power to relieve his own monetary anxieties. And it also seemed likely, as he saw it, that Jewish communities would be more developmentally minded than their Arab neighbours and, therefore, less of a charge on the government and a more promising source of tax revenues. Irrigation had been greatly extended, and the new electrification concession, granted to the Russian Pinhas Rutenberg, was opening the way to power generation and industrial development.

Such so-to-speak developmental perspectives tie in with a further consideration: Churchill`s orientalist racism: his belief that European Jews had the capacity to perform necessary civilising functions among the benighted Muslims of the Levant. Perspectives of this sort were much in evidence throughout Churchill`s career as a `dominating` perspective on world affairs.   Arabs could not be seen, like Jews, as strategic partners for the British in the Middle East.   According to Chaim Weizmann, he had `a low opinion of Arabs generally`. And for all his concern over Islamic sensitivities in India, as affected by Zionist settlement in Palestine, he was not any admirer of Muslim society. `Improvident habits`. he had written at the turn of the century, `slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement…`. And politically, in Palestine, if Arabs were given majority representation commensurate with their numbers, it was bound to mean an end to the Zionist experiment; it would be foolish in the extreme to be `going out of our way to procure a hungry lion and then walking up to him with a plate of raw beef to see how much he would like to take`.   Makovsky suggests that it was a `civilisational` argument more than any other than brought Churchill round to support for Zionism – especially after his eight-day journey through Palestine in March 1921, when he observed `what the Jews had accomplished, and was overwhelmed`.   He was particularly impressed by the gardens, orange groves, and vineyards of the old settlement of Rishon LeZion. `Nothing will stand in your way`, he told the settlers. `You have changed desolate places to smiling orchards and initiated progress instead of stagnation. Because of our belief in you we are supporting the Zionist movement`. It would, he told Parliament on his return to London, be `disgraceful for Britain to ignore such achievement` and `leave it to be rudely and brutally overturned by the incursion of a fanatical attack by Arab population from outside`.

On his way to Palestine he had spent time in Cairo, meeting a delegation of Arab leaders who had travelled there to confer with him. He at once made it clear that he was not open to any discussion on political matters – this despite the Jerusalem riots of the previous year and the stark warning of Sir Philip Palin in his subsequent commissioned report that `the native population, disappointed of their hopes, panic-stricken as to their future, exasperated beyond endurance by the aggressive attitudes of the Zionists, and despairing of redress at the hands of the Administration which seems to them powerless before the Zionist organisation, lies a ready prey for any form of agitation hostile to the British Government and the Jews`. Moving on to Jerusalem, encountering hostile demonstrations on the way, he again met with Arab representatives, insisting that there could be no change in British policy. Captain Brunton of General Staff Intelligence, in a secret memorandum of 13 May 1921, reported `the Arab population here has come to regard the Zionists with hatred and the British with resentment. Mr. Churchill`s visit put the final touch to the picture. He upheld the Zionist cause and treated the Arab demands like those of negligible opposition to be put off by a few polite phrases and treated like children`.

Successive Arab delegations to London were treated with similar disdain. When complaints were tendered concerning the scale and implications of Jewish immigration, Churchill`s dismissive advice was that the visitors should get in touch with Weizmann and `have a discussion with the controlling authorities of the Zionist Organisation`. It was foolish to have any concerns about the Balfour Declaration, `which solemnly and explicitly promises to the inhabitants of Palestine the fullest protection of their civil and political rights`. This, of course, was a provocative misrepresentation since Balfour had deliberately omitted any mention of Arab `political` – as distinct from `civil and religious` rights.   But contrary objections could be swept aside. Sir John Shuckburgh at the Colonial Office commented in November 1921, `the time has come to leave off arguing and announce plainly and authoritatively what we propose to do. Being Orientals, they will understand an order…`.


Churchill, in the context of these `predominating` anxieties and dispositions, made two major interventions as Colonial Secretary that proved absolutely decisive to the survival of the government`s Zionist commitments – the first, when he issued his celebrated White Paper (initially drafted by Sir Herbert Samuel and Sir John Shuckburgh) of 3 June 1922, asserting, among other things, that there had been no promise of political independence to Palestine in the form of the war-time McMahon-Hussein correspondence; the second, when he succeeded by a House of Commons vote a month later in overturning an earlier vote in the House of Lords in which a clear majority of peers had rejected Britain`s Palestine policy.

In the 1915-16 correspondence with Emir Hussein, Sir Henry McMahon, the British High Commissioner in Cairo, had offered, in the event of allied victory in the war with local military support, the prospect of an independent Arab kingdom in the Levant, only excluding an area behind the Mediterranean littoral roughly corresponding to present-day Lebanon and north-west Syria. The British had been aware of French imperial claims in and around Mount Lebanon, where a considerable community of Maronite Christians had traditionally looked to Paris for their protection. That area, in McMahon`s words of 24 October 1915, comprised: `The districts of Mersin and Alexandretta, and portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo` which `cannot be said to be purely Arab, and must on that account be separated from the proposed delimitation`. Damascus district was the most southerly area, lying, of course, well to the north of Palestine – which was not mentioned in the correspondence. Palestine, in short, would be part of an independent polity. Lord Curzon, Churchill`s government colleague as Foreign Secretary, observed towards the end of 1918 that, in that October letter to Hussein, `we gave him the assurance that…Palestine…should be Arab and independent`. And this, needless to say, was how Palestinian leaders understood the commitment.

Churchill, however, had other ideas. In his White Paper he calmly asserted, in what Margaret MacMillan has characterised as `a defiance of geography`, that the district of Damascus instead of ending some little way south of the city in fact stretched as far as the Gulf of Aqaba, taking in the independent Sanjak of Jerusalem: `the whole of Palestine west of the Jordan was thus excluded from Sir Henry McMahon`s pledge`. When the leaders of the Arab delegation to London in October 1921 insisted that that promise, properly defined, had included Palestine, the Colonial Secretary`s response, as recorded by the shorthand copyist to hand was: `No! When was the promise? Never!`.

Joseph Jeffries, widely travelled in the Middle East (and a sympathiser with the more spiritual and cultural aspects of Zionism) treated the whole matter with appropriate scorn in his Daily Mail articles of early 1923: `by speaking of a supposed vilayet or province, Mr. Churchill could make it stretch far south, and exclude any desired stretches of territory that got in its way. The Palestine delegates icily pointed out to him the inexistence of the “vilayet of Damascus”. A pretty position for a British Minister. He had invented a province and invented a territory`. Open your atlases, he advised his readers, and see for yourselves: the geography was clear. Paying no attention to the `line of towns going north from Damascus, ` Churchill had `produced as from a conjuror`s tall hat a line going south from Damascus which satisfied his requirements….And the word of England, built up so painfully and lengthily by generations of Civil Servants and soldiers and merchants who have always in all parts of the world kept their word? In the waste-paper basket…`. This was no mere journalistic hyperbole. Sir John Shuckburgh had written to Sir Herbert Samuel a few months earlier that the issue was proving `troublesome`, and that the official version of McMahon as paraphrased to the outside world, was `one of the weakest points in our armour`. Better, he advised in an another note, `to let sleeping dogs lie as much as possible`. And at the time of the Jeffries articles, R.C. Lindsay, under-secretary at the Foreign Office, expressed the view that `we should not be likely to strengthen our case by publishing the McMahon letters` – the government, in the event, delaying their official release until 1939.   Shuckburgh`s and Lindsay`s observations were not the less eloquent for being understated.

As for his parliamentary endeavours, Churchill had the task in July 1922 of overturning a vote in the House of Lords that rejected the Government`s pro-Zionist policy by a decisive 60 to 29.   The debate followed a motion of 21 June placed by the Liberal peer Lord Islington, a past governor of New Zealand, to the effect that the Palestine Mandate, still not finalised, was in its present Declaration-including form, `unacceptable to this House`, being `opposed to the sentiments and wishes of the people of Palestine`. The Jewish National Home, he declared in his speech, `must, and does, mean the predominance of a political power on the part of the Jewish community in a country where the population is predominantly non-Jewish`.

The occasion was notable for, among other things, Arthur Balfour`s delivery of his maiden speech following his recent ennoblement to an earldom. As someone who had omitted Arab `political` rights from his Declaration, who had insisted in private that the Palestinians could not be fully enfranchised, and who had confessed that there was a `flagrant` inconsistency in British policy, given the promotion of degrees of self-government elsewhere in the Middle East, he was able nonetheless to declare, blandly contemptuous, that it was impossible to `imagine any political interest exercised under greater safeguards than the political interests of the Arabs in Palestine…`, sentiments to the contrary being `fantastic fears`. Reprimanded by Islington for suggesting, misleadingly, that the opposition to his Declaration had not hitherto been articulated in Parliament, he apologised on the grounds that he had not read any such `orations`, due to his having `unfortunately, spent so much of the time outside the frontiers of this country`. It was a weak, as well as an offensive, performance, and no peer on the government benches – not one of the 29 who later voted against the motion – rose to support him. Balfour affected disdain for the whole exercise, asking Chaim Weizmann some days later: `What does it matter if a few foolish lords passed such a motion?`

But it did matter a great deal to Churchill and his officials, the apparent danger being that Palestine representatives, in London at the time to plead for political equity might be buoyed in their endeavours by such decisive parliamentary support. Major Hubert Young, recruited to the Colonial Office from the Foreign Office`s Eastern Department, minuted: `Yesterday`s debate in the House of Lords will have encouraged the Arab delegation to persist in their obstinate attitude, and unless the Lords` resolution is signally overruled by the House of Commons and the Council of the League of Nations, we must be prepared for trouble when the Delegation gets back to Palestine`. Churchill accordingly set to work in the Commons a couple of weeks later, shrewdly setting the issue in the wider, diluting context of a vote on the government`s Colonial Estimates. It was not remotely a full-scale examination of Palestine policy, beginning just before four o`clock in the afternoon and closing with Churchill`s speech and a division at a minute before eleven. It is worth examining the debate in a little detail in order to highlight its sheer inadequacy as a proper multi-voiced examination of the issues. `Anyone who has glanced over the Estimates I formally introduced`, declared Edward Wood, Churchill`s deputy at the Colonial Office (and the future Lord Halifax), `will not fail to be struck with the very wide geographical range of administrations which they cover` – hardly the appropriate context for a pivotal debate on Palestine. Almost all the exchanges until mid-evening were taken up with the finances of British African and Caribbean colonies, the only mention of Palestine in that period coming at the end of a territorially wide-ranging speech from William Ormsby-Gore, the Unionist member for Stafford, who, as a friend of Chaim Weizmann`s, had formerly served as the government`s political officer with the Zionist Commission when it sailed to the Levant in 1918, and who had never been other than a stalwart supporter of the National Home project. `I am certain`, he announced, unsurprisingly, `that it would be absolutely dishonourable to this country to go back on the Balfour Declaration`. All that it had sought was `fair play for the Jewish colonists`, who had already built up `out of barren and uninviting territory, smiling fields and villages`, posing no threat whatsoever to the resident Arab population.

Continuous discussion of Palestine affairs came only in the final stages of the debate, following the request of Sir William Joynson-Hicks, Conservative M.P. for Twickenham (and shortly to serve as Stanley Baldwin`s Home Secretary, 1924-29), that formal Parliamentary approval was needed for any Mandate as well as for contracts recently entered into with the Russian Zionist Pinhas Rutenberg for electric-power generation along the Jordan and its tributaries.   Joynson-Hicks declared that his early sympathy with Zionism had been overturned by his subsequent discovery of the McMahon pledges of 1915, by the obvious conflict between these and Balfour, and by his sense that the administration as it was developing was, from the High Commissioner down, excessively Zionist in complexion – citing, with concern, Weizmann`s statement at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 that `there should ultimately be such conditions that Palestine would be as Jewish as America is American and England is English`. It was also inappropriate that the electricity concession had – in advance of the final settlement of Britain`s right to rule in Palestine – been awarded on excessively generous and monopolistic terms to a prominent Zionist, with no due attention given to applications from non-Jewish parties. Joynson-Hicks was supported in his critique by his Conservative colleague Sir John Butcher QC, the member for York.

No others, however, spoke up along similar lines, and after some generalised pro-government remarks from the Hastings Conservative M.P. Lord Eustace Percy, formerly of the diplomatic service, and the Labour member for Caerphilly, Morgan Jones, the floor was Churchill`s. His contribution, however, was not remotely a vigorous defence of the pro-Zionist policy. Referring to `this complicated and baffling and very extensive question`, he at once detached himself from any close association with the Declaration. The war-time promise had been offered in the hope that Jews, especially those in the United States, would help Britain secure final victory, but he `was not responsible at that time for the giving of those pledges`, and subsequent decisions were ones `in which I have taken only a subordinate part…`. And the only pledges he referred to were those made to the Zionists: the McMahon undertakings, as cited by Joynson-Hicks, and as discussed in his own White Paper of the previous month, did not merit as much as a mention. He did, though, spend much time quoting a variety of his fellow politicians who had been supportive of the Declaration, some of whom had turned tail. Addressing the defectors, identified as including Joynson-Hicks and Sir John Butcher, he proclaimed: `You have no right to say this kind of thing as individuals; you have no right to support public declarations made in the name of your country in the crisis and heat of War, and then afterwards, when all is cold and prosaic, to turn round and attack the Minister or the Department which is faithfully and laboriously endeavouring to translate these perfervid enthusiasms into the sober, concrete facts of day-to-day administration. I say, in all consistency and reasonable fair play, that does not justify the House of Commons at this stage in repudiating the general Zionist policy`.

As for the Rutenberg concession, this had, Churchill suggested, been entirely fair and appropriate in the overall context of Zionist efforts to develop Palestine, these `bringing this new money into the country`, seeing `parts of the desert … converted into gardens…`,   and endowing `the whole country with the assurance of a greater prosperity and the means of a higher economic and social life`.   It was, of course, a repeat of the old civilisational argument, and, like all such assertions, it carried stark orientalist undertones. `Left to themselves, the Arabs of Palestine would not in a thousand years have taken effective steps towards the irrigation and electrification of Palestine. They would have been quite content to dwell – a handful of philosophic people – in the wasted sun-scorched plains, letting the waters of Jordan continue to flow unbridled and unharnessed into the Dead Sea`. It was an ignorant claim, and one of his better informed colleagues in the House might have told him of the spectacular irrigation system of gigantic wooden water-wheels (norias) in the city of Hama, just north in Syria, its network of aqueducts, dating back many centuries, spreading the waters of the Orontes river onto the productive lands surrounding the city.

The Colonial Secretary carried the day by 292 to 35 votes, writing, in his considerable relief – and with improper exaggeration – to Sir Herbert Samuel: `it is now clear that the country supports His Majesty`s Government in their Palestine policy`. In Martin Gilbert`s judgment, it was a critical victory: `with Churchill`s active and persistent support, the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine had become a reality`.


But not quite. Further uncertainties arose when the Lloyd George coalition – and with it Churchill`s secretaryship – was removed from power later in the year, to be replaced by a Conservative ministry comprising men who, for the most part, had in the past displayed little enthusiasm for the Balfour policy. It was September 1923 before the mandate was finally confirmed and implemented, and in the months preceding approval rested heavily (as I have argued elsewhere, BJMES as cited) not only on considerations of consistency in relation to past pledges to Zionism, but also on the fear that British imperial interests in the Middle and Far East might be seriously compromised by any withdrawal from Palestine.

Once again major doubts about the policy surfaced, were debated, and were variously sidelined, resolved, or transcended. As with Churchill`s advocacy, there persisted a clear sense of the dangers posed to these same imperial interests by the National Home commitment, but sheer weariness over the issue combined with incessant Zionist lobbying probably guaranteed its final confirmation. But it would seem to be the case that without Churchill`s interventions in the early summer of 1922 it might never have persisted into 1923 as a matter for positive ruling. The tactics he displayed, however, provided no secure base on his part for any long-term conviction. He had never mounted a comprehensive, enthusiastic, consistent case for supporting the Jewish National Home, and two decades later could pronounce himself fatigued by the whole matter. `I do not think`, he wrote during his first premiership, `that we should take the responsibility upon ourselves of managing this very difficult place….I am not aware of the slightest advantage which has ever accrued to Great Britain from this painful and thankless task. Somebody else should have their turn now`. A year or two later, out of office, he castigated the Attlee government for its warped priorities in proposing independence for India but seeming to be obstinately hanging on to `tiny Palestine`.

As suggested at the outset, if the rescuer of Balfour was himself so ambivalent on the issue, much is revealed about the intrinsic demerits of the policy. Churchill`s opposition to both Zionism and the mandate in the late 1910s and early 1920s had been quite emphatic. Rising, rhetorically and operationally, to the challenges and temptations of high office, he finally came round to active support for both, but in a scarcely honourable manner: in respect of the McMahon promises acting with cavalier deceit; and in securing House of Commons support for confirmation of the 1917 pledge to Zionism, doing so through abbreviated late-day discussion, minimal support from members, and a remarkable lack of personal enthusiasm.

The Balfour Declaration itself was the work of a man who, as it happened, was relaxed in the expression of anti-Semitic sentiments;   its confirmation in 1921-22 was secured not by a Zionist enthusiast by an equivocal opportunist.   The policy was contaminated at source.   Realising the ambivalence of the British official mind, and the precarious nature of London`s commitment to the National Home project, Zionist leaders felt driven, at once, and in the longer term, to set up what they hoped would prove irreversible facts-on-the-ground – this in combination with relentless lobbying in metropolitan councils. The dual programme persists to the present day.

Main Sources:

Churchill, Winston S.: `Zionism versus Bolshevism. A Struggle for the Soul of the Jewish People` (Illustrated Sunday Herald, 8 February 1920)

Cohen, Michael J.: The Origins and Evolution of the Arab-Zionist Conflict (Berkeley etc., 1987)

– `Was the Balfour Declaration at risk in 1923? Zionism and British Imperialism` (Journal of Israeli History: Politics, Society, Culture, 29:1, 2010)

Gilbert, Martin: Churchill & The Jews (London etc., 2007)

Hansard, The Parliamentary Debates: House of Lords, 21 June 1922

–   House of Commons, 4 July 1922

Huneidi, Sahar: `Was Balfour Policy Reversible? The Colonial Office and Palestine, 1921-23` (Journal of Palestine Studies, XXVII: 2, 1998)

A Broken Trust. Herbert Samuel, Zionism and the Palestinians 1920-1925 (London/New York, 2001)

Jeffries, J.M.N.: (ed. William M. Mathew), The Palestine Deception, 1915-1923: The McMahon-Hussein Correspondence, the Balfour Declaration, and the Jewish National Home (Washington D.C., 2014)

Makovsky, Michael: Churchill`s Promised Land. Zionism and Statecraft (New Haven/London, 2007)

Mathew, William M.: `War-Time Contingency and the Balfour Declaration of 1917: An Improbable Regression` (Journal of Palestine Studies, XL:2, 2011)

– `The Balfour Declaration and the Palestine Mandate, 1917-1923: British Imperialist Imperatives` (British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 40:3, 2013)

Weizmann, Chaim, Trial and Error. The Autobiography of Chaim Weizmann (London, 1949)

The (Churchill) White Paper of June 1922, Command 1700

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