Colonial secretary Winston Churchill with Sir Herbert Samuel during a visit to Jerusalem in March 1921. (Public domain)
Colonial secretary Winston Churchill with Sir Herbert Samuel during a visit to Jerusalem in March 1921. (Public domain)
Inside story'He failed to see the mufti's readiness to use brutality'

Herbert Samuel’s secret 1937 testimony on the infamous mufti of Jerusalem revealed

Newly revealed files show how Palestine’s first high commissioner – a Jew and a Zionist – defended tapping Amin al-Husseini, lamented that ‘Jews can be extremely irritating people’

Colonial secretary Winston Churchill with Sir Herbert Samuel during a visit to Jerusalem in March 1921. (Public domain)

Mention Herbert Samuel to today’s Israelis and two bells are likely to ring. One is Herbert Samuel promenade, Tel Aviv’s seaside esplanade. The other is a luxury hotel chain bearing the name, including The Herbert boutique lodgings along that same corniche.

But Herbert Samuel — or rather, the Viscount Samuel of Mount Carmel and Toxteth — was a seminal figure in the history of Zionism: the first Jew in Britain’s Cabinet, the official who first proposed the idea of a Jewish state to the British government, and the first high commissioner for British-ruled Palestine. And it was he who, just over a century ago, selected a 25-year-old Jerusalem effendi to be the most powerful Arab in Palestine, with consequences more profound than anyone at the time could conceive. That man was Amin al-Husseini.

A decade and a half after that decision, in late 1936, London appointed a Palestine Royal Commission to probe the Arab revolt that had erupted that spring, and which — Zionist leaders and many British officials believed — was being stoked above all by Husseini himself. Chaired by Lord William Peel, the panel heard 60 witnesses in public sessions. But nearly the same number testified in briefings so secret that even the witness list was hidden.

Transcripts of the sessions might have been lost or destroyed had not the commission’s far-sighted secretary recognized their significance, scribbling that a few copies ought to be preserved, as they chronicled “an important chapter in the history of Palestine and the Jewish people, and will, no doubt, be of considerable value to the historians of the remote future.”

Exactly eight decades into that remote future, in 2017, Britain quietly released the secret sessions to the National Archives. There Samuel explains why he chose Husseini as grand mufti of Jerusalem and head of the Supreme Muslim Council, how he and the British government envisioned Palestine’s future, his impressions of the Holy Land’s Jews and Arabs, and much else.

Samuel led a long, accomplished life. Born shortly after the American Civil War, he nearly lived to see the moon landing. He served in the British Cabinet seven times and ultimately rose to the head of his own Liberal Party. Yet his testimony in front of the commission was possibly the only known instance that he was ever made to defend his elevation of Husseini, who in the words of Samuel’s own son, “turned out to be an implacable enemy not only of Zionism but also of Britain,” culminating in his notorious alliance with Hitler’s Germany in World War II.

Adding luster to the Crown

Samuel was born in 1870 in Liverpool’s Toxteth neighborhood to a wealthy banking family. Raised in a traditional Jewish home — his great-grandfather had emigrated from Central Europe — his mother encouraged him to attend Oxford and dutifully sent him kosher meat by train. Yet by the end of his university days, the young Samuel had mostly given up religion. His calling, instead, was politics.

He first entered parliament in 1902 with the Liberal Party, then the main opposition to the Conservatives (before the rise of Labour), and dominated by future prime ministers H.H. Asquith and David Lloyd George. His rise at Westminster was swift, reaching a succession of Cabinet positions including Postmaster General.

Among colleagues, he developed a reputation for competence but also a certain aloofness. “He had a rather wooden face,” recalled one, “with a searching, almost furtive expression.” (A surviving, rare film recording of Samuel confirms that impression.)

Herbert Samuel, circa 1916. (Public domain)

And though he had suspended much of his religious practice — he kept the Sabbath and kosher dietary laws to please his wife and “for hygienic reasons” — he never cut ties with the Jewish community. When the Great War broke out he grew enchanted by the prospect of the United Kingdom winning control of the Holy Land.

In January 1915, shortly after the Ottoman entry to the war, he circulated a memo to the Cabinet: “The Future of Palestine.” In it, he waxed poetic about the “dream of a Jewish State, prosperous, progressive, and the home of a brilliant civilization.” Palestine would “add a luster even to the British Crown” and allow it to advance its historic role of “civilizer of the backward countries.”

“Widespread and deep-rooted in the Protestant world is a sympathy with the idea of restoring the Hebrew people to the land which was to be their inheritance,” he wrote. And yet “far more important would be the effect upon the character of the larger part of the Jewish race… the character of the individual Jew, wherever he might be, would be ennobled. The sordid associations which have attached to the Jewish name would be sloughed off.”

The Jewish brain is a physiological product not to be despised. If a body be again given in which its soul can lodge, it may again enrich the world

“The Jewish brain is a physiological product not to be despised,” he concluded. “If a body be again given in which its soul can lodge, it may again enrich the world.”

Prime minister Herbert Henry Asquith was puzzled by Samuel’s “almost lyrical outburst,” his “dithyrambic memorandum, urging that… we should take Palestine, into which the scattered Jews would in time swarm back from all quarters of the globe.”

Asquith, however, resigned the following year — a victim of frustration with the war’s stalling progress — and was replaced by the younger, more mercurial Lloyd George, who was far more captivated by the Zionist vision. It was he, even more than his foreign secretary Arthur Balfour, who would ultimately be responsible for his government’s Balfour Declaration in November 1917 (the Peel Commission would later hear secret testimony from Lloyd George, too, on the genesis of that fateful document).

A month after that declaration, British forces under General Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem in triumph. Four centuries of Ottoman rule were over, and Palestine’s British era had dawned.

Edmund Allenby entering Jerusalem on foot out of respect, in 1917. (Public domain)

‘One of my best friends’

In 1917, the Ottoman-appointed mufti of Jerusalem was Kamel al-Husseini, the son and grandson of previous muftis of the Holy City. Kamel immediately made himself invaluable to the Crown, helping calm the nerves of local Muslims wary of coming under a Christian power that, worse still, had just pledged to facilitate a “Jewish national home” in their land.

Kamel’s relations with the Jews would be equally correct; World Zionist Organization chief Chaim Weizmann once called him “one of my best friends.” So satisfied were the British with his leadership that over the following years they made him a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George and inflated his title to the hitherto unknown “grand mufti” of Jerusalem.

But the illusion of calm was broken in April 1920 at the annual pilgrimage festival of Nebi Musa. The crowd that year was far larger than in previous years — some 70,000 Muslims poured into Jerusalem, some of them armed, chanting nationalist and militant slogans. Prominent Arabs addressed them from the balcony of the Arab Club. The mayor — an older, more hardline relative of the mufti named Musa Kazem al-Husseini — urged the crowd to “spill their blood” for Palestine. Over the next three days, mobs attacked Jews in the Old City, looting shops and homes. Five Jews were killed and over 200 injured, including 18 critically. Two sisters, aged 25 and 15, were raped.

Palestinian Arabs gather at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, in an anti-Zionist demonstration on March 8, 1920, prior to the Nabi Musa holiday on which violent rioting took place. (Public domain)

The mayor would be one of nearly 200 people put on trial in the attacks’ aftermath. He was removed from office in favor of Ragheb Nashashibi, patriarch of the Husseinis’ perennial rival clan — and one typically deemed more moderate in its dealings with the British and the Jews.

And yet according to the British military governor of Jerusalem, the “immediate fomenter of the Arab excesses had been one Haj Amin al-Husseini, the younger brother of Kamel Effendi, the mufti. Like most agitators, having incited the man in the street to violence and probable punishment, he fled.” Amin al-Husseini (who was in fact the mufti’s half-brother) fled to Damascus, then later Trans-Jordan, and was sentenced to 10 years in absentia for incitement to riot.

Britain hoped that replacing the military regime in Palestine with a civilian one might help calm tempers. Lloyd George tapped Samuel — author of the 1915 memo, and recently voted out of parliament — as high commissioner. He was to be the first Jew to govern the Land of Israel in 2,000 years.

Jaffa Port, circa 1921-1926. (Courtesy of Nazarian Library, University of Haifa)

He arrived at Jaffa port in July 1920. Resplendent in a steel-spiked white pith helmet, gold-embroidered white uniform, purple sash and a slim sword, he wore a medal on his chest pinned by George V. It was just months after the Nebi Musa riots, and one of his very first acts was to order a complete amnesty to those sentenced to prison for their role in them. Those included Amin al-Husseini.

‘Let us start fresh’

Samuel met the royal commission in London, after its return from Palestine, on March 5, 1937. Lord Peel wasted no time in asking about Samuel’s 1921 appointment of al-Husseini as grand mufti.

“He had been a sort of Nationalist rebel at the beginning,” Samuel began, adding that when he had arrived in the country al-Husseini was in hiding in Trans-Jordan. “I gave him a complete amnesty to wipe out all the previous quarrels and he came back.”

Samuel noted that several other people had received prison sentences, including Jews. Vladimir Jabotinsky — the Zionist activist who had co-founded Britain’s Jewish Legion in the Great War — had been slapped with 15 years after police found pistols and ammunition in his Jerusalem home.

That amnesty was completely successful and the people who were amnestied gave no trouble

“I repealed all that, wiped it out and said, ‘Let us start fresh,’ and it worked out very well,” Samuel testified. “That amnesty was completely successful and the people who were amnestied gave no trouble.”

Six months after that amnesty was granted, grand mufti Kamel al-Husseini died suddenly. He was just 54. Samuel had been in Jerusalem less than a year and was already faced with a succession crisis.

The Ottoman law that the British had inherited stipulated that the new mufti be chosen through a vote by Muslim religious experts and local leaders. The top three candidates would be presented to Samuel — formerly, they would have been given to the religious authorities in Istanbul — who would then select one.

Herbert Samuel, seated center, with Jerusalem church leaders and British officials, 1922. (Public domain)

“When this vacancy took place there was a Husseini who had been trained for the post of Mufti, namely, the present Mufti, Haj Amin,” Samuel told the commission. “He was a Haj, he had been on the pilgrimage; he had also been at a University, the University of El-Azhar in Egypt, where he had a Muslim theological training with a view to his being the representative of the family in that post. He was the only man in Palestine with that qualification.”

It was a less-than-persuasive defense. The fact that Amin al-Husseini had been on pilgrimage — he had been on Hajj to Mecca a decade earlier with his mother, at 16 — was not a rare distinction, as the children of many prominent families had done the same. Nor was his religious education particularly formidable: Of the three leading candidates for the position, all had attended El-Azhar, likely for longer spells, and all were significantly older. Each had superior religious qualifications — one was inspector of the religious courts, another was a respected theological scholar and head of the Sharia appeals court, and the third was a religious judge. Those credentials entitled them, unlike al-Husseini, to the honorifics of ‘alim (expert) and sheikh — far superior to the mere Hajj of the pilgrim.

Grand mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in the late 1930s. (Library of Congress)

Yet in his testimony Samuel insisted — implausibly — that al-Husseini was the only man qualified for the job. “None of these three had any particular qualifications,” he said. “None of them had the same sort of training, but their one qualification was that they are not Husseinis.”

Edward Keith-Roach, who would serve as Jerusalem’s governor for two decades, expressed a far more widely held opinion in his memoirs: Al-Husseini’s “sole qualifications for the post were the pretensions of his family plus shrewd opportunism.”

Samuel met al-Husseini on April 11, 1921, and recorded their conversation in a note:

“I saw Haj Amin Husseini on Friday and discussed with him at considerable length the political situation and the question of his appointment to the office of grand Mufti. Mr. Storrs [military governor of Jerusalem] was also present, and in the course of conversation… [al-Husseini] declared his earnest desire to cooperate with the Government and his belief in the good intentions of the British Government towards the Arabs. He gave assurances that the influence of his family and himself would be devoted to maintaining tranquility in Jerusalem and he felt sure that no disturbances need be feared this year. He said that the riots of last year were spontaneous and unpremeditated. If the Government took reasonable precautions, he felt sure they would not be repeated.”

Samuel was suitably impressed. But when the vote was cast the very next day, al-Husseini came in fourth.

In his testimony, Samuel blamed Ragheb Nashashibi, “a very clever politician and admirable at pulling wires,” for maneuvering so that his own allies — namely, opponents of the Husseinis — would fill the top spots. “My advisors told me, and I think quite truly, that this sort of gerrymandering… would cause the most intense dissatisfaction among the mass of the people.”

Given that a Husseini had just been removed as Jerusalem mayor, he said, if yet another Husseini were denied the muftiship, “an office he had looked forward to all his life, it would have had an extremely bad effect.” As noted, in al-Husseini’s case, “all his life” meant 25 or 26 years.

“I did not want to alienate the Husseinis and their friends and connections throughout the country, particularly in Gaza, Acre and some other places. That was the real reason why the present Mufti was appointed.”

Members of the Arab Higher Committee. From left to right: Former mayor of Jerusalem Ragheb Bey Nashashibi, Grand Mufti Amin al-Husseini, and then-current mayor of Jerusalem, Dr. Hussein al-Khalidhi in Jerusalem, 1936. (Library of Congress)

Here, Samuel gets to the rub. The decision was not about theological training or experience, but about families. The Husseinis had fielded the last three muftis and had now put their weight behind the young Amin al-Husseini. It was therefore imperative to keep the post within the family for the peace of Palestine. Nevertheless, there remained the inconvenient fact of his fourth-place election finish.

Samuel explained what happened next: “Storrs and others, who knew about the circumstances very well, brought pressure to bear and those three withdrew.”

Sir Ronald Storrs had been the first military governor of Jerusalem, a tenure that included the Nebi Musa riots. While not as keen on Zionism as Samuel, he was not a bitter enemy, either. His memoirs evince a nuanced and at times sympathetic attitude to the movement, including a regret at the “ill-informed carpings” and “general ignorance” of some British officials toward Zionism and Jews. It was Storrs who would later name al-Husseini as the “immediate fomentor” of Nebi Musa, and it would appear unlikely that he would be the prime mover behind al-Husseini’s appointment. Rather, the “others” that Samuel invokes is an almost certain reference to Ernest Richmond.

The Nabi Musa shrine. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Richmond was an architect who had served in Egypt and spoke Arabic. At the suggestion of Storrs, a close friend, Samuel had appointed him as his chief advisor on, and liaison to, Palestine’s Muslims. Samuel described Richmond in a cable as “in close and sympathetic touch with the Arabs.” One Colonial Office official was less charitable, calling him “a declared enemy of the Zionist policy, and almost as frankly declared an enemy of the Jewish policy of H.M.G. [His Majesty’s Government.]” A few years later Richmond would resign his political role, blasting Britain’s facilitation of the Jewish National Home policy as “evil.”

Half a century ago, when the first documents from the early British Mandate were declassified, the Middle East scholar Elie Kedourie revealed how in May 1921, after the vote for the new mufti, Richmond prodded Samuel to name al-Husseini quickly to the post.

May Day 1921 brought an outbreak of violence in and around Jaffa that dwarfed anything seen the year before: nearly 50 Jewish dead and 150 wounded over six days of bloodletting, and a similar number of Arabs killed by British troops and police. As shocking as Nebi Musa had been, the 1921 Jaffa riots were modern Palestine’s first mass-fatality event.

Damage to a home in the city of Hadera caused during the 1921 riots. (Public domain)

On day three of that carnage Samuel received an unsigned note, likely by Richmond, marshaling a long list of Muslim notables and Christian clerics said to support al-Husseini. The letter said that opposition to his appointment came chiefly from the Jews (including Palestine’s attorney general Norman Bentwich, a Jew related by marriage to Samuel) — and the “intrigues of the Nashashibi faction.” The note concluded that it had been “clearly proved that the people of Palestine desire the nomination of Al Hajj Amin.” (“I don’t agree,” scrawled Samuel’s pro-Zionist deputy, Wyndham Deedes, upon reading the note.) And when al-Husseini convened a group of allied religious dignitaries to declare the election for mufti invalid, Richmond not only attended but translated the minutes for al-Husseini, who neither then nor later would achieve any proficiency in English.

And so it was on May 8, 1921 — the day after the Jaffa bloodletting subsided — that Samuel informed Amin al-Husseini verbally that he would be the next grand mufti of Jerusalem. Unusually, however, al-Husseini received no official letter of nomination, and the appointment was not published in the Palestine Gazette, as was standard for important official business.

Per Kedourie, those omissions may indicate that Samuel had “misgivings” over the decision. Indeed, Samuel apparently never allowed himself to be photographed with the mufti, and his memoirs contain not a single mention of his name.

Similarly, it may be that Samuel declined to cite Richmond by name in his testimony because of the latter’s fiercely anti-Zionist reputation (the Israeli scholar Yehuda Taggar dubbed him “the most anti-Zionist British official through the Mandate”). By 1937, ministers had already identified al-Husseini as “chief villain of the peace,” and for Samuel to admit that he had been swayed by a figure like Richmond into so crucial a decision would have cast aspersions on his own judgment and record.

Illustrative: Hitler hosts Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Haj Amin al-Husseini in 1941 in Germany. (Heinrich Hoffmann Collection/Wikipedia)

In any case, al-Husseini’s own purported account of his meeting with the high commissioner is revelatory, even unnerving. According to Gad Frumkin — an Arabic-speaking jurist who was the only Jewish judge on Palestine’s Supreme Court — al-Husseini recalled the meeting thusly:

“When I was in mourning over my brother Kamel, Sir Herbert Samuel visited us at our house and we had a frank and open discussion… I asked him, ‘Whom do you prefer, a candid adversary or a renegade friend?’ He answered, ‘A candid adversary,’ and on the basis of that came my appointment as the Mufti of Jerusalem.”

Reigning supreme

Samuel told the commission that from the time of al-Husseini’s appointment as mufti, during his whole five-year term as high commissioner, “he gave no trouble whatever. We worked quite cordially with him. He was most amiable in every way.”

And later that year Samuel birthed a second Islamic institution — the Supreme Muslim Council (SMC) — to oversee sharia courts, mosques, and religious schools. It also supervised the shrines and lands held as waqf, charitable trust, established by wealthy donors and kept in their name for posterity. In short, it managed everything once handled by the Ottoman Islamic authorities and also served as a sort of Muslim counterpart to the Jewish-Zionist leadership.

Al-Husseini, now vested with spiritual authority as grand mufti, easily won elections as council president. History would remember him as mufti, but it was as head of the Supreme Muslim Council — with access to vast funds and negligible oversight — that he carried his biggest stick.

Samuel said that in his role as mufti, Amin “was appointed for life” — itself no small thing for a man who, health permitting, could expect a half-century of life ahead of him. But, he added, the position of SMC president was intended to be fixed at a set number of years until Amin “influenced the members of the council to make it a life appointment.”

Asked if the British government consented to that change, Samuel answered only, “that was after my time.”

The Peel Commission report would ultimately describe Amin as “apparently irremovable” atop the Supreme Muslim Council. “We think it unfortunate,” it said with considerable understatement, that the government “should have taken no action to endeavor to regulate the whole question of elections for… the President of that body.”

Haj Amin has combined in his person the offices of Mufti of Jerusalem and President of the Supreme Muslim Council. He is, in fact, the most influential Arab in Palestine

“Haj Amin has combined in his person the offices of Mufti of Jerusalem and President of the Supreme Muslim Council,” the commissioners wrote. “He is, in fact, the most influential Arab in Palestine.”

Husseini, “having been able to retain so much power in his person,” now headed an “Arab imperium in imperio,” a veritable “parallel Government.”

‘Not a blow was struck’

Samuel did not just want to answer questions about the mufti. He wanted to talk about the Jews.

He reminded the commission about his original Cabinet memo of 1915: “That was, I think, the first time the matter had been brought to the cognizance of the British Government in any formal way. The vague idea that was held by many people was that there should be something in the nature of a Jewish State under the aegis of the British Empire.”

At that time, he said, “the only motion that was being discussed was that of Herzl, the Jewish State.” But he made clear that very quickly, in the years following the Balfour Declaration and World War I, he concluded that Zionist ambitions had to be dramatically downsized. “Very soon after that it was realized a Jewish state was impossible and something less than that would have to be proposed.”

A monument to victims of the 1921 rioting in Tel Aviv. (Courtesy of Nazarian Library, University of Haifa)

And indeed, after the 1921 Jaffa riots a British commission of inquiry recommended that the government clearly and publicly enunciate its plans for Palestine. That enunciation came in the form of the 1922 White Paper, known to posterity as the Churchill White Paper (after then-colonial secretary Winston Churchill) but largely written by Samuel himself.

The White Paper reaffirmed the Balfour Declaration’s vision of a Jewish national home in Palestine, but rejected any idea of creating a wholly Jewish Palestine, one “as Jewish as England is English.” Such a project would be impracticable, it said, and was not Britain’s aim. Crucially, it determined that immigration should continue, but only insofar as allowed by the country’s “economic capacity… to absorb new arrivals.” The implication was that policy would be aimed primarily at enhancing the well-being of all Palestine’s inhabitants and that promoting the Jewish National Home would be a gradual, almost secondary objective. The historian Bruce Hoffman has called the 1922 document “concessions masquerading as clarifications.”

“My idea of what the National Home should be was embodied in the terms of the White Paper of 1922,” Samuel now reiterated to Peel. “That is really still my idea of what the Jewish National Home should be.”

A synagogue desecrated and destroyed in the 1929 Hebron massacre. (Public domain)

He said that following that White Paper and the “abandonment of the idea of a Jewish state,” the land was quiet for the rest of his term. “I left in 1925, and we were all on very good terms, not a blow was struck.”

Four years later saw the notorious 1929 massacre, in which 133 Jews were killed in Hebron and elsewhere. The subsequent commission of inquiry found that “the Mufti, like many others who directly or indirectly played upon public feeling in Palestine, must accept a share in the responsibility,” but did not ultimately recommend his removal. One commissioner added a note of reservation that was closer to Zionist leaders’ conviction that Husseini bore central responsibility for inciting the attacks.

In either case, Samuel had by then returned to a very different life in London. Months after the Hebron massacre he became deputy leader of the Liberal Party. Within two years he would be named Home Secretary — one of the four Great Offices of State — and finally, in 1931, leader of the Liberal Party.

‘Extremely irritating people’

Samuel’s policy positions were multi-layered and subtle, not easily categorized as merely pro-Jewish or pro-Arab. In testimony, he tended to match each rhetorical point with an equal and opposite counterpoint.

He was keen to clarify that his apparently more moderate Zionist aspirations did not mean he ruled out an eventual Jewish majority. “The nature of the Jewish National Home must be conditioned by the interests of the inhabitants of the country generally,” he said. “I still hold to that, but that condition might permit a Jewish National Home with a million inhabitants or possibly two million, with a majority or with a minority.”

But he then proceeded to lay an equally firm emphasis on respecting Arab sensibilities and interests. Palestine’s Arabs, he admitted, are “fissiparous” — fractious — and “torn by dissensions, based largely upon family connections — [especially] the Husseinis and the Nashashibis.” Nonetheless, he said:

“I think it is tremendously important, if possible, to reassure the Arabs… I regarded that from the beginning of my administration as the predominant issue. I do not think the Zionists ever attached sufficient importance to it. They ought to have realized from the beginning that this great enterprise of establishing a Jewish National Home in a country which was mainly Arab was one of extreme delicacy and difficulty, and they ought to have taken every care from the very beginning to conciliate Arab opinion and to pay deference to Arab susceptibilities. I do not think that was done.”

They ought to have realized from the beginning that this great enterprise of establishing a Jewish National Home in a country which was mainly Arab was one of extreme delicacy and difficulty

“It is essential to make the Arabs feel in their hearts that they are better through the British Mandate,” he continued. “On the economic side… the Arabs are definitely very much better off than they were under the Turks. I think assertions to the contrary are mere propaganda, trying to make out a case when there is not a real case… But that is not enough and it is quite as essential they should feel that culturally they are better off.”

And yet, Samuel cautioned “against merely saying we will restrict Jewish immigration and hope for the best.” (Two years later Neville Chamberlain’s government would do just that, in the 1939 White Paper, a move that Samuel staunchly opposed.)

“That would be a great blow to Jews all over the world and arouse vehement antagonism, and the Arabs would probably take that and give nothing,” he said. London may opt to do it for several years, as part of a wider agreement, but it “cannot do it for all time.”

A man reacts during the aftermath of the Hebron massacre in 1929. (Public domain)

“The National Home provision in the Mandate was absolute,” he affirmed, sounding a categorically Zionist note. “Four hundred thousand people have come here on the faith of it and tens of millions of pounds have been invested on the strength of it. It is a binding obligation, and the establishment of self-government institutions is also necessary, but it cannot over-ride the provision in regard to the National Home… the ordinary Englishman does not understand the moral forces that are behind the Zionist Movement, or the reason for the enthusiasm and the sacrifices it evokes.”

“But, of course, Jews very often are extremely irritating people,” he added, sounding an unequivocally anti-Zionist, indeed anti-Semitic note, “and I can imagine that they put up the backs of a great many of the administrators, and there is that sort of aloofness or lack of understanding with some of them.”

The transcript suggests the commissioners were not unduly fazed by the last comment, perhaps because earlier they had heard testimony from one of Samuel’s successors as high commissioner, John Chancellor, who offered a similar analysis.

You have to remember that the Arab is an attractive person, with charming manners, courteous and dignified, whereas the Jews are self-centered and arrogant and they make demands insistently quite regardless of other people’s interests or feelings

“You have to remember that the Arab is an attractive person, with charming manners, courteous and dignified, whereas the Jews are self-centered and arrogant and they make demands insistently quite regardless of other people’s interests or feelings,” Chancellor said.

“That tends to make the officials like the Arab better than the Jew.”

Second Samuel

In a second, shorter testimony a few days later, the commissioners asked Samuel about a drastic solution they were mulling to the Palestine impasse: Partition. In crude terms, the idea was “roughly that the hills should go to the Arabs and the plains to the Jews.”

“I do not like it,” he replied, “but I can conceive if there was no other solution possibly you might have to recourse to it as a pis aller,” a last resort. Still, he said, “it would be exceedingly difficult to make it practicable. I would much rather try and arrive at an accommodation instead of segregation.”

In the plains “are large Arab towns like Gaza and Ramleh… some of them fanatically Arab, like Qalqilya. Would you move all the people away as in the transfer of the Greeks and the Turks?” he asked, referring to the massive population exchange after the Great War. “What about the population of Jaffa, where you have old Arab families? It is very difficult.”

Palestinian Arab refugees leave Ramle after its capture by Israel, July 1948. (Public domain)

“Undoubtedly the question of Jerusalem is a problem,” he added, doubting whether the Jews would accept any polity that did not include the holy city. “Also to set up all the machinery of a modern state is a costly business, and while perhaps the Jewish half would be able to do it, I doubt if the Arab half could do it, unless joined with Trans-Jordan.”

Still, he would not rule out any solution: “The situation is so difficult and the whole problem is so important that I would not exclude anything from consideration,” he said. Yet they needed to realize that any form of dividing the land west of the Jordan would be a supremely perilous proposition.

“It would be rather a judgment of Solomon,” he said.

The wrath of Judah

Four months later, on July 7, 1937, the Palestine Royal Commission released its report. It weighed in at 400 pages but is remembered by posterity primarily for its final chapter, in which it laid out the broad sketches of the first two-state solution to the Jewish-Arab conflict.

The mufti rejected partition; for him, any continued Jewish immigration or national rights were anathema. Within months the Arab revolt would begin anew, fiercer than ever. Hajj Amin would then flee Palestine, wanted by the British for his lead role in reviving and perpetuating the uprising.

Samuel too rejected partition, for the same reasons he laid out in testimony. Recently elevated to the House of Lords, he accused the commission of having scoured the Versailles Treaty and adopted all of its “most difficult and awkward provisions.”

That opposition drew him bitter Zionist criticism. As his biographer Bernard Wasserstein put it, “the wrath of Judah descended on his head.”

From left, Lords Edmund Allenby, Arthur Balfour and Sir Herbert Samuel, at Hebrew University in 1925. (Library of Congress)

But the following decade brought World War II, Auschwitz and the struggle for Israel’s independence. Amid the Jewish state’s birth pangs in 1948, Samuel’s squabbles with Zionist leaders were forgotten and forgiven. When an Israeli legation opened in London in November of that year, he was first to sign its visitor book. He first visited the newborn country the following April and was present with IDF commanders at a Bedouin feast in the Negev marking the withdrawal of Egyptian forces. For many years he supported the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which he had inaugurated alongside Lord Balfour back in 1925.

In 1951, as Liberal leader in the House of Lords, Samuel became the first British politician to deliver a party broadcast on television. In his final years he became a fixture on “Brains Trust,” a BBC program featuring expert panels on various high-brow topics. He authored books on philosophy’s intersection with science and religion, encouraged by his friend Albert Einstein. He died in 1963 at the age of 92.

A profound error of judgment

Samuel’s descendants still live in the state that he first envisioned in his “dithyrambic” Cabinet memo of more than a century ago. His eldest son Edwin worked for decades in the Mandate administration, stayed in Jerusalem after Israel’s birth and succeeded his father as the second Viscount Samuel. Edwin’s own son David Herbert Samuel was born in Jerusalem, had an accomplished scientific career, married no fewer than five times and became the only Israeli citizen to ever sit in the House of Lords (though one other peer bears the name of a place in Israel: the Viscount of Megiddo, a descendant of Allenby). And David’s nephew Jonathan Samuel, born in 1965 in Britain, carries on the title of the Viscount of Mount Carmel.

Herbert Samuel led a life of extraordinary achievement and no small dose of adventure. But his elevation of Husseini lingers as an indelible blot on that legacy.

I think he would agree that he made mistakes, not out of any ill feeling but because he didn’t appreciate what was going to be the results. One was the appointment of Hajj Amin al-Husseini

“It’s always difficult for a son to view his father’s activities objectively,” Edwin Samuel told a film crew in the 1970s. “I think he would agree that he made mistakes, not out of any ill feeling but because he didn’t appreciate what was going to be the results. One was the appointment of Hajj Amin al-Husseini.”

Wasserstein, the biographer, elaborates. “Samuel could not, of course, foresee the Mufti’s later role as the leader of the Palestine Arab revolt between 1936 to 1939… as broadcaster for the Nazis from Berlin, and as a Pied Piper who led his people into defeat, exile, and misery” in 1948.

Samuel never intended the mufti to become the single most powerful figure in Arab Palestine, Wasserstein writes; that occurred gradually, with his massive power visible only after Samuel’s departure from Palestine.

“Nevertheless, Husseini’s earlier record in the 1920 riots might have given Samuel pause for thought,” he notes, and “suggest a defensive blindness to the Mufti’s real character. Samuel failed to perceive the Mufti’s love of intrigue, his intransigent and uncompromising hostility not only to Zionism but also to British imperialism, his readiness to resort to any lengths of brutality against his own people as much as against the Jews and the British.”

“Like Neville Chamberlain’s… misplaced trust in Hitler, Samuel’s faith in the Mufti was a profound error of personal and political judgment.”

Oren Kessler is author of the new book “Palestine 1936: The Great Revolt and the Roots of the Middle East Conflict.” Visit his website here:

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