Defender of Zionism

In 1935 and 1936, during the last years of Stanley Baldwin’s second premiership, the British Government began to limit the number of Jews who could enter Palestine. Between Hitler’s coming to power and the end of 1935, more than 120,000 Jews – predominantly from Germany and Poland – had entered Palestine, bringing the Jewish population to 355,000. By far the largest Jewish immigration since the start of the Mandate had taken place in 1935, mostly from Germany – 66,476 Jews in all. The Arab population, also enhanced by immigration from Arab regions as far west as Morocco and as far east as Afghanistan, was more than 1,300,000.

On 24 March 1936 the House of Commons discussed a proposal for setting up a Legislative Council in Palestine on which the Arabs, given the disparity of populations at that moment, would have a substantial majority, and thus a decisive veto on any further Jewish immigration. Electorally the Jews, who at that time constituted twenty-seven per cent of the population, would be powerless.

Churchill’s speech was the ‘great speech’ of the debate, recalled the British Zionist leader Selig Brodetsky.1 Churchill spoke as the defender of the Mandate pledge that the Jews would in due course be able to form an administration, reminding the House of Commons of the indisputable fact that Arab majority rule ‘would be a very great obstruction to the development of Jewish immigration into Palestine and to the development of the national home of the Jews there.’ He had ‘no hostility for the Arabs,’ he insisted. ‘I think I made most of the settlements over fourteen years ago governing the Palestine situation. The Emir Abdullah is in Transjordania, where I put him one Sunday afternoon at Jerusalem … But I cannot conceive that you will be able to reconcile, at this juncture and at this time, the development of the policy of the Balfour Declaration with an Arab majority on the Legislative Council. I do not feel a bit convinced of it.’

Churchill then spoke of the situation of the Jews in Germany, and its relevance to the government’s Palestine policy. ‘There is in our minds,’ he said, ‘an added emphasis upon this question of Jewish migration which comes from other quarters, at a time when the Jewish race in a great country is being subjected to most horrible, cold, scientific persecution, brutal persecution, a “cold” pogrom as it has been called – people reduced from affluence to ruin, and then, even in that position, denied the opportunity of earning their daily bread, and cut out even from relief by grants to tide the destitute through the winter; their little children pilloried in the schools to which they have to go; their blood and race declared defiling and accursed; every form of concentrated human wickedness cast upon these people by overwhelming power, by vile tyranny.’

Given the persecution of the Jews in Germany, ‘Surely,’ Churchill asked, ‘the House of Commons will not allow the one door which is open, the one door which allows some relief, some escape from these conditions, to be summarily closed, nor even allow it to be suggested that it may be obstructed by the course which we take now.’2 But the mood of the Cabinet and the control of the Conservative Party managers over the large Conservative majority in the House of Commons meant that no move was made to open the gates of Palestine more widely.

The links between Palestinian Arab extremism and Nazism in their ideas with regard to Jews were becoming widely known. Both German and Italian radio propaganda, which were intensifying, fomented Arab agitation against both the Jews of Palestine and the British. These links were proof to Churchill both that many of the Arab demands were being inflamed, and of the danger of allowing representative institutions in Palestine while the Arabs were still in the majority, which they would be for many years.

A month after the Legislative Council debate, Churchill received first-hand information of the extent and nature of Palestinian Arab hostility to the Jews from Major Tulloch, a former army friend who was living in Jericho. Anti-Jewish riots that had broken out in 1936 had been followed by a general strike of all Arabs, Tulloch told him, ‘and though the vast majority of them are opposed to it they have been terrorised by a few youths and boys acting under the Strike Committee … The crowning stupidity is the case of the students at the Kadoorie Agricultural School in Tulkarm, an establishment built and endowed by a Jew for Arabs in the hope of helping them to improve the Arab method of cultivation and so get better yields and more income. At the orders of these iniquitous “Arab Leaders” the students were ordered to strike as a protest against the Balfour Declaration and the immigration of Jews at all into Palestine.’

Tulloch stressed in his letter that the ‘vast majority’ of poorer Arabs were only too willing to work with the Jews ‘were it not for the way they are terrorised by the “leaders” and lied to in the Arab papers.’3 With this information from a British eye-witness in Palestine, Churchill was under no illusions as to the intensity or nature of the Arab protests.

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On 12 March 1937 Churchill was called to give evidence to the Palestine Royal Commission – widely known as the Peel Commission – headed by Lord Peel, a former Secretary of State for India. The purpose of its enquiries was to examine the nature of Britain’s pledge to the Jews and Arabs, and to give suggestions for the future of the Palestine Mandate. Among the members of the commission was Sir Horace Rumbold, who had been British Ambassador in Berlin when Hitler came to power.

Churchill’s evidence was of the utmost importance. When he had issued his White Paper in 1922 there were 80,000 Jews and half a million Arabs in Palestine. By 1936, as a result of his White Paper having established the right of Jews to emigrate to Palestine with no other restraint than the economic absorptive capacity of the country, the number of Jewish inhabitants had risen to more than 380,000, of whom almost 30,000 had arrived in 1936. The Arab population had also risen, almost as dramatically, to more than a million and a quarter, many of the Arab immigrants attracted by the prosperity that the Jews were creating throughout the country.

Churchill was asked more than a hundred questions. His answers, recorded by stenographers, and kept secret by the commissioners, provided an intimate insight into his thinking about what the Jewish National Home was intended to be, how it had evolved, and how he envisaged its future.

The first question, asked by Lord Peel, concerned the principle of the economic absorptive capacity with regard to the limits imposed on Jewish immigration. Churchill told the commissioners that ‘it was not intended to make it the sole test, still less the foundation; certainly not. Of course, it is always governed on the other side – I must point out – by the fact that we are trying to bring in as many as we possibly can in accordance with the original Balfour Declaration.’

Peel then pointed out to Churchill that on the matter of the economic absorptive capacity of Palestine, ‘the Jews claim that yours is the authoritative interpretation issued before the Mandate, which really governs the whole thing, and that it would be a breach of faith if anything was suggested contrary to that.’ In reply Churchill stressed that Britain ‘undertook to try to bring them in as quickly as we could without upsetting the economic life of the country or throwing it into political confusion. I certainly never considered they were entitled, no matter what other consequences arose, to bring in up to the limit of the economic absorptive capacity. That was not intended. On the other hand, it must be made clear our loyalty is on the side of bringing in as many as we can.’

Peel responded sternly: ‘But as you know, the Jews insist very much upon the letter of the bond and it is purely for that reason we put that question to you.’ Churchill disagreed. His answer to Peel was emphatic. ‘I insist’, he said, ‘upon loyalty and upon the good faith of England to the Jews, to which I attach the most enormous importance, because we gained great advantages in the War. We did not adopt Zionism entirely out of altruistic love of starting a Zionist colony: it was a matter of great importance to this country. It was a potent factor on public opinion in America and we are bound by honour, and I think upon the merits, to push this thing as far as we can, but we are not bound to any particular detail, nor has anybody a right to say, “You have said at a certain date there must be so many.”’

Asked by Professor Reginald Coupland, a distinguished historian of the Commonwealth and the Colonies, about the power of the Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini – the leading Palestinian Arab voice against Jewish immigration – to determine the rate of immigration by his protests, Churchill replied, ‘I hope to see the British Government so strong it will not be swayed by them.’

Peel then raised one of the most contentious questions in the Palestine debate, the meaning and aim of the Jewish National Home. Churchill had no doubt as to what the aim had been. ‘The conception undoubtedly was’, he said, ‘that, if the absorptive capacity over a number of years and the breeding over a number of years, all guided by the British Government, gave an increasing Jewish population, that population should not in any way be restricted from reaching a majority position. Certainly not. On the contrary, I think in the main that would be the spirit of the Balfour Declaration.’

As to what arrangement would be made to safeguard the rights ‘of the new minority’ – the Arabs – Churchill told the commissioners, ‘that obviously remains open, but certainly we committed ourselves to the idea that some day, somehow, far off in the future, subject to justice and economic convenience, there might well be a great Jewish State there, numbered by millions, far exceeding the present inhabitants of the country and to cut them off from that would be a wrong.’

‘… a great Jewish State there, numbered by millions’. These were strong words. Churchill continued, ‘We never committed ourselves to making Palestine a Jewish Home. We said there should be a Jewish Home in Palestine, but if more and more Jews gather to that Home and all is worked from age to age, from generation to generation, with justice and fair consideration to those displaced and so forth, certainly it was contemplated and intended that they might in the course of time become an overwhelmingly Jewish State.’

‘Over the centuries?’ Churchill was asked. ‘Over the generations or the centuries,’ he replied. ‘No one has ever said what is to be the rate at which it is to be done. The British Government is the judge and should keep the power to be the judge.’

Sir Horace Rumbold, who had been the British Ambassador in Berlin when Hitler came to power, pointed out that in the White Paper Churchill had written: ‘When it is asked what is meant by the development of a Jewish National Home in Palestine,’ it was ‘in order that it may become a centre in which the Jewish people may take a pride.’ What, Rumbold asked, had Churchill meant by ‘may become a centre.’ Churchill replied: ‘If more Jews rally to this Home, the Home will become all Palestine eventually, provided that at each stage there is no harsh injustice done to the other residents.’

As to whether this would constitute an injustice to the Palestinian Arabs, Churchill was confident that it would not. ‘Why is there harsh injustice done,’ he asked, ‘if people come in and make a livelihood for more and make the desert into palm groves and orange groves? Why is it injustice because there is more work and wealth for everybody? There is no injustice. The injustice is when those who live in the country leave it to be a desert for thousands of years.’

Rumbold, with his personal experience of Berlin in 1933, then asked: ‘All that has been strengthened by things like the policy of the Nazi Government in Germany and the economic pressure on the Jews in Poland?’ to which Churchill replied: ‘That makes it more poignant, but it does not oblige us to do any active injustice to Arabs because of the injustice done to Jews in Europe. We have to see that they do not come in in such numbers that they upset the country and create unfair conditions and we are the judges of that, and the sole judges in my opinion.’

Rumbold was not satisfied, asking if Churchill maintained that Jewish immigration could continue even if ‘this policy results in periodical disturbances, costing us the lives of our men and so on?’ Churchill had no doubt as to the answer. In his opinion, ‘All questions of self-government in Palestine are subordinate to the discharge of the Balfour Declaration – the idea of creating a National Home for the Jews and facing all the consequences which may ultimately in the slow passage of time result from that. That is the prime and dominating pledge upon which Britain must act.’

Had he contemplated the possibility of a Jewish majority, Churchill was asked. He replied emphatically: ‘I am sure it would be contrary to the whole spirit of the Balfour Declaration if we were to declare that in no circumstances, however naturally it might arise, would we contemplate a Jewish majority.’ As to the local Arabs: ‘If we displace so-and-so from this place and so-and-so from that place and he and his family are subject to harsh usage, we cannot have that’; but he insisted that for Britain to say ‘this great idea of a Jewish National Home in Palestine was to have a limit put on it and say it is not to be a Jewish National Home if more people get to it than the Arab population, that would not be right.’

Rumbold had another question, about Jewish land purchase and the fact that Jews were not then employing Arabs on the land they had bought. ‘I think the Mandatory Power should talk to the Jewish people about it,’ Churchill replied, ‘and say how foolish they are to do it and how wrong.’ The British should say to the Jews: ‘If you cannot ease the situation in the way of employing more Arabs, if you cannot get on better terms with these Arabs, that is a reason for our reducing immigration in any given year.’

Churchill then re-iterated strongly: ‘We are always aiming at the fact that, if enough Jews come, eventually it may be a great Palestinian State, in which the large majority of the inhabitants would be Jews.’ As to when this Jewish majority State would come into being, Churchill commented, ‘It is not a thing which will happen for a century or more.’ These words would not have pleased the Zionists, had they heard them, but they would have pleased the Arabs even less, for Churchill did envisage a Jewish majority in the end.

Professor Coupland had a strong objection to Churchill’s concept of continuing Jewish immigration, calling it ‘a creeping invasion and conquest of Palestine spread over half a century, which is a thing unheard of in history?’ Churchill was indignant. ‘It is not a creeping conquest,’ he said. In 1918 the Arabs were beaten ‘and at our disposition.’ They were defeated ‘in the open field. It is not a question of creeping conquest. They were beaten out of the place. Not a dog could bark. And then we decided in the process of the conquest of these people to make certain pledges to the Jews. Now the question is how to administer in a humane and enlightened fashion and certain facts have emerged.’

Coupland then referred to the riots, questioning Churchill – about the use of British troops in Palestine – that ‘every few years you go on shooting Arabs down because they dislike the Jews coming in?’ to which Churchill replied, accurately: ‘Have there not been many more Jews murdered than Arabs?’ When Coupland noted that Arabs were killed ‘in the end’ – mostly shot by British troops – Churchill, again indignant, told his interlocutor: ‘You cannot say we go on shooting down the Arabs.’ If more Arabs were killed than Jews, they were being killed by the British ‘because we are the stronger power.’

Returning to the British conquest of Palestine in the First World War, Rumbold remarked: ‘You conquer a nation and you have given certain pledges the result of which has been that the indigenous population is subject to the invasion of a foreign race.’ Churchill did not accept that the Jews were a ‘foreign race’. ‘Not at all,’ he said. It was the Arabs who had been the outsiders, the conquerors. ‘In the time of Christ,’ Churchill pointed out, ‘the population of Palestine was much greater, when it was a Roman province.’ That was when Palestine was a Jewish province of Rome. ‘When the Mohammedan upset occurred in world history,’ Churchill continued, ‘and the great hordes of Islam swept over these places they broke it all up, smashed it all up. You have seen the terraces on the hills which used to be cultivated, which under Arab rule have remained a desert.’

Rumbold suggested that it would be ‘more just’ for Churchill to have said ‘under Turkish rule’, to which Churchill replied, ‘I do not know about that. I have a great regard for Arabs, but at the same time you find where the Arab goes it is often desert.’ The discussion turned to the question of Arab life in the past. When Rumbold said that the Arabs had created ‘a good deal of civilisation in Spain,’ Churchill answered: ‘I am glad they were thrown out.’ Rumbold was indignant: ‘They were there six or seven hundred years and they did a great deal there,’ he said. Things had ‘gone back’ since the Arabs left Cordova. To which Churchill remarked, ‘It is a lower manifestation, the Arab.’ Churchill was not prepared to accept that the Arabs were capable of creating a vibrant culture. What he had seen in Egypt as a soldier thirty-five years earlier, and what he had seen in Palestine on his two visits, in 1921 and 1934, had not impressed him.

Peel then addressed the rise in Palestinian Arab nationalism, and its hostility to the whole Zionist enterprise. Churchill was not deterred in his vision of an eventual Jewish State and Britain’s constructive part in its evolution, far off though statehood might be. ‘You might have to soft pedal a bit,’ he told Peel, ‘but you will not alter your purpose. Your purpose is declared. You may go a little bit slower. I regard it as being a thing for England. If she cannot do it she had better give it up.’ But Britain could ‘perfectly well mark time’ for five or ten years. This might also affect the rate of Jewish immigration. The Jews had ‘no right’ to say to the British, ‘You have promised us we can have a further million immigrants.’ England, Churchill insisted, ‘is the judge.’

When the commissioners turned to Jewish immigration, Churchill produced a note of caution, one that was to disappoint the Zionists when it became known, but one that was to be his view for the rest of the Palestine Mandate, even after the Second World War. ‘Are we going too fast?’ he asked, and went on to suggest a limit on the pace of Jewish immigration: ‘We want these races to live together and to minister to their well-being. Their well-being would be greatly enhanced if they did not quarrel. Where there is now a desert would become a really lovely place, and the Arabs would reap the benefit. We want them to; but if you go too fast and you have these furious outbreaks, then you must go a bit slower. But you must not give in to the furious outbreaks; you must quell them. You may go a bit slower, but do not be diverted from your purpose, which is that you will preserve a nucleus in Palestine round which as many Jews as can get a living will be gathered, without regard to the racial balance of population in the country. That is my view.’

Here was the key to Churchill’s continuing support for what the Zionists were trying to do in Palestine: create a viable Jewish life, without threat from the demographic superiority of the Arabs. However qualified or circumscribed, he said, his advice was ‘Do not be diverted from your purpose.’

Peel then turned to that article of the Mandate that stated: ‘The Mandatory shall be responsible for placing the country under such administrative, political and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of a Jewish national home,’ and to facilitate ‘the development of self-governing institutions’ while at the same time ‘safeguarding the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine irrespective of race and religion.’ Do you consider these as two parallel duties? he asked Churchill. If the Jews became a majority, Britain might establish self-governing institutions, because it would not then conflict with the establishment of a Jewish National Home. But the Arabs say, ‘That is very odd self-government: it is only when the Jews are in a majority that we can have it.’

When Churchill was asked if the Arabs were right in saying ‘that it is the entry of the Jews and the Jewish Home’ that prevented them from having self-governing institutions, he replied that the Mandate limited the development of Arab self-governing institutions ‘as long as they do not accept the spirit of the Balfour Declaration. The moment they accept that spirit, with all the pledges of their civil liberties, the question falls to the ground.’ But the Arabs ‘resist and they do not want it.’ Churchill added, ‘If I were an Arab I should not like it, but it is for the good of the world that the place should be cultivated, and it never will be cultivated by the Arabs.’

When Coupland noted that ‘Arab nationalism sees it cannot get the self-government which Iraq, Syria, Trans-Jordan and Egypt have all got, for one reason only, because the Jewish National Home is there,’ Churchill answered, ‘Because England entered into obligations.’ Coupland pressed his point. ‘It would be a great relief I should have thought to the average Englishman,’ he told Churchill, ‘to find he had not got to go on denying self-government to these Arabs, had not got to go on shooting the Arabs down because of keeping his promise to the Jews. It is a most disagreeable position to be in.’

Churchill did not see this as an obstacle. He told the commissioners: ‘My view is that you should go on and persevere with the task, holding the balance in accordance with the declaration, allowing the influx of new immigrants to take place as fast as can be, but having the right to slow it down when you like and having power and force of the right kind to support you, but if you cannot do that, give it up and let Mussolini take it on, which he would be very anxious to do. Someone else might come in. You would have to face that. A power like Italy would have no trouble. There are powers in the world which are the rising powers which are unmoral powers; they admit no morals at all.’

Rumbold then asked Churchill how, in the existing circumstances, he could apply the article of the Mandate, which said that ‘Jewish immigration shall be facilitated under suitable conditions.’ What did ‘suitable conditions’ mean? Rumbold asked. ‘At present the atmosphere is one of unconcealed hostility. That is not a proper atmosphere for doing anything in. If you take a plant or any organism it will not flourish in certain conditions.’

Churchill’s answer touched on the pace of immigration, but did not suggest that it should be seriously curtailed. ‘That means you must not push too hard,’ he said. Perhaps the Jews had, with the Germans treating them so badly, ‘pushed in too many. There has been an extra drive and that drive started up the Arabs. I should have thought the Jews would have been clever enough to have conciliated the Arabs. Money helps things. When land is bought, perhaps the Arab might be given land more suitable to him. That is how they should go on.’

Churchill did have a criticism of the Zionists in the earlier years of the Mandate. ‘They made a mistake,’ he told the commissioners, ‘in saying they would only employ their own people on their own work. It was never intended that that should happen. It was intended that the two races should intermingle.’

Coupland then complained that the Jewish Agency – set up in 1930 as liaison between the Jews of Palestine and the British Mandate, and headed by David Ben-Gurion – had its representatives in London ‘and they can speak to the Colonial Office and the Arabs feel on their side they are rather left in the cold. They have not the great engine the Jews have.’ Churchill replied brusquely, not hiding his preference: ‘It is a question of which civilisation you prefer.’

Sir Horace Rumbold then asked Churchill, ‘When do you consider the Jewish Home to be established? You have no ideas of numbers? When would you say we have implemented our undertaking and the Jewish National Home is established? At what point?’ Churchill’s answer was unequivocal. Britain’s undertaking would be implemented ‘when it was quite clear the Jewish preponderance in Palestine was very marked, decisive, and when we were satisfied that we had no further duties to discharge to the Arab population, the Arab minority.’

When Sir Laurie Hammond asked Churchill if, until there was a Jewish majority, ‘we have to go on as the Mandatory Power, governing the country against the wishes of the majority of the people in the country?’ Churchill replied: ‘Certainly, against the wishes of both of them, because the Jews will not be satisfied with your soft-pedalling of immigration,’ and the Arabs will hate the fact that Britain was saying, ‘We are going to work up to this goal,’ the goal of a Jewish majority. If the Peel Commission felt that Britain had to give up the Mandate, Churchill told the commissioners, a great many people would say, ‘All right, give it up.’ But not a single person would say, ‘Hold the Mandate and abandon the pledge to the Jews.’

Peel broke in at this point to say that Britain ‘might have some compunction if she felt she was downing the Arabs year after year when they wanted to remain in their own country.’ Churchill rejected this line of reasoning, and allowed himself to be drawn into a more contentious discussion. ‘I do not admit that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger,’ he told the commissioners, ‘even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. 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. I do not admit 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.’4

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When the Peel Commission report was published in April 1937 it did not quote from Churchill’s evidence or make it public. It did however cite his 1922 White Paper declaration that the development of the Jewish National Home ‘is not the imposition of a Jewish nationality upon the inhabitants of Palestine as a whole, but the further development of the existing Jewish community … in order that it may become a centre in which the Jewish people as a whole may take, on grounds of religion and race, an interest and a pride.’5

‘This definition of the National Home,’ the commissioners wrote, ‘has sometimes been taken to preclude the establishment of a Jewish State. But, though the phraseology was clearly intended to conciliate, as far as might be, Arab antagonism to the National Home, there is nothing in it to prohibit the ultimate establishment of a Jewish State, and Mr Churchill himself has told us in evidence that no such prohibition was intended.’6

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