Palestine: The Legitimate Jewish Haven

Churchill’s immediate reaction to the Kristallnacht pogrom in Germany on the night of 9/10 November 1938, when more than a thousand synagogues were destroyed and tens of thousands of Jewish businesses and homes looted, was to press for the re-opening of Palestine for the tens of thousands of German and Austrian Jews who were seeking a safe haven there. On the day before the Palestine debate in the House of Commons he received from Weizmann’s secretary, Doris May, a copy of the Palestine Government’s estimate of the population. By March 1938, the most recent date for calculations, there were 1,002,406 Arabs and 401,557 Jews in Palestine. In the year 1937, just under 12,000 Jews had been allowed to enter, and in the first three months of 1938, just under 6,000.

In the House of Commons debate on 24 November, Churchill made a forceful speech. The picture he painted with regard to Britain’s stewardship of Palestine was dire. ‘There is tragedy in Palestine,’ he declared. ‘Blood is shed, murders are committed, executions are carried out, terror and counter-terror have supervened in the relationship between the Jews and the Arabs, both of whom have a right to dwell in the land which the Lord hath given them. The whole economic revival of Palestine, which was in active progress three years ago, has been cast down. From whatever angle you observe this scene, I say that it is painful. It is even horrible, and mark you, whether we feel it or not, it is humiliating to us in this country.’

With anger born of impotence to influence policy, Churchill told the House – with its large majority of loyal government supporters – ‘I accuse His Majesty’s Government of having been, for more than three years, incapable of forming a coherent opinion upon the affairs of Palestine. All this time matters in Palestine have been going from bad to worse, and throughout all this period, when the situation was passing continuously out of control, the Government seemed to be constantly seeking the line of least resistance. What is astonishing is that, considering how long they have been looking for the line of least resistance, their patient quest has not been attended with a greater measure of success.’ The pattern was this: ‘A year passes, six months pass – we have a Debate on Palestine. Do not let it be forgotten that people are dying there, that they are being executed and meeting grisly deaths from day to day and week to week, while here all that can be done is to have from time to time Debates and pay each other compliments, and, above all, run no risks of taking any decision.’

As to the Peel Commission, Churchill was scathing. ‘Having sat at the Colonial Office on these sort of matters about Palestine,’ he said, ‘I can assure the House that there was nothing that the Royal Commission, headed by Lord Peel, could possibly have discovered in Palestine that was not already known to the Middle Eastern Department of the Colonial Office – nothing.’ But the formation of a Royal Commission ‘with imposing names, the gratifying leading articles in the newspapers, all this was a device to save the Cabinet from making up its mind.’

What had happened, Churchill asked, after the House of Commons persuaded the government not to endorse the Peel Partition plan? The government had said: ‘Partition is still the policy and the principle but, of course, nothing is going to happen for quite a long time. Meanwhile, there will be further consultations and inquiries.’ Churchill was contemptuous. For more than a year ‘no policy was proclaimed by the Mandatory Power. Can we wonder that the position degenerated?’

Another Royal Commission had then been sent out, in order, Churchill mocked, ‘to report upon the first Royal Commission.’ It was the second Commission, headed by Sir John Woodhead, that ‘brings us to this day’s Debate.’ That Commission had reported, in Churchill’s caustic words, ‘that the plan of the first Royal Commission was rubbish, and that Partition was impracticable.’1 The Colonial Secretary, Malcolm MacDonald, had suggested that the time had come for a conference. Churchill could not contain his scorn. ‘After three years of chatter, vain, futile chatter on this subject, he announces that we are to have some discussion. It would be laughable but for the grim background upon which failure to meet this situation manifests itself.’

First, Churchill said, law and order must be restored. Then there should be a ten-year plan, with the assent, if possible, of all parties, ‘and let us enforce that plan with resolute conviction and use all our strength to make it successful.’ That plan would involve a curb on Jewish immigration. ‘I hold, having been somewhat concerned in these matters, that we have obligations to the Palestinian Arabs as well as to the Jews and world Jewry.’ It was Britain’s duty to make a ‘fair offer’ to the Palestinian Arabs. If they refused that offer ‘we must still endeavour to do justice; but justice unhampered by any special understanding with them.’

Churchill did not speak without having a plan of his own. It was to fix the immigration of the Jews into Palestine for ten years ‘at a certain figure’, which at the end of the ten-year period ‘will not have decisively altered the balance of the population as between Arab and Jew.’ But in the first place the British Government must consider the fact of ‘the great increase in the Arab population during the time of the Zionist policy.’ According to the census figures, this Arab increase had been ‘almost as great as that of the Jewish population.’ According to the figures of the Woodhead Report ‘it has been considerably greater.’2

A previous speaker, Sir Archibald Sinclair, who had recently become Leader of the Liberal Party, had pointed out, Churchill noted, ‘that this great increase in the Arab population disposes at once of the suggestion that they are being driven out by Jewish immigrants. They are, on the contrary, being brought into Palestine, into the sunlight of life by the very process we are pursuing and which we are determined to pursue.’ Quoting the annual British Mandate census figures, as submitted to the League of Nations, Churchill noted that in the past fifteen years, between 1923 and 1938, there had been, according to the official figures, an increase of 300,000 in the Arab population and 315,000 in the Jewish population. ‘Therefore, it would seem to me, having regard to our war-time pledges, that it would obviously be right for us to decide now that Jewish immigration into Palestine shall not be less in any given period than the growth of the Arab population arising largely from the animating and fertilising influence of the Jews.’

Malcolm MacDonald had indicated that the Arabs expected an increase of up to 1,500,000 in the following twenty years. ‘It is perfectly clear, therefore,’ Churchill pointed out, ‘that Jewish immigration is no inroad on the Arab population as long as it keeps pace with the growth of the Arab population. Indeed, that gave ‘the Jews, the Zionists’ an interest in stimulating an increase in the Arab population, and ‘helping them in their employment and bringing the two into a common interest in the matter.’

It seemed to Churchill ‘that we owe it to the Arabs’ to make them an offer that Jewish immigration ‘shall not be so great in the ten-year period as to derange seriously the existing balance between the Jew or Arab populations.’ That, he was confident, would be a ‘great assurance’ to the Arabs.

Churchill’s ten-year plan for a curb on Jewish immigration was a blow to the Zionists, who hoped to bring in sufficient immigrants to secure a Jewish majority within that ten-year period. But Churchill no longer saw this as the way forward. ‘I quite agree that you cannot expect Palestine to absorb the whole of the exodus of the Jews from other countries,’ he said, ‘but the figure of immigration is one which should be settled. There is the crux of the matter; that is the question around which fighting is going on, and I think it should be settled on a ten-year basis. First fix the quota of your immigration, and then give this overriding assurance to the Arabs that in the ten-year period they will not be submerged.’ That policy would, Churchill calculated, lead to Jewish immigration of between 30,000 and 35,000 a year. This was a substantial figure, three times the actual number of Jewish immigrants in 1937, which had been just over 10,000, and twice that for 1938, which was to be just under 15,000.

There were those who said that the Arabs might not agree even to the reduced figure of 30,000 to 35,000 Jewish immigrants a year. ‘In the event of the Arabs refusing to come to any agreement,’ Churchill responded, ‘there would be in that case no arbitrary limit upon immigration. We should offer them a limit for their consent, but if their consent is not forthcoming and we have to rely on these other elements to maintain our security, then we must have no upward bar except what is practically possible in that respect.’

Churchill spoke positively of the ability of the Jews to defend themselves in Palestine. ‘Although the Jewish colonies have not been protected by the Imperial Government,’ he pointed out, ‘they have held their own without difficulty and not one of them has been seriously attacked.’ The Arabs should be told ‘quite plainly that unless they accept within a reasonable period of time a fair offer and cease to wage war upon the Crown of Britain we shall have to carry out our plan, not without regard to their rights but without any sense of special obligation.’3

Within a month of Churchill’s speech, on 21 December, the British Government’s dependence on Arab goodwill had been made clear to those at the Cabinet table. Churchill was never to know that the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Kingsley Wood, told his colleagues that in the view of the Air Staff ‘if another crisis should find us with a hostile Arab world behind us in the Middle East, then our military position would be quite untenable.’ The Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, stressed that the forthcoming conference in London between the British Government, the Zionists and the Arab States ‘must be so conducted to ensure that the Arab States would be friendly to us.’4

The conference, with Arab and Jewish leaders sitting around the same table, was held at St James’s Palace in London in January 1938. Its outcome was indecisive. Churchill’s plan to act without Arab consent, and to act in the interest of the Jews if the Arabs rejected the proposed reduction of Jewish immigration, did not find favour with those British politicians who wanted to appease Arab sentiment – not only in Palestine but throughout the Arab world.

One result of this particular appeasement policy was an upsurge in official British pressure against Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria who were trying to reach Palestine without Palestine certificates, the essential documentation without which they would not be allowed to enter. With Lord Halifax’s approval, British diplomatic pressure was put on five governments, those of Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania, not to allow ‘illegal’ immigrants to transit their countries en route for Palestine.

Churchill sought to help the Jews of Germany and Austria by finding some other place of refuge. While on holiday in the South of France in January 1939 he met an Albanian diplomat, Chatin Sarachi, a member of one of Albania’s leading Roman Catholic landowning families. Sarachi was sympathetic to the idea of Albania taking in refugees, and after raising the matter in the Albanian capital, wrote to Churchill: ‘I have been authorised to negotiate.’5 Within a month, Mussolini sent his troops into Albania, its independence was destroyed, and the rescue scheme came to nought.

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The more Churchill warned about Hitler’s aggressive intentions in Europe and called for accelerated British rearmament, the more Neville Chamberlain and the Conservative Party machine belittled his arguments and his judgment. On 9 December 1938, in a speech to his constituents, Churchill pointed out that four years earlier he had urged that the Royal Air Force should be doubled and then redoubled. In response, Lord Samuel, then a leading advocate of the Liberal Party’s call for disarmament, had ‘thought my judgment so defective that he likened me to a Malay running amok. It would have been well for him and his persecuted race if my advice had been taken. They would not be where we are now and we would not be where we are now.’6

Churchill’s bitterness was strong. He had been kept out of the decision-making process for so long. His warnings about Nazism had been clear and detailed, but to no avail. While Chamberlain and his Cabinet did not want Churchill in their inner circle, a larger and larger segment of the British public was calling for him to be given a place. This demand found strong expression in February and March 1939 in the illustrated magazine Picture Post, which in two successive issues called for Churchill to be brought back into government. The articles were illustrated with photographs of Churchill at Chartwell, his home and place of virtual exile, where he was seen working, bricklaying, reading – and waiting.

The articles owed much to the vision of the editor and designer of Picture Post, Stefan Lorant, a Hungarian Jew who in 1919, at the age of eighteen, had fled the anti-Semitic atmosphere of Admiral Horthy’s regime and gone to Germany, where he became a pioneer of illustrated magazines. In 1933 Lorant had been imprisoned by the Nazis in Dachau for six months, before intervention by the Hungarian Government led to his release. His book I Was Hitler’s Prisoner, published in 1935, was one of the first accounts in English of the concentration camp system.

Lorant spent a day at Chartwell, with a photographer, talking to Churchill and working out how best to present the call for his return to government. The two issues of Picture Post that followed Lorant’s visit marked a turning point in the public perception of Churchill as a man whose knowledge and experience were not being used. The first issue was published on 25 February 1939 with text by Henry Wickham Steed, a former editor of The Times and a member of the Anti-Nazi League. Its theme: ‘The greatest moment of his life is yet to come.’7

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