The King David Hotel Bomb: ‘We Are to be at War with the Jews of Palestine’

In Palestine, Jewish terrorism reached a climax on 22 July 1946 with the blowing up of the British Secretariat wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem by the Irgun, commanded by Menachem Begin. Ninety-one people were killed, most of them civilians: among them forty-one Arabs, seventeen Jews, and fifteen Britons working in the Mandate administration. During the debate in the House of Commons on 1 August, speaker after speaker expressed outrage at this act of Jewish terror. By contrast, Churchill sought to balance his sense of outrage with his understanding of the whole history of the Mandate, of which he had been an integral part from its outset twenty-four years earlier. His speech was among his most important parliamentary efforts, seeking to coax a hostile House towards a more balanced position.

‘The years during which we have accepted the Mandate,’ Churchill told the House, ‘have been the brightest that Palestine has known and were full of hope. Of course, there was always friction, because the Jew was, in many cases, allowed to go far beyond the strict limits of the interpretation which was placed upon the Mandate.’ These ‘strict limits’ had been laid down in the Churchill White Paper of 1922: that there should be no Jewish immigration beyond the ‘economic absorptive capacity’ of Palestine. That was the phrase, Churchill pointed out, ‘which I coined in those days and which seems to remain convenient – the Mandatory Power being, it was presumed, the final judge of what that capacity was. During the greater part of a quarter of a century which has passed, this policy was carefully carried out by us.’

Churchill then spoke warmly about the Jewish achievements in Palestine. The Jewish population multiplied from about 80,000 to nearly 600,000, he said. Tel Aviv ‘expanded into the great city it is, a city which, I must say, during this war and before it, welcomed and nourished waifs and orphans flying from Nazi persecution.’ Many refugees ‘found a shelter and a sanctuary there, so that this land, not largely productive of the means of life, became a fountain of charity and hospitality to people in great distress. Land reclamation and cultivation and great electrical enterprises progressed. Trade made notable progress, and not only did the Jewish population increase but the Arab population, dwelling in the areas colonised and enriched by the Jews, also increased in almost equal numbers. The Jews multiplied six-fold and the Arabs developed 500,000, thus showing that both races gained a marked advantage from the Zionist policy which we pursued and which we were developing over this period.’

Churchill then spoke of the 1939 White Paper, and of the changes wrought by the coming of war less than four months later. ‘I have never altered my opinion,’ he said, ‘that the White Paper constituted a negation of Zionist policy which, the House must remember, was an integral and indispensable condition of the Mandate. That is the view which I hold today.’ The 1939 White Paper, he pointed out, ‘was violently resented by the Jews in Palestine, and by world Jewry, a large majority of whom – although there are notable exceptions – regard Zionism as a great ideal, and as the cherished hope of their race, scattered throughout the world.’

Churchill pointed out that in 1941, at a ‘most critical time’ of the war, the situation in the Middle East ‘was aggravated by the revolt of the pro-German Arab elements in Iraq. No doubt our Zionist policy may have led, in part, to that divergence of Arab sentiment. But the revolt was quelled.’ There were two facts to be borne in mind, Churchill said, with regard to the war: ‘First that Zionists and the Palestine Jews were vehemently and undividedly on our side in the struggle and, secondly, that they no longer need our assistance to maintain themselves in their national home against local Arab hostility. A general attack upon them by all surrounding Arab States would be a different matter, and that would clearly be one which would have to be settled by the United Nations organisation.’ It was almost universally assumed in 1946 that the United Nations – then made up of those countries that had defeated Germany and Japan – would act in unison against any aggressor.

Churchill turned to British policy towards the Arabs. ‘How did we treat the Arabs?’ he asked. His answer was clear. ‘We have treated them very well. The House of Hussein reigns in Iraq. Feisal was placed on the throne, his grandson is there today. The Emir Abdullah, whom I remember appointing at Jerusalem, in 1921, to be in charge of Transjordania, is there today. He has survived the shocks, strains and stresses which have altered almost every institution in the world. He has never broken his faith and loyalty to this country. Syria and the Lebanon owe their independence to the great exertions made by the British Government to make sure that the pledges made by them, at the time when we were weak, but, nevertheless, were forced to take action by entering the country to drive out the Vichy French, were honoured. We have insisted on those pledges being made good.’

Churchill rejected claims that Britain had not been a friend of the Arabs. ‘ I cannot admit that we have not done our utmost to treat the Arabs in a way which so great a race deserves and requires.’ The 1922 territorial settlement had been much to their advantage. ‘I will not have it said that the way we treated this matter was inconsiderate to the Arabs. On the contrary, I think that they have had a very fair deal from Great Britain. With all those countries which are given to their power and control, in every way they have had a very fair deal. It was little enough, indeed, that we had asked for the Jews – a natural home in their historic Holy Land, on which they have the power and virtue to confer many blessings for enjoyment, both of Jew and Arab.’

Churchill sought to show the change in Britain’s treatment of the Jews of Palestine after the Labour victory in 1945. ‘At the General Election which followed the victorious ending of the German war,’ he said, ‘the Labour Party, which was believed to champion the Zionist cause in the terms I have defined, and not only in those terms, but going, in many cases, far beyond – to set up a Jewish State in Palestine’ – had, during the General Election campaign, made ‘most strenuous pro-Zionist speeches and declarations. Many of their most important leaders,’ Churchill pointed out, ‘were known to be ardent supporters of the Zionist cause, and their success was, naturally, regarded by the Jewish community in Palestine as a prelude to the fulfilment of the pledges which had been made to them, and indeed opening the way to further ambitions. This was certainly the least which everybody expected.’

In fact, Churchill stressed, ‘all sorts of hopes were raised among the Jews of Palestine, just as other hopes were raised elsewhere. However, when the months slipped by and no decided policy or declaration was made by the present Government, a deep and bitter resentment spread throughout the Palestine Jewish community, and violent protests were made by the Zionist supporters in the United States. The disappointment and disillusionment of the Jews at the procrastination and indecision of the British Labour Government are no excuse, as we have repeatedly affirmed here, for the dark and deadly crimes which have been committed by the fanatical extremists, and these miscreants and murderers should be rooted out, and punished with the full severity of the law. We are all agreed about that.’ But, Churchill insisted, the expectations that had been aroused by the Labour Party, and ‘the resultant revulsion of feeling, are facts, none the less, to be held constantly before our minds. They cannot say all these things, and then let a whole year pass away and do nothing about it, and then be surprised if these pledges come home to roost in a most unpleasant manner.’

The Jews in Palestine scrutinised Churchill’s words for every sign of encouragement. ‘Had I had the opportunity of guiding the course of events after the war was won a year ago,’ he said, ‘I should have faithfully pursued the Zionist cause as I have defined it; and I have not abandoned it today, although this is not a very popular moment to espouse it; but there are two things to say about it.’ Churchill then spoke words that cast a sudden dampener, telling the House of Commons that he entirely agreed with what a leading member of the Labour Government, the President of the Board of Trade, Sir Stafford Cripps, had said earlier, that ‘no one can imagine that there is room in Palestine for the great masses of Jews who wish to leave Europe, or that they could be absorbed in any period which it is now useful to contemplate.’ Churchill commented: ‘The idea that the Jewish problem could be solved or even helped by a vast dumping of the Jews of Europe into Palestine is really too silly to consume our time in the House this afternoon. I am not absolutely sure that we should be in too great a hurry to give up the idea that European Jews may live in the countries where they belong. I must say that I had no idea, when the war came to an end, of the horrible massacres which had occurred; the millions and millions that have been slaughtered. That dawned on us gradually after the struggle was over.’

But ‘if all these immense millions have been killed and slaughtered,’ Churchill continued, ‘there must be a certain amount of living room for the survivors, and there must be inheritances and properties to which they can lay claim. Are we not to hope that some tolerance will be established in racial matters in Europe, and that there will be some law reigning by which, at any rate, a portion of the property of these great numbers will not be taken away from them. It is quite clear, however, that this crude idea of letting all the Jews of Europe go into Palestine has no relation either to the problem of Europe or to the problem which arises in Palestine.’

At this point a Jewish Member of Parliament, Sidney Silverman, rose to ask: ‘The Right Hon. Gentleman is not suggesting, is he, that any Jew who regarded a country in Europe as nothing but the graveyard and cemetery of all his relatives, friends and hopes should be compelled to stay there if he did not want to do so?’

To this Churchill replied: ‘I am against preventing Jews from doing anything which other people are allowed to do. I am against that, and I have the strongest abhorrence of the idea of anti-Semitic lines of prejudice.’

Churchill then spoke of what he called ‘the crux of the argument I am venturing to submit to the House,’ that in his view ‘an unfair burden was being thrown upon Great Britain by our having to bear the whole weight of the Zionist policy, while Arabs and Moslems, then so important to our Empire, were alarmed and estranged, and while the United States, for the Government and people of which I have the greatest regard and friendship, and other countries, sat on the sidelines and criticised our shortcomings with all the freedom of perfect detachment and irresponsibility.’ He had therefore ‘always intended to put it to our friends in America, from the very beginning of the postwar discussions, that either they should come in and help us in this Zionist problem, about which they feel so strongly, and as I think rightly, on even terms, share and share alike, or that we should resign our Mandate, as we have, of course, a perfect right to do.’

Churchill told the House of Commons that he was convinced ‘that from the moment when we feel ourselves unable to carry out properly and honestly the Zionist policy as we have all these years defined it and accepted it, and which is the condition on which we received the Mandate for Palestine, it is our duty at any rate to offer to lay down the Mandate.’ Britain had ‘never sought or got anything out of Palestine. We have discharged a thankless, painful, costly, laborious, inconvenient task for more than a quarter of a century with a very great measure of success.’

Many people ‘have made fine speeches about the Zionist question,’ Churchill continued. ‘Many have subscribed generously in money, but it is Great Britain, and Great Britain alone, which has steadfastly carried that cause forward across a whole generation to its present actual position, and the Jews all over the world ought not to be in a hurry to forget that.’ If, he warned, ‘in the Jewish movement or in the Jewish Agency there are elements of murder and outrage which they cannot control, and if these strike not only at their best but at their only effective friends, they and the Zionist cause must inevitably suffer from the grave and lasting reproach of the atrocious crimes which have been committed. It is perfectly clear that Jewish warfare directed against the British in Palestine will, if protracted, automatically release us from all obligations to persevere, as well as destroy the inclination to make further efforts in British hearts. Indeed, there are many people who are very near that now.’

Churchill was right. Jewish terrorism in Palestine had created a backlash of anger in Britain that permeated the whole country. Members of Parliament, never collectively supporters of Zionism, had become far more hostile to it even than at the time of the Rutenberg debate twenty-four years earlier, when Churchill had argued the case in favour of Zionist and Jewish enterprise.

Despite his warning, Churchill refused to succumb to the prevailing mood, telling the House: ‘We must not be in a hurry to turn aside from large causes which we have carried far.’ And he went on to speak of Weizmann, ‘that dynamic Jew whom I have known so long, the ablest and wisest leader of the cause of Zionism, his whole life devoted to the cause, his son killed in the battle for our common freedom. I ardently hope his authority will be respected by Zionists in this dark hour, and that the Government will keep in touch with him, and make every one of his compatriots feel how much he is respected here. It is perfectly clear that in that case we shall have the best opportunities of carrying this matter further forward.’

Churchill contrasted British Government policy in Palestine with that in India and Egypt. The government, he said, ‘are, apparently, ready to leave the 400 million Indians to fall into all the horrors of sanguinary civil war – civil war compared to which anything that could happen in Palestine would be microscopic; wars of elephants compared with wars of mice … We scuttle from Egypt … we abandon the Canal Zone about which our treaty rights were and still are indefeasible; but now, apparently, the one place where we are at all costs and at all inconvenience to hold on and fight it out to the death is Palestine, and we are to be at war with the Jews of Palestine, and, if necessary, with the Arabs of Palestine.’

If the United States were not willing to ‘come and share the burden of the Zionist cause,’ Churchill reiterated, then Britain should give immediate notice ‘that we will return our Mandate to the United Nations Organisation and that we will evacuate Palestine within a specified period.’1 ‘I wish indeed,’ Weizmann wrote to Churchill on the following day, ‘that Fate had allowed you to handle our problem; by now it would probably all have been settled, and we would all have been spared a good deal of misery.’2

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