In this fascinating dive into the archives Oren Kessler reveals the dramatic exchanges that shaped Lord Peel’s 1936 proposal to partition Mandate Palestine. Kessler examines testimony given to the Royal Commission, to which Peel lent his name, from Chaim Weizmann, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Grand Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini, George Antonius, Winston Churchill and others. He assesses why the commission decided that only a ‘clean cut’ into two states for these two peoples, Jews and Arabs, had any chance of forestalling a descent into near-permanent conflict. The following is an excerpt from Kessler’s forthcoming book Fire Before Dawn: The First Palestinian Revolt and the Struggle for the Holy Land.
William Peel, the 1st Earl Peel, cut a stately figure. Tall, with a handlebar mustache, he favoured a top hat and tails – especially when touring the sultry Orient. His pedigree was similarly distinguished. His grandfather had founded the Conservative Party; his father was the first Speaker of the House of Commons to open the chamber to non-Christians and even atheists. Lord Peel himself had a formidable résumé, with a handful of Cabinet-level posts including secretary of state for India (twice). In late 1936 he was nearly 70, his body stricken with gout but his mind and manner full of vigour.
That summer he had been named chairman of the Palestine Royal Commission, appointed by Edward VIII months before his abdication. Its remit was to investigate the causes of the six-month spate of violence and civil disobedience that the British dubbed ‘disturbances’, the Jews called meora’ot (‘events’) and the Arabs hailed as al-thawra al-arabiya al-kubra – the Great Arab Revolt. Whatever the nomenclature, it had already claimed 80 Jews and 28 Britons in Arab attacks and at least 200 Arabs – but perhaps as many as 1,000 – in British counter measures.[i]
Peel led a committee of six. His deputy was Baron Horace Rumbold, a stout, monocled ex-ambassador to the Ottomans in their final years and the Nazis in their first, and among Whitehall’s first diplomats to comprehend the scope of Hitler’s ambitions. Rounding out the group were Morris Carter and Harold Morris, specialists in land and labor disputes respectively.[ii] Finally there was Laurie Hammond, a former provincial governor in India, and Reginald Coupland, an Oxford historian specialising in Africa but with wide interests and a reputation for unorthodox ideas.[iii]
On November 5, 1936 the commission set out for Marseilles, where the S.S. Cathay, bound for Port Said, waited.[iv]
That same day Colonial Secretary William Ormsby-Gore authorised a new six-month quota for Jewish immigrants to Palestine. The secretary had been a sympathetic participant in the Zionist project for twenty years: He had helped draft the Balfour Declaration, and Chaim Weizmann, president of the British Zionist Federation, lodged in his home while Cabinet debated it. So staunch was his commitment that rumour had it he had been a practicing Jew for decades.[v]
The announced immigration figure – 1,800 – was one-fifth what Zionist leaders had requested. But in Jerusalem, Grand Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini fumed. He insisted on a complete immigration stoppage if the Arabs were to cooperate with the committee. While Peel’s men traversed the Mediterranean, he declared Palestine’s Arabs would boycott the proceedings.[vi]
Arab leaders implored him to rethink. Emir Abdullah of Transjordan complained to the British that the mufti was shunting aside those like him who sought a genuine solution.[vii] King Ghazi of Iraq – Abdullah’s nephew – and Ibn Saud deemed the boycott ‘folly.’[viii] The editor of Jaffa’s Filastin daily reckoned the boycott a terrible mistake. The Nashashibi clan, the Husseinis’ perennial foes, shared that assessment, as did even leaders of the hardline Istiqlal (Independence) party.[ix]
But Hajj Amin was satisfied. His years of effort to make Palestine the centre of Arab and Muslim attention were beginning to yield fruit, and within Palestine, his position of leadership was incontestable. Police investigators noted that he had created an atmosphere in which an Arab appearing before Peel risked ostracism, if not murder.[x]
The Lords arrive
On 10 November the commissioners disembarked in Egypt, and the next morning boarded a train following Britain’s Great War tracks through Sinai and Gaza to Jerusalem.[xi]
Their home would be the sumptuous King David Hotel, built by Jewish financiers from Cairo. But hearings were to be held at a nearby government building that until a year before had been the rival – Arab-owned – Palace Hotel.
The Palace had been Jerusalem’s premier lodging, an arabesque jewel with a hulking foyer staircase and marble columns. Rooms had canopied four-post beds and – the climax of luxury – bedside telephones. Financed by the mufti’s Supreme Muslim Council, the Palace was a rare product of intercommunal cooperation, realised by a joint Jewish-Arab construction team that had also built the city’s towering YMCA. The architects included Weizmann’s brother-in-law, as well as a Haganah commander who had secretly carved weapons caches into the walls. Before the commission arrived, the latter bade the hotel electrician install microphones in the chandelier above the witness stand.[xii]
Hajj Amin, firm in his boycott, sent the commission a short welcome letter to ‘this holy Arab Land.’ He regretted that he could not extend traditional Arab hospitality, but given London’s broken promises to the Arabs and its efforts to ‘judaize…this purely Arab Country’ he had no choice. He again demanded a complete cessation of Jewish immigration, ‘fatal and prejudicial’ as it was to Arab interests. Only then would he appear before their esteemed offices.[xiii]
The Jewish witnesses
At a grand event on November 12, Peel and High Commissioner Arthur Wauchope officially inaugurated the proceedings.[xiv]
The star witness was Chaim Weizmann, now head of the World Zionist Organisation. In his 60s, he had made it his life’s mission to explain – in the unshakable Yiddish timbre of his native Russia – the Jewish people to the British and the British to the Jews.[xv]
He found greater success in the first objective than the second: over three decades of Zionist activism he had become the favourite Jew of the British ruling class, among whom he counted many intimate friends. A ‘brilliant talker with an unrivalled gift for lucid exposition,’ recalled Palestine’s first military governor.[xvi] Baffy Dugdale, Lord Balfour’s niece, enthused to her diary over his ‘great distinction of mind and profound natural modesty.’[xvii]
Over the Peel Commission’s two months in Palestine he appeared five times – far more, apparently, than any other witness.
Weizmann began his testimony with a stark overview of Europe’s Jewish problem: ‘six million people pent up in places where they are not wanted, and for whom the world is divided into places where they cannot live, and places into which they may not enter.’ Germany had its book burnings and a raft of new laws limiting how Jews studied, worked and married. Poland, Europe’s largest Jewish concentration, remained battered by the global depression and was likewise shutting Jews out of education and the professions. In Bolshevik Russia, Jewish culture and religion were smothered and Zionism a crime; America, the world’s great sanctuary, had boarded its doors almost completely since the 1924 Immigration Act. The commission’s task was daunting, and came at as dark time as any in Jewish history. ‘I pray it may be given to you to find a way out.’[xviii]
Weizmann’s remaining four testimonies were all given privately, and were correspondingly more candid. Witnesses, like commissioners, operated on the premise that secret sessions would remain just that. No list of private-session witnesses was ever released, and the books of in-camera evidence given to each commissioner were apparently destroyed.[xix] Weizmann’s private testimonies survive only buried in his personal papers.
The Arabs, Weizmann suggested, were greedy. They had got three big kingdoms out of the Great War – Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Transjordan – and still begrudged the Jews little Palestine. What’s more, their nationalism was a ‘crude imitation’ of the European model, taking its guns and its rhetoric but short on spiritual and cultural content.
Lord Peel agreed. ‘No doubt the Arabs are a difficult people to deal with,’ he said, ‘not of the same caliber as the Jews, the same standard.’ He was not surprised Weizmann’s people were impatient, but perhaps they were moving a bit too quickly: ‘we have to go rather slow with them, have we not?’[xx]
Yes, Weizmann conceded, ‘the Jew is argumentative; he never takes “no” for an answer. If he is thrown out of the door he tries to come in through the window. He cannot afford to take “no” for an answer. That is his trouble.’
‘The Arab, you see, has flowing robes; he bows gracefully,’ he said. ‘The Jew has bad manners; he does not bow gracefully.’ The British were charmed by the Arabs’ deferential languor – ‘picturesque inefficiency’ he called it – but must not be deceived. ‘The Arab is a totalitarian.’
‘He does not like minorities?’ pressed Prof. Coupland.
‘He does not. That is the whole of his history. I do not blame him. Such is the nature of the man.’[xxi]
Hammond, the former governor in India, piped in: The Jews must take ‘the products of high civilisation’ and ‘superimpose them on this ignorant, prejudiced population of Arabs. It is a very, very difficult thing to do.’ Weizmann concurred: The impact of a ‘higher civilisation’ on a lower one always produces friction.[xxii]
In all his years in Palestine, Weizmann bemoaned, he could still not understand the Arabs’ mentality. ‘I have tried, but I always go wrong.’[xxiii] It’s unclear how hard he tried. David Ben-Gurion, head of the Zionist proto-government, The Jewish Agency, had made some feeble attempts at Arabic over the years. But Weizmann – who spoke at least six languages fluently – had made none at all. ‘I cannot count many friends among the Arabs,’ he admitted, while insisting, unconvincingly, that the previous mufti – Hajj Amin’s brother – had been ‘one of my best friends.’ According to the minutes, he referred to Izz al-Din al-Qassam, the fighter-preacher assassinated by British police the year before, as ‘Sheikh Kasr Abdin.’[xxiv]
Still, Weizmann insisted, the Jews had no desire to dominate Palestine, or to turn Arabs into hewers of wood and drawers of water. Asked three times if the Zionists aimed for a Jewish state, he replied each time that they did not. He instead proposed a system of parity, with equal representation for Arabs and Jews regardless of which was a majority now or later.
It was in Weizmann’s fourth testimony, two days before Christmas, that the commissioners first hesitantly proposed the land’s division: two cantons, Jewish and Arab, under continued British administration with mixed areas belonging to neither. Weizmann gave no definite reply, noting only the plan’s drawbacks: it would mean cutting the country in two or even three; it would leave a quarter of Jews outside the Jewish enclave, which would anyway be a ‘little ghetto.’ Yet he was keen the Jews appear sensible: if such a plan included continued immigration, he said, he would look it over.[xxv]
The hearing dragged on for hours, and the stiff upper lip Weizmann had painstakingly acquired over three decades in Britain was beginning to curl. Europe’s Jews need relief, he repeated; six million need a home. The riots were making a mockery of the British Empire – the Arab joke of the summer was that for every rebel who dies of a bullet, two die of laughter at British fecklessness.
‘The underlying cause is that we exist, and the only question you have to answer is – have we a right to exist? If you answer that question positively, everything else flows from it… I have tried to cut out the core and tell you the truth. I have said all I have to say. I can add no more. I cannot plead harder than I have done. Here it is. Take it or leave it. I am sorry, My Lord, I have got so heated.’
Lord Peel was forgiving. ‘We have, I am afraid, given you a very long day.’[xxvi]
A week into 1937, Weizmann met the commission a final time. Prof. Coupland now pitched an idea ‘a little more drastic’ than before. The scheme, which he raised merely ‘for the sake of argument … deserves to be called more than cantonisation; it is really partition.’ It would ‘split Palestine into two halves, the plan being an independent Jewish State, as independent as Belgium … and the rest of Palestine, plus Transjordania, being an independent Arab state, as independent as Arabia. That is the ultimate idea.’
It was Britain’s first recorded proposal of partition, of a ‘Jewish state,’ and of a two-state solution to the Palestine problem.
Again Weizmann was noncommittal. Again he warned of the consequences of ‘cutting the child in two,’ of the profound ‘administrative difficulties’ and ‘high walls’ it would require. But again he made sure the Jews demonstrated those qualities he believed the British prized: reasonableness, sensibility, compromise. If all sides agreed to such an offer and peace was in the offing, he said, he reckoned his movement would assent. The national home was the Jews’ ‘Mayflower,’ he said, and they would do almost anything to keep it afloat. ‘Permit me not to give an answer now,’ he said. ‘Let me think of it.’[xxvii]
Leaving the hearing, Weizmann invited his secretary to a walk on Mount Scopus. His eyes moistened, his throat choked. The secretary had never seen his old boss like this, so full of love for his people and gratitude to England. The long toil of his life was crowned with success, Weizmann told him, and the Jewish state was at hand.[xxviii]
Over six weeks the commission heard over 50 witnesses – about four-fifth of them Jews, the rest British officials in Palestine[xxix] — but not a single Arab. The Saudi, Iraqi and Transjordanian kings pressed the mufti to change course; so did his Nashashibi rivals in Palestine. All feared that the panel, hearing mainly Jewish arguments, would draft a Zionist-slanted report with nary a nod to Arab demands.
Just days before the commission was to leave Palestine, Hajj Amin canceled the boycott. Peel agreed to stay another week. Filastin blessed the turnaround as ‘wise.’[xxx]
The Arab witnesses
The first Arab witness was Abdullah, in Amman. Regally arrayed in white kuffiyeh and black gown, the emir’s presence – as his ambitions – extended far beyond his sleepy desert realm. The Balfour Declaration was ‘a birth certificate issued before the child was born,’ one that armed the Jews with ‘the spears of England … to stab the Arabs and so establish their alleged kingdom.’ In the mandate’s 14 years the Jews threatened to reach numbers that took the Arabs 14 centuries to accumulate. What right had England to dispose one nation’s homeland to another?[xxxi]
But what’s done is done, he said – Jews who had already settled in Palestine could stay, but must never surpass a third of the population. Like his younger brother Faisal, with whom Weizmann had parleyed two decades prior, Abdullah appeared to accept Britain’s pledge to the Jews so long as its promise of broader Arab independence – under his own rule – was fulfilled. But more than anything the emir’s apparent pragmatism was self-interested: he wanted Palestine, or part of it, for his own kingdom. A modest ‘tip’ from the Jewish Agency – not the first or last he would pocket – helped ensure comparatively moderate testimony.[xxxii]
In mid-January the commissioners met Hajj Amin. His appearance before them was short but sharp. The Mandate was illegitimate, he said, speaking through an interpreter – he had never learned English – in his usual hushed tones. In enshrining the Balfour Declaration, the Mandate contradicted the League of Nations Covenant’s guarantees of self-determination to formerly subject peoples. That same covenant held that any prior agreements made in contravention of the self-determination principle – such as, say, the Declaration in question – were null and void.
The rub: ‘All this was done in consultation and agreement with the Jews on their own terms while the Arabs were never consulted.’[xxxiii]
What is more, he insisted, Jewish nationalism imperiled Muslim holy sites. The Wall of Buraq – the Western Wall – was a ‘purely Muslim place’ to which neither Jews nor any foreign power had ‘any connection or right or claim.’ Worse, he alleged, the Jews meant to rebuild the Temple on the ruins of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque.[xxxiv] And given the Jews’ undue influence in London, Britain would let them do it: ‘My experience up till now shows that the Jews can do anything as far as Palestine is concerned … the people who have persuaded a great Government like Great Britain to destroy the integrity of an Arab people in order to replace it by their own can easily do that, especially when they become the majority in the country.’
Creating a Jewish home in ‘an Arab ocean’ has no historical precedent, he warned, and would make the Holy Land a permanent backdrop for blood. ‘It is impossible to place two distinct peoples, who differ from each other in every sphere of their life, in one and the same country.’
He reiterated his core demands: Terminating the mandate, abandoning the national home, ceasing immigration and prohibiting land sales.
Questioned as to the fate of the 400,000 Jews already in Palestine, Amin ventured only, ‘We must leave all this to the future.’
Pressed as to whether the country could assimilate them, his response was brief.
In the subsequent days more prominent Arabs delivered testimony similar to Amin’s, berating Britain for the Mandate’s intrinsic inequity. The head of the Istiqlal party said the Arabs could neither forsake ‘one meter’ nor the country handle one more immigrant. He refused to sit at the same table as Zionists, or to touch Mandate stamps because alongside Filastin they bore the Hebrew letters aleph and yod for Eretz Israel. Jamal al-Husseini, the mufti’s nephew and political boss, bored the panel by repeating lengthy grievances it had already heard, and rankled it with his insistence that starving with honour was nobler than accepting half a loaf.[xxxv]
Iraq’s consul in Palestine thought the Arab evidence lacked specifics. Foreign Secretary Eden commented that even if the Arab claims were reasonable, their ‘hectoring and threatening’ tone left commission members cold.[xxxvi] High Commissioner Wauchope lamented that until two years prior, many Arabs were moderate; now, led by the mufti’s example, extremism was the rule.[xxxvii] Arab testimony, he grumbled, was self-defeating and ‘crude.’[xxxviii]
The Arabs’ last witness was George Antonius. Lebanon-born, Egypt-raised and Cambridge-educated, he had spent a decade in Palestine’s Education Department before beginning work on The Arab Awakening, a magisterial history of the Arab national movement. He was far and away Arab Palestine’s most eloquent spokesman, and his testimony would be crucial to their case. But after two months in Palestine, Lord Peel was anxious to depart; he gave him just two hours.
The government, Antonius protested, regards Zionist and Arab nationalism in starkly different terms: ‘a Zionist is a man who is perfectly all right and entitled to every kind of respect. An Arab nationalist is the devil incarnate, a revolutionary, he is spied upon, he is watched with suspicion.’
Peel said he had heard the inverse complaint from the Jews.
Antonius pressed on. Arab opposition to Zionism was rooted neither in Jew-hatred nor an inability to compromise. Rather, their aspiration for independence is one on which they feel, ‘I think rightly,’ that no compromise is possible.
‘The Arab mind throughout its history has been singularly free from any such thing as anti-Semitism which, as we all know, is a European and not an Arab invention,’ he said, and ‘the greatest days of Jewish efflorescence have taken place when the Jews were under Muslim rule, whether in Baghdad, Cordova or Cairo.’
No decent-minded person could view the treatment of Europe’s Jews without abhorrence and contempt, he said. Such a person would want to do whatever was possible to relieve their distress.
‘But what the Arabs say, and I say it with them, is this. If that relief is to be obtained only at the expense of inflicting corresponding distress on another people, the people of this country, then no, it cannot be done.’
The clock running out, Antonius hastened to his conclusion. A profound injustice has been committed against people whose ‘only crime has been that they are patriots who want to see their country develop and progress, who want to see their traditions installed and flourishing and who want to be able to govern themselves and live a life based on self-respect and dignity in their own country.’
‘I think your Commission has a great opportunity before it. That opportunity resolves itself into making efforts to remove a great injustice, and that alone, I think, is worth doing; it is perhaps the noblest task to which any man can apply himself.’
‘Thank you, Mr. Antonius,’ said Lord Peel, ‘for the very interesting statement you have made to us.’[xxxix] It was the commission’s last public session in Palestine, and over the following days its members made their respective exits from the country.
In Cairo, they met to trade impressions. Peel said the National Home’s purpose had transformed since the Mandate’s founding: From a cultural centre, it was now to be a refuge for millions. Rumbold, his deputy, agreed: U.S. immigration limits, Hitler’s ascent, and the East European economic crises had changed everything, and Arab claims for representative government were ‘very strong indeed.’ The commissioners resolved that their report would forthrightly lay out the problem’s severity and the impossibility of solving it within the current Mandate. They might therefore recommend drastic measures to separate the two peoples. They called it the ‘clean cut.’[xl]
Back to England and the final witnesses: Jabotinsky and Churchill
Back in England, the commissioners called a few closing witnesses. The final public testimony was that of Jabotinsky, the Revisionist-Zionist leader whom the British had barred from Palestine seven years earlier. He echoed Weizmann: the root of the Jews’ plight is being everywhere a minority, nowhere a majority. He too warned of their impending catastrophe: ‘We have got to save millions, many millions.’ Where he differed was his prescription: a sovereign Jewish state.
‘The phenomenon called Zionism may include all kinds of dreams – a “model community,” Hebrew culture, perhaps even a second edition of the Bible – but all this longing for wonderful toys of velvet and silver is nothing in comparison with that tangible momentum of irresistible distress and need by which we are propelled.’
His stand on Arab nationalism differed starkly from Weizmann’s: at once more empathetic and less flexible. ‘I have the profoundest feeling for the Arab case,’ he said, noting that tribunals rarely try cases in which justice is wholly on one side or the other. He understood that any people prefers to be a majority and not the minority.
‘Palestine on both sides of the Jordan should hold the Arabs, their progeny and many millions of Jews. What I do not deny is that in that process the Arabs of Palestine will necessarily become a minority … What I do deny is that is a hardship. That is not a hardship on any race, any nation, possessing so many National States now and so many more National States in the future. One fraction, one branch of that race, and not a big one, will have to live in someone else’s State.’
Jabotinsky denied that fulfilling the Balfour Declaration means endless war: ‘Tell the Arabs the truth, and then you will see the Arab is reasonable, the Arab is clever, the Arab is just.’ His praise was brief. Asked if the government should pursue consultation with the Arabs over Palestine’s future, Jabotinsky replied simply: ‘None.’ ‘None?’ the commissioners probed. ‘None,’ he repeated.
The Balfour Declaration was given to Jews, he argued, and the Mandate was drafted independent of the Arabs’ attitude. If Britain no longer wished to pursue that Mandate, it ought to give it to some other power, but it must not pretend it was fulfilling its obligation. ‘No, that cannot be done,’ he said. ‘That is not cricket.’[xli]
A month later the Commission summoned Winston Churchill for secret testimony. An unfailing Zionist champion in Westminster, the MP for Epping – now in his post-ministerial ‘wilderness years’ – was a lifelong admirer of Jews. Decades earlier, he wrote: ‘Some people like Jews and some do not; but no thoughtful man can doubt that they are beyond all question the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.’
‘We owe to the Jews in the Christian revelation a system of ethics which, even if it were entirely separated from the supernatural, would be incomparably the most precious possession of mankind, worth in fact the fruits of all other wisdom and learning put together. On that system and by that faith there has been built out of the wreck of the Roman Empire the whole of our existing civilisation.’[xlii]
But Churchill’s Zionism was informed as much by his scorn for Islam and its devotees as by his philo-Semitism. ‘No stronger retrograde force exists in the world,’ he had written in his 20s after his first foray in Muslim lands, helping quash an anti-colonial revolt in Sudan. ‘How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live.’
‘Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities,’ he allowed, but the ‘fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property—either as a child, a wife, or a concubine—must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men.’ Weizmann recorded, with some understatement, that Churchill had ‘a low opinion of the Arab generally.’[xliii]
On March 12 Churchill met the commissioners for secret testimony, which he delivered in characteristically combative terms. A largely forgotten transcript survives in his copious papers.[xliv] The Jews were the true natives of Palestine, he maintained, a land that had held a larger population in Jesus’ day than any time since the ‘great hordes of Islam’ swept in and ‘smashed it all up.’ Keeping the Jews a minority, he said, would be contrary to the Declaration. One day, over generations or perhaps centuries, ‘there may be a great Palestinian State, in which a large majority of the inhabitants would be Jews… 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 wrong.’
‘I insist upon loyalty and upon the good faith of England to the Jews, to which I attach the most enormous importance, because gained great advantages in the War. We did not adopt Zionism entirely out of altruistic love for starting a Jewish 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.’[xlv]
Horace Rumbold asked whether the Arabs had not once built a thriving civilisation in Spain.
‘I’m glad they were thrown out,’ he growled. ‘It is a lower manifestation, the Arab.’ Palestine, he said, is a ‘question of which civilisation you prefer.’
Not that he reckoned the Zionists blameless. They had failed to conciliate the Arabs – he expected the Jews would be cleverer than that – and ought to abandon their ‘foolish’ insistence on exclusively Hebrew labor. But it was good for the world that Palestine be developed and it was the Jews alone who would do it.
He had ‘great regard’ for Arabs, he swore, implausibly, but ‘where the Arab goes is often desert.’
‘Why is there harsh injustice done 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.’[xlvi]
The central question was the numbers and speed at which Jews were arriving – if these were too high they could be eased, but ‘you must not give in to the furious outbreaks; you must quell them.’ And Britain must not be diverted from its basic purpose: Settling as many Jews as possible in the country without disturbing its economic life. If it couldn’t, it ought to give up the Mandate.
‘I do not admit that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger, 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 world-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place. I do not admit it. I do not think the Red Indians had any right to say, “The American Continent belongs to us and we are not going to have any of these European settlers coming in here.”‘ They had not the right nor had they the power.
Four days later he wrote to Peel seeking assurances his evidence would appear neither in the report nor even in the secret evidence given to the commissioners. ‘You assured me that our conversation was confidential and private… there were a few references to nationalities which would not be suited to appear in a permanent record.’[xlvii]
George VI was crowned May 11, ending the crisis wrought by his brother’s renunciation half a year prior. Letters from Palestine to the new sovereign poured in. The National Committee of Ramleh expressed its wish that the monarch’s reign augur in an age of Arab ‘freedom and salvation.’[xlviii] The chief rabbis of Jaffa and Tel Aviv proclaimed: ‘In your days may Judah be saved and Israel dwell in peace in their land!’[xlix]
After the coronation Stanley Baldwin resigned as prime minister, himself a casualty of the abdication, and advised the new king to replace him with the chancellor of the exchequer, Neville Chamberlain.
In June, Liberal leader Archibald Sinclair hosted Weizmann and a handful of pro-Zionist politicians for dinner. The Peel report was almost ready, and rumours swirled that it would recommend the Mandate’s termination and the division of Palestine. Labour leader Clement Attlee warned that ending the Mandate would be a blow to Britain, a triumph for Fascism and an end to the ‘great experiment’ of Zionism. It would be a concession to violence, and he wanted no part of it. Sinclair agreed.
Churchill seethed, holding forth for three hours in favour of Zionism and against the Chamberlain government. The new Cabinet were ‘lily-livered rabbits.’ The proposed Jewish state was a mirage – as soon as the Arabs started trouble again, Whitehall would back down. The Jews had one choice: ‘Persevere, persevere, persevere!’
‘You know, you are our master,’ Churchill told Weizmann, ‘and yours, and yours,’ he declared, pointing to each party leader, as if acting out an anti-Semite’s fever dream. ‘What you say goes. If you ask us to fight, we shall fight like tigers.’ Weizmann relayed the events to Balfour’s niece Baffy: Churchill was ‘in his most brilliant style, but very drunk.’[l]
An irrepressible conflict
For five months the commission drafted its report in strict secrecy – President Franklin Roosevelt wasn’t shown it until a day before publication. Weizmann raged when denied an advance copy;[li] the Arabs never dreamed of seeking such a favour.
History would record it as the Peel Report, but the 400-page tome was more than anything the work of Coupland, the commission’s lone academic.[lii] It was a rare feat: a policy paper both pragmatic and elegant, meticulous and readable.
On July 7th 1937 it went public.
‘An irrepressible conflict has arisen between two national communities within the narrow bounds of one small country. About 1,000,000 Arabs are in strife, open or latent, with some 400,000 Jews. There is no common ground between them. The Arab community is predominantly Asiatic in character, the Jewish community predominantly European. They differ in religion and in language. Their cultural and social life, their ways of thought and conduct, are as incompatible as their national aspirations.’
Its framing was tilted toward the Zionists, a direct consequence of their vastly greater investment in preparation, testimony and lobbying. ‘Unquestionably,’ the report said, the Mandate’s ‘primary purpose’ had been to establish the Jewish national home. But that project rested on the hope that Arab enmity to Zionism would weaken with Jewish development of a ‘backward’ country. It should have been obvious that ‘a very awkward situation’ would arise if that basic assumption proved false.[liii]
That awkward situation had arrived. Zionist wealth and knowhow had borne no conciliatory fruit. Poor and neglected though Palestine was, to the Arabs it was their home, the land where their forebears had lived and died. The report quoted an Arab witness: ‘you say my house has been enriched by the strangers who have entered it. But it is my house, and I did not invite the strangers in, or ask them to enrich it, and I do not care how poor or bare it is if only I am master in it.’[liv]
Hoping for the Arabs’ acquiescence to Zionism was one thing; forcing it upon them was something else, something contrary to the Mandate’s spirit and moral basis. The national home ‘has been neither conditioned nor controlled by the Arabs of Palestine. It has been established directly against their will.’ From the outset it involved the ‘blank negation of the rights implied in the principle of national self-government.’[lv]
The commission cast blame widely. The government had vested too much power in Hajj Amin, with his twin role of grand mufti and chief of the Supreme Muslim Council. And the mufti’s encouragement of the strike and failure to reprove terrorism meant he must bear a ‘full share of responsibility’ for the carnage.[lvi]
The Zionists also did not escape reproach.
‘The Jews were fully entitled to enter the door forced open for them into Palestine; They did it with the sanction and encouragement of the League of Nations and the United States of America. But by doing it they have closed the other doors of the Arab world against them.’
Zionism is ‘a purely Jewish ideal. The Arabs hardly come into the picture except when they force an entry with violence.’[lvii] When the blood dries, the Jews forget the Arabs once again. Some Jews acted as if ‘members of a superior race, destined before long to be masters of the country.’
But if the commissioners believed otherwise, they scarcely showed it: Arabs were living in the past, separated ‘by centuries from the educated, resourceful, Western-minded’ Jews. The Jews were a ‘highly intelligent and enterprising race,’ the Arabs ‘on a different cultural level.’[lviii] Any attempt to combine ‘virtually two civilisations’ into one system was bound to face hurdles, the report said. But when the previous year’s disturbances erupted, it was on an unprecedented scale: longer-lasting, more dispersed and better organised – not riots but an ‘open rebellion.’ And for the first time, Palestine drew not just the interest but the military and political involvement of the Arab Middle East.[lix]
The prognosis was grim.
‘[W]e should be failing in our duty if we said anything to encourage a hopeful outlook for the future peace of Palestine under the existing system or anything akin to it. The optimism which naturally prevailed at the outset of the enterprise was chilled by the series of Arab outbreaks, but never extinguished. In each case it soon revived, and in each case it proved false’.[lx]
The commissioners rebuffed Arab demands to close Palestine’s gates; facilitating Jewish immigration remained a binding international obligation. But they recommended capping the figure at 12,000 annually for five years.[lxi] That drastic reduction – one-sixth the 1935 level – was the Arab Revolt’s chief achievement until that point. Still, the report determined, easing immigration would not treat the malady at its source.
Bold measures were in order. Cantonisation was inadequate, satisfying neither Arab nor Jewish claims. Parity, as Weizmann advised, would only embitter the strife, with two evenly matched fighters bloodying the other’s nose indefinitely. No such palliatives would suffice: ‘They might reduce the inflammation and bring down the temperature, but they cannot cure the trouble. The disease is so deep-rooted that, in our firm conviction, the only hope of a cure lies in a surgical operation … Partition seems to offer at least a chance of ultimate peace. We can see none in any other plan.’[lxii]
The guiding principle was that concentrations of Zionist-owned land should go to the Jews, and the rest to the Arabs. For the Jews that meant an N-shaped swathe starting just south of Tel Aviv and extending up to Haifa, then southeast across the Jezreel Valley, and finally due north along the Jordan and the Galilee panhandle.
But although the Jews owned just 7 per cent of Palestine’s land, the plan gave them fully 20 per cent of the country. And the commission even went one better for the Jews, granting them the overwhelmingly Arab Galilee for population growth and ‘colonisation,’ and based on religious-historical ties to Safed and Tiberias – though as mixed cities they would stay temporarily under Britain.
The Crown would also retain Palestine’s holiest terrain – Jerusalem and Bethlehem – with a corridor to the sea just north of Jaffa (the city itself would join the Arab state). The Jewish state and Britain would pay regular subventions to the Arab state to compensate for reduced taxes now that the bulk of Palestine’s economy would lie outside the Arab polity.[lxiii]
Commissioners hoped the ‘clean cut’ would solve two crises: that of Palestine and of Europe’s Jews. If the Arabs could help bring a ‘final solution’ to Europe’s ‘Jewish problem’ (the drafters could not have known the cruel irony of their wording) they would earn not just the Jews’ gratitude but humanity’s. ‘Numberless men and women all over the world would feel a sense of deep relief if somehow an end could be put to strife and bloodshed in a thrice hallowed land.’[lxiv]
The next day His Majesty’s Government endorsed the report’s main principles.
‘The Arabs would obtain their national independence, and thus be enabled to co-operate on an equal footing with the Arabs of neighbouring countries in the cause of Arab unity and progress … It would convert the Jewish National Home into a Jewish State with full control over immigration … The Jews would at last cease to live a “minority life,” and the primary objective of Zionism would thus be attained … both peoples would obtain, in the words of the Commission, ‘the inestimable boon of peace.’”[lxv]
The world’s preeminent power now backed a two-state solution to the Jewish-Arab dispute over the Holy Land.
[i] Report to the League of Nations for 1936, Colonial No. 129 (1937), 19-20. Palestine Royal Commission Report, Cmd. 5479, 106. Kimmerling, Baruch and Joel S. Migdal. The Palestinian People: A History. Harvard (2003), 129.
[ii] Sinanoglou, Penny. Partitioning Palestine: British Policymaking at the End of Empire. University of Chicago (2019), 31.
[iii] Sykes, Christopher. Crossroads to Israel. Bloomington: Indiana University Press (1973), 153-154.
[iv] Cmd. 5479, ix.
[v] Ormsby-Gore was also the lone non-Jew in the Weizmann-led 1918 Zionist Commission mission to Palestine to study conditions and make recommendations for British policy. See Gore, William George Arthur Ormsby, fourth Baron Harlech. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2014), doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/35330. Scott Anderson presents his religious conversion as fact, a conclusion uncorroborated elsewhere. See Anderson, Lawrence in Arabia. New York: Anchor (2013), 254.
[vi] Al-Liwaa, November 8, 1936. Al-Difaa, November 11, 1936. Taggar, Yehuda, The Mufti of Jerusalem and Palestine: Arab politics, 1930-1937. New York: Garland (1986), 423. Porath, Yehoshua. The Palestinian Arab National Movement: From Riots to Rebellion, Vol. 2, 1929-1939. New York and London: Routledge (1977), 221-223.
[vii] The National Archives (TNA), Kew. CO 733/326/4.
[viii] Israel State Archives (ISA), Jerusalem. P-695/5. CO 733/320/10.
[ix] Taggar, 424-426. Yousef Hana al-Isa to Joseph Levy, December 19, 1936, op. cit..
[x] Taggar, 418, 424.
[xi] Cmd. 5479, ix. Sinanoglou, 65. ‘Royal Commission in Jerusalem,’ The Times, November 12, 1936.
[xii] Black, Ian. Enemies and neighbors: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017. New York: Atlantic Monthly (2017), 79. ‘The gentleman, the mufti and David Ben-Gurion: The spy affair behind the Jerusalem luxury hotel.’ Channel 10 (Hebrew). www.10.tv/hamagazim/128405
[xiii] ‘Has Amin’s letter to Earl Peel’ (undated but presumably November 1936). Jerusalem and the East Mission (JEM) Papers, Middle East Center Archive (MECA), Oxford, 65/1.
[xiv] Sinanoglou, 66.
[xv] Weizmann at the 20th Zionist Congress. See Weizmann, Chaim. The letters and papers of Chaim Weizmann, series B, Vol. II. Barnet Litvinoff, ed. Jerusalem: Transaction Books (1983), 283.
[xvi] Storrs, Ronald. Orientations. London: Ivor Nicholson & Watson (1937), 439.
[xvii] Dugdale, Baffy. Baffy: The Diaries of Blanche Dugdale, 1936-1947. Norman Rose, ed. London: Valentine Mitchell (1973), 62.
[xviii] Palestine Royal Commission: Minutes of Evidence Heard at Public Sessions. Colonial No. 134. London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office (1937), 30-39.
[xix] Sinanoglou, 82, 212n47-49.
[xx] Weizmann, 132-136, 150.
[xxi] Ibid., 141, 192-193.
[xxii] Ibid., 200.
[xxiii] Ibid., 162-168.
[xxiv] Ibid., 133, 143, 252.
[xxv] Ibid., 175, 212-221, 236.
[xxvi] Ibid., 233-249.
[xxvii] Ibid., 228, 259-264. In June 1936 Weizmann met with Archer Cust, formerly a senior Palestine civil service officer, to discuss the latter’s cantonisation proposal, but partition was not yet on the table. See Weizmann to Cust, June 9 and 30, 1936 in Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann, series A, Vol. XVII. Yemima Rosenthal, ed. Jerusalem: Israel Universities Press (1979), 261-262, 293-295.
[xxviii] Weizmann, Chaim. Trial and Error: The Autobiography of Chaim Weizmann. New York: Schocken (1966), 385. Sykes, 165.
[xxix] Col. 134, viii-ix. Sinanoglou, 81.
[xxx] Taggar, 425-426. Sykes, 157. Gelber, Yoav. Jewish-Transjordanian relations, 1921-48. London: Frank Cass (1997), 95-98. Filastin, January 7, 1937.
[xxxi] For Abdullah’s memo see Hathorn Hall to Ormsby-Gore, March 4, 1937. TNA CO 733/344/11
[xxxii] Yousef Hana al-Isa to Joseph Levy, December 19, 1936, ISA P-695/5. Isa to Mrs. Levy, January 18, 1937. ISA P-695/6. Gelber, 92-93, 108.
[xxxiii] Col. 134, 293-295. Sykes, 162.
[xxxiv] AHC memorandum to Royal Commission, January 10, 1937. ISA P-3060/6.
[xxxv] Col. 134, 296-298, 305-323.
[xxxvi] Taggar, 428. Sykes, 163.
[xxxvii] Wauchope to Ormsby-Gore, December 15, 1936. TNA CAB 24/267/1
[xxxviii] Isa to Mrs. Levy, January 18, 1937. ISA P-695/6. Wauchope to Ormsby-Gore, January 12, 1937. TNA CAB 24/267/31
[xxxix] Col. 134, 358-367. ISA P-3059/16.
[xl] ‘Notes of Discussion at Helouan,’ January 21, 1937. TNA CO 733/346/19
[xli] Col. 134, 370-378.
[xlii] Quoted in Gilbert, Churchill and the Jews. London: Pocket (2007), 38.
[xliii] Quoted in Gilbert, 48, 53.
[xliv] Four decades later, Churchill’s official biographer Martin Gilbert revealed the existence of the transcript, which he described as verbatim, in Winston S. Churchill, vol. 5 (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1983), 590ff, and Companion volume, 847-848.
[xlv] Clifford, Angela, ed. Serfdom or Ethnic Cleansing? – Churchill’s evidence to the Peel Commission. Belfast: Athol (2003), 16, 19-21. Gilbert (2007), 112-113.
[xlvi] Clifford, 20, 23-28.
[xlvii] Clifford, 24, 34-35. See also Cohen, Michael J. Palestine to Israel: from Mandate to Independence. New York and London: Routledge (2012), 4.
[xlviii] ‘Messages addressed to H.M. the King on the occasion of his Coronation.’ ISA M-526/22.
[xlix] Rabbis Amiel and Uziel to Wauchope, ISA M-525/43.
[l] Dugdale, 45. Weizmann (1983), 269-270.
[li] Weizmann (1966), 389-392.
[lii] Dugdale, 41. Sinanoglou, Penny. ‘The Peel Commission and Partition, 1936-1938.’ In Rory Miller, ed. Britain, Palestine and Empire: The Mandate Years. Rory Miller, ed. New York and London: Routledge (2010), 133.
[liii] Cmd. 5479, 41-42.
[liv] Ibid., 7, 127-131, 363.
[lv] Ibid., 42, 119-131, 263, 370.
[lvi] Ibid., 177-181.
[lvii] Ibid., 119, 124.
[lviii] Ibid., 46, 52, 299.
[lix] Ibid., 104-105, 389.
[lx] Ibid., 373.
[lxi] Ibid., 39-41, 306-307.
[lxii] Ibid., 363-368, 375-379.
[lxiii] Ibid., 383-386.
[lxiv] Ibid., 395-396.
[lxv] ‘Palestine: Statement of Policy.’ London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office (1937). Cmd. 5513.