Sir Ronald Storrs, the British Governor of Jerusalem from 1918-1926, relates the following anecdote in his memoirs: "Early in the afternoon the Chief Administrator [Sir Louis J Bols] formally handed over the Administration to the High Commissioner. He had humorously prepared for Sir Herbert [Samuel] a typewritten receipt for 'one Palestine taken over in good condition', which Sir Herbert duly signed, adding 'E. and O.E.'. The Staff lined up for his departure and cheered him farewell as he drove past the gate-house and down the hill for the last time; and O.E.T.E. [Occupied Enemy Territory Administration], as O.E.T.E, ceased to exist. Though mostly the same men sat, still in uniform, performing the same tasks at the same desks, we became from 1 July 1920 a Civil Government, which it was my privilege to assist in establishing upon a firm and, we hoped, lasting basis." (Orientations, 1939, p 405)
Palestine may have been taken over in good condition by its new civilian government in 1920, but twenty-eight years later, in 1948, it experienced another kind of takeover entirely. While Palestine's transition from British military to British civilian government in 1920 was obviously a jolly occasion for Storrs, for another Briton, wartime leader Winston Churchill, Palestine's transition from British Mandate to Jewish State in 1948 (while he was opposition leader) was anything but.
Churchill's views on the matter emerge in the correspondence of Zionist supremo Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) from 1920-31/1935-46, and first president of Israel:
In a 9/7/48 letter to his personal assistant, Meyer Weisgal, a peeved Weizmann wrote: "Incidentally, I would like to ask you whether there is much in the book concerning Mr Churchill, his relations with us and particularly me personally. I am asking this question because Mr Churchill's book has just appeared and there is not a single word in it either about Zionism or about Palestine or about his various negotiations with me throughout these years. It is no doubt a studied omission; possibly something may appear in his other volumes, but I doubt it. Should my supposition be true, I think I ought to say something about it in the epilogue. It will no doubt produce an outburst on the part of Winston, but I really do not care. Please advise me on the matter."
That Churchill, a confirmed Zionist, was not exactly over the moon about the manner and/or circumstances of the Zionist takeover of Palestine in 1948 is evident in a 29/7/48 letter to Weizmann from Walter Elliot, a member of Churchill's shadow cabinet: "I was recently talking to Winston, and mentioned the fact, which I had heard from Miss Solomon, that he had sent no message to you. 'Send him', said Winston, 'my warmest personal regards'. 'But', he said, 'the Palestine position now, as concerns Great Britain, is simply such a hell-disaster that I cannot take it up again or renew my efforts of 20 years. It is a situation which I myself cannot help in, and must, as far as I can, put out of my mind. But send Weizmann himself my warm regards'. I thought you would wish to know his personal feelings. He regards the mishandling of Palestine by the present Government as simply appalling. But he is conscious of possessing only a limited amount of energy now, and feels the necessity of concentrating it where it can have effect. His phrase 'a hell-disaster' was very expressive - it is his view of a position where only injury, and fruitless laceration of spirit, will result from an attempt to retrieve what has been done."
Weizmann, smooth operator that he was, put out a feeler to Churchill in the following letter, dated 6/8/48: "I was more than delighted to receive Mr Walter Elliot's message from you. This emboldens me to address these few lines to you. I meant to write before but I somehow felt instinctively that you do not wish to enter into a discussion of Palestine affairs. I understand and respect this sentiment and have no desire of raising these problems in this letter. I would like however to say that I wholeheartedly agree with your definition of the situation as a 'hell-disaster'.
"My mind goes back to the time when British statesmen like Mr Lloyd George, Mr Balfour and yourself had laid the foundation of the Jewish National Home, and in spite of many vicissitudes and very serious difficulties it has progressed and can enjoy the privilege of statehood. It is a small country surrounded by many enemies and will have to ward off deadly perils, but the major part of the Jewish population of Palestine are men of courage, vision and integrity, and they face an enemy who may be numerically far superior but possesses no stamina or courage. The headlong flight of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from Palestine at the mere approach of the Jewish army and the very poor military performance of Egypt in spite of its wealth and equipment testifies to the quality and the spirit of the Arab world; this is the spirit we have been hearing so much about for the last 25 years.
"It is a matter of deep distress to me, who laboured for a quarter of a century for cooperation between the Jewish and the British peoples, to see this work at any rate temporarily jeopardized. Instead of making the new state a friendly outpost of Great Britain in the East, the present Government prefers to build on the quicksands of Arab loyalty.
"I shall not weary you with an examination of the causes which have produced such a tragic situation. I pray that it may prove merely a temporary aberration, and that the tradition of friendship which began with Cromwell and continued for so many years will revive under the pressure of realities.
"Permit me to say, that you as practically the only survivor of this great group of architects in the British Isles might find it possible some day to overcome your present understandable reluctance, and speak to us as only you can do, about the ways we have to tread.
"I have very little to say for myself. A heavy burden not of my seeking has fallen on my shoulders and I intend to do my best in guiding the first steps of the young State on the path of peace, integrity and good intelligence with the world at large.
"I have little hope at present that our Arab neighbours will change their attitude. Only when they see that their fellow Arabs in the Jewish State are treated on equality with the Jewish citizens may they possibly change their minds...
"I have always believed that Providence selects the small countries to dispense its most precious gifts to humanity. Athens was merely one small city and Palestine was always a poor country subjected to pressure from North and South; yet what they gave to the world is still the bedrock of human civilization. It is thrilling to think, that after a desert in time of two thousand years, the ancient glories of Jewish culture may be revived again in a modern form."
There is no evidence of a response to Weizmann's sweet talk. Palestine, it seems, had stuck in Churchill's craw. From 'one Palestine... in good condition' to 'hell-disaster' perfectly sums up the legacy of imperial Britain's love affair with Zionism, an affair in which he played no small part.
To return to Ronald Storrs. I wonder if that colonial official's oft-quoted remark about the Zionist "enterprise" in Palestine "forming for England 'a little loyal Jewish Ulster' in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism"* ever crossed Churchill's mind at this time. If so, it must have sounded more like: a little disloyal Jewish ulcer in a sea of understandably hostile Arabism. [*Orientations, p 358]
[See also my 29/1/10 post Churchill: No Quarter for Zionists]