July 1, 2013



Sir Martin Gilbert is the official biographer of Winston Churchill, an honorary member and academic adviser of The Churchill Centre, and a frequent contributor to Finest Hour. His new book, Churchill and the Jews, will be reviewed in our next issue.


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Thomas Edward Lawrence (1888-1935), better known as Lawrence of Arabia, was a lifelong friend of Arab national aspirations. In 1917 and 1918 he participated as a British officer in the Arab revolt against the Turks, a revolt led by Sharif Hussein, later King of the Hedjaz. He was also an adviser to Hussein’s son, Sharif Feisal. On 5 June 1918, Feisal met the Zionist leader, Dr Chaim Weizmann, at the Red Sea port of Akaba (near to where Feisal’s great-nephew, King Hussein of Jordan, and Yitzhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel, were to sign the Israel-Jordan peace treaty seventy-five years later).

Lawrence was not present at that Weizmann-Feisal meeting, but the British official who took his place noted that Feisal “personally accepted the possibility of future Jewish claims to territory in Palestine,” although “he could not discuss them publicly.”

In London, acting as an intermediary in the interest both of Arab national aspirations and of British policy, on 29 October 1918, Lawrence told the Eastern Committee of the War Cabinet that despite French pressure to serve as advisers to the Arabs in Syria, Feisal “took the view that he was free to choose whatever advisers he liked.” Lawrence added that Feisal “was anxious to obtain the assistance of British or American Zionist Jews for this purpose,” and that “The Zionists would be acceptable to the Arabs, on terms.”

In mid-December 1918, a month after the end of the war, Lawrence was instrumental in securing an agreement between Feisal and Weizmann. The meeting was held at the Carlton Hotel in London (where on the outbreak of the First World War, Churchill and Lloyd George had dined, and Ho-Chi-Minh had been employed in the kitchens). At this meeting, Lawrence acted as the interpreter Lawrence’s official biographer, Jeremy Wilson, notes that both leaders “were now in a position to help one another politically: the Zionists needed Arab acquiescence to their programme in Palestine, while Feisal knew that Jewish support during the Peace Conference might help to swing American opinion behind his cause.

Lawrence had already impressed upon Feisal the potential value of Jewish capital and skills.” According to Weizmann’s account at the time, he assured Feisal that the Zionists in Palestine should be able “to carry out public works of a far-reaching character” and that the country “could be so improved that it would have room for four or five million Jews, without encroaching on the ownership rights of Arab peasantry.”

In reply, Feisal told Weizmann that “it was curious there should be friction between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. There was no friction in any other country where Jews lived together with Arabs He did not think for a moment that there was any scarcity of land in Palestine. The population would always have enough, especially if the country were developed. Besides, there was plenty of land in his district.”

On 3 January 1919, Feisal and Weizmann met again in London, to sign an “Agreement between the King of the Hedjaz and the Zionists.” Lawrence hoped that this agreement would ensure what he, Lawrence, termed optimistically “the lines of Arab and Zionist policy converging in the not distant future.”

In early 1920, as Lawrence prepared for publication The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his wartime experiences of the Arab Revolt, he asked Rudyard Kipling if he would read the proofs. Kipling replied that he would be glad to see the proofs, but that if it emerged from them that Lawrence was “pro-Yid,” he would send the proofs back to him untouched.

Kipling thought, and was distressed at the thought, that Lawrence might be pro-Jewish. Lawrence’s view of the potential evolution of the Jewish National Home in British Mandate of Palestine was certainly not hostile to Jewish hopes. In an article entitled “The Changing East,” published in Round Table in 1920, Lawrence wrote of “the Jewish experiment” in Palestine, that it was “a conscious effort, on the part of the least European people in Europe, to make head against the drift of the ages, and return once more to the Orient from which they came.”

Lawrence noted of the new Jewish immigrants: “The colonists will take back with them to the land which they occupied for some centuries before the Christian era samples of all the knowledge and technique of Europe. They propose to set down amongst the existing Arabic-speaking population of the country, a people of kindred origin, but far different social condition. They hope to adjust their mode of life to the climate of Palestine, and by the exercise of their skill and capital to make it as highly organised as a European State.”

As Lawrence envisaged it in his Round Table article, this would be done in a way that would be beneficial to the Arabs. “The success of their scheme,” he wrote of the Zionists, “will involve inevitably the raising of the present Arab population to their own material level, only a little after themselves in point of time, and the consequences might be of the highest importance for the future of the Arab world. It might well prove a source of technical supply rendering them independent of industrial Europe, and in that case the new confederation might become a formidable element of world power.”

That “new confederation” was something which, twenty-four years later, Winston Churchill hoped to create in the aftermath of the Second World War, with King Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia as the head of the confederation, and a Jewish State—stretching from the Mediterranean to the River Jordan—as an independent Jewish sovereign entity within that confederation.

It seemed to Lawrence—as it did to Churchill when he discussed the question of eventual Jewish sovereignty with the Peel Commissioners in 1937, after Lawrence’s death—that it would take a long time before a Jewish majority would come into being. Such a contingency, Lawrence had written in his Round Table article, “will not be for the first or even for the second generation, but it must be borne in mind in any laying out of foundations of empire in Western Asia. These to a very large extent must stand or fall by the course of the Zionist effort, and by the course of events in Russia.”

Russia was then still in the turmoil of revolution and civil war. Its influence in the Middle East had been great before 1914. What that influence would be once the Soviet Union gained in power, no one could tell. But for Lawrence, it was “the course of the Zionist effort” that was one of the main keys to the future of the region.

When Churchill became Colonial Secretary in January 1921, with special responsibility for the Middle East, he appointed Lawrence his Arab Affairs Adviser.

Lawrence had already held talks with Feisal about Britain’s Balfour Declaration, which had promised a Jewish National Home in Palestine. In return for Arab sovereignty in Baghdad, Amman and Damascus, Lawrence reported to Churchill, on 17 January 1921, that Feisal had “agreed to abandon all claims of his father to Palestine.”

This was welcome news for Churchill, but there was a problem. Since the French were already installed in Damascus, and were not willing to make way for Feisal or any Arab leader, Churchill proposed giving Feisal, instead of the throne of Syria, the throne of Iraq—and at the same time giving Feisal’s brother Abdullah the throne of Transjordan (that part of Britain’s Palestine Mandate lying to the east of the River Jordan).

Establishing an Arab ruler in Transjordan would enable Western Palestine—the area from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Jordan, an area that now comprises both Israel and the West Bank—to become the location of the Jewish National Home, under British control.

On 17 March 1921, while at the Cairo Conference to delineate the Middle East borders and forms of government, Churchill explained to the senior officials gathered there that the presence of an Arab ruler under British control east of the Jordan would enable Britain to prevent anti-Zionist agitation from the Arab side of the river. In support of this view, Lawrence told the conference, as the minutes recorded, “that in four or five years, under the influence of a just policy,” Arab opposition to Zionism “would have decreased, if it had not entirely disappeared.”

Lawrence went on to explain to the conference that “it would be preferable to use Trans-Jordania as a safety valve, by appointing a ruler on whom we could bring pressure to bear, to check anti-Zionism.” The “ideal” ruler would be “a person who was not too powerful, and who was not an inhabitant of Trans-Jordania, but who relied upon His Majesty’s Government for the retention of his office.” That ruler, Lawrence believed, would best be Emir Abdullah, Feisal’s brother (who was to rule until his assassination by a Palestinian Arab in 1951).

The presence of Lawrence of Arabia at the Cairo Conference was of inestimable benefit to Churchill in his desire to help establish a Jewish National Home in Palestine. Lawrence’s friendship with the Arab leaders, with whom he had fought during the Arab Revolt, and his knowledge of their weaknesses as well as their strengths were paralleled by his understanding of Zionist aspirations. He also shared Churchill’s unease at excessive Zionist ambitions: the Jews, Churchill had written in a year and a half before the Cairo Conference, “take it for granted that the local population will be cleared out to suit their convenience.”

The unease that Churchill and Lawrence shared about the wilder claims of the Zionists did not, however, diminish either man’s keenness to see the Zionists help the Arabs forward—in Palestine, and elsewhere in the Middle East—to modernity and prosperity. In November 1918, on the first anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, Lawrence had told a British Jewish newspaper: “Speaking entirely as a non-Jew, I look on the Jews as the natural importers of western leaven so necessary for countries of the Near East.”

On 27 March 1921, ten days after Lawrence’s suggestions in Cairo, Churchill sent him from Jerusalem to the Transjordanian town of Es-Salt, to explain to Abdullah what Churchill would ask of the Emir when he came up to Jerusalem later that day: he would have to accept that his own authority would end at the eastern bank of the River Jordan, that the Jews were to be established in the lands between the Mediterranean and the Jordan (“Western Palestine”) and that he, Abdullah, must curb all anti-Zionist activity and agitation among his followers.

The next day, in Jerusalem, Lawrence, Churchill and Abdullah were photographed at British Government House on Mount Scopus: Churchill bundled up against the cold, Lawrence in a dark suit and tie, Abdullah in army uniform with Arab headdress. At their meeting that day, Abdullah agreed to limit the area of his control to Transjordan, and to refrain from any action against the Jewish National Home provisions of the Palestine Mandate west of the Jordan.

Lawrence had helped ensure that the building up of the Jewish National Home could continue. He already knew that National Home’s potential. Twelve years before the Cairo Conference, while traveling through Galilee in the region of Tiberias, he reflected on the glory days of the region in Roman times, and on the Jewish farm settlements that he saw on his travels, writing home on 2 August 1909:

Galilee was the most Romanized province of Palestine. Also the country was well-peopled, and well watered artificially: There were not twenty miles of thistles behind Capernaum! and on the way round the lake they did not come upon dirty, dilapidated Bedouin tents, with the people calling to them to come in and talk, while miserable curs came snapping at their heels: Palestine was a decent country then, and could so easily be made so again. The sooner the Jews farm it all the better: their colonies are bright spots in a desert.

Churchill felt similarly when he saw one of those colonies, Rishon le-Zion, after leaving Jerusalem in March 1921. The two men were well suited to help at the early evolution of the Jewish homeland.



It is hard enough in all conscience to make a new Zion, but if over the portals of the new Jerusalem you : are going to inscribe the legend ‘No Israelites need i apply,’ I hope the House will permit me in future to confine my attention exclusively to Irish matters….Jewish immigration into Palestine can only come as it makes a place for itself by legitimate and honourable means. “The present form of Government [Palestine Mandate] will continue for many years, and step by step we shall develop representative institutions leading up to full self-government. All of us here will have passed away from the earth and also our children and our children’s children before it is fully achieved.” —1921

“It is manifestly right that the Jews, who are scattered all over the world, should have a national centre and a national home, where some of them may be reunited. And where else could that be but in this land of Palestine, with which for more than 3000 years they have been intimately and profoundly associated? —1922



I’m committed to the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine. Let us go on with that; and at the end of the war we shall have plenty of force with which to compel the Arabs to acquiesce in our designs. Don’t shirk our duties because of difficulties.” —2 July 1943

“The whole question of the Middle East might have been settled on the morrow of victory, and an Arab Confederation…and one Jewish State might have been set up which would have given peace and unity throughout out the whole vast scene. “The coming into being of a Jewish State in Palestine is an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand or even three thousand years.” —26 January 1949

“Remember, I was for a free and independent Israel all through the dark years when many of my most distinguished countrymen took a different view. So do not imagine for a moment that I have the slightest idea of deserting you now in your hour of glory. —29 March 1949 


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