Churchill and the Creation of a Jewish State

Churchill and the Creation of a Jewish State

This IBDP Extended Essay in History received 32/34 in the May 2019 Session
How did Winston Churchill, in his role as Colonial Secretary from 1921-1922, lay the foundations for the later emergence of a modern Jewish State?

Word count: 3,990


How did Winston Churchill, in his role as Colonial Secretary from 1921-1922, lay the foundations for the later emergence of a modern Jewish State?
Last year marked a date in the calendar that British politicians had been awaiting with mixed feelings of anticipation and dread. The 2nd of November 2017 saw the 100th anniversary of the birth certificate of the State of Israel – the Balfour Declaration. Prime Minister Theresa May commemorated this centenary by stating that Britain is “proud of the role we played in the creation of the State of Israel”. Concurrently, the leader of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition and head of the Labor Party, Jeremy Corbyn, refused to partake in the commemoration,1 declaring instead his wish for “recognizing Palestine” and “increasing international pressure for an end to the 50-year occupation of the Palestinian territories.”2 The passionate political divide in Britain over this document will be considered in this essay as it surrounds the man declared by Clement Attlee as “the greatest Englishman of our time”3 – Sir Winston Churchill.

Mere months ago, on the eve of yet another contentious birthday, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s creation on May 14, 2018, violence erupted along the Gaza strip, triggering protests and militant interventions between Palestinians and Israelis that resulted in the deaths of 119 civilians. Never has a consideration of Israel’s historic roots been more imperative than in light of present conditions in the Middle East and the country’s place in the midst of conflict for the past 70 years of its young existence. There in the maelstrom of the state’s turbulent birth, no less a character than Churchill existed who continues to divide and possess the minds of policy makers concerned with Israel’s equally tempestuous present. Serving as British Colonial Secretary from 1921 to 1922, he laid the groundwork for the formation of a Jewish state one world war later. It is contested by historians that these early years of the 20th century were perhaps the most critical in pathing the way for the birth of Israel.1

Churchill’s influence in determining the fate of the Zionist agenda, however, was not widely appreciated until recent historiography unearthed his true role. Unaware of his intrinsic connections to their nation, several Israelis instead denounced him as an imperialist and criticized his lack of action in averting the Holocaust. The Israeli Labor Party Chairman,2 Isaac Herzog, marks that, “Churchill is not really commemorated here, and for lots of reasons he should be.”3 In this sentiment, Herzog together with other Israeli politicians, unveiled a statue of Churchill in the Old City of Jerusalem in November of 2012, to acknowledge his support for the establishment of the Jewish State.1 It has taken 91 years following Churchill’s first visit to the city for his work to be recognized by the people whom he gifted a nation.


The question of why this investigation of one-hundred-year-old policy-execution holds importance in the 21st century can be swiftly answered with one look at the news. A majority of today’s international relations concern the numerous conflicts of nations surrounding Israel. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan are homes to millions of civilians now forced by this violence to take on the role of refugees, a great many of which have been flooding onto my home country Germany’s doorstep for years. To understand the roots of these clashes, we look to the history of the region, and discover that the lines of the modern Middle East have been shaped not by its rightful inhabitants, but by the century-old policy making of Western countries.

Israel, in itself, has remained one of the most contentious nations of our time, impassioning continued hatred in the Palestinian people through its violent birth 70 years ago. The Israeli- Palestinian conflict has been raging since even before the nation came into existence. Its origin traces back to the times of Mandatory Palestine and Britain’s official recognition of Zionism as a piece of their own foreign policy, catalyzing subsequent periods of Aliyah, a term denoting Jewish immigration from the Diaspora to the Land of Israel.2

In his role as Colonial Secretary, one of Churchill’s greatest achievements was to secure the League of Nations Mandate, prompting the formal adoption of Zionism into British foreign policy and consequentially enabling Jewish nationhood.


To consider Churchill’s impact on the foundation of a Jewish State in his leadership of the British Colonial Office, this essay will deliberate upon two factors that were essential in the development of a Jewish national home. First to be examined will be Churchill’s success in the forming of borders, large-scale settlements, infrastructure, and other state-like conventions. The second principle enacted by the Colonial Office to this extent was the appeasement of the two main parties which opposed the Zionist agenda:

a. The Arabs & their violent resistance in Palestine and surrounding Mesopotamia
b. The British government and taxpayers & their growing apprehension to funding and
supporting the Zionist cause

Three coinciding pieces of foreign policy implemented by Churchill will be evaluated in the extent to which they allowed him to drive forward the Zionist agenda via the two aforementioned methods:

1. The Cairo Conference of March 1921
2. The Rutgers Concession of July 1921
3. The White Paper of June 1922

In basing the investigation upon three distinct successes of Churchill, it enables me to scrutinize and evaluate their individual impact on the gradual development of a Jewish state, unpacking both
4their positive and negative contributions to Zionist goals to gain a uniquely focused view of the statesman’s true influence.

Evidence to my argument will be rooted in a wide variety of sources to gather contrasting perspectives and hence enrich my practice of critical evaluation. Much of this reference material will be collected from archives, such as government documents, speeches, or letters of the time, but also from the works of historians such as Churchill’s official biographer Martin Gilbert, who had intimate access to his personal archive and draws important insight from its contents.

Discussion & Findings

On the 13th of February 1921, Churchill entered what would become the shortest of any of his government terms: Secretary of State for the Colonies.1 His leadership of Britain’s Colonial Office in these 18 months is claimed by historians such as Gilbert to be the period most influential in his work for the Zionist movement, pathing the way for the creation of a Jewish State three decades later. The political and diplomatic might with which he “implemented the Balfour Declaration,”2 ensured that Britain would play a vital role in the eventual birth of Israel.

Already by 1914, between 80,000 and 90,000 Jews had established settlements in the area of Palestine that would later evolve into modern-day Israel.3 Thus, as argued by Alan Dershowitz, the Jews had already established a rightful foothold in the region. Whilst criticized for his biased role as “the Jewish state’s lead attorney in the court of public opinion,”1 and expression of controversial opinions relating to the Palestinian government’s alleged role in the Holocaust,2 his opinion as a renowned Harvard law professor holds insight into determining the lawful state of Jewish settlements in Israel’s developing stages. This line of argument would serve as protection for continued Jewish immigration and state formation in following years.

Following Allied victory in the Great War, Wilson’s policy of self-determination gained universal acceptance in the ranks of the newly established League of Nations. His principle maintained “a community’s right to choose its political destiny.”3 Regarding Zionists, this right was based on the existence of Jewish settlements in Palestine, enabling them a choice of how they were to develop as an independent political entity; the idea and practice of self-determination would lay the bedrock to their right of establishing a national home.

 The Cairo Conference, March 1921: Fulfilling old promises

During the beginning of Churchill’s term, a clear growth in his support of Zionism is observed. As lobbyist for contemporary US-Israeli cooperation and a scholar of diplomatic history, Michael Makovsky has studied Churchill in depth, finding that “his view of Zionism...really [took] off in 1921.”1 The Cairo Conference marked Churchill’s first foray into Palestine: the start of his political workings towards a Jewish state. At this stage, he sought to satiate Britain’s own needs and hereby establish a condition in which continued Zionist support was possible. To this end, Churchill’s achievements at the conference collectively acted towards one key aim: caring for British relations to the Arab populous.

First on his agenda was to ameliorate Arab-British relations by appeasing the influential Hashemite leader Abdullah and transforming the Jordan river into a border between Transjordan and Palestine. Discussed by the Palestinian Political and Military Committee,2 the idea of two separate regions resulted from Churchill’s ‘Sharifian Plan’, which proposed that Abdullah be instated as Transjordan’s sovereign ruler.3 This strategic placement of political leadership was meant to soothe hostility in the Arab population. As Churchill’s advisor on Middle Eastern relations, Lawrence asserted that due to the Amir’s reliance “upon His Majesty’s Government for the retention of his office,” 4 allowing him control of this emirate would ensure his obligation to the fulfillment of British desires for reduced Zionism-fueled violence in Palestine’s neighbor-state.5 Through Churchill’s persuasive diplomacy,6 Abdullah, and in his name the rest of the influential Hashemite family, signed a promise of agreement to, “a Jewish National Home within Western Palestine,” and to doing “his utmost to prevent anti-Zionist agitation among his people east of the Jordan.” 1 The appeasing action of disabling Abdullah from exercising authority in Palestine was later recognized by leading Zionist Lord Rothschild as imperative for the Jewish state’s survival, thanking Churchill for having “laid the foundation of the Jewish State by separating Abdullah’s kingdom from the rest of Palestine,” and asserting that without, “this much opposed prophetic foresight there would not have been an Israel today.”2

In his separation of Transjordan from remaining Palestine, Churchill drew a geo-political border that would serve as an unfaltering basis for the 1948 agreement of Israeli statehood. The drawing of borders lends a sense of identity and nationality to a population.3 With this act, Churchill was thus already beginning to form the distinct shape of the Jewish state.

Placing Transjordan under Arab sovereignty, though originally included in the British protectorate, allowed him to make good on the promises of the McMahon-Hussein correspondence. Its contradiction of the Balfour Declaration had hindered any real progress on Zionist aims. Lawrence claims that at the conference, Churchill resolved these contradictions, making “straight all the tangle, finding solutions fulfilling our promises.”4 Though this repayment of British debt towards the Arabs did cost the Jewish potential territory, Churchill’s decision was meant to act in their favor, in that it enabled Britain to uphold the promise of Balfour.1 Contrary to other contemporary historians, Warren Dockter argues that, regarding his relations with the Islamic world, Churchill’s design for the Middle East was not controlled by a belief in imperialism and Zionism, but rather incorporated a balanced consideration of both Arab and Jewish views. Today, Churchill’s relationship with the Islamic world is crudely manipulated by the likes of far right conservatives and reactionaries, looking to serve their own narrative by doctoring quoted passages from Churchill’s early works in a way that portrays him as a Victorian Islamophobe. Dockter sternly contradicts this description, arguing that the politician’s views were much more complex and over time even developed into a profound respect for the Arabs.2

The arrangement’s success in soothing Arab sentiments, however, remains questionable, as only two months after the conference, Anti-Zionist riots broke out in Jaffa. Two historians refute Dockter’s premise in asserting that the likely cause for renewed violence was Churchill himself, more specifically his treatment of the Arab delegations in conference meetings. Cohen alleges that Churchill’s behavior was imbued with colonial pretension, resembling an imperial power speaking to its inferior subject. Klieman, however, additionally points out that it was his limited understanding of the Middle East that made him adopt “a simplistic approach to the Palestine problem,” hereby making any negotiations unlikely to emerge successfully.3 His biased diplomacy cost Churchill an ideal opportunity to appease influential Arab politicians.

The Rutenberg Concession, July & September 1921: Powering Zionism

The Rutenberg Concession fulfilled two main functions in Churchill’s work towards Jewish statehood. In providing the Zionists with near monopolar electrical access, it would lay the foundation for an economic disparity between the Jewish and Arab populations in Palestine. Additionally, in its appeasement of the British government and taxpayers, it allowed for the ratification of the League of Nations Mandate: a vital step towards the Zionist goal.

In March 1921 when visiting the first permanent Zionist agricultural settlement, Rishon Lezion, Churchill found the results of Jewish labor to be utterly astounding. He told them, proudly, “you have changed desolate places to smiling orchards...because of our belief in you we are supporting the Zionist Movement.”1 His observations confirmed his long-lasting belief: the Jews would bring fertility and wealth to the barren lands of Palestine. Previous to Churchill’s Cairo Conference, Russian Jewish engineer Pinhas Rutenberg, supporterd amongst Zionist ranks,2 applied for a concession to build a dam on the rivers of Jordan and Auja, harnessing their hydraulic power for the electrification and irrigation of Palestine.3 In his first official act as Colonial Secretary, Churchill moved ahead with the project, seeing it as a valuable opportunity to ameliorate Arab- Jewish relations by collaboration and mutually beneficial economic development.4 With Churchill’s confirmation, Rutenberg was given the exclusive right to electrify the entirety of Palestine.5 Thus, the implementation of this concession enabled the Zionists to hold a monopoly on the country’s electrification, marking a major success for their agenda1 and Britain’s “first commitment to practical Zionist enterprise in Palestine.”2 It facilitated the development of infrastructure and more effective settlements in what would become a Jewish national home.

Though Churchill’s colonial administrator insisted that this project would, “provide employment to eight hundred people, both Jews and Arabs,”3 this cooperation took on dimensions greater than mere economic exploitation. As Prof. Shamir at Tel Aviv University states: the very “future of Jewish-Arab relations were attached to the flow of electric current.”4 Collaboration between Rutenberg’s Electric Company and the Arab Municipality of Jaffa held the potential of binding the two populations together intrinsically, as reiterated by Rutenberg, himself, in a letter to Churchill: his electrical scheme would catalyze the country’s modernization, a benefit to both sides.5 Even though this idea held promise, Cohen asserts that the Colonial Secretary negated this potential as he felt it unnecessary to engage in “pointless”6 negotiations with the Arabs. Whilst criticized for oversimplifying Churchill’s stance towards the Arab population through his disregard of evidence contradictory to his own argument,7 Cohen nevertheless provides a clear view of Churchill’s deleterious prejudice and unwillingness to work with the Arabs, giving them grounds for hostility over British support of Zionism.1

Such a concession as that given to Rutenberg was common to Britain’s style of colonial administration, wherein its implementation was purposed for targeted economic advancement.2 In this case a benefit for both Palestine and Britain, it allowed the building of essential industries necessary for improving the nation’s economic condition, grew Britain’s capacity for trade by supplying it with a new and stronger trading partner, and gave rise to job opportunities for British laborers, whose products were exported for Palestine’s electrification and irrigation.3 This benefit to the British economy would become essential for Churchill’s defense of the concession at a later time. In addition, it was promoted as a catalyst for Palestine’s modernization and autonomy. As Israeli historian Sternhell argues, such politically organized labor proved highly influential in state formation.4 In developing a self-governed entity, raising the economic status of the Jewish population through increased employment was essential in providing them with the necessary independence to form their own institutions and self-sufficient settlements. The concession hence shaped the country’s socio-political boundaries in its ability to separate populations by varying access to electric power, allowing the Zionists the advantage of deciding how to construct infrastructure in a more economically efficient manner.5

Its second function concerned the appeasement of British taxpayers, who had become increasingly hostile towards the costly undertaking of forming a Jewish State. A conservative politician’s May 1922 letter to The Times portrayed British aversion to the project, “now spending £300,000 a year”1 to administer Palestine. Other politicians even called it the “beginning of Jewish domination.”2 On July 21st 1922, the House of Lords voted to repeal the British Mandate and the Rutenberg concession contained within it.3 With this anti-Zionist sentiment pervading the British government, the Jews risked prematurely losing their nationhood. Just days after, Churchill held a compelling speech before the House of Commons, looking to revert the outcome of the vote. He praised the Rutenberg concession in its capacity to allow the British government and its taxpayers to “recoup these moneys that it had spent” in the years to come.4 In only two years of his leadership, the cost of administering Palestine had already been reduced by £2,000,000,5 and would continue to do so.6 Projects such as the Rutenberg concession would lower these expenditures by making Palestine more financially self-sufficient and growing its labor force. With an outcome of 292 for and 35 against,7 Churchill telegrammed to the Colonial Office that the “House of Commons has directly traversed [the] House of Lords resolution by overwhelming majority.”1 Upon his success, Churchill was now in a position to have Britain’s Mandate for Palestine, including the government’s goal of establishing a Jewish State, confirmed by the League of Nations.2

The White Paper, June 1922: Sketching the birth certificate of Israel

The League of Nations Mandate for Palestine, approved in July 1922, held as one of its main constituencies the contents of the Churchill White Paper, released a month earlier. Upon its official ratification, Chaim Weizmann, later the first President of Israel, thanked Churchill for “securing for the Jewish people the opportunity of rebuilding its national home.”3 This White Paper represents the manifestation of Churchill’s coalescing pro-Zionist efforts, famously declaring that the Jews were in Palestine “as of right and not by sufferance.”4 Within it, the clear shape of a future state emerges, framed in a close political, geographic, economic structure.

This statement of policy proclaimed the interpretation of His Majesty’s Government of the Balfour Declaration, later serving as the basis for the mandate.5 Balfour’s policy was to remain the bedrock of Britain’s administration of Palestine. This assured the Zionists of continued British support in creating a Jewish national home, and officially declared their rightful claim to statehood. Clarifying this interpretation had the additional purpose of pacifying any negative passions that had been aroused in the Arabs, by remarks such as Chaim Weizmann’s proclamation that Palestine would become, “as Jewish as England is English,” an assumption refuted by the White Paper.1

The Cairo Conference’s decision to draw a political border between Transjordan and Palestine was adopted into Churchill’s White Paper, restricting the future Jewish national home to a reduced geographical territory – an idea not welcomed by the Zionists.2 Yet, this limited territorial arrangement would mark the largest possible settlement able to be negotiated by the Zionists in the later partition plan.3 It was an idea that promised to pacify conditions of Arab hostility in Palestine’s neighboring state. The White Paper additionally recognized the need for Arabs and Jews to carry out “undisturbed national development,”4 hereby introducing an idea that would later bloom into the contentious “two-state solution,”5 by proposing the partition of Palestine to avoid direct escalation between the Arabs and Jews. It would serve as the foundation for Israel’s state formation in the UN partition plan of 1947.6 Professor Herbert Kelman from Harvard University asserts that the White Paper’s two-state proposal is today “widely accepted among Israelis and Palestinians,” having become so engrained in the fabric of the region that parts of the Israeli right have been ceded to further the creation of a Palestinian state.1

The inauguration of “economic absorptive capacity,” was an idea for which Churchill was especially proud to take credit for.2 This policy, once introduced by the White Paper, became the “sole criterion for Jewish immigration into Palestine,”3 and remained so for following periods of Aliyah. Adopted in the Palestine Mandate, it set a guideline for how the facilitation of Jewish immigration would be carried out.4 While it is argued that Churchill was not the original creator of this concept,5 Israeli historian Rabinowicz observes, there was “not a single suggestion or White paper, that he would not scrutinize in [its] ... accord with that basic agreement of 1922,”6 exemplifying Churchill’s personal defense of the idea. Though it did limit the pace of the ever- growing Jewish population, the White Paper’s adoption into the Mandate set out a clear plan for how the increasing settlement of Jews in Palestine was to be achieved.

The White Paper necessitated Jewish immigration to be not “so great in volume as to exceed whatever may be the economic capacity of the country at the time to absorb new arrivals,”7 ensuring that further immigration would not become economically detrimental for the domestic Palestinian population by reducing employment opportunity. The Zionists were only mildly critical of this restriction on their people’s immigration,1 seeing that the potential for Palestine to host millions of people could only be recognized and used to their advantage if the Aliyah was carried out at a gradual pace, so as to avoid the previous mistakes of immigration methods. Before the introduction of “economic absorptive capacity”, the British leadership exercised an open-door policy with which, “any Jew who was healthy in body and mind and assured of a livelihood,”2 could enter the country. This found no success, due to great Arab hostility, the fear of mass immigration, and the unattractiveness of living in an underdeveloped desert nation.3

In the years following Churchill’s leave from the Colonial Office, the 1922 White Paper helped stop consecutive attempts to even further reduce Jewish immigration, such as the 1933 Passfield White Paper, as, for the duration of the 1930s, public opinion of the Zionist support Britain had been diminishing once again.4 The framework presented by economic absorptive capacity acted as a protection against further cuts on Jewish immigration through its strong legal consolidation in the British Mandate for Palestine, allowing for a gradual build-up of a Jewish majority in the nation.

How did Winston Churchill, in his role as Colonial Secretary from 1921-1922, lay the foundations for the later emergence of a modern Jewish State?

Upon Churchill’s leave from the Colonial Office in October 1922, Palestine’s High Commissioner declared: “the country is quiet.”1 Whilst Jewish-Arab violence would continue to erupt in Palestine, the High Commissioner’s remark held true: Churchill’s efforts of the past 18 months had settled the country after the tumultuous break-up of the Ottoman Empire. In 1922, the clear shape of Israel was already emerging. Hence, to answer the question of whether Churchill’s work was instrumental in driving forward the Zionist agenda, it is evident that his role was of fundamental significance. Whilst his efforts were often limited by the damning effects of his Islamophobic tendency, by the end of his term, Churchill’s achievements had proven to outweigh his defeats.

As Colonial Secretary, he had, by way of diplomacy at the Cairo Conference, been successful in removing Amir Abdullah from power, thus ensuring the survival of the young national home and defining the borders that have lasted up until the present day. In his fervent advocacy for the Rutenberg concession, Churchill furthermore supplied Palestine with the gift of electricity, raising the Jews in their ability to build successful infrastructure and settlements for the maturation of their nationhood. His efforts coalesced in the release of the Churchill White Paper, in which the goal of a Jewish national home was officially rendered an integral part of British foreign policy, ensuring that His Majesty’s Government would continue to work in favor of Zionism. Within it, Churchill moreover established the geo-political borders of the future Jewish state, together with the idea of a two-state solution, that would later enable the successful adoption of the UN partition plan in 1947. Also his principle of economic absorptive capacity delivered clear assurance of the legal continuation of Jewish immigration, moving the population further towards forming a majority in Palestine. Churchill’s work, manifesting in the White Paper, provided the basis for the ratification of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine in July 1922, finally validating the fulfillment of the Zionist agenda in an internationally recognized contract.

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