At the end of World War I, representatives of the victorious Allies met in San Remo, Italy from April 19-26, 1920 to determine the future status of territories formerly under Ottoman control, including Eretz Yisrael. The Balfour Declaration, in which Britain had committed to the establishment of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael, was adopted as part of the broader San Remo Resolution. The Resolution passed on April 25, 1920 and read in pertinent part:
The Mandatory will be responsible for putting into effect the declaration originally made on November 1917 [the “Balfour Declaration”], by the British Government, and adopted by the other Allied Powers, in favor of the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.
Pursuant to the British Mandate for Palestine, Great Britain instituted the office of the High Commissioner for Palestine as the highest-ranking authority over the territories of Eretz Yisrael and Transjordan. Based in Jerusalem, the office was initiated in 1920 with the appointment of Herbert Samuel, who served as High Commissioner until 1925, and officially ended with Israel’s declaration of statehood on May 15, 1948, which marked the official end of the British Mandate.
On the very day of the enactment of the San Remo Resolution, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George appointed Samuel as the first of seven High Commissioners for Palestine (there were also three acting High Commissioners), making him the first Jewish sovereign of Eretz Yisrael since the destruction of the Second Temple 2,000 years earlier.
In a July 3, 1922 Order-in-Council enacted in the name of King George V, the High Commissioner was authorized to decree and disseminate rules and regulations promoting peace and order in Eretz Yisrael, including essentially unchecked executive power unrestrained by any constitutional limitations.
Exhibited below is an incredible original document: an August 17, 1928 Order hand-signed by King George V (“George R.I.” – Rex Imperator, or “King Emperor”) appointing an Acting High Commissioner of Palestine. Next to the signature atop the document is a seal with the British coat of arms and the legend Georgius V D G Britanniarum Omnium Rex F.D. Ind. IMR (“George the Fifth, by the Grace of G-d, King of all Britons, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India”).
Though the appointee is not specifically named, this Order – which was issued after Second High Commissioner Field Marshal Lord Herbert Plumer retired – appointed Harry Charles Luke as acting High Commissioner, a position he held from July 31 to December 6, 1928.
Although Luke served for only four months, his role in the struggle to establish a Jewish state was momentous. He is best remembered for serving as the acting High Commissioner during the 1929 Arab riots; he was broadly held responsible for the violence, including the infamous Hebron Massacre.
Luke, who previously served as Great Britain’s Governor of Jerusalem, thought he could nip the violence in its bud by summoning Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, admonishing him for the rioting, and ordering him to cease and desist. Not surprisingly, his reprimand had no effect and, in fact, may have played an important role in leading to even worse Arab rioting a week later.
On the night of August 21, 1929, during some of the worst Arab riots ever to hit Eretz Yisrael, Luke attempted to mediate an agreement between Jewish and Arab leaders by convening a meeting between al-Husseini and Yitzchak Ben-Zvi, then leader of the Yishuv (and later Israel’s second president). His effort not only failed again to curb Arab violence; it exacerbated the situation which, coupled with a hate-filled and murderous anti-Semitic sermon delivered by the Grand Mufti on Friday, led to the heinous Hebron Massacre.
On the next day, Shabbat, August 24, 1929, Arab rioters murdered some 68 Hebron Jews in cold blood and mutilated their bodies, raped, tortured, and engaged in indescribable savagery before the British authorities arrived and evacuated the Jewish survivors. When Luke visited the site, he was “horrified” by what he saw. The Jews, who held him largely responsible for the riots, were particularly furious about his testimony before the Commission of Inquiry that the “disturbances” were “inevitable.”
The person who appointed Luke to be acting High Commissioner – King George Frederick Ernest Albert (1865-1936) – was king of England and Emperor of India from 1910 until his death and is best known in Jewish history for his important role in supporting the issuance of the Balfour Declaration. King George Street in central Jerusalem was named for him on December 9, 1924 (and Jerusalem’s first traffic light was installed at the intersection of King George and Jaffa Road). There are also streets named for him in Tel-Aviv and Haifa, among other places.
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On his Prime Minister’s letterhead from 10 Downing Street dated October 15, 1937, Neville Chamberlain writes to “His Excellency the Right Hon. Sir John Anderson, G G.C.I.E.”:
My Dear Anderson
His Majesty’s Government have decided that, in the present circumstances, a change in the High Commissionership of Palestine is desirable and that General Sir Arthur Wauchope should be replaced by a High Commissioner who should be civilian.
I now write, after discussing this question with the Secretary of State for the Colonies and considering the matter carefully, to offer you the appointment. I realise that you have had a strenuous and anxious time in Bengal, but that notwithstanding I hope you will undertake this further employment.
In case you should not realise it, I should like to state my personal opinion, which is confirmed by the Secretary of State, that your acceptance of this position would have a profound effect in establishing confidence in the future of Palestine.
I should add that the salary of the appointment is [pound] 4,500, with a duty allowance of [pound] 1,500. Private Secretaries and A.D.Cd. are paid from Palestine funds. The appointment would be for three years. We propose that you should take up your duties at the beginning of February which would give you, at any rate, a short time in this country before you would have to leave for Palestine.
I should be very grateful if you would let me have a reply to this letter by cable.
Anderson (1882-1958) was a British politician best known for his service under Winston Churchill in the British Cabinet during World War II, for which he became known as the “Home Front Prime Minister.” He developed what came to be known as known as “Anderson shelters,” some 1.5 million cheap and easily-erected shelters that were distributed to the poor in areas subject to intense bombing by the Luftwaffe. Before the war, he served as Under-Secretary for Ireland, Permanent Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, and Governor of Bengal (1932-37), as Chamberlain discussed in his letter.
With an Arab revolt against British colonial rule in Eretz Yisrael and concerned that growing Jewish immigration had provoked the Arabs, Chamberlain believed that Anderson, who had effectively suppressed terrorism while serving as governor of Bengal, was the man for the hour (he had once characterized him as “the efficiently ruthless sahib”). In a “secret and confidential” response to Chamberlain, however, Anderson explained in detail that he was utterly fatigued from his service as Governor of Bengal such that he required a “prolonged period of recuperation…(and) adequate rest.”
Chamberlain was very upset at Anderson for declining the appointment, and the position ultimately went to Sir Harold MacMichael, who went on to earn the name “Haman” by Jews worldwide for his denial of Jewish immigration and, in particular, for the Jewish blood on his hands in refusing the Holocaust survivors aboard the Struma to disembark. (The ship ultimately sank on February 24, 1942, killing 768 Jewish men, women, and children, making it the largest exclusively civilian naval disaster of World War II.)
Chamberlain’s very name has become synonymous with “appeasement” and, to this day, he remains perhaps the most scorned British prime minister. Characterizing the events leading up to WWII and the Holocaust as a mere “quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing,” he flew to Munich in an attempt to pacify Hitler and cut a deal with the Fuhrer on September 30, 1938, allowing Germany to annex the Czech Sudetenland.
After perpetrating one of the greatest betrayals in modern history, he returned to London and proudly declared that he had achieved “peace for our time” – less than six months before Hitler marched into Prague (on March 15, 1939) and Poland (on September 1, 1939) six months after that.
Although Chamberlain paid lip service to the plight of the Jews, his true opinion of them was more accurately reflected in his private papers, particularly in a July 30, 1939 letter to his sister, in which he wrote “No doubt the Jews aren’t a lovable people; I don’t care about them myself; but that is not sufficient to explain the Pogrom.”