100 Years After the Balfour Declaration – Revisiting Sir Herbert Samuel’s Legacy

Sir Herbert Samuel inaugurating the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway, 5 Oct 1920 (Prints and photographs division of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)
Sir Herbert Samuel inaugurating the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway, 5 Oct 1920 (Prints and photographs division of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

Charlotte Kelsted
University of Exeter

Speaking before the UN General Assembly last year, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas requested that the British government offer an apology for its 1917 Balfour Declaration supporting a Jewish homeland in Palestine. ‘We ask Great Britain, as we approach 100 years since this infamous declaration, to draw the necessary lessons and to bear its historic, legal, political, material and moral responsibility for the consequences of this declaration, including an apology to the Palestinian people for the catastrophes, misery and injustice this declaration created and to act to rectify these disasters and remedy its consequences, including by the recognition of the state of Palestine,’ Abbas said. ‘This is the least Great Britain can do.’

Abbas’s demand for an apology is far from the only one. Just last November, for example, Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Jenny Tonge hosted the launch of the Palestinian Return Centre initiative to get the UK government to recognize its role in ‘almost a century of Palestinian suffering.’ 100 years on, the Balfour Declaration’s legacy remains a controversial part of the present day – so, too, is the legacy of the first High Commissioner to the Palestine Mandate, Herbert Samuel.

Prior to November 1914, Herbert Samuel (1870-1963) viewed a return of the Jews to Palestine as little more than a ‘distant’ ideal, limiting his interest in the Zionist movement.[1] Palestine was then part of the vast Ottoman Empire, having been under Muslim rule for nearly 700 years. This all changed when the Ottomans entered the war in November 1914. If the Allies proved victorious, the Ottoman Empire would surely crumble and its former lands would be divided among the victorious European powers.[2]

Samuel, while Liberal Home Secretary in 1914, obtained the World Zionist Organization’s latest publications and soon found himself captivated by the prospect of a Jewish national home. Just four days after the Ottomans entered the war, he approached Foreign Secretary Edward Grey and Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George on the matter, portraying a Jewish state as a ‘foundation of enlightenment’.[3] Impressed by Samuel’s spirited address, Grey and Lloyd George agreed that they too were keen to see the establishment of a Jewish state.[4] In December, Samuel put together a Cabinet memorandum to campaign for a British protectorate over Palestine after the war, sentimentally describing how Jews had waited for ‘over eighteen hundred years’ to return to Palestine, a connection to the land ‘almost as ancient as history itself’.[5]

Unfortunately for Samuel, his largely speculative memorandum was dismissed by the Prime Minister and his Cabinet in 1914.[6] Zionist prospects increased throughout 1916, however, as it became increasingly necessary to secure American support in the war. There existed among the British political elite at this time a belief in the ‘worldwide influence and capability of the Jews’, lent credence by the fact that Louis Brandeis, Head of the American Zionist Organization, was one of President Woodrow Wilson’s closest friends.[7] It was widely believed that the chances of securing American support in the war would be greater if the British Government pledged their support for the Zionist movement. In February 1917, Prime Minister Lloyd George gave the go-ahead for negotiations between British officials and Zionist representatives to begin.[8]

Samuel was closely involved in these negotiations throughout 1917 and with his approval, Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour made the following declaration on 2 November 1917:

His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, 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.[9]

Historians have taken Samuel to task for prioritising the political desires of the Jews over those of the Arabs, but in doing so Samuel has been served a great injustice.[10] Whilst he was certainly a committed Zionist during the war, Samuel’s appointment as High Commissioner in April 1920 led to a change of heart. From April 1920 onwards, he became an impartial administrator.

Appointment as High Commissioner 

Over the next couple of years, Samuel remained closely involved in Britain’s Zionist movement, establishing himself as its leading voice within the Liberal Party. In April 1919, the League of Nations provisionally assigned the mandate of Palestine to Great Britain and Lloyd George announced that he believed Samuel to be the ‘right man’ to govern Palestine.[11]

But Samuel was unsure and explained to Lloyd George that although personally interested in the establishment of a Jewish state, the government had made a promise to protect the rights of both Jews and non-Jews in 1917, and appointing a Jew as High Commissioner might give false hope to Zionist ambitions.[12] On reflection, however, Samuel considered himself duty-bound to accept such a prestigious offer from the Prime Minister and agreed to the appointment.[13]

Huneidi, who argues that Samuel was a committed Zionist from 1914 until 1925, attributes Samuel’s hesitation to a concern that Arab hostility towards a Jewish High Commissioner would make the implementation of a Zionist program more difficult.[14] Wasserstein, who argues that Samuel feigned impartiality between the two communities whilst actually laying the foundations for a Jewish state, similarly argues that Samuel’s ‘primary’ motive for accepting the position of High Commissioner was ‘the realisation of the Zionist dream’.[15] Samuel did not, however, immediately accept the offer as an opportunity to further his Zionist ambitions; instead, he considered the Prime Minister’s offer and, on accepting the position, decided that he should arrive in Palestine as an impartial administrator.

Samuel’s First Steps Toward Impartiality

Samuel arrived in Palestine in June 1920 and soon after expressed his intention to head a ‘fair and impartial’ administration, with ‘every race and creed respected’. [16] He also announced that an Advisory Council would be set up in the coming weeks as the first step towards self-government.[17]

Samuel’s arrival in Palestine, June 1920 (Prints and photographs division of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)
Samuel’s arrival in Palestine, June 1920 (Prints and photographs division of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

Historians have been reticent about taking Samuel at his word. Huneidi, for example, has alleged that during Samuel’s initial months in Palestine, he established ‘a largely Zionist administration, disguised as a British one’.[18] Samuel’s unwillingness to speak out against the Balfour Declaration lends this interpretation some credence. But it downplays how, upon his arrival in Palestine, Samuel made it possible for both Arabs and Jews to apply for senior positions in the government, ordered an equal number of Arabs and Jews to be employed in the police force, and left in place many of the British non-Jews inherited from the previous military government, several of whom were actually anti-Zionist.[19]

Samuel himself is partly to blame for the historiographical confusion surrounding his confused legacy. For example, he made no attempt to explain his newfound sense of impartiality to the Jewish community immediately upon his arrival. In a meeting with the Jewish Elected Assembly in October, he did, however, emphasise the limits to Jewish influence in Palestine, stating that it was ‘not the object of the Assembly’ to address questions ‘affecting Palestine as a whole’; rather, their influence was to be restricted to the ‘internal affairs’ of the Jewish community only.[20]

Samuel at August Victoria, July 1920 (Israel State Archives)
Samuel at August Victoria, July 1920 (Israel State Archives)

In other words, rather than enthusiastically suggesting ways to gradually increase the Assembly’s influence, Samuel sought to confine Jewish political power. This challenges Wasserstein’s claim that Samuel sought to create the ‘necessary political conditions’ for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine.[21] This also raises questions about Huneidi’s claim that ‘in contrast to the restrictions placed on the development of Arab self-governing institutions, Samuel fostered those of the Jews’.[22]

Samuel followed his words with action. He implemented restrictions on Jewish immigration, limited the power of the Jewish Elected Assembly and created an Advisory Council made up of ten unelected government representatives and ten nominated individuals: four Muslim Arabs, three Christian Arabs, and three Jews.

However, Samuel never went so far as to deny the Mandatory Government’s commitment to the Balfour Declaration, and Arab animosity continued to grow. In December 1920, the Palestinian Arab Congress presented a memorandum to the High Commissioner, appealing for ‘a native government, representative of, and elected by, the Arabic-speaking population living in Palestine up to the beginning of the war’.[23] This was followed by a list of their frustrations with Samuel’s administration: the arrival of Zionist emigrants; the introduction of Hebrew as an official language; and the existence of a Zionist flag.[24] What this memorandum failed to acknowledge, however, was that Samuel had balanced these measures with restrictions on both Jewish immigration and Jewish influence in Palestine.

The May Riots

Five months later, a clash between Jewish workers and Bolsheviks in Jaffa rapidly escalated into ‘mass violence’ between the Arabs and Jews.[25] The violence spread up the coastal plain to Tel Aviv, Nablus and Tulkarem and an estimated 95 people were killed.[26]

The riots only strengthened Samuel’s resolve to remain an impartial mediator in Palestine. No sooner had order been restored to the country than he appealed to Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill for an enlargement of the Advisory Council.[27] But Churchill was concerned lest it should appear that the British Government could be manipulated by violence.

Although Samuel was prohibited from using the words ‘elected’ and ‘representative’ in his next speech to the country, he reassured the Arab population that discussions were taking place in London to ensure a ‘free and authoritative expression of popular opinion’ in Palestine as soon as possible.[28] He also announced that the number of Jewish immigrants would now be limited to the economic absorptive capacity of the country.[29] By neither prolonging a ban on immigration nor replacing this ban with an unlimited influx of Jews, Samuel hoped to be fair to both communities.

The White Paper of 1922

In February 1922, the British Government entered into correspondence with the Palestine Arab Delegation and the Zionist Organization. The Palestine Arab Delegation (PAD) made their position clear: ‘no constitution which would fall short of giving the people of Palestine full control of their own affairs could be acceptable’.[30]

In contrast to the PAD, the Zionist Organization now realised that it was in their best interests to work with the government. In June, Churchill asked Chaim Weizmann (leader of the Zionist movement) to ensure that Jews across the world accepted the limits to Jewish influence in Palestine and Weizmann dutifully complied.[31]

Samuel and Church leaders in Jerusalem, 1922 (Samuel, Memoirs (London, 1945))
Samuel and Church leaders in Jerusalem, 1922 (Samuel, Memoirs (London, 1945))

Churchill’s White Paper was published in June 1922, combining the government’s correspondence with the PAD and Zionist Organization since February, along with a statement by Samuel outlining future policy.[32] In an attempt to reassure the Arabs, Samuel explained that the founding of a Jewish national home in Palestine would certainly not lead to the ‘disappearance or subordination of the Arabic population, language or culture’.[33] A Legislative Council would also be established soon, with further measures of self-government later.

Unfortunately for Samuel, the elections for a Legislative Council did not go according to plan. Still determined to reject anything other than full autonomy, the fifth Palestinian Arab Congress declared an Arab boycott of the elections in August and Samuel was forced to extend the deadline for voting until the following May.[34] Despite the extension, only 225 Arabs across the entire country ended up voting in the elections and the British Government in London was beginning to lose interest.[35]

Samuel’s extension of the election deadline, however ineffective, once again calls into question the claim that Samuel only feigned impartiality between the two communities in Palestine. Samuel could have easily seized this opportunity to establish a Legislative Council composed mainly of Jews, but chose not to.

The Failure of the Arab Agency Scheme

A special Cabinet Committee was appointed in the Summer of 1923 to ‘advise upon the future of His Majesty’s Government in relation to Palestine’.[36] Samuel travelled to London and addressed the Committee directly, arguing for further attempts at cooperation with the Arabs and proposing the creation of an Arab Agency ‘exactly analogous’ to that of the Jewish Agency in Palestine.[37]

Samuel’s trip was a success. In October, the Duke of Devonshire informed Samuel that the government was willing to support the creation of an Arab Agency.[38] The Duke wished to make it ‘quite clear’, however, that this was the very last concession to be made by the British Government to the Arabs.

The Arab Agency scheme did not meet the demands of the PAD, and the scheme was rejected in October. The following month the British Government announced that it ‘would proceed no further upon the path of political concessions’.[39] As a result, from 1923 until his departure in July 1925 Samuel’s administration remained ‘little more than an umpire between two parallel governments’, described by Wasserstein as ‘a form of… institutional partition… a decade before the country’s territorial partition began to be seriously discussed’.[40]


Historians have argued that Herbert Samuel, a staunch Zionist throughout the First World War, remained an ardent Zionist as High Commissioner of Palestine. But the evidence suggests that this line of argument goes too far by overlooking Samuel’s change of heart when he took up his role as High Commissioner in April 1920. He arrived in Palestine with a strong sense of duty, an obligation to honour the British Government’s promises to both the Jews and non-Jews, and a determination to rule Palestine as an impartial administrator.

Samuel’s ultimate failure to create a unified political body in Palestine was a result of the following: the uncompromising position of the Arabs; the relentless determination of the Zionists to see a Jewish return to Palestine; and the British Government’s ebbing interest in bringing about cooperation between the Arabs and Jews following the rejection of the Arab Agency scheme in October 1923. Samuel himself went to great lengths to bring the two communities together, and he did so with a previously unrecognised impartial eye. So while the British Government certainly deserves its fair share of the blame, Samuel himself is due some measure of historical vindication.

Charlotte Kelsted is an MA History student at the University of Exeter. Her research interests are in imperial and postcolonial history, particularly British involvement in Palestine in the early-mid twentieth century.


[1] Herbert Louis Samuel, Memoirs (London, 1945), p. 18.

[2] Malcolm Yapp, The Making of the Modern Near East, 1792-1923 (London, 1987), p. 95; William Matthew, ‘War-Time Contingency and the Balfour Declaration of 1917: An Improbable Regression’, Journal of Palestine Studies 40 (January 2011), 28.

[3] Samuel, Memoirs, pp. 139-41.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘The Fate of Palestine’, Cabinet Memorandum, Jan 1915, The Personal and Political Papers of Viscount Samuel dealing with Israel and Jewish Affairs, Israel State Archives (ISA) SAM/H/1.

[6] John McTague, British Policy in Palestine, 1917-1922 (Lanham, 1983), p. 12.

[7] Tom Segev, One Palestine, Complete (London, 2001), p. 38.

[8] Avner Cohen, Israel and the Arab World (London, 1970), p. 122.

[9] Herbert Samuel (HS) to War Cabinet, Nov 1917 (ISA) SAM/H/1; Lord Balfour to Lord Rothschild, 2 Nov 1917 (ISA) SAM/H/2.

[10] Bernard Wasserstein, ‘Herbert Samuel and the Palestine Problem’, The English Historical Review 91 (October 1976); Sahar Huneidi, A Broken Trust: Herbert Samuel, Zionism and the Palestinians (London, 2001).

[11] Samuel, Memoirs, pp. 149-50.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Huneidi, A Broken Trust, p. 94.

[15] Wasserstein, The British in Palestine: The Mandatory Government and the Arab-Jewish Conflict, 1917-1929 (Oxford, 1978), p. 88.

[16] Jerusalem to Zionist Organisation Central Office (Telegram), 2 Jul 1920 (ISA) SAM/H/17; Speech by HS, 7 Jul 1920 (ISA) SAM/H/18.

[17] Speech by HS, 7 Jul 1920 (ISA) SAM/H/18.

[18] Huneidi, A Broken Trust, pp. 101-3.

[19] Wasserstein, ‘‘Clipping the Claws of the Colonisers’: Arab Officials in the Government of Palestine, 1917-1948’, Middle Eastern Studies 13 (May 1977), 172-3; Lionel Casper, The Rape of Palestine and the Struggle for Jerusalem (Jerusalem, 2003), p. 38.

[20] HS to President of Elected Assembly, 24 Oct 1920, Zionism and Other Matters Relating to Jews in Palestine, The National Archives (TNA) FO 141/742/3.

[21] Wasserstein, The British in Palestine, p. 87.

[22] Huneidi, A Broken Trust, p. 121.

[23] Memorandum of the Palestinian Arab Congress, 18 Dec 1920, Palestine: Civil Administration and General Situation (TNA) FO 141/439/1.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Wasserstein, ‘Herbert Samuel and the Palestine Problem’, 765.

[26] HS to Winston Churchill (WC), 8 May 1921, Martin Gilbert and Randolph Churchill (eds.), The Churchill Documents (Hillsdale, 2009), vol. IV; Wasserstein, ‘Herbert Samuel and the Palestine Problem’, 765.

[27] HS to WC, 8 May 1921, The Churchill Documents, vol. IV.

[28] Speech by HS, 3 Jun 1921, Palestine: Civil Administration and General Situation (TNA) FO 141/439/2; Michael Cohen, Britain’s Moment in Palestine: Retrospect and Perspectives, 1917-1948 (Routledge, 2014), p. 120.

[29] Interim Report on the Civil Administration of Palestine, 30 Jul 1921 (TNA) FO 141/439/2.

[30] Palestine Arab Delegation to WC, 21 Feb 1922 (TNA) FO 141/742/3.

[31] WC to Zionist Organization (ZO), 3 Jun 1922 (TNA) FO 141/742/3; ZO to WC, 18 Jun 1922 (TNA) FO 141/742/3.

[32] The White Paper of 1922 (TNA) FO 141/742/3.

[33] Ibid.

[34] HS to Duke of Devonshire, undated (ISA) SAM/H/5.

[35] Wasserstein, ‘Herbert Samuel and the Palestine Problem’, 771; Duke of Devonshire to HS, 4 Oct 1923 (TNA) FO 141/439/2.

[36] ‘The Future of Palestine’, Cabinet Memorandum, 27 Jul 1923 (TNA) CAB 24/161/51.

[37] Wasserstein, The British in Palestine, p. 125.

[38] Duke of Devonshire to HS, 4 Oct 1923 (TNA) FO 141/439/2.

[39] John Bowle, Viscount Samuel: A Biography (London, 1957), p. 227; Evyatar Friesel, ‘British Officials on the Situation in Palestine, 1923’, Middle Eastern Studies 23 (April 1989), 198.

[40] Wasserstein, ‘Herbert Samuel and the Palestine Problem’, 773; Wasserstein, Herbert Samuel: A Political Life (Oxford, 1992), p. 226.

4 thoughts on “100 Years After the Balfour Declaration – Revisiting Sir Herbert Samuel’s Legacy

  1. This is a nice essay. I think that if Samuel was worth his diplomatic status, he couldn’t barge into the Palestine like a bull in a china shop. For him to ignore the rights of the Arabs when agreeing to the Jewish wish for a State of their own would have led to an early failure to whatever negotiations took place. I think that as with most international issues like this, if the sponsor behind talks i.e. The British in this case weren’t willing to continue its support the negotiations then yes, Samuel would’ve been unable to continue his position of working between two communities. Sadly, the US would’ve got involved in First World War anyway with the Zimmerman Telegram so can getting US support be the main reason behind the Balfour Declaration? Resolution of the Ottoman Empire and its territories is the greater influence over the Balfour Declaration being brought into creation. The US would’ve been just silent/quiet supporters of the British initiative, very much how they operate today in some issues which the UK are participative in as well as vice versa.

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