Photo: Churchill with Tel Aviv’s mayor Meir Dizengoff, 30 March 1921
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At midnight on 23 March 1921, Churchill left Egypt for Palestine by overnight train. Sir Herbert Samuel and T. E. Lawrence accompanied him. At that time 83,000 Jews and 600,000 Arabs lived between the Mediterranean Sea and the River Jordan, in what was known as Western Palestine. No Jews lived east of the river. Churchill’s principal object in going to Jerusalem was to explain to Emir Abdullah the decision of the Cairo Conference, and of the British Government, that Britain would support him as ruler of the area of the Mandate lying east of the River Jordan – hence its name, Transjordan – provided that Abdullah would accept a Jewish National Home within Western Palestine, and would do his utmost to prevent anti-Zionist agitation among his people east of the Jordan.
Lawrence had already secured a pledge from Feisal, Abdullah’s brother, that “all necessary measures” would be taken “to encourage and stimulate immigration of Jews into Palestine on a large scale, and as quickly as possible upon the land through close settlement and intensive cultivation of the soil.”
On the morning of 24 March, Churchill’s train reached Gaza, the first large town within the southwestern boundaries of the Palestine Mandate. Gaza had a population of more than 15,000 Arabs, and fewer than a hundred Jews. A British police guard of honour met him at the railway crossing, and a mounted escort took him to the town. Captain Maxwell Coote, a Royal Air Force officer who had served as Churchill’s Orderly Officer in Cairo, later recalled that there was
“a tremendous reception by a howling mob, all shouting in Arabic ‘Cheers for the Minister’ and also for Great Britain, but their chief cry over which they waxed quite frenzied was ‘Down with the Jews’, ‘Cut their throats’. Mr Churchill and Sir Herbert were delighted with the enthusiasm of their reception, not being in the least aware of what was being shouted. Lawrence of course, understood it all and told me, but we kept very quiet. He was obviously gravely anxious about the whole situation. We toured the town surrounded by this almost fanatical mob which was becoming more and more worked up by its shouting.”
Churchill left Jerusalem at midday on 30 March. Before catching the evening train from Lydda to Egypt he had time to see two of the most impressive Jewish achievements in Palestine. One was the twelve-year-old Jewish town of Tel-Aviv, next to the ancient and predominantly Arab town of Jaffa. The second was the thirty-nine-year-old agricultural colony of Rishon le-Zion.
From Sarafend, Churchill was driven ten miles to Rishon le-Zion – Hebrew for “the first in Zion” – one of the oldest Jewish agricultural villages in Palestine, established four decades earlier during the Turkish period. Before his visit, the inhabitants of Rishon had been divided as to how to receive him. The old-timers wanted to stress the hardships and dangers, including the hostility of some of the nearby Arab villages. The young people wanted to show him what had been achieved, even deciding to greet him on horseback.
What Churchill had seen and heard at Rishon impressed on him how precarious the work of the farmers could be, and how essential it was for Britain to protect them. “I defy anybody, after seeing work of this kind, achieved by so much labour, effort and skill, to say that the British Government, having taken up the position it has, could cast it all aside and leave it to be rudely and brutally overturned by the incursion of a fanatical attack by the Arab population from outside,” he told the House of Commons on his return to Britain. It would be “disgraceful if we allowed anything of the kind to take place. I am talking of what I saw with my own eyes. All round the Jewish colony, the Arab Houses were tiled instead of being built of mud, so that the culture from this centre has spread out into the surrounding district.”
Churchill had been in Palestine for eight days. In that short time he had been struck by the enthusiasm of the Jews and the intensity of Arab hostility against them. The Zionists were optimistic that his visit boded well. According to the May issue of the leading Zionist journal in Britain, Churchill’s visit marked “a turning point in our movement: it indicates the passing from discussion to real practical work. He has detailed our difficulties in no uncertain manner, but with the sympathy and understanding of a friend. He has stated that his Zionism is based upon his faith in the Jewish people to make good in Palestine – it is only left to us to justify that faith.”
Excerpt from Churchill and the Jews
Read: Churchill and the Jews