The British Mandate Began 100 Years Ago, June 30, 1920 – A Photo Essay

By Lenny Ben-David - July 1, 2020

Herbert Samuel met in Jerusalem with the Military Governor of Palestine, Major General Louis Bols, on June 30, 1920, the day he arrived in Jaffa. Bols wrote out a receipt, which Samuel signed. “Received from Major General Sir Louis Bols, one Palestine, complete.” (Hebrew Union College Klau Library)

On June 30, 1920, 100 years ago, Herbert Samuel landed in Palestine to assume his duties as Britain’s High Commissioner of the Mandate. He left Palestine in 1925 with one of his last duties attending the opening of Hebrew University. Much took place during his five years in office – firebrand Haj Amin el Hussein was appointed Grand Mufti, Arab rioters attacked Jewish communities, a British “White Paper” limiting Jewish immigration was issued, the Chief Rabbinate was established, and extensive public works were carried out.

“The new era in Palestine. The arrival of Sir Herbert Samuel, British Mandate. High Commissioner [wearing white]. June 30, 1920. Rowboat bringing Sir Herbert Samuel ashore at Jaffa.” (Library of Congress’ caption)

Herbert Samuel was active in British politics and a committed Zionist. At the beginning of World War I, Samuel, then serving in the Home Office, drafted a memorandum, “The Future of Palestine,” which he gave to Foreign Secretary Edward Grey and Chancellor of the Exchequer Lloyd George. He proposed a Jewish state as a “foundation of enlightenment.” (1) Little attention was given to the idea by the government until the Palestine front developed into a full-fledged war.

Samuel’s national standing can be deduced by this recruitment poster directed at the Jewish communities in the British Commonwealth, including Canada.

An army recruitment poster for Canadian Jews. The “Son of Israel” says: “You have cut my bonds and set me free – Now let me help you set others free.” Rt. Hon. Herbert Samuel is the first dignitary pictured on the poster. (Library of Congress) A large training base was set up in Halifax for Canadian and American Jewish volunteers in the British army’s Jewish Brigades.

When the war in Palestine ended in 1918, a military government was established. Many officials and officers who were opposed to the Zionist goals, such as Col. Ronald Storrs, discriminated against the Jewish communities in many areas of administration and preferred to respond to Arab demands. “Thoroughly unsympathetic to the Zionist cause, Storrs made sure that, for example, Jerusalem’s Jewish majority was not reflected in the distribution of municipal power,” according to Balfour 100, a site dedicated to the Balfour Declaration centenary. (2)

When the time came for the British Government to appoint a civilian to head up the Mandate for Palestine, Samuel was considered, but both Samuel himself and Gen. Edmund Allenby, the commander of the Palestine victory, believed a Jewish High Commissioner would meet with Arab opposition. In the end, Samuel acceded and accepted the post, thinking he could carry out his duties impartially.

Unfortunately, over the next 100 years – minus a few – British and American Jewish politicians, diplomats, and ministers showed that such even-handedness was usually difficult to achieve. As a New York senator remarked some 40 years ago, “even-handedness means the palm of the hand to the Arabs and the back of the hand to the Israelis.”

Samuel introduced himself to Jerusalem’s Muslim, Christian, and Jewish dignitaries and delivered his proclamation of the end of military government in Palestine at “Government House,” July 7, 1920. (Library of Congress)

Jewish dignitaries holding Samuel’s proclamation at the High Commissioner’s reception. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda stands behind (from left) Rabbi Moshe Leib Bernstein, Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox community, Rabbi Yerucham Diskin, and Rabbi Baruch Reuven Jungreis. (Library of Congress)

Just weeks after arriving in Jerusalem, Samuel and his wife walked to the Yehuda HaHasid “Hurva” synagogue in the Old City on Sabbath Nachamu, the Saturday after the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’Av. When he entered, people reacted as if the Messiah had arrived. Rabbis and secularists rose as he was called to read from the Torah and additional reading called the Haftorah.(3) Even the anti-religious linguist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda donned a prayer shawl. Samuel read from the book of Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort, My people, says God. Speak to her heart of Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her time [of exile] has been fulfilled…”

In the next months, Samuel visited Arab, Christian, and Jewish communities and launched significant infrastructure projects like replacing the narrow-gauge rail line between Jaffa and Jerusalem.

Samuel visiting the “colony” of Rishon LeZion on July 27, 1920 (Library of Congress)

Driving in the last spike in the Jaffa-Jerusalem rail line, October 5, 1920. (Library of Congress)

Samuel with Secretary of State for the Colonies Winston Churchill at a tree-planting ceremony at the future site of Hebrew University on Mt. Scopus, March 1921. (Library of Congress)

In May 1921, riots broke out in Palestine, which took on the appearance of pogroms against Jewish communities. In his June 30, 1921, first annual report to the British Government, Samuel was cautious in blaming the Arab rioters: “Troops were employed and suppressed the disturbances, and the attacks on the [Jewish] colonies were dispersed with considerable loss to the attackers… [M]uch excitement prevailed for several days in Jaffa. For some weeks, there was unrest. Eighty-eight persons were killed, and 238 injured [Jews? Arabs?], and there was much looting and destruction of property.”