The conflict between High Commissioner H L Samuel and Lt.-Colonel F H Kisch in Mandatory Palestine, 1923-4

Glenda Woolf, a frequent contributor to Jewish Affairs, is a novelist and essayist whose articles and stories on Jewish themes have appeared in Jewish publications worldwide. Her novels, published under the name Gita Gordon, include: South African Journeys (2002), Flashback (2007), Mystery in the Amazon and Scattered Blossoms (both 2008) and Guest House (2012).


In the early years of the British Mandate, two Jewish men who had become part of the British establishment found themselves on opposing sides when they entered what was then Palestine. They were Viscount H L Samuel and Lt-Colonel F H Kisch.

Samuel recounts in his memoirs[1] written many years later that his summons for the position of High Commissioner of Palestine came on 24 April 1920 at the St Remo conference, when “…… [David] Lloyd George……asked me if I would undertake the administration of Palestine”.

After much discussion with the Foreign Office, “ ….The date fixed for my takeover was July 1st (1920)”.[2]

Who was this man who thus became the first Jew to govern the land of Israel after so many years of foreign rule?

Herbert Louis Samuels was from a family of wealthy Jewish bankers. His family, as his Memoirs (p4) record, “all observed conscientiously the dietary laws and other requirements of the Jewish faith”. One of his uncles was a Member of Parliament for the Liberal party. The young Samuels was not sent to Public (fee paying) school but instead remained at home and attended local schools. When he was 19, he went to Oxford University, spending his holidays touring the Continent. In 1897, aged twenty, he married Beatrice Franklin, with whom he had four children.

Thereafter Samuels became involved in politics. For many years he was involved on the periphery of political activities until, on his 32nd birthday, he was elected to the House of Commons as a member of the Liberal Party.[3] He served in Opposition from 1902 until 1905 when the Liberals came to power, and over the years served in the Government in many important capacities, becoming Home Secretary in 1916. Though not a supporter of the Zionist movement, in 1914, he wrote that because “the prospects of any practical outcome had seemed so remote……. I was not a member of the Zionist Organization but in the years 1918 to 1919 was closely co-operation with its leaders. ……..But now the condition are profoundly altered”.[4]

He and Beatrice visited Palestine, and on their return to England went on to San Remo, where an international Conference was taking place. It was there he was offered, and the following day accepted, the position of High Commissioner of Palestine: “I thought that British influence ought to play a considerable part in the formation of such a state, because of the geographical situation of Palestine, and especially its proximity to Egypt, would render its goodwill to England a matter of importance to the British Empire”.[5]

As this makes clear, it was not only the good of the Jews that was in his mind, but also the welfare of the British Empire. If these two interests were to clash, what side would, Samuels, the Jew, favour? This issue arose shortly before Samuels left for Palestine: “Curzon …told me that he had had a very disturbing telegram from Allenby in Cairo who thought that the appointment of any Jew as the first Governor of Palestine would likely be the signal for an outbreak of serious disorder, with wide spread attacks upon Jewish settlements and individual Jews”. Advised to “think matters over”, Samuels did so by consulting with “a delegation representing the Palestine Jewish community who happened to be in London at the time”.[6] His decision was to accept the appointment.

Viscount H L Samuels, 1870-1963

Viscount H L Samuels, 1870-1963

For Lt-Colonel F H Kisch, the call to Palestine came some time later, in 1922. As he records in his diary, “when serving on the staff of the British embassy in Paris……I received a telegram transmitting a request from Dr. Weizmann that I should undertake the representation of the Zionist Organization in Jerusalem. The invitation came to me it of the clear blue sky”. As a result, he met with Weizmann, “who pressed upon me from the point of view that the Zionist Organization had no-one available who could negotiate with the High British officials on equal terms” and explained, “the urgent need of systemic efforts towards reconciliation with the Arabs….I accordingly resigned my Commission in the army---though not without many regrets- and in. November1922, together with D. Weizmann arrived in Palestine to be introduced to my new duties”. [7]

This sets the stage for two Jewish men representing opposing interests to meet, and to disagree.

Although both were well integrated into upper class English society, their backgrounds differed.

As opposed to Samuels, scion of a wealthy family of bankers and politicians, Frederick Hermann Kisch was a child of the Indian Empire and a soldier. He was born in Darjeeling, India, where his father was head of the Indian Postal Service. After some years the family returned to England, where Kisch attended Clifton College, the only Public (private) school with a separate Jewish House. This seems to suggest a family aware of Jewish traditions without following every precept, since this would have been difficult in Colonial service in India.

Kisch then went to Sandhurst and in 1909 joined the Royal Engineers. He served with distinction in France in the First World War, being wounded three times and receiving the D.S.O, and the Croix de Guerre. He was sufficiently well thought of to be a member of the U.K. delegation at the 1919 Peace conference. When he arrived in Palestine he was 36 years old and a bachelor.

Brigadier-General F H Kisch, 188-1943

Brigadier-General F H Kisch, 188-1943

Palestine and Samuels

On 30 June 1920 Samuels, aged fifty, a family man, an experienced politician arrived in Palestine as High Commissioner. It was during the week of Tisha B’av, the date of historic tragedy on the Jewish calendar when both the first and second Temples were destroyed, and other national calamities happened as well. Upon his arrival he said, “I am the first Jewish leader of Palestine since Hyrcanus II, the last Maccabee leader in 40 BCE.” To a certain extent that was true.

On Shabbat Nachamu, as the first Shabbat following the fast day of Tisha B’Av is called, Samuel and his wife walked to the Yehuda HaHasid ‘Hurva’ synagogue in the Old City. 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. 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…” Rabbi Kook and other rabbinic luminaries of Jerusalem gave speeches in his honor. The story is important to point out that Sir Herbert was a Jew who knew enough to walk on the Sabbath, to say the blessings and read from the ancient books. Though not fully observant, even observant Jews were elated with this man who represented the strongest country in the world.

In his memoirs Samuel makes no mention of this event, so seemingly it was of little importance to him. However, to the Jews then living in Palestine it was a momentous occasion. Samuels had indeed arrived at a propitious time. The Jews were thrilled to welcome British government after experiencing the corrupt Turkish rule.

The second public event was the wedding of the Samuels’ son Edwin, who had arrived before him to take up an administrative post in Jerusalem. This he does mention. Edwin Samuels had joined the British Army and served in Allenby’s forces in Egypt. He had come to Palestine as a soldier, and rented a room at the renowned Hebrew scholar Grazovsky’s home in Tel Aviv. He and the daughter of the house, Hadassah Grazovsky, met and decided to get married. The wedding was held at official residence of the High Commissioner, the Augusta Victoria building.

Soon after his arrival Samuels appointed Wyndham Deedes, head of intelligence of Allenby’s staff, as the top man, as Civil Secretary. Ronald Storrs continues as Governor of Jerusalem. Norman Bentwich, “a Jew and a committed Zionist”, was made Attorney General. Samuels insisted that all his staff had to pass a qualifying examination in either Hebrew of Arabic, and “All of them… chose Arabic: a few added Hebrew”. He makes no comment on this apparent pro-Arab sentiment among those who serve him and his administration. Samuels had brought with him a message from the king declaring that “a respect for the rights of all races and creeds would govern its actions. The message announced measures for the gradual establishment in Palestine of a National home for the Jewish people a week after his arrival he…… held a great Assembly….with …the notables of all sections, lay and ecclesiastical, together with the heads of the administration”. In view of the corruption of the previous administration, he emphasized that the new regime “would not tolerate corruption among judges and officials”.[8]

Viscount Samuels giving an address, circa. 1924

Viscount Samuels giving an address, circa. 1924

Samuels set about establishing a Police force, a judiciary and, using a generous subsidy from Hadassah, a Public Health department. He gave attention to education in the Arab sector and the issue of land tenure and began to improve the system of communications. In the chapter of his Memoirs entitled ‘Palestine: Jews and Arabs’, he lays out his intended policy dealing with the “basic problem of relations between Arabs and Jews”, as well as the results.[9] He sincerely felt that is was possible to “establish a Jewish National Home…without prejudice to the civil and religious rights of the rest of the population”, and that as a Jew he would have “counted it as a shame to the Jewish people if the renewal of their life in the ancient land of Israel were to be marked by hardship, expropriation, injustice of any kind, for the people now in the land”. He stated clearly that he was there “not commissioned by the Zionists, but in the name of the King”.[10] His loyalty is thus clearly and unequivocally stated.

It was on this subject that Kisch, the representative of the Zionists with no problem of dual loyalties, had many disagreements with the High Commissioner. The stage was set for two upper- class Jewish Englishman, the politician and the soldier, to meet from two opposing sides.

F H Kisch in Palestine

The diaries of Kisch cover his time in Palestine much more extensively than Samuels does of his own time there in his memoirs, 459 pages in all, with each day painstakingly recorded. This means that it his views, rather than that of Samuels that are before us in much detail.

In his dealings with the Jewish Lord Samuels, Kisch he seems to have been less than successful. His anger is evident even years later, as is his restraint. “Having regard to the terrorism which unhappily prevails at the time of the present publication. I thought it right to exclude altogether my minutes of official interviews with the High Commissioner of the day”.[11]

Kisch travelled the length and breadth of Palestine. He met with Jews in towns and settlements, with moderate Arab leaders and Arab royalty, with British officials and with visitors from abroad, Jew and Gentile. Palestine at that time was a multinational place.

Col. Kisch speaking at the inaugural ceremony of the Massaryk Forest at Sarid in Emek Jezreel, 14 April 1939

Col. Kisch speaking at the inaugural ceremony of the Massaryk Forest at Sarid in Emek Jezreel, 14 April 1939

The daily activities of the High Commissioner are not available to us. What will be detailed is all from the point of view of Kisch and are taken from the relevant pages of his published Diary. The views of Samuels come from his memoirs published much later, in 1944.

March 30…..Good Friday- arrival of the Nablus contingent for “Nebi Musa” in the presence of the High Commissioner greetings were exchanged between Storrs and the Mufti Haj Amin who remained seated on horseback. The head of the procession, seated behind the Mufti the cries (in Arabic of course) “Long live Haja Amin” “Long live the Arabs”, “Down with the Jews”. For the possibility of such a thing to occur we have to thank Richmond’s support of the Mufti and Herbert Samuel’s weakness (p46).

A short time later Kisch met with the Syrian Arab, Riadh el Sulk who was in Palestine:

April 3… Riadh el Sulk repeated his opinion that the Government … do not wish to see a rapprochement between Jews and Arabs. I cannot believe this to be the case but undoubtedly the Government has acted and are acting as if this were true (pp46-7).

The question that must be asked her is …Was this official British policy? Was this the way British officials applied their mantra of “Divide and rule?” Was this due to incompetence? To what extent was Samuels influenced by his advisors, the permanent staff of Palestine? Was this in any way deliberate policy by Samuels? These are questions of interest, but seemingly with no way of elucidation all these many years later.

It was not only Arab dignitaries who expressed such opinions to Kisch. British officials also expressed to him their worries.

April 4…Saw Deedes off at the station. Deedes last words to me were “Try to counteract the High Commissioner’s waning popularity among the Jews.” I replied frankly that I myself wanted to be convinced that this change of attitude was not justified (p47).

This attitude, that The High Commissioner was hindering rather than helping Arab rapprochement, was expressed also by other officials:

May 1…Later an interesting conversation with Arthur Cust, a young officer who had been for a year and a half A.D.C. to Sir Herbert Samuel. Speaking of the High Comissioner, Cust said that H.E. had achieved what only a Jew could have done, namely the reduction of Jewish ambition in Palestine to a moderate level and enthusiasm (pp.52-3).

Cust suggested that it was time for a replacement, by someone who was an experienced Eastern Administrator, suggesting Lord Ronaldshay. With all these opinions in his mind Kisch went to his interview with the high Commissioner. He was dismayed by the attitude he found.

October 7…Interview with H.E. Found him very affable, although he is discussing the most dangerous combinations with the Arab extremists, he seems quite happy in his conviction that nothing he is doing can injure the Jewish cause (p72).

Only a day or so later he found even in the heart of the High Commissioners office there was a disagreement with the plies of Samuels policies:

October 9…I can see that although, Clayton (Chief Secretary) is very loyal to Samuels…that in matters such as neutrality in regard to friends and enemies Palestine cannot be governed according to Liberal methods appropriate to England (pp 73-4).

This was reinforced in an alarming manner by an Arab source:

October 12…A visit from an Arab friend from Nablus, …my informant stated that Anti-Zionism had become a sort of religion in the country and that it was necessary to do something to combat it (ibid).

The year 1923 ended on a bitter note. It was not only the policies of The High Commissioner towards Arab extremists that disturbed Kisch, but also his lack of interest in helping the Jews to make improvements:

December 5 …A constructive-minded and far seeing government would have planned their economic policies so as to encourage industrial development and take advantage of the unprecedented interest in which Jews throughout the world are taking in Palestine. Nothing of the kind has been attempted here under Herbert Samuels regime (p85).

The year of 1924 did nothing to make Kisch feel more sympathetic to Lord Samuels:

April 14 (1924)… And which has appeared in both the Arabic and Jewish Press. In this letter the lies about Jews having press insulted Islam at the Purim celebration at Tel Aviv are repeated…….Protested very strongly that the man who the Government treats as a responsible leader of the Arabs is allowed to spread false and provocative information (p113).

After discussing the matter further with Deedes and Storrs it appears that the information had been kept from everyone by a junior official. Since the letter blamed the Government for “All that had happened”, this does not throw a very favorable light on the state of knowledge of the country, of these high officials. This raises a question, all these years later. How had such a thing occurred? Was this correct or had the junior official merely been used as a scapegoat to mask bad government policy?

May 21 10 a.m. Interview with H.E… As usual I came away from Samuel as if I had been taking a cold shower (p121).

The subject discussed in not mentioned. This leaves us wondering what was discussed, and why Kisch was so upset.

The prejudice of the High Commissioner and his officials towards the moderate Arab dignitaries continues to be brought to the notice of Kisch:

June 4 …A visit from sheiks from Beisan: the usual story about alleged persecution of friendly Arabs by Junior Government officials. I blame the High Commissioner for not insisting that our friends among the Arabs be treated favorably (p126).

Once again the matter of the matter of lack of financial support towards the Jewish community is raised:

June 18, 10.a.m. Interview with H.E.., at which Dizengoff was present, on the subject of the Tel Aviv Jetty. H.E. opposed it very strongly, stating that the Government were being asked to spend money…

Kisch then explains how necessary the harbour is to Tel Aviv, that the money spent would be soon recouped, and continues, “…I took exception to the question being approached from the view that the project must not cost the Government a penny having regard to the large proportion of revenues derived from Tel Aviv (p129).

In financial matters large and small, Kisch finds the High Commissioner lacking in sympathy and practical help. On 20 June, at the request of a tobacco manufacturer “…[he] came to seek exemption from duty for tobacco imported for blending with Palestinian tobacco……This was my last interview with Sir Herbert Samuel before his departure on leave, and he struck me as tired and rather hostile, but perhaps this was a reflection of my own mood” (p131).

When Samuels returned from his leave, things went from bad to worse. On 17 November Kisch was distressed about a speech made by Samuels during Health week at which he made no mention that most of the funding came from Hadassah (p152). The year ends with Kisch leaving Palestine to visit Rome, Paris and America.

Land purchase was an essential component in Jewish settlement of a then arid and unproductive land. As head of the Zionist Office, Kisch was heavily involved in such matters. Arab extremism promoted violence. However, it also made the purchase of land more difficult. There is a note of quiet despair in the following entry:

December 4-15 (Summary)…Thinking over our situation in Palestine I am much concerned at the increasing tendency of Arab extremists to organize opposition to our land purchases (p153).

By contrast, in his autobiography Lord Samuels looks back on this time, and all his time in Palestine with satisfaction: “My term had been extended to include a fifth year. The second year was a time of steady progress and comparative calm. Public security was well maintained (p178).

It is true there were no large serious outbreaks of violence, but the term, “comparative calm” may be misleading in view of the insecurity of the Jewish populace, particularly those settling the land, at this time.

Kisch and Samuels

That story of two Jewish men, from similar backgrounds, working in unhappy opposition was concluded, as Samuels records, in 1925 on July 1st we left Jaffa by sea, and that chapter of my life was ended (Memoirs, p178). However, there was still one link. In October 1927 Kisch, aged 39, married the niece of Lord and Lady Samuels. The book of his diaries is dedicated to her.

Kisch remained in Palestine, and his work and their records in his diaries continued. The last we hear of him in the diary volume is 1938. This was time of danger to Jews in Europe and the refusal of the Mandate government to allow in more than a small token of Jewish refugees: “A gesture cannot save an oppressed people” (p459). However, when Britain went to war Kisch resumed his military career, serving as Brigadier in British Eighth army Battalion in Tunisia. He is recorded as being the most Senior Jew in the British army. On 7 April 1943, aged 56, he was killed after stepping on a landmine and was buried in Tunisia.

Samuels had wanted to remain in Palestine with his wife. However, the newly appointed High Commissioner, Lord Plumer, had told him “It would be an embarrassment….. if the ex-High Commissioner was a resident in the country.[12] Instead, he and his wife travelled to Italy, with the intention of retiring there.

It seems, if he was not well thought of by the Jews and moderate Arabs in Palestine, matters were quite different in England. There had been a debilitating General Strike. There was much disagreement within the Liberal Party with conflict between Liberals who favoured Asquith and those who favored Lloyd George. Since both sides found Lord Samuels agreeable, “The leaders of both sections agreed that I should be invited to be the chairman of the joint Liberal organization”.[13]

Samuels was thus asked to return. This he does. He puts Palestine and its issues behind and returns as a Liberal to political life in England. Between 1931-2 he was Home Secretary. After resigning he remained in the House of Commons until 1935. A multitude of different activities occupied him until the time he ends his diary in1944, when he was living in Oxford and involved in University matters. His stint in Palestine is but one episode in his busy and influential life.

However, there is one last reference to his time there: “Note - as there has appeared in recent years, especially from Zionist quarters Some criticism of the Policy I pursued in Palestine I venture to add here, two resolutions and a letter I received at that time…..”[14] There are formal letters of thanks from the Zionist Organisations of London and America, and also one from Weizmann. After all this time, it is difficult to tell if they were truly complimentary or merely the formal and correct thing to do.

Their legacy

To end the Memoirs of Lord Samuels. So too, ends the story of two British Jews, who cared for the land of Israel, who lived there for some time, and then had to leave. The both worked, in their own and very different ways, to make the land flourish.

Samuels and Kisch lived and worked in Jerusalem. They left a record of their time there. Whose policies were correct? Would the outcome have been any better if Kisch had persuaded Samuels to act differently? Such speculation leads nowhere.

However, both men left a legacy, in the form of talented grandsons.

Professor David Samuel, Edwin’s son and Samuel’s grandson, is Professor Emeritus at the Weizmann Institute in the Department of Neurobiology. Kisch’s grandson, Yoav Kisch, is a distinguished member of the Knesset.

Today, in spite of all that has gone before, the Land of Israel is under Jewish governance, and the grandsons of these two men, both make their unique contributions to the Land.


[1] Memoirs, by the Rt. Honourable Viscount Samuel, London, the Cresset Press, 1945 (hereafter , ‘Memoirs’)

[2] Ibid, pp120, 122

[3] Ibid., p38

[4] Ibid., p140

[5] Ibid. p141

[6] Ibid., pp151-2

[7] Palestine diary by Lt-Colonel F H Kisch, London, Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1938, Preface.

[8] Samuels, Memoirs, pp155-6

[9] Ibid., pp164-179

[10] Ibid., p168

[11] Kisch Diary, preface

[12] Samuels, Memoirs, p182

[13] Ibid, p196

[14] Ibid., p178

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