Diaries reveal overwhelmed British officials in Palestine wanted to go home

When the League of Nations appointed Great Britain as the mandatory power for Palestine in 1922, it required Britain to “place the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home,” and to “safeguard the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion.”

The British officials in charge of Mandatory Palestine should have been highly skilled, seasoned colonial administrators well-equipped to deal with the growing conflict between Zionism and Palestinian Arab nationalism. Some, such as Field Marshal Lord Plumer, who served in 1925-1928, presided over periods of relative calm, earning the respect of Arabs and Jews alike. Others, however, met with less success.

British high commissioner John Chancellor, far left, with princess Illeana of Romania and other personages in his garden, circa 1930. (Public domain)

When the League of Nations appointed Great Britain as the mandatory power for Palestine in 1922, it required Britain to “place the country under such political, administrative and economic conditions as will secure the establishment of the Jewish national home,” and to “safeguard the civil and religious rights of all the inhabitants of Palestine, irrespective of race and religion.”

The British officials in charge of Mandatory Palestine should have been highly skilled, seasoned colonial administrators well-equipped to deal with the growing conflict between Zionism and Palestinian Arab nationalism. Some, such as Field Marshal Lord Plumer, who served in 1925-1928, presided over periods of relative calm, earning the respect of Arabs and Jews alike. Others, however, met with less success.

Sir John Chancellor led Palestine from December 1928 through September 1931, a period of tremendous tension at the Western Wall that began on the Yom Kippur holiday on September 24, 1928, and culminated with the Hebron massacre on August 24, 1929. Chancellor’s top deputy was chief secretary Sir Harry Charles Luke.

Both Chancellor and Luke kept meticulous diaries, recording their observations and commentary on the conflict between Palestinian Arab nationalism and Zionism.

British high commissioner John Chancellor at the construction site of the YMCA building in Jerusalem, March 23, 1931. (Public domain)

The diaries provide an extraordinary, contemporaneous window into the two officials’ private thoughts regarding the Arabs, the Jews, and the conflict. The diaries also lay bare the enormous stress they experienced during and after the August 1929 violence in Jerusalem and Hebron.

The diaries also contain surprising revelations, including the existence of a successful Jewish espionage operation aimed at the British mandatory government, as well the shocking revelation that some Jerusalem Jews painted crosses on their outer walls in hopes the Arab rioters would not attack them in the aftermath of the Hebron massacre.

A day of prayer and tensions

The first key event of the Chancellor-Luke period occurred on Yom Kippur 1928, when British police forcibly removed a screen the Jews had brought to the Western Wall to divide men from women during prayer. Plumer had left his position in late July and Chancellor would not arrive until early December, so Luke was left in charge as the acting high commissioner during the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Sir Edward Keith-Roach, deputy district commissioner of Jerusalem. (Public domain)

On the eve of Yom Kippur 1928, the Muslims — possibly tipped off by the Sephardic beadle, who had been angry at his Ashkenazi counterpart for not sharing tips from a visiting group of European Jewish worshipers — complained to Edward Keith-Roach, the British deputy district commissioner for Jerusalem. Keith-Roach warned the Jews to remove the screen by the next morning. When the Jews refused to do so, Keith-Roach ordered the British police to remove the screen by force.

The incident provoked an international outcry. Jews throughout the world condemned the mandatory government. A short time later, both the Zionist Executive and the Supreme Muslim Council filed protests with the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations.

The Zionists argued the mandatory government had violated Jewish prayer rights at the Wall by removing the screen. The Muslims alleged the screen violated the status quo and represented a Jewish effort to wrest ownership of the Wall from the Muslim Waqf.

Despite the seriousness of the incident, Luke’s diary entry for that day reflected a tone of sarcasm laced with bemusement: The Rabbi clung so persistently to the screen that he was also removed adhering to it. Great excitement among Jews. Even Jewish female lunatics discussing it in the asylum.

At some later point, most likely after the incident had become a global cause celebre, Luke added an additional sentence to his diary in a different color ink, indicating he inserted the sentence afterward to cover himself, that “K-R [Keith-Roach] told me ‘nothing more would be heard of it!’”

Illustrative: Worshipers at the Western Wall, 1911. (Public domain)

Meanwhile, Luke casually recorded his activities for the next two days in a single entry for September 25-26. After a quick reference to “Meetings with Jewish deputations over Wailing Wall incident, Drafting of Communique, Writing Despatch, etc.,” Luke turned his attention to other matters: “Tennis tournament, Police sports & dance, & much work at office. A heavy time generally.”

Illustrative: Tennis finals in Jerusalem during the days of British rule (Courtesy Zvi Oron Central Zionist Archives Collection)

The situation at the Wall grew increasingly tense throughout 1928 and into the summer of 1929. On August 15, 1929, a group of Jewish youth held a brief demonstration at the Wall, making a short speech, unfurling the blue-and-white Star of David flag, and singing Hatikvah, the future national anthem of the State of Israel.

A Muslim counter-demonstration inspired by the virulently anti-Semitic Grand Mufti Amin al-Husseini the following day ended in violence, which continued through the following week and culminated in the Hebron massacre of August 24, 1929.

Hitler hosts Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini in 1941 in Germany. (Heinrich Hoffmann Collection/Wikipedia)

Chancellor was on home leave in England during July and August 1929, leaving Luke once again in charge of Palestine as acting high commissioner during that crucial period. (Chancellor returned to Palestine following the Hebron Massacre, arriving in Jerusalem on August 29, 1929.)

A Jewish home plundered and destroyed during the 1929 Hebron massacre. (Public domain)

Luke visited Hebron on September 1. The Times of London reported on Luke’s visit the next day, describing in graphic detail the horrific aftermath of the massacre Luke had witnessed. Luke glued the clipping from the Times into his diary as his entry for September 2. He added a chilling handwritten note in the lower right corner of his diary page for the same day, describing the fear gripping the Jewish community in Jerusalem: “Many X’tain [Christian] houses in J’lem (and some Jewish ones) have painted large crosses on their outer walls.”

Luke’s stunning comment about crosses painted on Jewish homes in Jerusalem has not been previously published, and explains in terrifyingly simple and stark terms the fear engulfing the Palestine Jewish community in the wake of the August 1929 explosion of violence.

Chancellor finally visited Hebron five weeks later, recording his shock at the still-fresh scenes of violence:

I have just come back from Hebron, where I went to inspect the houses where the Jews were murdered. The horror of it is beyond words. In one of the houses I visited not less than twenty five Jews men & women were murdered in cold blood… The floors covered with dried blood: blood stained walls, blood stained sheets & bedding lying about: furniture & fittings smashed to atoms clothes & every kind of property lying in heaps on the floors. I do not think history records many worse horrors in the last two hundred years.

The weeks following the Hebron Massacre were extremely stressful for Chancellor. The Jews and Arabs blamed each other — and the local British authorities — for the deadly violence. The possibility of fresh outbreaks posed a constant worry for Chancellor and the mandatory government. By early October, Chancellor confided to his diary that “under present conditions I know of no one who would be a good High Commissioner of Palestine except God.”

British officials worn thin

As Jewish and Arab accusations and counter-accusations continued throughout October, Chancellor felt under increasing pressure. He therefore expressed great relief — but tinged with complete ignorance of the depth of religious feeling among Jews and Muslims — that Yom Kippur of 1929, which that year fell on October 7, had been observed peacefully.

This was thanks to efforts by leading Palestinian Jewish businessman Pinchas Rutenberg to convince the Jews not to blow the shofar horn at the Western Wall and risk upsetting the Muslims:

Rutenberg went to the Rabbis & made them arrange that after the ceremonies at the Wall, the congregation should march to a Synagogue in the neighbourhood, where the Ram’s horn should be blown to bring the service to a close & that was done.

How childish it all is!

On October 24, 1929, Chancellor continued laboring under enormous strain, laying bare his raw nerves and sense of helplessness in his diary entry for that day:

I am so tired & so disgusted with this country & everything connected with it that I only want to leave it as soon as can do so without failing in my duty.

For the high commissioner — the top British official in Palestine, representing the king and the British government — to make such a statement, even within the private confines of his diary, was nothing short of astonishing.

Arthur Balfour, and the Balfour Declaration. (Wikipedia)

Even more astonishing was Chancellor’s private admission of outright hostility to the Balfour Declaration and the Jews, made in a February 21, 1930, letter to his son Christopher. Chancellor by then had decided to resign. He wrote to his son explaining his reasons, ranging from low pay and the high cost of living in Palestine to his disagreement with the core British government policy he had been appointed to implement:

I dislike the policy of the Balfour Declaration & consider that it is unjust to the Arabs & detrimental to the interests of the British Empire & for that reason I do not like being associated with it.. Even if H.M. [His Majesty’s] Government adopt a policy which I approve, I find the Jews so antipathetic to me & so difficult to deal with that I shall be glad to sever connection with Palestine as soon as I can do so with decency.

Chancellor also took a condescending view of the Palestinian Arabs, writing in his January 13, 1930, diary entry, “they are like children & very difficult to help.”
Meanwhile, during the ongoing hearings of the Shaw Commission, Chancellor bluntly reported in his diary entry for November 7, 1929, the incredibly low morale among the British civil servants in the Palestine government:

Luke tells me today that all the British Civil Servants are so sore at what the[y] consider the unfair way they have been treated by the Colonial Office through being put on their defence [sic] before the Commission & at the constant stream of abuse to which they are exposed from Jews & Jewish newspapers all over the world that if they could afford to do so every one of them would resign their appointments in Palestine… All my officers in the administration & the police as [sic] now suffering from the strain of the last three months; & I am afraid we shall have a number of nervous breakdowns before long. They have had & are having a hateful time here, as are all of us.

Only four days later, on November 11, 1929, Chancellor confided a stunning discovery to his diary, when he learned from the American consul general in Jerusalem that Jewish spies had been intercepting his secret communications with the colonial secretary:

The American Consul General came to see me on Friday to tell me privately that the Jews have organised a very complete espionage system in Jerusalem, one of the main objects of which is to secure copies of all secret official documents.

The organisation is so complete that nothing remains secret; & the Jews are in possession of copies of all the secret cypher telegrams that pass between the Sec. of State and me.

He told me that a Jew of his acquaintance has shown him what purports to be a bunch of all the telegrams that had passed between me and the Sec. of State during the last month. He has had one of these telegrams in his hands, & from what he told me of its contents, which he quoted from memory, I have little doubt that it was authentic.

It is an intolerable state of affairs & adds to the many difficulties which one has to encounter here, but I do not know how to stop it. Our intelligence service is terribly feeble…

No evidence has been found as to whether Chancellor reported to his superiors in London that their secret communications with him had been compromised.

Despite Chancellor’s desire to leave his post as early as February 1930, he waited another 18 months, finally departing Palestine on September 2, 1931.

Illustrative: Yeshiva students in Hebron, circa 1930. (Public domain)

Meanwhile, Luke had given secret testimony to the Shaw Commission, sent to Palestine to conduct a trial to determine blame for the August 1929 riots and the Hebron Massacre. The commissioners asked Luke about his decision to allow the Muslim counter-demonstration on August 16, 1929, at the Western Wall, and to speculate about what might have happened if the British authorities had attempted to ban or block the Muslim demonstration:

Q: Can you envisage, don’t answer if you feel it is not right to do so, can you envisage what might have taken place?

A: The Arabs… would have killed every Jew they could have got hold of… and the Government would have been wiped out.

Several months later, on October 17, 1930, Chancellor recorded a bizarre incident in his diary, pitting Hebrew speakers against a Yiddish-language film at a cinema in Tel Aviv. Chancellor linked the incident to the broader Zionist-Palestinian Arab conflict:

There was another disturbance in Tel-Aviv a few nights ago because a ‘talkie’ in Yiddish was exhibited. The Hebrew speaking Jews ‘demanded’ that it should be forbidden, a demand that of course could not be complied with. The Hebrew speakers accordingly bought up most of the tickets & when the Yiddish was spoken they bombarded the screen with ink bottles, rotten eggs & other vile stuff & caused a disturbance which had to be suppressed by the police.

One can imagine to what extremes of arrogance the Jews would attain if they were the majority in this country, & what a poor time the Arabs would have at their hands!

The Chancellor and Luke diaries offer surprisingly candid, firsthand accounts from the two highest-ranking British officials in Palestine regarding the crucial events of 1928-29, the period Hebrew University historian Hillel Cohen refers to as “Year Zero” of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

A synagogue desecrated and destroyed in the 1929 Hebron massacre. (Public domain)

The diaries reveal with striking clarity Chancellor’s lack of commitment to carrying out the Mandate’s requirement to place Palestine under the political, administrative and economic conditions necessary for creating the Jewish National Home, raising serious questions about his fitness for the role.

The Chancellor and Luke diaries also reveal how both men struggled to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable clash between competing Jewish and Arab nationalist aspirations. To that extent, the diaries remain especially relevant today, as many of the same issues in the conflict continue resonating nearly a century later.

Steven E. Zipperstein is a senior fellow at the UCLA Center for Middle East Development and the author of “Law and the Arab-Israeli Conflict: The Trials of Palestine” (Routledge 2020). He is also a lecturer of Global Studies and Public Policy at UCLA, and a visiting professor of law at Tel Aviv University.