Churchill's Cairo challenge
Dr Elizabeth Allan describes how her research led her to discover that Churchill has been misjudged
For decades, many evangelical Christians have believed that Churchill, for all his heroic qualities as a great war leader in WWII, betrayed the Jewish people by signing away 77 per cent of the land promised to them in 1920 at San Remo. This is believed to have happened during the Cairo conference in 1921.
But all is not as it seems… Research in the archives reveals that the borders of the Mandate for Palestine were not, in fact, set at San Remo, and were still undecided by the time of the Cairo Conference. So Churchill could not have chopped off more than three quarters of the land already allotted as a Jewish national home, as generally believed!
Churchill inherited the problem of determining the borders, but it appears that his reasons for making the decisions he did at Cairo, included protecting the Jews and the Jewish national home that was developing within the region west of the Jordan.
So, what actually happened? And what was San Remo about anyway?
The Centenary of San Remo is being celebrated by many evangelical Christians and Jews this April, who see it as a sign of God’s faithfulness to His Word and to the Jewish people.
It not only marks the centenary of Great Britain being granted the Mandate for Palestine, it also marks the decision of the international community to recognise, legally, the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine, and the right for the Jewish national home to be established within it.
This happened through the decisions of the Supreme Council of the Principal Allied Powers of WWI at San Remo, which were subsequently approved by the League of Nations. It eventually led to the rebirth of the State of Israel.
But what of Churchill’s apparent ‘betrayal’ of God’s ancient people?
I suspect this became the accepted version of events, because the Minutes of key Government records did not become public for about three and a half decades. It would have been only too easy to look at the overall outcome and make assumptions, which then became established as ‘facts…’
Along with many thousands of other Christians, I had repented on behalf of Britain and even taught this version myself. It was only when delving into the archives of key Government meetings, conferences, letters etc some years ago, I discovered the reality was very different. And amazingly, there is encouragement for the Jewish people within it.
It came as quite a shock to discover from reading the San Remo Minutes of 1920 that the borders of the Mandate – particularly the eastern and southern borders – were not in fact set at that time and the Supreme Council decided to settle the boundaries later.
When Churchill first became involved a year later when made Secretary of State for the Colonies, he convened a conference at Cairo in March 1921. And the Minutes clearly show the borders had still not been set.
So if Transjordan had not in fact been promised as part of the Jewish national home, what happened?
Rather, under the recommendation of the Colonial Office’s new Middle East Department, Churchill greatly expanded the area under consideration and incorporated the entire area east of the Jordan into the Mandate for Palestine – but simultaneously disapplied the Jewish national home sections of the Mandate in that area, which later became Transjordan.
This of course deeply disappointed the Zionists, since it meant the area east of the river Jordan, including the region where two and a half of the tribes of Israel had settled in biblical times, would not be available as part of the national home.
Churchill’s actions and motives appeared to exclude consideration for the Jews. However, it seems that he was more kindly disposed towards the Jewish people than has been believed.
Prior to the Cairo Conference, he had invited Col T E Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’) to be his Arab Affairs Adviser, and asked him to see the Emir Faisal, a son of the Sherif of Mecca, who represented the Arabs in post-WWI deliberations.
The outcome of Lawrence’s private discussions with him, communicated on 17th January 1921 to Churchill’s Private Secretary, was that Faisal had “agreed to abandon his father’s claim to Palestine,” which left “four questions” (ie conditions: regarding Mesopotamia, Transjordan, ibn Saud and Yemen).
So, reading between the lines, the initiative for this agreement concerning Palestine must have come from Churchill himself.
This was no small concession from Faisal, as he himself had been crowned King of Syria including Palestine a year earlier by the Syrian Congress, before being ejected by the French who had been given the Mandate for Syria. His brother Abdullah was marching north through Transjordan to help restore him to the throne.
In short, Churchill wanted to ensure that the Jewish national home in Palestine would not be attacked by external aggressors, and to set conditions ensuring its protection. And Faisal’s four questions were in effect met as a result of Churchill’s decisions at the Cairo Conference two months later.
Additionally, raiding bands had been crossing the Jordan, attacking Jews on the west. Churchill wanted to install an Arab Governor in Transjordan under the Mandate for Palestine (choosing Abdullah), who would stop these anti-Jewish raids, disturbances and propaganda, as well as prevent anti-French activity (including Abdullah’s own plans for that!). And for these purposes, he said Britain must give support either in troops or money.
Churchill must therefore have believed he was protecting a Jewish national home within the area west of the Jordan as much as possible from external aggression – whether (a) local aggression from the east of the Jordan, or (b) further afield from the wider Arab Middle East.
But what of Transjordan?
The British had a WWI 1915/16 agreement with the Sherif of Mecca, to recognise and support the independence of the Arabs in certain territories and give advice and assistance including in setting up the most suitable forms of government, in return for the Arabs rising up against their Turkish overlords.
The agreement was conditional. The conditions were not fulfilled in the area west of the Jordan, but were in Transjordan.
Churchill must therefore also have believed that his plan fulfilled – as much as possible – British war-time commitments to both the Jews and the Arabs.
It is worth noting that the Agenda for the Cairo Conference, which was largely drawn up by T E Lawrence and Major Young of the Middle East Department, may have been somewhat underhand in giving no indication that the San Remo Resolution was an international legally binding document made by the victors of WWI, whereas the McMahon-Sherif of Mecca agreement was a series of letters, with conditions attached. Churchill may have considered acting differently if this had been drawn to his attention.
In conclusion, whether Churchill’s decisions at Cairo were right or wrong, behind them lay the welfare of the Jewish people at heart.