Samuel, Herbert Louis

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Herbert Louis Samuel

Born on November 6, 1870 (Liverpool, England)
Died on February 5, 1963 (London, England)

High Commissioner of Palestine
British politician

As the first British High Commissioner for Palestine, a role in which he served from 1920 to 1925, Herbert Louis Samuel faced many challenges. The experienced British politician tried to please three very different groups in the region: the Zionists, who wanted him to support a Jewish homeland in Palestine; the Arabs, who insisted that he protect their historic claims to land and political representation; and the British, who asked that he rectify these conflicting demands to provide a politically stable country that the British could continue to help toward independence. In the end, Samuel satisfied no one completely, a result that has been all too common in a region deeply divided by religious differences and conflicting claims to limited resources.

"Let a Jewish centre be established in Palestine; let it achieve, as I believe it would achieve, a spiritual and intellectual greatness; and insensibly, but inevitably, the character of the individual Jew, wherever he might be, would be ennobled."

Though Samuel played a central role in the development of Palestine in the twentieth century, he also had a distinguished career in British politics. First elected to Parliament in 1900, he was a faithful member of the Liberal Party, a British political party that focused on the rights and privileges of the British people over the rights of the government, all of his life. Over the years he served as a cabinet member for several prime ministers, crafted key legislation relating to the juvenile court system, reorganized the postal service and the national telephone company, and led the Liberal Party for many years. Samuel also wrote several semi-influential books on politics and philosophy, including Liberalism: An Attempt to State the Principles and Proposal of Contemporary Liberalism in England (1902), Practical Ethics (1935), and Belief and Action: An Everyday Philosophy (1937).

Grew up in the Cousinhood

Herbert Louis Samuel grew up among a group of people who enjoyed extreme wealth and advantage, yet because of their Jewish religion were never considered a natural part of the British aristocracy (a small class of political elites). His father, Edwin Samuel, and his uncle Samuel Montagu (he switched the order of his name) managed one of the largest banks in Great Britain, though their wealth was small when compared to that of another relative, the Baron de Rothschild, head of the large Rothschild banking corporation. Though the families' great wealth made them very influential in politics, their Jewish religion made them outsiders in a British society that was mainly Christian. These elite British Jews often socialized and married only with other British Jews, creating a group jokingly referred to as the Cousinhood. Samuel was born into this society on November 6, 1870, in Liverpool, England.

The Samuel family, with their five children, soon moved to the British capital of London, where Herbert attended school. His father died when Herbert was seven, and he was raised primarily by his mother, Clara, whose orthodox, or traditional, religious faith was overly restrictive to Herbert. His uncle Samuel Montagu was the dominant male influence in his life both religiously—he participated in many of the social aspects of the Jewish faith but few of the religious rituals—and politically—he was a member of the Liberal Party. Samuel attended one of Britain's most well-known universities, Oxford, in 1889, and graduated four years later, with little interest in his religion and with the goal of becoming a politician. According to biographer Bernard Wasserstein, author of Herbert Samuel, "He left university a self-confident junior politician, able to hold his own in any setting."

Even though Samuel was knowledgeable about politics and came from a wealthy influential background, he faced difficulties in getting elected early in his career. He announced his candidacy for a seat in South Oxfordshire and actively campaigned, but he was decisively beaten, first in 1895 and again in 1900. His hard work and intelligence during his campaigning were noticed by the Liberal Party and his status with the party improved in 1902 when he wrote Liberalism, an attempt to express the party's main ideas. In Liberalism, Samuel stated that "It is the duty of the State to secure to all its members, and all others whom it can influence, the fullest possible opportunity to lead the best life." This idea, which guided Samuel as a politician within Britain, proved far more troubling when applied to Palestine.

Though Samuel spent much of the 1890s immersed in politics, in 1897 he found time to marry Beatrice Franklin, a member of the small British Jewish community. The pair enjoyed a happy marriage and eventually had five children.

Elected to British government

In 1902 Samuel was elected to the House of Commons (the lower branch of the British Parliament) as a representative of the Liberal Party for the county of Cleveland, an area home to many working-class miners and laborers who supported Samuel's political ideas. Soon after taking his position as Parliament representative, Samuel became known as a gifted speaker. Though not fiery or passionate, he had a way of convincing others with his reasonable manner and his skillful understanding of details. These skills helped get him reelected in several elections, and they led to his being selected to serve in several administrative positions within the Liberal Party.

Samuel was made undersecretary at the Home Office (the British government department in charge of domestic affairs) in 1905, and he helped create legislation that provided care for the poor, especially children; protected the rights of workers; regulated immigration to Britain; and reformed the system for treating juvenile criminals. In 1909 Samuel was named Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, a position that made him a junior member of the cabinet (board of close advisors) to Prime Minister Herbert Asquith (1852–1928; served 1908– 1916). With this promotion, Samuel became the first Jew ever to sit as a member of the cabinet. From there he took charge of the Post Office, then the largest employer in Britain and one of the largest businesses in the world. Samuel ran the Post Office from 1910 to 1914, and during his tenure turned it into a more modern and efficient business. Samuel oversaw the introduction of air mail to Britain in 1911 and also orchestrated the government takeover of the National Telephone Company.

In 1914 Samuel was appointed secretary of the Local Government Board, a government agency in charge of government services on the local level, including taxes, poor laws, andpublic health. It was in this position that Samuel served during World War I (1914–18; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies), and he contributed to his country's war effort by easing the effects of the war on working-class families and creating a system to process war refugees. Though Samuel left the seat when the Liberal government went out of power in 1915, he was retained in upper-level administrative positions within the Post Office and the Home Secretary until 1920.

The Balfour Declaration

The Balfour Declaration is one of the single most important documents in the history of the conflict between Jews and Arab Palestinians. Issued during World War I (1914–18; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies) by British foreign secretary Lord Arthur Balfour (1848–1930), the declaration committed Britain to supporting Jewish interests in creating an independent nation in Palestine, but it also pledged that such support would not come at a cost to the Arab communities that had existed in Palestine for hundreds and hundreds of years. The declaration itself is very brief, reading:

His Majesty's Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.

Over the years, maintaining these dual commitments proved impossible. Arabs and Jews fought frequently and violently over conflicting claims to land and access to holy sites. Neighboring Arab nations became involved, and British officials in Palestine were unable to help the two sides reach a compromise. However, British support for the Jewish homeland was the key official act that led, by 1948, to international recognition of the state of Israel.

Throughout his career as a Member of Parliament, a high-level government administrator, and a cabinet member, Samuel won a solid reputation for accomplishing difficult tasks and for his attention to detail. These skills won him admiration and respect but, according to Wasserstein, Samuel was never personally well liked, even by those within his party. Observing his work at the Post Office, future prime minister Winston Churchill once compared him to a machine. Novelist H. G. Wells characterized him as "a brilliant representative of his race, able, industrious and invariably uninspired." Even Wasserstein, who admired Samuel, wrote that "Samuel seemed at times inhuman and priggish" (excessively devoted to proper speech and manner). It was said that Samuel never expressed passion for any of his duties, except for one: Zionism, which he embraced in about 1913.

Zionism was an international movement to create a national homeland for Jews. For years Jews had experienced discrimination—sometimes quite violent—in many of the countries where they made up a minority population. Since they were a minority, Jews were an easy target for governments looking to find a group to blame for poorly performing economies and other government problems. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, persecuted Jews fled Russia and formed settlements in Palestine, a region in the Middle East that was home to early Jewish holy sites, including the city of Jerusalem. In 1896 Theodor Herzl (1860–1904; see entry) published The Jewish State and helped turn Zionism into a credible political movement. By the early part of the twentieth century, numbers of Jewish settlements had been created in Palestine, though they struggled without official support from any world power. Herbert Samuel proved the unlikely force that brought international recognition to the Zionist movement.

Even though Samuel did not practice the religious rituals of his faith, he knew firsthand the discrimination faced by Jews, even wealthy, powerful Jews living in tolerant countries like Britain. He had seen from his travels that poor Jews faced dire conditions in many countries where they lived. And he came to believe strongly, as a result of the British conflict over self-rule in Ireland, that people deserve the chance to govern themselves. All of these forces conspired to compel Samuel to push for British recognition of the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, even though many British Jews did not support Zionism because they feared it would indicate a lack of loyalty to Britain. For Samuel, however, Zionism became what Wasserstein called "the one political passion of a singularly passionless career."

In 1914 Great Britain became involved in World War I. As a result of the complicated system of political alliances that developed during the war, Great Britain placed troops in Palestine to fight against the Ottoman Empire (a vast empire of southwest Asia, northeast Africa, and southeast Europe that reigned from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth century), which controlled much of the Middle East. As victory neared, members of the British and French governments, including Samuel, wanted to establish governments in the region that were friendly to Europe. Samuel was even more ambitious. He petitioned British politicians on behalf of the Zionist movement. He circulated a draft document called "The Future of Palestine" that outlined the benefits that would result if Britain recognized the existence of a Jewish homeland in the region. Finally, on November 2, 1917, British foreign secretary Lord Arthur Balfour released a statement, written by Herbert Samuel and other prominent Zionists, that promised British support for the Zionist cause. The "Balfour Declaration," as it was known, forever changed the shape of the Middle East (see sidebar).

Struggled as High Commissioner

Gaining British support for the Jewish homeland in Palestine was seen as a great triumph by Zionists, but it did not ensure peace in the Middle East. Following the war, the British established military rule over Palestine. In postwar peace talks, new countries were created in the Middle East, and Britain and France were given rights to govern those countries, including Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Transjordan (later Jordan), under what was known as the mandate system. British mandate rulers soon discovered that disputes among native Arabs and Jewish immigrants eager to create settlements in the region would be a major problem. They needed to appoint a governor, called the High Commissioner, skilled at seeking compromise between opposing sides.

Samuel was in many ways a perfect choice for the office. He was supported by Zionists in Palestine and abroad, and was a close associate of Chaim Weizmann (1874–1952), the leading Zionist and future president of Israel. But Samuel had no intention of using British power to push aside Arab interests in Palestine, and did not support the use of violence against Arab resistance. He was convinced that he could use diplomacy to promote peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. With this goal in mind, he was appointed High Commissioner of Palestine in May of 1920 and arrived in the country on June 30 of that year.

Samuel immediately demonstrated his negotiating skills, settling border conflicts with the Lebanese and Syrians to the north and using his office to help establish stable rule in Transjordan and Iraq. He met frequently with representatives of both Jewish and Arab interests in the region, establishing strong relations with both. Yet these early successes would not continue throughout his term. Financial support for Jewish immigration and settlement building was never as great as was promised, and Samuel proved unable to convince wealthy European Jews to increase funding. But the lack of funding was a minor issue compared to the determined resistance to Jewish settlements in the area that came from the native Arab population. That resistance was demonstrated very clearly in May of 1921, when anti-Jewish riots broke out in the Palestinian city of Jaffa and surrounding villages, leaving forty-seven Jews and forty-eight Arabs dead. Authorities in Britain quickly placed limits on Jewish immigration, which angered Zionists. These riots were the start of the conflict between the Jews and the Arab Palestinians in the region that would influence many countries and politics into the next century.

Samuel began his term as High Commissioner hopeful that he would be able to work with Jews and Arabs to form a constitution that would allow self-rule in Palestine; however, the deep hostility between the two sides made this a difficult task. Samuel may have contributed to conflict when he supported religious leader Al-Hajj Amin al-Husayni (1895–1974; see entry) as the leader of Arabs in Jerusalem. Al-Husayni led determined Arab resistance to Zionism, including riots, and repeatedly damaged Samuel's plans to reduce conflict. Samuel also lost support from Zionists when he agreed to place limits on the number of Jews who could immigrate to Palestine each year. When Samuel left office at the end of his term in 1925, one of his few major accomplishments was that there was no open fighting between the two sides. Even though Samuel did deal with riots during his term as High Commissioner, Palestine was relatively peaceful while Samuel was in control, and this most likely allowed the Zionist project to grow in size and strength, ensuring its future in the region.

Finished career as liberal mediator

Samuel returned to Britain determined to find time to write and reflect, but circumstances denied him this period of rest. The coal industry in Britain was in crisis, and a mediator was needed to settle differences between workers, mine owners, and the government. Hence, Samuel reentered politics and continued to serve in one position or another for most of the rest of his life. He was drawn back into Liberal Party politics in the late 1920s, and again won election to the House of Commons in 1929. He struggled to unite the Party during the difficult years of the Great Depression (1929–39), serving in various cabinet positions over the years. In 1937 he was named a Viscount (a British honorary title), which gave him a permanent seat in the House of Lords (the upper chamber of the British Parliament). From 1944 until 1955 he was the leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Lords, using his dispassionate approach to urge compromise between competing factions. Samuel also found time to write several books of practical philosophy.

Samuel did not forget the Zionist cause once he left Palestine. Over the years he used his influence in Parliament to influence British policy toward Jews and toward Palestine. He urged that Britain increase immigration limits of Jews wishing to escape Germany in the 1930s, and he opposed efforts to divide Palestine into Jewish and Arab territories in the late 1930s. Though he supported Zionism, Samuel was sympathetic to Arab Palestinians, who made up a majority of the population in the region. His ability to see both sides of the issue made him a popular radio commentator in the 1940s and 1950s, but kept him from ever being a true part of the Zionist community. Samuel died on February 5, 1963, at the age of ninety-two.

For More Information


Bowle, John. Viscount Samuel: A Biography. London: Gollancz, 1957.

Hunedi, Sahar. A Broken Trust: Herbert Samuel, Zionism and the Palestinians,

1920–1925. New York: I. B. Tauris, 2001.

McTague, John J. British Policy in Palestine, 1917–1922. Lanham, MD:

University Press of America, 1983.

Wasserstein, Bernard. Herbert Samuel: A Political Life. Oxford: Clarendon

Press, 1992.

Web Sites

"Herbert Louis Samuel." Jewish Virtual Library. (accessed on July 7, 2005).