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Samuel, Herbert Louis


SAMUEL, HERBERT LOUIS, First Viscount (1870–1963), British statesman and philosopher. Born in Liverpool, the son of Edwin Samuel (elder brother of Samuel *Montagu, the first Lord Swaything), Samuel was raised in London, where his father, who died in 1876, became senior partner in the firm of Samuel and Montagu (later Samuel Montagu and Company), bullion brokers. He was educated at University College School and Balliol College, Oxford, of which he later became visitor. His Jewish background was Orthodox, but he was not a practicing Orthodox Jew, although he retained his membership in the New West End Synagogue in London throughout his life and in later years attended services on festivals and formal occasions. Although raised in a politically conservative home, by the age of 18 Samuel had become an active Liberal, standing for Parliament unsuccessfully in 1895 and 1900. Between graduation and becoming a member of Parliament, he played an active role in the transformation of the Liberals into a party with a program of constructive social reform.

Samuel entered Parliament in 1902 and, after the Liberal victory of 1906, held his first junior ministerial office in the Home Office, promoting the new Workmen's Compensation for Accidents Bill, the establishment of a probation system in England, and the Children's Act, popularly known as the "Children's Charter." Appointed a privy councilor in 1908, he became chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, with a seat in the cabinet (the first held by a professing Jew) in 1909, postmaster general in 1910, and president of the local government board in 1914. In 1914 he was responsible for the absorption of 250,000 Belgian refugees, most of whom returned to Belgium at the end of the war. In 1915, when Prime Minister Herbert Asquith formed his coalition government, Samuel became postmaster general again, temporarily losing his seat in the cabinet; but early in 1916 he was promoted to home secretary. When Lloyd George succeeded Asquith as prime minister in 1916, however, Samuel remained loyal to Asquith and refused to serve in the new government.

Before 1914 Samuel had taken no part in Zionist activities because he did not regard them as practicable. On the day Great Britain declared war on Turkey, however, he broached the subject of Zionism and the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, first with D. *Lloyd George and later with the foreign secretary, Sir E. Grey, and found them most enthusiastic. Later he prepared a special memorandum on the subject, which he circulated among the members of the cabinet in January and March 1915. In his memorandum he advocated a British protectorate under which "facilities would be given to Jewish organizations to purchase land, to found colonies, to establish educational and religious institutions, and to cooperate in the economic development of the country, and that Jewish immigration, carefully regulated, would be given preference, so that in course of time the Jewish inhabitants, grown into a majority and settled in the land, may be conceded such degree of self-government as the conditions might justify." Palestine was a small country "the size of Wales" and, as such, it could not absorb all the Jews, but it could absorb some 3,000,000 people and thus bring some relief to Jews in Russia and elsewhere. But what was more important was the effect upon the Jewish people throughout the world. Therefore, "let a Jewish center be established in Palestine, let it achieve, as it may well achieve, some measure of spiritual and intellectual greatness, and insensibly the character of the individual Jew, wherever he might be, would be raised." Nothing came out of this proposal because of the opposition of Prime Minister Asquith. But in the field of practical politics, Samuel helped Chaim Weizmann, whom he first met in December 1914, in the work that ultimately led to the *Balfour Declaration.

As a result of his close connection with the policy of a Jewish National Home, Samuel was appointed the first high commissioner of Palestine (1920–25), thus being the first Jew to rule the Land of Israel in 2,000 years. His term of office can be roughly divided into two parts: from 1920 to 1922 when British policy was crystallized, and from 1922 to 1925. In the first period Transjordan was excluded from the area destined to become the Jewish National Home, and a new concept about immigration to the country was formulated, namely that of the "economic absorptive capacity." An advisory council consisting of ten British officials, four Muslims, three Christians, and three Jews was established, but it ceased functioning after two years because of Arab refusal to cooperate. As a capable administrator, Samuel laid the foundations of the country's civil administration. During his term of office the Jewish population doubled (from 55,000 in 1919 to 108,000 in 1925), extensive Jewish settlement was carried out, and the number of settlements rose from 44 to 100. Official recognition was given to Jewish representative bodies, local councils were organized, and the chief rabbinate was established. Great improvements were carried through in the legal and judicial system, and education, sanitation, and communications were much improved. The Hebrew language was recognized as one of the three official languages of the country. However, Samuel's efforts to appease Arab anti-Zionism by appointing the young extremist Hajj Amin al-*Husseini as Mufti of Jerusalem, thus investing him with the highest Muslim authority in Palestine, and by stopping, and later restricting, Jewish immigration under Arab pressure, were severely criticized by many Zionists. The sharpest critic of Samuel's policy was Vladimir *Jabotinsky, but also in the Zionist labor movement, and the yishuv in general, Samuel's policy eventually caused deep disappointment.

Samuel's interest in the National Home and the development in the Jewish community never diminished. In 1936 he became the chairman of the board of the Palestine Electric Corporation. He was also a constant supporter of The Hebrew University and member of its board of governors. He fought against the anti-Zionist policy adopted in the 1939 White Paper, and after World War ii he also attacked the anti-Zionist policy of the British foreign secretary, Ernest *Bevin.

Samuel returned to Liberal politics in England and reentered the House of Commons in 1928. By this time, however, the Liberals were no longer one of the two major parties, having been superseded by the Labour Party. During the government crisis of 1931 he was one of those who advised the king to form a national government to be led by Ramsay MacDonald. In this government he was home secretary, until he resigned over policy differences in 1932. He never held office again, though Neville Chamberlain did invite him to join his government in 1938. He had been knighted in 1920 and in 1937 was made a viscount. He led the Liberal Party in the House of Lords from 1944 to 1955. In 1958 he received the distinction of the Order of Merit to mark 50 years as a privy councilor.

Samuel also wrote considerably on philosophy, succeeding Lord Balfour as president of the British Institute of Philosophy. In his works he mainly developed the ideas of the liberal philosophy. Among his philosophical works are Liberalism (1902), Practical Ethics (1935), Belief and Action, an Everyday Philosophy (1937, 19533), Creative Man (1949), Essays in Physics (1951), and In Search of Reality (1957). He played a leading role in the movement to aid German refugees, visiting the United States and various European countries to raise funds and working for the admission of German Jewish children to Britain before World War ii broke out. He also played a leading role on important Anglo-Jewish occasions, presiding in 1956 over the Tercentenary of Jewish Resettlement in England. As a minister Samuel was immensely diligent, lucid, and competent, rather than a brilliant front-rank politician. In later life his clarity of expression, aided by his superbly mellow voice, won him wide popularity as a broadcaster. In his last years his integrity and balanced judgment made him perhaps the most respected of British elder statesmen. In 1945 Samuel published his Memoirs. Samuel's career lasted for an extraordinarily long period of time. As an undergraduate he met William E. Gladstone; the last entry in his diary concerns the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. He was possibly the leading example of the spirit of "meliorism," the widespread belief long held by many acculturated British Jews that they lived in a country inevitably evolving towards liberalism and tolerance, although Samuel, unlike many of his background, was also a leading Zionist. Bermard Wasserstein's Herbert Samuel: A Political Life (1992) is the standard biography. His son was Edwin, Second Viscount *Samuel.


J. Bowle, Viscount Samuel (1957); L. Stein, Herbert Samuel (1963); idem, The Balfour Declaration (1961), 103–16 and index; Ch. Weizmann, Trial and Error (1949), index; E. Kedourie, The Chatham House Version… (1970), 52–81; R.J. D'Arcy Hart (ed.), The Samuel Family of Liverpool and London from 1755 Onwards… (1958). add. bibliography: odnb online; C. Bermant, The Cousinhood (1971), index.

[Vivian David Lipman and

Daniel Efron]

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