Sir Herbert Louis Samuel

British Palestine’s First High Commissioner – the Jewish Herbert Samuel

If you are walking around in the middle of downtown Jerusalem, not far from the Friends of Zion Museum you will likely come across a short street called Herbert Samuel and an upscale boutique hotel named the Herbert Samuel Hotel.

So who was Herbert Samuel?

Sir Herbert Louis Samuel (born November 6, 1870, died February 5, 1963) was indeed an important figure in the history of pre-state Israel – that is, when Britain ruled over what was then known as Mandate Palestine. That period began in late 1917 with the British conquest that ousted the Ottoman Turks, and lasted until Israel declared its independence in 1948.

Sir Herbert Louis Samuel

A leading figure in the British Liberal Party – Herbert Samuel was the first nominally-practicing Jew to serve as a cabinet minister (beginning in 1910) and later as the Liberal Party leader (from 1931-35). He was appointed by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George in 1920 as the first High Commissioner for Palestine under the British Mandate. And thus Samuel became the first Jewish ruler of the country in nearly 2000 years – namely, since the conquest of the land by the Roman Empire. Samuel served in that position until 1925.

Samuel’s appointment was a controversial one, with some in British public life questioning the wisdom of appointing a Jew to such a sensitive post. Though an avowed Zionist at an early stage in his lengthy career in British political life, Samuel tried to act as an impartial administrator in the struggle for the rights of Jews and Arabs during his tenure as high commissioner. Samuel did win the confidence of some sections of the population by his noted “impartiality,” but not to the total satisfaction of either side.

He is not remembered kindly by many Zionist historians, who tend to regard him as one of the originators of the process whereby the British Balfour Declaration in favor of Zionism was gradually diluted and ultimately betrayed by Britain. Samuel is also not regarded nicely by Arab nationalists who regard him as a personification of the alliance between Zionism and British imperialism and as one who supported the Zionist movement.

Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that this prominent Jewish British statesman played a significant and highly regarded role in the period leading up to the renewal of the Jewish commonwealth in the reborn State of Israel.