John Evelyn Shuckburgh, Colonial Office Memo on Jewish Gun-Running in Palestine, 1921

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INTRODUCTION

Sir John Evelyn Shuckburgh (1877-1953) was a deputy under secretary of the British Colonial Office, evidently working in Palestine. In his long career, Shuckburgh was responsible for some memorable, frank and not always complimentary quotes about both Jews and Arabs. Just prior to World War II, he was quoted as saying that hopefully with the Nazi invasion of Poland, some sources of illegal immigration to Palestine would "dry up" (See here). He defended prohibition of Land Sales by Arabs to Jews on the grounds that "the Arab [needed] to be protected against himself (Source).

In this document, an apparently then secret memorandum written in the summer or fall of 1921, Shuckburgh discusses the question of illegal gun running, and peripherally, arming Jews for self defense. The issue was raised following the organization of the Haganah, which had come into being following Arab riots in the spring of 1920, and was stimulated by further riots in the spring of 1921.

The document is remarkable for several points:

1) Shuckburgh was convinced that the Jews had imported substantial quantities of arms including machine guns, whereas in fact, the arsenal of the nascent Haganah was pitiful. He wrote:

This has finally led to organised gun-running and the importation of machine guns.

...

Moreover it would be impossible at this stage to eradicate the results of six months organised gun-running.

...

I am, however, able to state that an Arab attack on any of the larger colonies in Palestine will now be met by machine gun fire.

2) Shuckburgh advocates allowing the Jews of Palestine to import guns and to  form a legal armed defense force, just as Zeev Jabotinsky advocated in The Iron Wall - a policy that was apparently being considered by the British:

The third course is to recognise gun-running and legalise it, until such time as we can adequately protect the Jews in Palestine by some efficient gendarmeries or police; or by developing their own organisations into a Police Reserve, as has already been contemplated. The cry "arming the Jews" would of course be hoard throughout Palestine but the Arabs have brought such action on themselves. Outbreaks will occur, but they will automatically cease almost at once, for the Arabs will be the aggressors, which will place Government forces on the side which is trying to protect itself. And by recognising gun-running the Government will be able to allow for the first time its forces to march hand in hand with its policy. By this I do not intend that Zionism should be thrust on Palestine at the point of British bayonets.

I do, however, intend that Zionism in its initial stages shall be protected by the Power who has called it into being.

...

(3). His Majesty's Government is still determined to adhere to the Balfour Declaration, which contemplates more than merely allowing the Jews to settle in Palestine.

3) Shuckburgh has no doubt whatever that the British are unequivocally committed by the Balfour declaration to a Jewish national home in Palestine. This point has been put in doubt by numerous anti-Zionist commentators, as well as by British statesmen who tried to renege in the policy in the 1930s, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence that initially, the British understood the The Balfour Declaration exactly as the Zionists did. Shuckburgh wrote:

It is presumed that His Majesty's Government does not contemplate abandoning the Zionist policy in the face of Arab violence or threats of violence. Recent events on the contrary, have, still further tended to confirm His Majesty's Government in their determination to carry out the Zionist policy. But the Zionists are asked to go slow. What is intended by this? It is now nearly three years since the Great War stopped. What progress has been made towards helping the Jews to establish a National Home in Palestine?

...

In dealing with the Zionists, it is not realised by many that we are dealing with a people who are not going back and with an idea which will live. We have already given them a great gift and they will not allow us to deprive them of its meaning.

As usual, the author is outspoken:

Thus, in perpetually asking the Zionists to go slow we are killing the Zionist idea, and making it impossible for them to carry out their principles. This, to my mind, has been brought about by lack of normal courage to face an obstruction, namely Arab hostility towards Zionism, an obstruction which is borne of ignorance and perversity.

Shuckburgh evidently addressed this document to a specific person, as he suggests:

In the event of your concurrence, I should recommend that, discussing the matter within the Middle East Department, the Secretary of State authorises you to approach Sir H. Samuel with a  view to Dr. Weizman and a military officer visiting Palestine, to formulate detailed plans and carry them out.

The document is part of a file at the Zionist archives, marked Z4/42436, "Politics; various correspondence regarding the defence of Palestine." It seems to have been a compilation of memoranda from different officials. The condition of the original pages suggests that they may have been illicitly obtained carbon copies (see facsimile of first page). To our knowledge, this document has not been published by the British Government and it has not been posted elsewhere on the Web.

Ami Isseroff

General Resources on the History of Israel, Zionism and the Jews

This document is part of the historical documents collection at the Zionism and Israel Information Center


Copyright

This introduction is copyright 2008 by Ami Isseroff and Zionism-Israel Information Center. The Web version of this document  should be credited to ZIonism-Israel.com.  The source document below is in the public domain.


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Mr. Shuckburgh.

It appears to be common knowledge in the Middle East Department that the Jews in Palestine are gun-running and are secretly arming themselves,, but it is not generally known to what extent they have been successful, or to what extent they will now be in a position to defend themselves against an attack by the Arabs, I am, however, able to state that an Arab attack on any of the larger colonies in Palestine will now be met by machine gun fire.

In 1919 little effort was made by the Jews to arm themselves, for they had complete confidence in the ability of the Palestine Government to defend them. There was certainly no organised gun-running at that period, though individuals were in the habit of smuggling arms into the country for their own personal protection. After the Jewish riots at Jerusalem during Easter 1920 it was thought by the Jews that they were receiving inadequate protection, and further: that the Zionist movement was receiving but little sympathy from the military administration.

The removal of the military administration and the substitution of a civil government under a High Commissioner retarded confidence in the administration, but the recent outbreak at Jaffa has again convinced the Jews that the protection of their lives and property is inadequately provided for by the Government. This has finally led to organised gun-running and the importation of machine guns. It, more-over, appears that the Jewish idea that they are inadequately protected is no empty suspicion. No less authorities than the G.O.C.E.E.F [Apparently - General Officer Commanding Egyptian Expeditionary Force, usually abbreviated GOC EEF now] and Colonel Lawrence have stated that they look with alarm on a general Arab rising in Palestine as they fear it will lead to a Jewish massacre on a large scale. We cannot then blame the Jews for coming independently to the same conclusion as officers whose ideas on such matters carry considerable weight.

The dact [fact] that there will be future outbreaks against the Jews if we persist in our Zionist policy cannot be argued. Whatever agreement


2.

we reach in London with the Moslem Christian Delegation it will not be ratified by the people of Palestine unless it suits them to do so, and as the extreme Arab element is committed to killing the Zionist policy we must reasonably expect further outbreaks. The Jews, more-over, certainly anticipate it.

Up to the present the Arabs have been the law-breakers. I concede however, that the Jews have in many instances been provoking. nut their action has till now been constitutional, whereas that of the Arabs has been unconstitutional. The Arab argument has always resulted in violence which the Jews have as yet been unable to meet.

It is presumed that His Majesty's Government does not contemplate abandoning the Zionist policy in the face of Arab violence or threats of violence. Recent events on the contrary, have, still further tended to confirm His Majesty's Government in their determination to carry out the Zionist policy. But the Zionists are asked to go slow. What is intended by this? It is now nearly three years since the Great War stopped. What progress has been made towards helping the Jews to establish a National Home in Palestine? They have been continually asked to go slow which in practice has means stagnation. During this period the Zionist machine has grown to such proportions that it cannot go slow without fear of collapse. To go slow with a machine whose very life is to build up and progress is to ask that machine to disintegrate. Thus, in perpetually asking the Zionists to go slow we are killing the Zionist idea, and making it impossible for them to carry out their principles. This, to my mind, has been brought about by lack of normal courage to face an obstruction, namely Arab hostility towards Zionism, an obstruction which is borne of ignorance and perversity.

To summarise the foregoing remarks -

(1). The Jews are afforded inadequate protection in Palestine.

(2). Zionism is being killed by our request that they should go slow, which is tantamount to asking them to abandon their project.


3.

(3). His Majesty's Government is still determined to adhere to the Balfour Declaration, which contemplates more than merely allowing the Jews to settle in Palestine.

(4). The Arab has learnt that violence on his part constituted a check on Zionist progress, and it is the Arab threat of violence which has constantly induced us to ask the Zionists to go sloe.

(5). The fact that the Zionists have made little headway in. Palestine is due to their complying with our request to go slow. This has had the effect of adding to the suspicion, held by many, that Zionism cannot succeed - a tocsin which has spread in Palestine and the United Kingdom, and which has done untold harm to their cause.

(6). The Zionists are gradually losing confidence in His Majesty's Government and the Palestine administration.

(7). The Zionists are determined not to allow their policy to die and in self defence are arming themselves. Thus have great national ideas expressed themselves and the normal course of such expression is patent to all who have studied history.

In dealing with the Zionists, it is not realised by many that we are dealing with a people who are not going back and with an idea which will live. We have already given them a great gift and they will not allow us to deprive them of its meaning.

Prom this it is apparent that both His Majesty's Government and the Zionists are determined to apply Zionism to Palestine, but the former are so far unwilling to face Arab obstruction, whereas the latter are boldly prepared to overcome it.

This constitutes a lamentable state of affairs, which can only terminate by all interested parties losing confidence in His Majesty's Government.

But the immediate prompting of this memorandum is to deal with only one aspect, the illegal Zionist gun-running into Palestine. There are three ways of dealing with it:


4.

(1). To ignore it.

(2). To actively put a stop to it.

(3). To recognise and legalise it.

To ignore a fact of such far reaching consequences is to acknowledge impotence. Moreover we are not justified in taking such invertebrate action. To ignore implies official ignorance and yet connivance. I would strongly advise against such an attitude being adopt.

The second course is to openly remove such a slur on our administration in Palestine.

Are we in a position to compel? I doubt it. The effect on the Arab mind would be one of supreme elation, that their rivals have been found out in a game which both sides are playing. To the Jewish mind it would lead to hopeless desperation. Moreover it would be impossible at this stage to eradicate the results of six months organised gun-running. A general search for arms and the inevitable discovery of arms would only add density to an already over-charged political atmosphere. Even if we were largely successful in stopping gun-running the causes which led to such action do not disappear, and the motive for such action remains.

The third course is to recognise gun-running and legalise it, until such time as we can adequately protect the Jews in Palestine by some efficient gendarmeries or police; or by developing their own organisations into a Police Reserve, as has already been contemplated. The cry "arming the Jews" would of course be hoard throughout Palestine but the Arabs have brought such action on themselves. Outbreaks will occur, but they will automatically cease almost at once, for the Arabs will be the aggressors, which will place Government forces on the side which is trying to protect itself. And by recognising gun-running the Government will be able to allow for the first time its forces to march hand in hand with its policy. By this I do not intend that Zionism should be thrust on Palestine at the point of British bayonets.


5.

I do, however, intend that Zionism in its initial stages shall be protected by the Power who has called it into being.

In this paper I am not going into details of schemes which require departmental discussion. But 1 am convinced that if we take the Zionist Leaders into our confidence, tell them we are prepared to legalise the illegal traffic for which purpose we must ask their co-operation, we shall be in a position, not only to provide an adequate defense for the Jews in Palestine, but it will enable us to graft on to these village organisations a more permanent and efficient force which, by its very existence will render impossible an Arab attack, and will once and for all remove the Arab threat which now obstructs Zionist progress in Palestine and jeopardises the lives of those pioneers of Zionism already domiciled in that country,

In the event of your concurrence, I should recommend that, discussing the matter within the Middle East Department, the Secretary of State authorises you to approach Sir H. Samuel with a  view to Dr. Weizman and a military officer visiting Palestine, to formulate detailed plans and carry them out.

I am not aware to what extent the Palestine Administration is cognisant of Zionist gun - running. The War Office have only a vague and incomplete idea of what is going on.

Original document facsimile (first page):


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