Herbert Samuel, 1st Viscount Samuel

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Herbert Louis Samuel, 1st Viscount Samuel

Hebrew: הרברט סמואל, 1st Viscount Samuel
Birthdate: (92)
Birthplace: Liverpool, Lancashire, England
Death: February 02, 1963 (92)
Place of Burial: Willesden United Synagogue Cemetery, Willesden, Greater London, England
Immediate Family:

Son of Edwin Louis Samuel and Clara Samuel
Husband of Beatrice Miriam Samuel, Viscountess Samuel
Father of Edwin Samuel, 2nd Viscount Samuel; Private; Private and Nancy Adelaide Salaman
Brother of Dennis Edwin Samuel; Gilbert Ellis Samuel; Mabel Henrietta Spielmann and Stuart Montagu Samuel

Managed by: Michael Lawrence Rhodes
Last Updated:

About Herbert Samuel, 1st Viscount Samuel

Herbert Louis Samuel, 1st Viscount Samuel GCB OM GBE PC (6 November 1870 – 5 February 1963) was a British Liberal politician who was the party leader from 1931-35. He was the first nominally practising Jew to serve as a Cabinet minister and to become the leader of a major British political party (although he was noted for his personal atheism), and so far the last member of the Liberal Party to hold one of the four Great Offices of State. He also served as a diplomat.

Herbert Samuel was born at Claremont No. 11 Belvidere Road, Toxteth, Liverpool, Lancashire, in 1870. The building now houses part of the Belvedere Academy. He was the brother of Sir Stuart Samuel. He was educated at University College School in Hampstead, London and Balliol College, Oxford. He had a religious Jewish upbringing but in 1892 while at Oxford he renounced all religious belief, and wrote to his Jewish mother to inform her. He had been influenced by the work of Charles Darwin and the book On Compromise by senior Liberal politician John Morley. However, he remained a member of the Jewish community to please his wife, and kept kosher and the Sabbath "for hygienic reasons."

Samuel unsuccessfully fought two general elections before being elected a Member of Parliament at the Cleveland by-election, 1902, as a member of the Liberal Party. He was appointed to the Cabinet in 1909 by Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, first as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and then later as Postmaster General, President of the Local Government Board, and eventually Home Secretary. He put forward the idea of establishing a British Protectorate over Palestine in 1915 and his ideas influenced the Balfour Declaration. As Home Secretary, Samuel faced a shortage of manpower needed to fight in World War I, and initiated legislation which offered thousands of Russian refugees (many of them young Jews) a choice between conscription into the British Army, or returning to Russia for military service.

In December 1916 Asquith was replaced as Prime Minister by Lloyd George. Lloyd George asked Samuel to continue as Home Secretary, but Samuel chose to resign instead. He attempted to strike a balance between giving support to the new government while remaining loyal to Asquith. At the end of the war he sought election at the general election of 1918 as a Liberal in support of the Coalition government. However, the government's endorsement was given to his Unionist opponent and he was defeated.

Women's rights

Initially he had not been a supporter of women's suffrage but changed his position. In 1917 a Speakers Conference was charged with looking into giving women the vote but did not have as its terms of reference, consideration to women standing as candidates for parliament. However, Samuel moved a separate motion on 23 October 1918 to allow women to be eligible as Members of Parliament. The vote was passed by 274 to 25 and the government rushed through a Bill to make it law in time for the 1918 General Election.

Appointment as High Commissioner of Palestine

Two months after Britain's declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire in November 1914, Samuel circulated a memorandum entitled The Future of Palestine to his cabinet colleagues, suggesting that Palestine become a home for the Jewish people under the British Rule. The memorandum stated that "I am assured that the solution of the problem of Palestine which would be much the most welcome to the leaders and supporters of the Zionist movement throughout the world would be the annexation of the country to the British Empire".

In 1917, Britain occupied Palestine (then part of the Ottoman Empire) during the course of the First World War. Samuel lost his seat in the election of 1918 and became a candidate to represent British interests in the territory. He was appointed to the position of High Commissioner in 1920, before the Council of the League of Nations approved a British mandate for Palestine. Nonetheless, the military government withdrew to Cairo in preparation for the expected British Mandate, which was finally granted 2 years later by the League of Nations. He served as High Commissioner until 1925 . Samuel was the first Jew to govern the historic land of Israel in 2,000 years. He recognised Hebrew as one of the three official languages of the Mandate territory. He was appointed Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE) on 11 June 1920.

Samuel's appointment to High Commissioner of Palestine was controversial. While the Zionists welcomed the appointment of a Zionist Jew to the post, the military government, headed by Allenby and Bols, called Samuel's appointment "highly dangerous". Technically, Allenby noted, the appointment was illegal, in that a civil administration that would compel the inhabitants of an occupied country to express their allegiance to it before a formal peace treaty (with Turkey) was signed, was in violation of both military law and the Hague Convention. Bols said the news was received with '(c)onsternation, despondency and exasperation' by the Moslem [and] Christian population ... They are convinced that he will be a partisan Zionist and that he represents a Jewish and not a British Government.' Allenby said that the Arabs would see it as "as handing country over at once to a permanent Zionist Administration" and predicted numerous degrees of violence. Lord Curzon read this last message to Samuel and asked him to reconsider accepting the post. (Samuel took advice from a delegation representing the Zionists which was in London at the time, who told him that these 'alarmist' reports were not justified. Samuel's memoirs, p. 152.) The Muslim-Christian Association had sent a telegram to Bols:

'Sir Herbert Samuel regarded as a Zionist leader, and his appointment as first step in formation of Zionist national home in the midst of Arab people contrary to their wishes. Inhabitants cannot recognise him, and Muslim-Christian Society cannot accept responsibility for riots or other disturbances of peace'.

The wisdom of appointing Samuel was debated in the House of Lords a day before he arrived in Palestine. Lord Curzon said that no 'disparaging' remarks had been made during the debate, but that 'very grave doubts have been expressed as to the wisdom of sending a Jewish Administrator to the country at this moment'. Questions in the House of Commons of the period also show much concern about the choice of Samuel, asking amongst other things 'what action has been taken to placate the Arab population ... and thereby put an end to racial tension'. Three months after his arrival, the Morning Post wrote that 'Sir Herbert Samuel's appointment as High Commissioner was regarded by everyone, except Jews, as a serious mistake.'

Historic plaque on King George Street, Jerusalem, affixed in 1924 by Herbert Samuel during his term as High Commissioner of Palestine

T. E. Lawrence (a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia) with Sir Herbert Samuel, Sheik Majid Pasha el Adwan (at far right) and Gertrude Bell (at left) at the aerodrome of Amman, April 1921

High Commissioner of Palestine

As High Commissioner, Samuel attempted to mediate between Zionist and Arab interests, acting to slow Jewish immigration and win the confidence of the Arab population. He hoped to gain Arab participation in mandate affairs and to guard their civil and economic rights, while at the same time refusing them any authority that could be used to stop Jewish immigration and land purchase. According to Wasserstein his policy was "subtly designed to reconcile Arabs to the [...] pro-Zionist policy" of the British. Islamic custom at the time was that the chief Islamic spiritual leader, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, was to be chosen by the temporal ruler, the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople, from a group of clerics that were nominated by the indigenous clerics. After the British conquered Palestine, Samuel chose Hajj Amin Al Husseini, who later proved a thorn in the side of the British administration in Palestine. At the same time, he enjoyed the respect of the Jewish community, and was honored by being called to the Torah at the Hurva synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem.

During Samuel’s administration the White Paper of 1922 was published, supporting Jewish immigration within the absorptive capacity of the country and defining the Jewish national homeland as “not the imposition of a Jewish nationality upon the inhabitants of Palestine as a whole, but the further development of the existing Jewish community, with the assistance of Jews in other parts of the world, in order that it may become a centre in which the Jewish people as a whole may take, on grounds of religion and race, an interest and a pride.”

Samuel won the confidence of all sections of the population by his noted "impartiality." He struck a particularly strong relationship with Pinhas Rutenberg, granting him exclusive concessions to produce and distribute electricity in Palestine and Trans-Jordan and often strongly backing Rutenberg in his relations with the Colonial Office in London.

Samuel government signed the Ghor-Mudawarra Land Agreement with the Baysan Valley bedouin tribes, that earmarked for transfer 179,545 Dunams of state land to the Bedouin.

Samuel's role in Palestine is still debated. According to Wasserstein, "He is remembered kindly neither by the majority of Zionist historians, who tend to regard him as one of the originators of the process whereby the Balfour Declaration in favour of Zionism was gradually diluted and ultimately betrayed by Great Britain, nor by Arab nationalists who regard him as a personification of the alliance between Zionism and British imperialism and as one of those responsible for the displacement of the Palestinian Arabs from their homeland. In fact, both are mistaken."

Return to Britain

On his return to Britain in 1925, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin asked Samuel to look into the problems of the mining industry. The Samuel Commission published its report in March 1926 recommending that the industry be reorganised but rejecting the suggestion of nationalisation. The report also recommended that the Government subsidy should be withdrawn and the miners' wages should be reduced. The report was one of the leading factors that led to the 1926 General Strike.

Vera Weizmann, Chaim Weizmann, Herbert Samuel, Lloyd George, Ethel Snowden and Philip Snowden Samuel returned to the House of Commons following the 1929 General Election. Two years later he became deputy leader of the Liberal Party and acted as leader in the summer of 1931 when Lloyd George was ill. Under Samuel the party served in the first National Government of Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald formed in August 1931, with Samuel himself serving as Home Secretary. However the government's willingness to consider the introduction of protectionist tariffs and to call a general election to seek a mandate led to the Liberal Party fragmenting into three distinct groups. Sir John Simon had already led a breakaway group of MPs to form the Liberal National party.

The Liberal leader, Lloyd George, led a small group of Independent Liberals who decided to oppose the National Government. This left Samuel effectively as leader of the parliamentary party and in control of party headquarters. The government's moves to introduce tariffs caused further friction for the Liberals and Samuel withdrew the party from the government in stages, first obtaining the suspension of cabinet collective responsibility on the matter to allow Liberal members of the government to oppose tariffs, then in October 1932 the Liberal ministers resigned their ministerial posts but continued to support the National Government in Parliament, and finally in November 1933 Samuel and the bulk of the Liberal MPs crossed the floor of the House of Commons to now oppose the government outright. He remained leader of the Liberal Party until he again lost his seat in 1935.

In 1937, he was granted the title Viscount Samuel; later that year, Samuel, despite being born into a Jewish family, aligned himself with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's appeasement policy towards Adolf Hitler and urged that Germany be cleared of its 1914 war guilt and recommending the return of German colonies lost after the war. He declined a later offer by Chamberlain to return to government. In 1938, he supported the Kindertransport movement for refugee children from Europe with an appeal for homes for them.

Samuel later became the leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Lords (1944-1955). During the 1951 general election, on 15 October 1951, Samuel became the first British politician to deliver a party political broadcast on television.

His son, Edwin, served in the Jewish Legion.

Literary career

In his later years, he remained concerned over the future of humanity and of science, writing three books: "Essays in Physics" (1951), "In Search of Reality" (1957) and a collaborative work, "A Threefold Cord: Philosophy, Science, Religion" (1961). The three works tended to conflict with the beliefs of the scientific establishment, especially as his collaborator and friend in the last work was Herbert Dingle.


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Herbert Samuel, 1st Viscount Samuel's Timeline

November 6, 1870
Liverpool, Lancashire, England
September 11, 1898
Age 27
London, Middlesex, England
June 24, 1906
Age 35
Paddington, Greater London, England, United Kingdom
February 2, 1963
Age 92
Willesden United Synagogue Cemetery, Willesden, Greater London, England