Bygone Days: Meeting on the Hill of Evil Counsel

On Succot 1937, Government House was occupied by High Commissioner Sir Arthur Grenfell Wauchope.

Hill evil counsel (photo credit: David Harris)
Hill evil counsel
(photo credit: David Harris)
In southeast Jerusalem there is a rise called the Hill of Evil Counsel, and on its flat top there is a site called the Field of Blood, so named because it was purchased with the 30 pieces of silver - the blood money - which Judas reportedly received for betraying Jesus. Here, on that spot, where the panorama of Jerusalem is at its most spectacular, stands Government House, a colonial pile built at a time when it was assumed that the very appearance of a residence of a representative of the British Crown had to proclaim the majesty of the Throne. [Today it serves as a UN headquarters, and is bordered by East Talpiot]. On the festival of Succot 1937 it was occupied by High Commissioner Sir Arthur Grenfell Wauchope, a moderate, solid, reasonable and utterly phlegmatic Englishman who, while ostensibly governing the country on behalf of the League of Nations for the creation of a Jewish National Home, was actually running it as a colony of the Empire. And, in so doing, he found himself facing an escalating Arab antagonism that expanded in direct proportion to the expansion of Jewish immigration. At the time in question, Jews were desperately fleeing Hitler's Germany and Sir Arthur, having tolerated a significant influx, found he was grasping thistles and thorns that were daggers to the touch. WHITEHALL, intensely rattled by the situation, resolved to settle the Palestine question once and for all by establishing a royal commission of enquiry headed by one Lord Peel. His probes raised a raft of questions, impelling David Ben-Gurion, then political head of the Palestine Jewish community, to seek an urgent meeting with Sir Arthur Wauchope. "Happy Succot," beamed the High Commissioner from behind the solid protection of his oak desk in his vast study as Ben-Gurion was ushered in. "Wherever I go I see lots of pretty little booths. Take a seat. Ah, here's the tea." An orderly carrying a tray of silver and china had entered. "Pour for us, Reggie," said the high commissioner heartily. And then, "You've met my orderly, Reggie? Know how I got him? I was in Mesopotamia and a bloody brigand slashed me with a knife - right across the buttocks. I fell straight into Reggie's arms and he's been with me ever since. Right, Reggie?" "Yes, sir," said the dour orderly solemnly, pouring the tea with fastidious care. SITTING OPPOSITE each other across the expanse of the titanic desk, the two principals presented a striking study in contrasts. David Ben-Gurion, squat, short, pugnacious, with beetling eyebrows and white tufts of hair, was dressed in an open-necked khaki shirt and tan cotton trousers, wrinkled and baggy. Sir Arthur, a tall slim man, with a long, creased face topped by gray hair combed straight back and parted down the middle, Edwardian-style, was attired in a dapper Prince of Wales pearl-gray linen jacket with a waistcoat to match. "Now, how can I help you?" Wauchope began, knowing full well he was about to engage in a tricky egg dance in his attempt to placate Jew and Arab alike. "You can help me by further increasing the rate of Jewish immigration from Nazi Germany," answered Ben-Gurion gravely. "Their situation is intolerable. Everybody wants the Jews out, nobody wants them in." The high commissioner's expression went somber. "His Majesty's Government is cognizant of their predicament," he said. "In 1933 when Herr Hitler came to power, there were 234,000 Jews in this country. Now, in September 1937, we have" - he opened a folder and ran a finger down a column - "we have 431,000. That's almost double the number, and I think that's jolly good going. Truth to tell, my dear fellow," he beamed with sudden gusto, "Palestine is filling up so fast there soon won't be room to swing a cat. "In fact, I would say we've pretty well carried out our mandate, don't you think? The Jewish National Home already exists. You surely can't ask us to do much more than that." The Zionist leader gave the high commissioner an I-don't-believe-it stare, and retorted, "That, Sir Arthur, is ludicrous. There's no such thing as an end to building a national home. The job is never done. Every immigrant carries in his suitcase jobs for 10 more." "Well, I'm sorry you take it that way," retorted the high commissioner, "because I have to tell you in all candor that my foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, has cabled me suggesting I've been overdoing it a bit." "Overdoing it?" Ben-Gurion's lips pressed into displeasure. "Oh, yes. In this last year alone we let in 62,000 Jews from Germany. And the point is, you would be doing me a great favor vis-a-vis my bosses in London if you'd agree to lay off for a while. Zionism would gain the favor of His Majesty's Government if your people took the initiative and offered to suspend immigration of your own free will - just for a while." "What on earth are you talking about?" Ben-Gurion was sitting at the edge of his chair, his face distorted with anger. "I mean, if you lay off for a while, the Arabs will end their violence, Parliament will stop asking fidgety questions, and I will be awfully indebted to you personally. What do you say?" "I say, preposterous!" exploded Ben-Gurion. SIR ARTHUR Wauchope's expression spread into deep disappointment. "Really - is that the best you can do? I mean to say, here am I putting forward an eminently reasonable case for a temporary immigration suspension, and here you are turning me down flat without even a pretense of reflection. All I'm asking for is a moratorium, no more." "And I tell you no such moratorium is possible," fumed Ben-Gurion. "Is a country an artificial thing that you can stop its growth by decree? Isn't it clear that stopping immigration means severe economic depression? Isn't it clear that the German Jews are in dire straits? And how will the Arabs be disarmed during this moratorium? And how will it be ensured there are no more riots? And how are the Arabs to be educated to future coexistence so that immigration may be renewed? "The idea is ludicrous. It's out of the question." Sir Arthur returned an expression of hurt innocence: "There's no need to be so caustic, old chap," he said. "All I'm suggesting is a bit of a breather." Slightly less prickly, Ben-Gurion said, "Sir Arthur, we recognize that you have been trying to do your best. But your government must understand: Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. You can't switch it on and off just like that. Zionism is a revolution of Jewish history. And a revolution is like riding a bicycle. If you stop, you'll fall off. We must not stop. We must not fall off." "I'm not telling you to fall off, old boy. I'm just suggesting you take your foot off the pedal for a while, that's all." "And I'm telling you the plight of the Jews in Germany is desperate. They must get out. The plight of the Jews in Poland is no less grave. They have been ground down for a century. Not one of them would understand our agreeing to stopping immigration at their expense." "They might if it stopped the bloodshed here in Palestine." Ben-Gurion lifted his chin, met the Crown representative's icy gaze, and, with unrestrained passion, fired off volley after volley: "What you are saying, sir, is intolerable. Your attitude is an invitation to disaster. Palestine is not yours to dispose of. It is not a British colony. It is not part of the British Empire. You are in Palestine by the grace of the League of Nations, which gave you the mandate to carry out the Balfour Declaration. That Declaration says you are to establish here a National Home for the Jewish people. Your task is to carry out that Declaration. If your government violates that pledge you will no longer have any moral right to govern this land. The heart and soul of the Balfour Declaration is Jewish immigration." "Sorry you take it that way," said the high commissioner coolly. "There is a limit to how many newcomers this country can take, and we're fast reaching that limit." Stupefied, Ben-Gurion, exclaimed, "And I'm telling you that by the time we've built up this land there will be room for millions." "Millions?" "Yes." "How many millions?" "Five, six, seven." "Jews?" "Yes." "And how many Arabs?" "By then about two million, I suppose." "So you envisage a time when this country will have a population of millions?" "I do. Allow us to bring in our people in the tens of thousands and our pioneers will turn this country into a gateway to Paradise." High Commissioner Wauchope regarded David Ben-Gurion with a cynical gaze, and said skeptically: "I am well aware your pioneers are a Hymn to Nature, but I would hardly call this terrain a gateway to Paradise. It has insufficient water to begin with. It's half desert." "True, but let me tell you what we are going to do with this half desert." David Ben-Gurion leaned across the desk, palms fisted, chest out, a fire of zeal in his eyes and a thrill of elation in his voice. "The origin of the word Paradise, Sir Arthur, is the Hebrew word, pardess - a watered grove. And our pioneers will yet create a wonderful pardess out of this desert." The Zionist leader leaned back with excessive satisfaction, and the British colonial official's eyebrows were markedly arched when he chirruped, "Now, I don't wish to sound disrespectful, but hyperbole is fine for speech-making, not for policy-making - unless, of course, you believe in miracles." David Ben-Gurion rose to leave. Gravely, he said, "High Commissioner, there are two comments I wish to make before I go." "And what are they?" "One is, we shall fight you tooth and nail on the immigration issue. For us it is a matter of life or death." "And the other?" A sudden twinkle sparkled in the Old Man's eyes. "What you said about believing in miracles - it's a valid point. In this country if you don't believe in miracles, you're not a realist." The writer is a veteran diplomat.