This article is a tribute to Col. Richard Meinertzhagen, marking the 37th anniversary of his passing away on June 17, 1967. Like Orde Charles Wingate, JH Patterson and Wyndham Deedes, Richard Meinertzhagen made vital contributions towards Jewish Nationhood in Mandatory Palestine, and through his books he continues to inspire.
Since I first posted the tribute to Col. Meinertzhagen on June 17, 2002, Israel’s situation has deteriorated considerably. At that time, Bush had not yet delivered the speech in which he endorsed the creation of a “Palestinian” state in Yesha (June 24, 2002), and the Roadmap was merely a vague threat. Sharon's surrender plan was not even a concept. Now, the Roadmap is being rammed down Israel’s throat, with daily demands being made on her for concessions; Sharon's surrender plan is becoming a lethal reality with every passing day.
With this in mind, remembering Richard Meinertzhagen is doubly important, for it calls to mind how non-Jews of good will can, should and must help our besieged sister-democracy, Israel.
May the example of Richard Meinertzhagen inspire others.
A Thumbnail Sketch of Meinertzhagen’s life
Meinertzhagen’s Support for Zionism
A Personal Note
On December 3, 1947, four days after the UN voted in favour of partition in Palestine, Dr Chaim Weizmann cabled Col. Richard Meinertzhagen to say, “To you dear friend we owe so much that I can only express it in simple words - May God Bless You”.
In his autobiography (see “sources” at article’s end), Chaim Weizmann refers to Col. Meinertzhagen in four instances; in one of these, Weizmann states, “Whenever he [Richard Meinertzhagen] can perform a service for the Jews or Palestine [,] he will go out of his way to do so.”
Who was Richard Meinertzhagen and why the accolades from a top Zionist leader who would become the first president of Israel?
A Thumbnail Sketch of Meinerzhagen’s life
Richard Meinertzhagen was born to a prosperous, British family. To some, the name sounded Jewish, but as Meinertzhagen noted, “Maybe if I had Jewish blood in my veins, I might be more intelligent than I am; but there is none”.
Meinertzhagen aspired to become a scientist but had to submit to his father’s pressure and joined the family business at the age of 18. Six years later, he left the business to join the British army, became an intelligence officer, and rose to the rank of Colonel. In the course of his intelligence work, he experienced an encounter with anti-Semitism that left a lasting impression on him. In 1910, on his 32nd birthday, he was dining with the British Consul General in Odessa when a pogrom broke out. Meinertzhagen recorded in his diary:“I have been shocked beyond belief. I have seldom been so angry... I witnessed a Pogrom in the streets of Odessa... Russians, many with bludgeons or knives or axes, were rushing all over the place, breaking open barricaded doors and chasing the wretched Jews into the streets where they were hunted down, beaten and often killed... The climax arrived when a Russian passed the Consulate dragging a Jewish girl of about 12 years old by her hair along the gutter; she was screaming and the man was shouting. I have no doubt she would have been outraged and then murdered. I could not help it... I dashed out, kicked the Russian violently in the stomach with my heavy Russian boots and landed him a good blow on the jaw; he went down like a log and I carried the child into the Consulate... I am deeply moved by these terrible deeds and have resolved that whenever or wherever I can help the Jews, I shall do so to the best of my ability.”As luck would have it, the opportunity to keep his word came in the seven-year period, 1917-1924.
In May, 1917, Meinertzhagen arrived in Cairo to join General Allenby’s Intelligence Section. In this context he became acquainted with the realities of the Jewish settlement of Palestine and with the support given by the Jews to the Allies in World War I. His life-long support for Zionism started in this period. As for the Arab support for the Allies, On December 2, 1917, Meinertzhagen recorded as follows:“The Arabs of Ramleh gave us an amusing incident yesterday which accurately reflects their attitude towards us. A large batch of Turkish prisoners was being marched through the village but they were not preceded by their British Guard. The Arabs, thinking it was the return of the Turkish Army, turned out in force, yelling with delight and waving Turkish flags: it was not till the end of the column appeared and they saw British soldiers with fixed bayonets that they realized their mistake and great was their confusion.”Following Allenby’s capture of Jerusalem in December 1917, Meinertzhagen was assigned to the War Office in London, and subsequently became a member of the British Delegation to the Paris Peace Conference, with responsibility for the Middle East. This work brought him in close contact with Zionist leaders such as Weizmann and with Arab leaders such as Feisal, son of the Sheriff of Mecca and brother of King Abdullah I of Jordan.
Next came his nine-month assignment as Allenby’s Chief Political Officer, beginning in September, 1919, and spanning the period of the 1920 Arab riots against the Jews. As will be detailed in the next section, his crucial support for Palestine’s Jews against the overt anti-Semitism of the British administration, cost him his job.
Following this assignment, Meinertzhagen was appointed to the Colonial Office under Winston Churchill, where he encountered and documented the anti-Semitism of the Colonial Office and the extent of the British betrayal of Zionism. He quit the Colonial Office in March, 1924, to rejoin his regiment.
The British army had changed since Meinertzhagen departed in 1912, and he no longer felt at home. In 1926, at the age of 48, he decided, therefore, to resign his military commission and devote his time to “natural history” and travel. Indeed, he became famous as an amateur ornithologist, with books and an extensive collection to his credit. His retirement was interrupted during WW II, when, at the age of 61, he was recalled to the War Office and worked in intelligence planning. During that period Meinertzhagen also joined the Home Guard and participated in the Dunkirk evacuation.
His support for Zionism and his contact with Zionist leaders continued throughout his life, as did his friendship with Weizmann, until Weizmann’s death in November, 1952.
Meinertzhagen married in 1921 and fathered two sons and a daughter. His wife of seven years died in an accident in 1928, and his eldest son, Daniel, was killed in action in October, 1944. In 1964, reflecting on his life and on the world around him, Meinertzhagen wrote, according to his biographer, John Lord, “We are now entering a world if indecision, dishonesty and irresponsibility, a world I shall not be sorry to leave”. In 1967, at the age of 89, Col. Richard Meinertzhagen died, shortly after Israel’s decisive victory in the 1967 War.
Meinertzhagen’s Support for Zionism
As a public servant in the War Office, Meinertzhagen considered it his duty to execute the official British policy. At a meeting on February 7, 1918, he therefore queried Lord Balfour, the foreign minister, as to the meaning of the Balfour Declaration, which was issued only three months earlier. Meinhertzhagen recorded Balfour’s response and the subsequent discussion:“[Balfour:] ‘Both the Prime Minister [David Lloyd George] and myself have been influenced by a desire to give the Jews their rightful place in the world; a great nation without a home is not right.' I said I was glad to hear that. I then asked, 'At the back of your mind do you regard this declaration as a charter for ultimate Jewish sovereignty in Palestine or are you trying to graft a Jewish population on to an Arab Palestine?' Balfour waited some time before he replied, choosing his words carefully. 'My personal hope is that the Jews will make good in Palestine and eventually found a Jewish State. It is up to them now; we have given them their great opportunity’. “As Meinertzhagen soon observed, however, the “facts on the ground” were very different from the vision Balfour enunciated; the diary entry for 17 March 1918, eight months before the Allies’ victory, records:“There are already signs of serious anti-Semitism in Whitehall and efforts to stultify the Balfour Declaration.”By the time Meinertzhagen joined the British delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, he supported Zionism for more reasons than the Balfour Declaration being official British policy. On February 12, 1919 he recorded his reasons:“In the first place I regard the position of the Jews in the world mosaic of nations as most unsatisfactory. That a great people like the Jews should not have a house of their own is a monstrous injustice. They must not only have a home but it must be their own where they can exercise sovereign rights. Secondly, a contented prosperous Jewish people in Palestine would lend great strength to the British Empire in the Middle East.”In modern parlance, the second reason would be rephrased to mean that a Jewish state in the Middle East is a major asset to Western democracies, a point that many have not grasped to this day.
While at the Paris Peace Conference, Meinertzhagen was instrumental in drafting Feisal’s letter to Felix Frankfurter (a leading US Zionist), dated Mar 1, 1919; the letter stated, inter alia:“We Arabs, especially the educated among us, look with the deepest sympathy on the Zionist movement. Our deputation here in Paris is fully acquainted with the proposals submitted yesterday by the Zionist Organization to the Peace Conference, and we regard them as moderate and proper. We will do our best, in so far as we are concerned, to help them through: we will wish the Jews a most hearty welcome home.
“With the chief of your movement, especially with Dr Weizmann, we have had and continue to have the closest relations. He has been a great helper of our cause and I hope the Arabs may soon be in a position to make the Jews some return for their kindness. We are working together for a reformed and revived Near East, and our two movements complete one another.”
Meinertzhagen was soon to learn just how savagely the embryonic Jewish/Arab co-operation was sabotaged by the British officials in the Middle East. Within days of his work as Chief Political Advisor to General Allenby, Meinertzhagen learnt that the British military staff (who ran Palestine’s affairs) refused Weizmann entry into Palestine. Regarding this prohibition as “monstrous”, Meinertzhagen secured an explicit order from the Foreign Office to revoke the prohibition and Weizmann was allowed into Palestine.. This particular episode is also mentioned in Weizmann’s autobiography.
While foreshadowing events to come, this incident pales by comparison to the events that occurred just a few months later. In April 1920, during Easter week, Arab riots, instigated by some officials of the British military government, broke out. Upon investigation and verification, Meinertzhagen wrote to inform the Foreign Office on April 14, 1920; in his own words:“I recorded that the officers of the administration are, almost without exception, anti-Zionist in their views and are encouraging the Arabs. Zionism is being brought into the world as a discontented child, accustomed only to trouble and disappointments.... The Arabs are encouraged and imagine that by acts of violence they can sabotage Zionism... It was known that Easter is the season of disturbances. It was known that the police were untrustworthy... The aftermath of these events is typical. The Moslems formally demanded the removal of the Zionist Commission...”.
Meinertzhagen went on to record the details of the British perfidy: Col. Waters-Taylor of Allenby’s staff was in contact with haj Amin el Husseini (later the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and a Nazi collaborator), and encouraged him to use the Easter occasion to show the world that Palestine’s Muslims will not tolerate the Zionists. Waters-Taylor explained that if the disturbances were sufficiently violent, Allenby would use them to advocate the abandonment of the “Jewish National Home”. To ensure the riots took place, Waters-Taylor even informed Husseini that the Jews intended to assassinate him.
Essentially, Meinertzhagen, a colonel, accused the staff of his superior, General Allenby, of contravening the official British policy of support for Zionism. The consequences, which Meinertzhagen had foreseen, were a compliment for his honesty, and dismissal for his insubordination; both occurred the very next day. In the course of sacrificing his career to support the Zionist enterprise, Meinertzhagen succeeded in convincing London to terminate the military administration in Palestine and install a civil government with Herbert Samuel as High Commissioner. In his diary, Meinertzhagen wrote:“Allenby clamoured for my removal and I go, but meanwhile I have done what I set out to do, namely, I have set Zionism up in Palestine against a solid block of local opposition... Both the War Office and the Foreign Office tried to uphold me but Allenby’s threat to resign forced them to recall me and abolish my appointment... However, I achieved my objective... The military administration fell... Palestine is freed from the anti-Zionist policy of its enemies... Zionism is forever rooted in the soil of the Holy Land... Zionism need not waste its thanks on British Officials out here. They have all worked against it, hoping to crush it at its birth...”.Subsequently, working in London for the Colonial Office, Meinertzhagen remained in contact with the affairs of Palestine and Zionism. In particular, the British mandate over Palestine had to sail through the machinations of the League of Nations, a voyage that ended only on 22 July 1922. On this occasion he observed:“I am more pleased than I can say at the passing of the Mandate. It will once and for all convince the Arabs and their English friends that the Zionist policy has come to stay and that all their obstruction has been of no avail”.Many years later Meinertzhagen reflected:“The Balfour Declaration grants to the Jews a right to establish their national home in Palestine. Every obstacle has been placed in their way by successive British Governments. Then Churchill in 1921 hands over Transjordan, an integral part of Palestine, to an Arab sheikh who is made a 'king'. Then Bevin, unable to keep order in Palestine and influenced by anti-Semitism in his office, scuttles out of Palestine leaving the Jews at the mercy of six Arab States who promptly invade Palestine and attempt what Bevin wished, to drive the Jews into the sea. Israel had to fight for her life in 1948, and lost much land including the whole of eastern Palestine, Old Jerusalem and the Gaza strip.”During the period 1945-1948, the Jewish underground was engaged in a war against the British government. Underground fighters who were caught were subject to capital punishment, and in one case the underground kidnapped two British sergeants as hostages against further executions of their men. In July 1947, the British executed three more underground fighter and the underground made good on its threat by executing the two kidnapped sergeants. Torn between loyalties, Meinhertzhagen observed:“I am terribly sorry for those two men who only did their duty and I am terribly sorry for our soldiers in Palestine who have to carry out this revolting policy of the Government. The real men responsible for the killing of those two sergeants are the politicians who sit in Downing Street, the Government of this country and ultimately the British public. All my sympathy is with the Jews who have been driven by apathy, anti-Semitism and broken promises into a state of exasperation. If I were a Jew I should be a terrorist, a violent one, and I would aim at Whitehall”.As the Israeli war of independence ended and Israel prevailed, Meinertzhagen greeted her triumph thus:“But thank God I have lived to see the birth of Israel. It is one of the greatest historical events of the last 2,000 years and thank God I have been privileged to assist in a small way this great event which, I am convinced, will bring benefit to mankind”.
During the years 1949-1956, Israel was subjected to terrorist attacks to which she responded with reprisals. Meinertzhagen was not blind to these developments and commented in his diary entry of 18 October 1953:“On the night of the l4th, some Israeli troops raided into Jordan and beat up the villages of Qibya and Shuqba; ... forty-two men, women and children were killed and some forty houses destroyed. This is most deplorable but I can quite understand the factors which had led Israel to take such drastic action. Raids by Arabs from Jordan into Israel during the past four years have led to the murder of nearly 500 Jews and the theft of much valuable property. Neither the Jordan Government nor the Mixed Armistice Commission have been able to control or check these raids into Israel who was left no other course but to teach the Arabs a lesson...”
When the 1956 Suez/Sinai war broke out, the 79-year old Meinertzhagen was following the events carefully, his heart with Israel. His diary comment on October 29, 1956 reads:“Israel has launched an offensive against Egypt, penetrating far into Sinai... Well done Israel! I am delighted and thrilled... I hope Israel will go forward”.
In the following months, Israel was subjected to brutal pressure to withdraw unconditionally, i.e., with no security guaranties. In his diary entry of January 19, 1957, Meinertzhagen commented on this injustice:“When Egypt flouted the United Nations and closed the Canal and the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping, though this constituted an act of aggression, no action was taken, and when the Egyptian Government trained and used bands of fedayeen (bandits) to raid and murder in Israel, the United Nations did nothing.”
In February, 1957, as the pressure increased, Meinertzhagen observed:“...every device of pressure is being used to rob Israel of the safety which her army recently won for her in Sinai... I am sick of the whole business which distresses me acutely”.
In June 1957, shortly after Israel withdrew from Sinai and Egypt walked into Gaza in defiance of the agreement with the UN, Meinertzhagen reflected:“For many years the West has made the error of thinking Arab friendship can be gained by political appeasement with economic and military gifts and loans. This glaring fallacy has been exposed on many occasions but the policy persists... No amount of appeasement will make any Arab State love us; they hate us; but worse, they despise us. We should not mind hatred, but we can make them respect us”.
These very words apply today too. In fact, reading through Meinertzhagen’s published diaries, one is constantly aware of deja vu. This is perhaps the most important and the saddest conclusion one comes to on the 36th anniversary of his death.
A Personal Note
It is quite inappropriate that I interject into this tribute to Col. Meinertzhagen a personal note, akin to “Me and Meinertzhagen” of primary school days. And yet, I cannot conclude without underscoring the impact that Col. Meinertzhagen’s ”Diary” (see reference below) on my own education. At the end of July 2000, after Arafat had walked out on the peace offer submitted by then Prime Minister Barak, I embarked on researching the Middle East conundrum. Seeking initially works by non-Jewish and non-Arab authors, I came across Meinertzhagen’s Diary. Quite apart from the information imparted, I was deeply inspired by the author’s attachment to the Zionist project, and I have never ceased quoting his words,
“But thank God I have lived to see the birth of Israel. It is one of the greatest historical events of the last 2,000 years and thank God I have been privileged to assist in a small way this great event which, I am convinced, will bring benefit to mankind”.
In this respect, I concur with one correspondent who wrote to me, “From my readings elsewhere I believe you are by no means the only reader who’s been similarly inspired by "Middle East Diary", and for that alone RM deserves to be applauded. In that respect he has done and continues to do good works for the Zionist effort.”
Most of this piece is based primarily on the following two sources:
Meinertzhagen, Richard. Middle East Diary. London: Cresset Press, 1959;
Lord, John. Duty, Honour, Empire. New York: Random House, 1970.
The first book consists of entries culled form the 70 volumes that Col. Meinertzhagen had compiled by 1958.
The citations from Weizmann’s autobiography were culled from:
Weizmann, Chaim. Trial and Error. New York: Harper, 1949.
It is more than obvious that autobiographies, as well as biographies, are based on agenda, and absolute fidelity to historical facts may or may not be one of the items on the agenda. In fact, following up on one particular detail, the origin of the Meinertzhagen family, I was made aware by the family members currently living in Britain, that the family originated in Germany, and not in Denmark, as stated by both Richard Meinertzhagen and Chaim Weizmann. The case of the family origin confirms the obvious: facts have to be verified through independent sources and the reasons for the inaccuracies must be explored. In fact, the reasons for this inaccurate claim are interesting , though less than significant for the purpose of outlining Richard Meinertzhagen’s contribution to the Zionist endeavour. Meinertzhagen’s “Diary” remains an inspiring document even if many of the details cannot be verified.
Several Web sites provided additional material. A Google search under “Richard Meinertzhagen” yields a rich crop of such sites.
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