David Samuel, First Israeli Member of the House of Lords, 1922–2014

Not many people can claim to have met Einstein and Ghandi, consulted about his future with Chaim Weizman and received an OBE with Elton John.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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The wedding of David Samuel's parents, Edwin and Hadassah Samuel.Credit: WZO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The life story of Professor David Samuel, 3rd Viscount Samuel of Mount Carmel — whose name reveals his lineage — reads like a suspense story or a tale of adventure: stormy, extraordinary and unique.

Samuel, grandson of the first British high commissioner in pre-state Israel, Herbert Samuel, from whom he inherited his title, managed in his life to be the governor of the island of Sumatra during World War II, to study chemistry with Margaret Thatcher, develop weapons for Israel’s science corps, become a member of the British House of Lords, be appointed as dean of the chemistry faculty at the Weizmann Institute and establish the institute's neuroscience department.

David Samuel was born in 1922 in the Augusta Victoria compound on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, where his grandfather had taken up residence two years earlier as high commissioner. The historical meeting between Winston Churchill, then secretary of state for the colonies, High Commissioner Samuel, T. E. Lawrence and Emir Abdullah of Jordan about the future of the Land of Israel and the eastern side of the Jordan River, took place a year before David’s birth.

David’s parents came from important families. His father was Edwin Samuel, 2nd Viscount Samuel, Herbert Samuel’s son. His mother, Hadassah, was the daughter of Yehudah Gur (Grazovsky), one of the first settlers in Tel Aviv and a reviver of the Hebrew language. Hadassah later became the chairwoman of WIZO in Israel.

“In 1910, my grandfather began to be interested in the Jews’ problems in Europe, and reached the conclusion that Britain ought to conquer the Land of Israel and give it to the Jews," David Samuel said subsequently, while sharing testimonies with the National Library of Israel's Toldot Yisrael project. "He wrote several pages about this idea to the prime minister at that time. The plan went through the cabinet, and almost every member wrote: ‘Samuel is crazy; an unrealistic idea; he ought to forget about it.’”

Balfour Declaration

The idea of establishing a Jewish state resurfaced during World War I. “The trio — Weizmann, Balfour and my grandfather — managed to get the Balfour Declaration passed in parliament. There were many problems, but it passed in the end,” Samuel said, during a filmed interview at Beit Hapalmach.

“In 1920, Prime Minister Lloyd George told my grandfather, ‘Maybe you’ll go to see whether it’s worthwhile to do something about that state.’ My grandfather went for several weeks, said that there was an interesting population here, very agricultural on the various kibbutzim, and Jews in cities — most of them religiously observant; and suggested that they try to make a Jewish state out of it.”

When Herbert Samuel was offered the position of the first high commissioner in pre-state Israel, he hesitated at first, fearing that his being Jewish would make it difficult to function in the position. “But they put pressure on him, and in the end he decided he ought to do it,” David Samuel said.

Edwin Samuel, Herbert’s son and David’s father, was born in London. He enlisted in the British army during World War I and was posted as an artillery officer to General Allenby’s headquarters in Egypt in 1917, before the conquest of Palestine. He married his wife Hadasssah, who he had met in Tel Aviv, in 1921. It was the wedding of the year.

David Samuel, who was born two years later, spent his childhood in the various places where his father, a clerk of the British Mandate, was stationed - Ramallah, Jaffa, Haifa — where he attended the Reali School — and Jerusalem, where he attended the Hebrew Gymnasia. As a boy, he met Albert Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi.

David was on vacation in England when World War II broke out on September 1, 1939. “They said that Britain had decided to go to war against the Germans because of their invasion of Poland,” he recalled. “My grandfather turned to me and said, ‘David, you can’t go home anymore. There won’t be any ships in the Mediterranean Sea. Do something. Go study in university,’” he said.

David began studying chemistry at Oxford in 1940 but interrupted his studies in 1942 to enlist in the army. He consulted with Chaim Weizmann, subsequently the first president of the State of Israel, about whether he should wait until the establishment of the Jewish Brigade or join the British army directly. In the end, he enlisted in the Artillery Corps, serving in India, Burma and Sumatra, where he became governor.

When the war ended, David Samuel returned to Britain to complete his studies. “They put me together with a young woman who had been an outstanding chemistry student in the school, but she wasn’t all that interested in the topic. Her name was Margaret Thatcher. We studied for examinations together.”

Talking science

It was during that time that he first heard about the Holocaust. He was sent to the DP camps in Germany and helped Holocaust survivors. “People used to come during the night, the remnants of what was left in Europe, to eat with us and then continue south, to the ports, where they boarded ships,” he recalled. He returned to Israel in 1948 and joined the army’s Science Corps in Rehovot, where he worked preparing mortar shells. From there, it was a short path to an academic career in science at the nearby Weizmann Institute. Later on, he became the dean of the chemistry department and, after advanced studies at some of the world’s leading universities, he established the neuroscience department. He made his transition from chemistry to neuroscience when he realized that, as he put it, he was “more interested in human beings.” He served in important and secret scientific positions during the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War.

When his father Edwin Samuel died in 1979, David inherited the title 3rd Viscount Samuel of Mount Carmel and Toxteth in the City of Liverpool. The title had been created for his grandfather, Herbert, in 1937. “A viscount is a good status in the middle. It’s not barons or just a lord, and it’s also not one of the high classes of the royal family or famous generals,” Samuel said.

The title gave him a new role — membership in the British House of Lords. His family says that he was the first and only Israeli to receive that honor. “I thought about looking into what went on in the House of Lords, out of curiosity. That institution operates only in the afternoon, three days a week. Not a great effort. They discuss all manner of things, serious and not serious, but it is what gives the stamp of approval to the laws that are discussed in the House of Commons,” he said later on. “I sat in the seat that my father and grandfather had sat in. A fairly comfortable place,” he added with humor.

The queen awarded him the Order of the British Empire in 1996 for his work in social and economic matters. (Elton John received his OBE on the same occasion. “What do you do? Can you make a living with that?” Elton John asked him as they stood together in line.)

David Samuel’s friend, Dr. Ran Aaronsohn, an expert in historical geography, recalled the tours they went on together, during which Samuel was “a living history of the Mandate Period.” “He remembered how the YMCA building and the King George Hotel were built, and the 1927 earthquake,” he said, adding that Samuel was a modest and quiet man. “He never mentioned the fact that he was a lord of his own initiative,” he said.

When Samuel retired at age 67, he was appointed president of the Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, a position he held for seven years. He then returned to the Weizmann Institute to do research in the field of memory. When he was asked several years ago for advice on improving memory, he said, “Not to worry — we all forget. One should remember only important things and write down what is necessary.”

David Samuel, who was married five times, is survived by his wife Ruti, his two daughters Yehudit and Naomi, six grandchildren and his brother, Dan.