Discerning Conqueror

As governor of Jerusalem during the British Mandate, Sir Ronald Storrs left a lasting imprint on the city and made changes that still resonate today. His legacy comes alive in a new exhibition at the Eretz Israel Museum

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

"I would have given my soul to be there," Ronald Storrs, who was then in Cairo, wrote in his diary when he learned that Jerusalem had been captured and General Edmund Allenby would officially enter the gates of the city on December 9, 1917. Six days later, Storrs was asked to come to Jerusalem and help with the administration of the city, on the basis of his diplomatic skills and his experience as a senior British official in the Middle East. General William Borton was appointed governor, but within two weeks he collapsed under the burden of the post. Summing up his ultra-brief tenure, Borton told Storrs that "the only tolerable places in Jerusalem [are] bath and bed." Storrs, who succeeded him, became the first Christian governor of "Zion" since Crusader times. On December 28, 1917, Storrs described his surprise appointment in a diary entry of typically British understatement: "Rose early to see off Borton and waited from 8:15 till 8:30 in the cold until his two cars appeared and he drove into space. I was sitting shivering at breakfast before leaving myself for Cairo when [Colonel] Rees Mogg beckoned me out with a mysterious gesture, and, beginning by saying that I should want another uniform after all, showed me a telegram from G.H.Q. appointing me, with the local rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, Military Governor of Jerusalem."

Sir Ronald Storrs: The Zionists labeled him Pontius Pilate - and he loved it.Credit: Russell, London

Storrs took over on the spot, within the framework of the Occupied Enemy Territory Administration. He immediately set himself the task of learning Hebrew. On July 1, 1920, when the first High Commissioner arrived and the country was placed under British civil rule, Storrs stayed on as governor of the Jerusalem region. "Early in the afternoon [of July 1]," he wrote, "the Chief Administrator formally handed over the Administration to the High Commissioner. He had humorously prepared for Sir Herbert [Samuel] a typewritten receipt for 'one Palestine taken over in good condition,' which Sir Herbert duly signed, adding 'E. and O.E.' [errors and omissions excepted].'"

Crafts revival

In his nine years as governor, Storrs left a lasting imprint on the city and fomented changes that continue to resonate to this day. He issued a regulation stipulating that all construction in the city must use "native Jerusalem stone." He was responsible for the installation of stately street-name signs, many of which can still be seen on buildings around the city. He was active in reviving traditional crafts such as glass, textile and ceramics, and he initiated cultural and social projects. Yet who, apart from historians and researchers, still remembers Sir Ronald Storrs? When he died, in November 1955, the newspaper Davar, the organ of the ruling Mapai party, described him as an enemy of Zionism and "one of the organizers of the 1921 disturbances." The renewed interest in Storrs comes after his memoirs were endowed to Zachi Becker, director of the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. After reading the papers, Becker decided that Storrs' enigmatic, highly contradictory personality merited a comprehensive exhibition. To that end he approached the curator Nirit Shalev Khalifa, who is currently completing her doctoral dissertation on Christian art during the British Mandate period. The results of her work are now on display in an extensive exhibition at the museum and in an accompanying book-length catalog (in Hebrew and English). Ronald Henry Amherst Storrs was born in Bury St. Edmunds, England in 1881, the eldest son of the Reverend John Storrs and his wife, Lucy (nee Cust ). Two years later, the family moved to London, where Storrs' five brothers and sisters were born. Like his father, he attended Pembroke College, Cambridge, specializing in classical studies. He began to collect first editions of classic works and became fond of Flemish art. He was also a member of a theater group that performed classical Greek plays.

None of this hinted at his future career. In 1903, after completing his studies, Storrs learned that interviews were being conducted in Egypt to recruit officials for British government service in that country and in Sudan. After successfully passing the interview, he returned to Cambridge for another year to study Arabic. Storrs arrived in Egypt in October 1904 to take up an appointment as a junior official in the Ministry of Finance. His broad education and his knowledge of the life and customs of the East brought about his rapid promotion to the office of Oriental Secretary.

According to Shalev Khalifa, a number of young Englishmen formed a group in Cairo during this period to discuss literature, art and music. It was here that Storrs first met the architect Ernest Richmond, who was an expert in Egyptian culture and would later serve with Storrs in the Mandate government; Sir Mark Sykes, a diplomat, artist and scholar of the Near East; and an intelligence official named Thomas Edward Lawrence - Lawrence of Arabia - whose legend would be created in no small part by his close friend, Storrs.

Storrs was 36 when he took over as military governor. Perceiving himself first and foremost as a public servant, he devoted his first days in office to dealing with the hunger that gripped the city after the war. One morning in early January of 1918, he writes in his memoirs, "I became aware of a crying and a screaming beneath my office window. I looked out on a crowd of veiled Arab women, some of whom tore their garments apart to reveal the bones almost piercing their skin." The sight of children with bellies distended from hunger was no less disturbing, "nor was the dread lest we should have delivered Jerusalem only to starve her to death," he added.

The efforts to increase the food supply did not prevent Storrs from meeting with local dignitaries or wandering the city's streets, markets and shops, and visiting its monasteries and churches. He wasted no time in issuing a comprehensive series of administrative regulations, covering everything from postal rates, bans on the abuse of animals and on commerce in hashish, and the prohibition of the "barbarous" felling of olive, terebinth and carob trees.

"Owing to the foul state in which the Turks left the City, we stand in a very fair danger of a typhus epidemic," he wrote. "Colonel Garner would rush into my office asking how he was going to 'Shweep ut away,' if I did not give him brooms. There were no brooms anywhere. The shops were empty."

Storrs restricted the speed of motorized vehicles on the streets of Jerusalem and prohibited prostitution. In the city, he noted in his diary, there were "many ladies of doubtful reputation ... On our entry into Jerusalem we had found no less than 500 such women living in a special quarter." Storrs sent as many of them as possible back to their "places of origin" and "abolished the quarter." Though some of these women might remain, he noted, their number "was infinitesimal compared to what we had originally found, and I submitted that with the utmost vigilance it was difficult to ensure to any city, however sacred, complete exemption from this particular form of abuse."

In 1926, Storrs was promoted to the post of governor of Cyprus and six years later was appointed governor of Northern Rhodesia (today's Zambia ). He retired from the diplomatic service for health reasons in 1934 and published his memoirs, entitled "Orientations," three years later. They appeared in Hebrew in three volumes the following year. In his introduction to the Hebrew edition, Storrs noted the pride and satisfaction he felt at the publication of the memoirs in Palestine. True, 11 years had passed since he had left his post as the first governor of Jerusalem, but he had yet to overcome the "lover's wounds" that the Zionists' attitude toward him had left, and especially the hostility of the editor of Haaretz at the time, Leib Yaffe.

After the riots of 1920 and 1921, he noted, "I had to endure such a tempest of vituperation in the Palestine and World Hebrew Press that I am still unable to understand how I did not emerge from it an anti-Semite for life." He urged his Hebrew-language readers to sometimes remember "what Great Britain did, as it is represented by each and every high official in Palestine, instead of harping on what it did not do." Still, his basic attitude toward Zionism did not change; immediately after Israel's establishment he wrote a newspaper article about "the dream that turned into a nightmare."

Cultural activism

Shalev Khalifa, admitting how apprehensive she had been to create an exhibition of documents and photographs, did not, finally, hesitate to hang some of Storrs' texts on the walls of the museum. For example, his thoughts about the mission of a colonial official in the region: "The East has no use for the fugitive and cloistered functionary ... He must see the people in their homes and be seen by them in his. After all, the art of politics especially in the East, consists not in hearing those who speak, but in hearing those who are silent and of thus finding out what they really do want."

In Egypt he became enamored of Oriental art and culture, serving on a committee that was formed to protect important Islamic structures in Cairo. In his memoirs Storrs describes the places, both natural and built up, that were special for him in Jerusalem, all the while quoting from the Scriptures. The new Jewish neighborhoods outside the Old City get scant mention. Only a few weeks after his arrival in the city, he writes, "I was aware of a tendency to demolish the interesting and the most beautiful and to substitute for them the cheapest and most immediate commonness ... A discerning conqueror in 1850 could have established the new shops, convents and hotels well away from the Old City and have left the gray ramparts in a setting of grass, olives and cypresses."

Responding to a request to establish a tram that would connect Jerusalem with Bethlehem and the Mount of Olives, he notes that he found a "positive pleasure in replying ... that the first rail section would be laid over the dead body of the Military Governor."

Storrs considered the traditional Muslims the city's original residents, whereas the Jews, both those of the "Old Yishuv" and the more recent Zionists, were foreign to the landscape. At the same time, he set out to allow the city's inhabitants to enjoy the advantages of Western culture. "Every effort was made to get in touch with the people and to give them interests and recreation tending to bring them into contact with each other and with the governing race," he told the audience at a talk he gave in London in December 1920. "A Chess Club was founded and a tournament held, of which the first four prizes were won by Jews and the fifth by the Military Governor. A School of Music was founded for both sexes ... A Salon or Academy of Painting, Sculpture, Textiles, Architecture and Town-planning will be held next Spring and every effort is being made to develop the cultural side of the people."

In 1921, Storrs initiated the founding of a dramatic society whose first production was Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream." After the Zion Cinema opened (in Zion Square ) it became the home stage of the society, which in addition to Shakespeare staged Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas. Storrs encouraged the holding of concerts and founded a music school, which he later transferred to the control of the Zionist Federation. In September 1922, he started to work toward the establishment of an opera company.

"After one or two unsuccessful tentatives on our part," he notes in his memoirs, "the Jews succeeded." Storrs supported Mordechai Golinkin, the founder of the Palestine Opera. He noted "the merit of Hebrew as a language for singing" opera, but was critical of the orchestra's performance and the audience's behavior. "Heavy boots reverberated along the bare-planked corridors [of the Jerusalem opera house], and young men in white trousers and Russian blouses prowled up and down selling chocolate and pistachio nuts."

Storrs promoted cultural activity through the agency of the Pro-Jerusalem Society, which was founded in September 1918 with the participation of the local population. The society's secretary was Storrs' deputy, Charles Robert Ashbee (1854-1932 ), an artist and an architect, who also sought to protect traditional Jerusalem. "It was Storrs' inclination to do good work for the local population," says Dr. Noah Hysler Rubin, a Jerusalem-based geographer and town planner who teaches planning history and theory at the Bezalel art academy and wrote her M.A. thesis on Ashbee.

At the initiative of the Pro-Jerusalem Society, Hysler Rubin says, historical and archaeological surveys were conducted in the city. In her article in the museum catalog, Hysler Rubin notes that Ashbee also carried out his own surveys, in which "he described some 50 types of traditional crafts, among them: metal and copper, color and seal engravings, silversmithing, textile and dye, clothing and needlework, clay, pottery and mosaics, printing and writing, building musical instruments. Of these he chose three crafts for rehabilitation: ceramic tiles, Hebron glass-blowing, and cotton weaving." The art of ceramic tiling was revived in order to restore the tiles in the Dome of the Rock, on the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif ). Unable to find expert craftsmen locally, Ashbee brought in Armenian artists who were refugees from the Turkish genocide. Elaborating on this subject in her article, Shalev Khalifa relates that the Armenian pottery project at the Dome of the Rock was identified closely with the Pro-Jerusalem Society. She points out that the glazed ceramics, which originated in 16th-century Turkey and were adopted by Armenian potters in Turkey in the 18th century, were never a local art. "It was Storrs and Ashbee who enthusiastically adopted it," she writes. "First in order to refurbish the Dome of the Rock, and later they aggrandized it as the symbol of local Orientalism even when it was produced by Christian-Armenian craftsmen under British sponsorship." Indeed, the roots of Armenian pottery in Jerusalem "lie in the green hills of Yorkshire, in the colonial perceptions of British officialdom." Storrs, it turns out, brought the Armenian potter David Ohannessian to Jerusalem, after he had carried out a large-scale project in the Yorkshire home of his friend Mark Sykes. The trilingual street-name signs in the city were commissioned from Ohannessian's workshop; some of them are on view in the exhibition, along with stunning items of blue Hebron glass. Ashbee tracked down elderly glass-blowers and put them back to work. He and Storrs also rehabilitated the Cotton Market in the Old City of Jerusalem. In his diary Storrs describes how, under the Turks, the splendid bazaar from the Middle Ages "had degenerated through neglect into a public latrine. The shops were filled with ordure, the debris was sometimes lying five feet high, and the picturesque doors had been broken up for firewood by the Turks. We restored the vaults, roofing, and the walls of the Suq, put in looms, and by the close of the first year were employing, on a self-supporting basis, some seventy people." In a document summing up the activities of the Pro-Jerusalem Society, which Storrs wrote before leaving Palestine in 1926, he listed 16 art exhibitions that had been held at David's Citadel. He set up a studio at Damascus Gate for Avraham Melnikov, a demobilized soldier who had served with the Jewish Brigade in the First World War. The two became friends and Melnikov sculpted a bust of the governor. In his memoirs, Storrs writes that the two most important artists during his period were Reuven Rubin and the Anglo-Jewish painter David Bomberg. He held a show of Rubin's work at his residence - the catalog is on display at the exhibition.

Playing the part

In her article, Hysler Rubin analyzes Storrs' contribution to the shaping of the city through modern urban planning. The Zionist Commission invited the Scottish town planner Patrick Geddes to Jerusalem to plan the Hebrew University. In 1919, he submitted a master plan for the city. He and Ashbee "both regarded the Old City and its environs as a municipal asset with high aesthetic and archaeological value," Hysler Rubin writes. "Their plans banned any building east of the Old City, in the only part of the city that still preserved - according to Geddes - the original biblical landscape in the form of terraces and olive trees. Geddes proposed to continue isolating the Old City from the west by encircling it with a green belt dotted with ancient graves, tombstones and pools, called The Holy Park of Jerusalem."

It was an interplay of East and West. "Geddes truly wanted to do good things," Hysler Rubin says. "He took what he was capable of understanding and identifying from the local landscape and foisted Western culture on it. He wanted to develop romantic medieval towns with winding alleys and he wanted to bring Western culture to them. He and Storrs shaped the city according to their lights - a fantastical, imagined combination based on their interpretation of a fusion between East and West."

Under Storrs' supervision, the Old City wall and gates were rehabilitated, and the area became an urban focal point and the core of the development of the entire city. However, in order to create a buffer between the ancient and new cities, Storrs ordered the demolition of the clock tower which had been built in front of Jaffa Gate in 1906, along with other buildings in the area. "They tried to preserve Jerusalem as it was, as a sacred city. The quality of the city was dictated by this format of the Old City in the center, to which everything refers: what will be built, where building will be allowed and where it will be prohibited, and the decision to keep construction low so that nothing will interfere with the landscape of the Old City. To this day we are living with the same dilemmas. That conception is Storrs' legacy."

What was the Arab population's attitude toward Storrs' projects? Dr. Yair Wallach, a historian and a research fellow at Cambridge University, addresses this question in his article in the catalog, "The Oud Player and the Governor - Jerusalem Arabs' Relations with Ronald Storrs and the British Administration." He found one answer in the memoirs of the Jerusalem musician Wasif Jawhariyyeh (1897-1972 ), who was born in the Old City's Muslim Quarter. The son of an established Christian family that was close to the Muslim elite in Jerusalem, Jawhariyyeh was a junior official in the municipality, but at night played the oud at parties and in cafes. Wallach relates that Jawhariyyeh's dual identity - in the municipality and as a frequenter of circles of the local high society - placed him at events where Storrs, Ashbee and Jerusalem mayor Raghib al-Nashashibi were also present.

"Through his eyes," Wallach writes, "Storrs' character appears impressive, manipulative and theatrical - to the point of ridicule."

Wallach describes a meeting between Storrs and Jawhariyyeh at the Jerusalem town hall. Storrs, recognizing Jawhariyyeh's talents as a singer and oud player, invited him to perform at social events, receptions and political meetings, including in Storrs' private residence on Hanevi'im (Prophets ) Street. But Storrs insisted that Jawhariyyeh appear in traditional Arab attire, including the kaffiyeh - headgear then worn only in rural areas (city dwellers wore the fez ).

This characterized the Orientalist approach of the governor of Jerusalem, who purported to understand the Middle East better than its local residents. "He attached importance to attire," Wallach says. "In his memoirs he discusses Prince Faisal, who wanted to wear a suit when he visited London, but Storrs forced him to appear in traditional Arab garb. In Cairo, Storrs' servants wore galabiyas at his instructions. He also dressed Jerusalem in a costume of stone. Most of the buildings in his time were made of stone, though other types of structures had also begun to appear, and he refused to allow them. The British abhorred red-tile roofs, like those in the railway station, which was built before their arrival. They decided to purge the city of anything innovative. Stone as an outer covering is a costume."

Storrs laid down the law on more than attire, Wallach writes. In the First World War, "while coordinating the anti-Ottoman insurgency in the Arabian Peninsula, Storrs took the liberty to design the stamps of the Arab Revolt, bearing the name of Mecca."

In his memoirs, Storrs explains that to counter denials that the revolt had erupted, "we decided that the best proof that it had taken place would be provided by an issue of Hejaz postage stamps, which would carry the Arab propaganda, self-paying and incontrovertible, to the four corners of the earth." He and Lawrence "wandered around the Arab Museum in Cairo collecting suitable motifs so that the design in wording, spirit and ornament might be as far as possible representative and reminiscent of a purely Arab source of inspiration."

Mainly for Jerusalem

Wallach notes that Storrs attributed great significance to the Muslim pilgrimage ceremonies at Nabi Musa, which took place in April in the Jerusalem area. "The event," Wallach writes in the exhibition catalog, "gave Storrs an opportunity to establish a patronage relationship with the Muslim elite and to demonstrate his respect for Islam, thus rendering the transition from Ottoman to European rule more palatable. Storrs ordered a military band for the festivities - to the bewilderment of the military authorities, who failed to see why a British band should play at a local Muslim festival. And yet Storrs persisted and involved High Commissioner Herbert Samuel and Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill in this matter. Furthermore, he positioned himself at the center of the opening ceremony, playing the role of the former Ottoman mutasarrif (governor ) of Jerusalem. A short silent film documents this comic event, showing Storrs - the son of an eminent Anglican priest - wearing military uniform and a reverential face, as he unfolds the banner of Nabi Musa - an ancient cloth banner, embroidered in golden letters 'There is no God but Allah.'"

Unfortunately for Storrs, it was precisely the Nabi Musa events that brought about his failure as governor. In 1920, a reception for the pilgrims from Hebron was held at Jaffa Gate and participants used the ceremony to stage a political demonstration against British rule. The demonstration deteriorated into violence, including attacks on Jews, particularly those of the Old Yishuv who lived in the Old City. It took the British three full days to restore calm. Storrs demanded that both sides keep the peace and acted to disarm every person who bore a weapon, generating criticism. He was also criticized for failing to prevent the violent clashes of November 1921, in which five Jews were killed in the city and dozens wounded.

"Being neither Jew (British or foreign ) nor Arab, but English, I am not wholly for either, but for both. Two hours of Arab grievances drive me into the Synagogue, while after an intensive course of Zionist propaganda I am prepared to embrace Islam," Storrs wrote in his memoirs. It was an approach that did not endear him to either side.

According to Prof. Motti Golani from the University of Haifa, an expert on Palestine and Britain during the Mandate period, Storrs was the person whom the Zionists loved to hate. They labeled him Pontius Pilate - a comparison Storrs loved, Golani says.

Writing in the catalog, Golani points out that it seemed at first that Storrs was a convinced Zionist. "When the Zionist Commission came to Jerusalem, Storrs, equipped with the official status granted him by His Majesty's Government, tried to help Chaim Weizmann and his people to the best of his ability," Golani writes. For example, he aided Weizmann in his effort to acquire from the Muslim Waqf (charitable trust ) the Wailing Wall alley, with the intention of enlarging it, but the attempt failed. Also to Storrs' credit is the fact that he learned Hebrew. In September 1920, Hebrew became the official language of the country at the directive of the civil government under Sir Herbert Samuel. For Weizmann at this time, Storrs seemed to be "one of us in governance," Golani writes.

In the end, though, "It made no difference what he did or said, he was the archetype, emblematic of the dream that was steadily being crushed," Golani concludes. "When a play was performed in one of the Arab orphanages in the city, and the stage was used for provocative speeches against the Jews, the Zionists raged at Storrs, who had been invited to the performance and had not bothered to ban the speeches."

Storrs contributed in no small measure to the deterioration of his relations with the Zionists, Golani finds. As an intellectual, he dispensed with modesty and made much of his superior education. He also wondered why tempestuous events in the city were preventing him and his colleagues from addressing the truly important things, namely culture, art and literature. In 1937, Storrs maintained that it would be wrong to establish two separate states in Palestine. From 1939 he supported the British government's White Paper policy and advocated the establishment of a secular democratic state in which the Jews would be able to maintain their national home as guaranteed in the Balfour Declaration and in the writ of the British Mandate. His attitude toward Zionism angered Zionists after his death. "He claimed that he was neither for the Jews nor the Arabs, but for Palestine, and mainly for Jerusalem," says Golani. W



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