Samuel Solnik, left, and his royal sigil, the Lion of Judah. Not the most subtle of symbols. From "The Kingdom of Israel: The Kingdom of the House of David in Light of Our Current Reality" (Shraga Weinfeld Printing Press)

The Man Who Would Be King: Delusions of (Royal) Grandeur in Mandatory Palestine

Samuel Solnik, a Polish-born dentist living in Jerusalem in the 1940s, claimed descent from King David and tried to convince his fellow Jews and the world powers that his family should sit on the ancient throne of Israel

Samuel Solnik was an ambitious fellow. But then, you can’t really go about reestablishing an ancient biblical dynasty without a little good old-fashioned chutzpah.

This dapper young man, who arrived in the Land of Israel in the early 1940s, looked rather out of place in the simple, unassuming scenery of Mandatory Palestine with its modest buildings, narrow dusty streets and dirty bazaars. But Solnik was a fake-it-till-you-make-it kind of guy. Born in Kalisz, Poland in 1910, he carried himself with an air of European aristocracy in Jerusalem – fancy suits, combed-back hair and an expensive automobile, at a time when cars were a rare commodity in the city.

Samuel’s father was Herman Solnik, an author and Zionist activist; his mother Gitel was a school teacher. With the outbreak of World War II, Samuel made his way to Paris to study dentistry at the Sorbonne. Soon enough, the Nazis rolled into the French capital and the young Jewish medical student was off to Switzerland to continue his studies, and eventually made it to Jerusalem, where he began working as a dentist.

Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550)

It was during this period that Solnik came across documents which he believed proved a long standing family rumor – that the Solniks were in fact descended from the family of Don Isaac Abarbanel, the great Jewish statesman, philosopher and biblical commentator who had served as treasurer to King Afonso V of Portugal during the 15th century. The Abarbanels, in turn, had claimed to be descendants of King David himself. It was here that Samuel Solnik saw his great opportunity.

The early 1940s was a time when a political divide was already very apparent in the country between the left-wing Labor Zionism of David Ben-Gurion and the right-wing revisionist Zionism of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and his protégé Menachem Begin.

Solnik set about attempting to convince his fellow Hebrews that they had been wasting their time with their endless political bickering. After all, why bother? They had before them the perfect candidate to oversee the rebirth of Jewish sovereignty in the ancient homeland – no less than a living, breathing heir to the throne of King David!

From "The Kingdom of Israel: The Kingdom of the House of David in Light of Our Current Reality" (Shraga Weinfeld Printing Press)

In 1942, he set out his case in a book, in Hebrew, entitled “The Kingdom of Israel: The Kingdom of the House of David in Light of Our Current Reality” (Shraga Weinfeld Printing Press, Jerusalem). Its initial section resembles the biblical genealogies found in the Book of Genesis and the New Testament, laying out a brief history of each of Solnik’s ancestors – beginning with Rabbi Samuel Abarbanel, Don Isaac’s grandfather – and showing how each generation of Abarbanels begat the next. It tells of a branch of the family that eventually settled in Saloniki in modern-day Greece (the origin of the name Solnik) before their descendants made their way to Eastern Europe.

A few pages later, Solnik modestly wrote: “To this day there are families who live among us, with papers proving their lineage that reaches back to the time of the kings of Israel. As an example, I must note the Solnik family, descended from the family of the Sephardic Don Abarbanel, and it is known that he was in possession of a certificate confirming he was a descendant of King David […] Despite the expulsions and the riots this lineage remains unbroken, and the Hebrew people proudly carries the royal crown in its blood!”

Solnik’s book even featured his own royal sigil: the roaring Lion of Judah, with bared teeth beneath a crown, topped with the Star of David. Not the most subtle symbol perhaps, but this man wished to be king, after all.

Solnik’s presumptuous claims made him something of a curiosity in Mandatory Jerusalem. He and his wife Sima hosted lavish parties for the Hebrew elite at their home in the upscale Rehavia neighborhood. The local press found him and his ambitions rather amusing, and he was often featured in gossip columns. However, it seems he was not terribly successful in convincing his fellow Jews that they had any need of a king.

History is full of monarchs who came to power on the wings of widespread popular support, thanks to their overwhelming charisma, but Solnik was not one of them. Nor did he command any armies that could win him a crown by way of the sword.

There was another potential path to kingship, however, which at this stage seemed to him the most plausible. In early 1946, the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry began its work in the region. This body consisted of British and American officials who gathered in Jerusalem to examine and make recommendations concerning the issue of Jewish immigration in the postwar era, as well as the future of Mandatory Palestine.

From "The Kingdom of Israel: The Kingdom of the House of David in Light of Our Current Reality" (Shraga Weinfeld Printing Press)

Samuel Solnik realized that this was his chance to convince the great powers of the world that his family deserved to sit on the ancient throne of Israel. An early draft of a typed letter that he sent to the Anglo-American Committee was recently found in the archives of the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, complete with penned-in additions and corrections of typos and other mistakes.

By this point, he had changed his tune. Perhaps realizing that his previous pitches may have come off as a little self-serving, Solnik now put forward another candidate for the crown: his son, Emmanuel I, who had been born three years earlier. Clearly looking to make life easier for everyone involved, he pointed out the simple practicality of this idea in the opening paragraphs of the letter (while also emphasizing the drawbacks of representative democracy): “…the whole world and especially the Anglo-American one will more easily be able to establish common ground with the Royal Dynasty in various and economic problems, than with dozens of Jewish factions, groupings and parties.”

Hebrew daily Maariv / The National Library of Israel

It seems Solnik hoped to convince any Christian Zionists who happened to be among the British and American officials to get behind his monarchist plan. He wrote: “Christendom supports the ideology of the KINGDOM of ISRAEL. The idea is especially supported by the Anglican Church basing its liveliness fundamentally on the Bible and recognizing the connection of the KINGDOM of ISRAEL with the HOUSE of DAVID. Therefore that Church would continue to support and recognize the JEWISH KING EMMANUEL I thus giving fullest satisfaction to the Jewish Nation.”

As for the actual running of the kingdom until the coming-of-age of the boy king, Solnik explained: “... the Committee – in accordance with the promise given us by God and the Prophets will seriously take into their consideration the creation of a Jewish Kingdom of the HOUSE of DAVID headed by a temporary Regency. The Regency which would consist of 3 members, would take over their functions from the actual Palestine Mandate Governement. [sic]

[…] The following should be appointed to become members of the Regency of the KINGDOM of ISRAEL: 1. Dr. Chaim Weizman [sic]; 2. Arie Altman; 3. Samuel Solnik; DAVID BEN-GURION should be made Prime Minister.”

The National Library of Israel in Jerusalem

Alas, the members of the committee remained unimpressed by Samuel’s arguments in favor of a monarchic system – not only did their final recommendations not include the foundation of a Jewish kingdom, the committee avoided recommending a Jewish state altogether, though things worked out differently in the end.

By 1949 it seems Solnik had given up, and the local press reported that the pretender-to-the-throne had sent a telegram to Chaim Weizmann congratulating him on his appointment as president of the young State of Israel, which was perceived as a relinquishing of all claims to the crown.

Khalil Hamra,AP

The prospective king remained but a simple dentist and eventually moved north to Netanya, indulging in his other hobby: stamp collecting.

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