The Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv has a great tradition of exceptional historic exhibitions, based on photography and documents that bring back important and sometimes forgotten episodes from the history of the Land of Israel before and after the foundation of the state. About a year ago I wrote about the Hejaz train line whose segment in Israel (‘the train of the valley’) was announced to be renewed in the coming years. Now in the same pavilion which also hosts the museum of the Postal Services I visited last Saturday a fascinating exhibition dedicated to a forgotten figure who was one of the important personalities in the history of the Palestine at the beginning of the British Mandate period – Sir Ronad Storrs, the first governor of Jerusalem.

The First Governor - entry in the exhibition

The Web page of the exhibition which is open until June 15 can be accessed here. Ha’Aretz published a detailed review of the exhibition with many more interesting details about the man and his times in the Land of Israel.

The First Governor - in the exhibition

Although his name is less known today eclipsed by other personalities like Herbert Samuel the first High Commissioner who ruled the mandatory Palestine in the first period, Ronald Storrs was a well known figure in the area even before entering the Palestinian history. His name is mentioned tens of times in books like The Balfour Declaration by Jonathan Schneer or A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin, fundamental reading for anyone who wants to understand the modern and contemporary history of the Middle East and the roots of the conflicts and complex situation that plague the area and only seem to become more complicated as the time passes.

the future governor and two future kings

Born in 1881 in the family of a priest, Storrs made his studies in a Cambridge college and entered very young the diplomatic service, being assigned in Cairo. He learned Arabic (and later Hebrew) and his language skills among other made of him one of the key persons who built prior and during the First World War the relation between the British Empire and the Arab leaders, who revolted in 1916-1917 against the Turks bringing a significant contribution to the British victories in the war in the area. The price of this alliance was promises made to the Arab rulers by the same time Balfour was making commitments to the Zionist movement and here lie some of the roots of the future conflict between Jews and Arabs. The photo above represents Storrs with emir Abdullah the future king of TransJordan and founder of the Hashemite dynasty and prince George of Kings Speech fame.

the High Commissioner and the Governor have a meal on the roadside

In December 1917 general Allenby liberated Palestine and by the end of the month Storr was named Governor of Jerusalem. He was the first Christian ruler in the Holy Land after seven centuries of Muslim rule and his title is the same the Pontius Pilatus once hold. He hold the highest British position in the land until 1920, when the civil mandate rule replaces the military law, and stood as governor of the Jerusalem city and area and second to High Commissioner Herbert Samuel until 1926.

Samuels, Storrs and the heads of the Christian communities in Jerusalem

The experienced diplomat that Storrs already was by the time he took the positions in Palestine found quickly that the balancing act between the different communities in the Holy Land was by no means an easy one. Even the Christian communities – a minority in a city central to Christianity were divided in issues related to the administration of the holy places.

Three Lectures - No Questions or Discussions

In his memoirs he will write later a paragraph that expresses with characteristib British humor the feelings of frustration that myriads of foreign mediators have felt along the time when faced with the parties in the Jewish vs. Arabs conflict over Palestine: “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”

Founding a Settlement (Gezer)

As military governor and then as civil governor he participated in more than one significant event in the development of the Jewish presence in Palestine. Here he is participating at the foundation ceremony of a new Jewish settlement.

Anti-Zionist Demonstration, 1920

The promises made to the two communities – Jewish and Arab – during the war of which Storrs was also part of soon resulted into the surfacing of the broken expectations on both part, and then in the first anti-Jewish demonstrations in 1920 and violent incidents in 1921.

caricature in the Jewish press

Soon the British governor became the preferred target of criticism in the Jewish press. Some of the critics were justified, as Storrs was no supporter of the Zionist plans, and had ideas and proposals of his own that often came in conflict with these. For example by the time he took over the governor position in Jerusalem he was siding the idea of Palestine to become part of a Muslim kingdom based in Egypt – an idea which was taken of the table with the start of the British mandate. Later in his life he supported the White Book and was opposed to the partition plans.

Jerusalem ceramics

The exhibition throws light over the remarkable urban and culture development of the city under Storrs’ governance. By the end of 1917 when Storrs took over the city of Jerusalem was ravaged by war and marked by many decades of neglect and mis-management under the Turkish rule. The governor put means and passion in modernizing the city and encouraging all its communities to express themselves. He even brought new communities in the city like the Armenians, among which the ceramic artists like David Ohanesian, who opened factories and shops and created a tradition of ceramic arts that persists until today. I wrote about this episode (in Romanian) on the blog of my friend Pierre a few years back.  The above tiles were designed to be part of the renovation of the mosque on the Temple Mount but did not make it to the final project.

ceramics street signs

Until today the ceramics street signs in Jerusalem are witnesses of this tradition.

a concert in 1923

A lover of arts Storrs also founded the Pro-Jerusalem Society to promote cultural activities in the city. Above is the poster of a concert he attended in 1923.

Reuven Rubin - Prophet in the Desert

Among the artists he remarked and encourages we can find the Romania-born Reuven Rubin. The lithography above dates from 1923, the year Rubin settled in Palestine. Later in his memoirs Storrs will write the following: “The two outstanding artists of my time were Rubin and Bomberg; Rubin with a whimsically interesting vision, Bomberg seeming to record a powerful cosmic staresmic stare”.

planning the city of Jerusalem

City planing was as important part of the focus of his activity. Our image of Jerusalem today and especially of the Old city area owes a lot to decisions and laws that came under effect during his time – for example the use of native Jerusalem stone in all houses to be built in the city, the decisions not to build East of the Old City in order to conserve the landscape as close as possible to the Biblical appearance, and to build low in the rest of the perimeter of the city to keep the fortress walls visible from any point, and other.

conserving the past

In 1926 Storrs was promoted to the position of Governor of Cyprus, and he later hold a similar position in North Rhodesia. He retired in 1934 and many of his experiences and stories during the Middle East are recorded in his book of memoirs Orientations published in 1937.