Jan Christian Smuts and the Jews

By Alex Rose

“The logjam was opportunately broken when Jan Smuts, a lean and leathern South African statesman [and the inventor of the words ‘holistic’ and ‘apartheid’] devised the concept of ‘mandates. According to this, the League of Nations would bestow control over former enemy territories to various powers, which would prepare their populations for self-rule. “[ Power, Faith, and Fantasy by Michael B. Oren -P381 published 2007.

“Similarly South African Jan Smuts, a member of the British War Cabinet who was actively involved in the discussions behind the Balfour Declaration and the Versailles Treaty, recalled the views of the British Cabinet in deciding to favor a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It was  naturally assumed that large-scale immigration of Jews into their historic homeland could not and would not be looked upon as a hostile gesture to the highly favored Arab people—-[who ] largely as a result of British action, came out better of the Great War than any other people.” [A Place Among the Nations by Benjamin Netanyahu – P46 published May, 1993.]

“But I agreed with Lord Cecil, Smuts, and Llyod George that Palestine’s liberation from the Turkish yoke was one of the few really worth-while things born out of the Great War. As the son of a Bible people, I looked forward with lively anticipation towards the fulfillment of the age-old dream of the Jewish people.”[Days of our Years by Pierre Van Paassen -P362 published 1939]

At the Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem, General Jan Christian Smuts is acknowledged  as  “A True Friend of Zion”. A South African Statesman, military leader and philosopher and a committed Christian Zionist, he was an integral, though anonymous, figure in the creation of the Balfour Declaration and later on diplomatic recognition of the State of Israel.  A highly intelligent and articulate individual , he was, without doubt, one of the driving forces behind this historic document. Chaim Weizmann was quoted as saying that without Smuts there would have been no Balfour Declaration.

The museum  provides a brief history on the life of Jan Smuts. He was born on a farm in the Cape Colony and until the age of 12, when he started school, he lived the life of a typical South African farm boy. Despite the late age he started school he matriculated very early and at 16 began studies in science and arts at the University of Stellenbosch (at that time it was called Victoria College), obtaining first class honors in both.  During his time in Stellenbosch Smuts met his future wife.

In 1891 he received a scholarship to Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he read law and was generally recognized as one of the most brilliant law students ever to have studied at Cambridge. After completing his studies, Jan Smuts went to London where he came first in the Inns of Court Honors examination. He returned to South Africa in 1895 and in 1897 married his lifelong companion Isie Krige.

Smuts enjoyed close friendships with many in the South African Jewish Community. In June 1917 he met Chaim Weizmann ,commencing which  a lifelong friendship of 33 years. They enjoyed each other’s company, were compatible intellectually and together they shared a vision of a home for the Jews,  He also shared this strong conviction with both Lloyd George  the British Prime Minister and his Foreign Secretary Lord Balfour. Both Weizmann and Smuts shared the belief that because Palestine was the Biblical home of the Jews, it was historically justified and natural that this was the place which should be chosen.

Jan Smuts was elected Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa from 1919-1924 and then subsequently from 1939-1948. He personally fundraised for many Zionist organizations during his Premiership. His government granted de facto recognition of Israel on 24 May, 1948, a few days prior to his party being voted out of power.

One seldom finds a history book on the British Empire or the Middle East without stumbling  on the name Smuts.  An example follows:

David Fromkin’s, “A Peace to End All Peace” on the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, was described by  Fouad  Ajami as ambitious and splendid—-An epic tale of ruin and disillusion—of great men, their large deeds and even large follies. From this book, we learn the following:

English Prime Minister, Lloyd George  invoked an Imperial War Conference also called  the Imperial War Cabinet  to consult on issues of war and peace, to meet in London around March 16/17, 1917. “Nobody was more suspicious of the government’s intentions than the delegate from South Africa , Jan Christian Smuts, a  lawyer-turned-general, who had fought against the British in the Boer War; he had no desire to be ruled from London and who upon arrival received an invitation to dine at Brook’s with Lord Milner, his former adversary.

The meeting was a victory for Smuts recognized as a superb administrator who had gained acceptance to the basis of the reorganization would be the independence of South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Having been a successful general in the Boer War days and East Africa and a representative in  of the Dominions , he could help Lloyd George in confronting the British  generals.

Lloyd George prevailed upon Smuts to stay on in London and serve  in the War Cabinet “on loan” from his own country’s “Cabinet”. He was the only Cabinet Minister in modern British history to have no connection with either House of Parliament; and spent the rest of the war away from home living in a hotel room at  the Savoy. “General Smuts  had expressed very decided views as to the strategical importance of Palestine to the British Empire”. The capture of German East Africa by Botha and Smuts had already created a continuous stretch of British-controlled  territories between , on the one hand, Cape Town, the Atlantic Ocean port at the southern tip of Africa, and on the other, Suez, which bridged the Mediterranean and the Red Sea at the continent’s  northeastern tip. As of 1917, Palestine was the key missing link that could join together the parts of the British Empire so that they would form a continuous  chain from the Atlantic to the middle of the Pacific.

As a Boer steeped in the Bible, Smuts strongly supported the Zionist idea when it was raised in the Cabinet. Like Lloyd George, he had grown up believing that “the day will come when the words of the prophet will become true and Israel will return to its own land.” General Sir Edmund Allenby was chosen  to be commanding officer after Smuts had definitely decided that he would not accept the appointment.

The Jerusalem Report  published, “Smuts and Weizmann -My great-grandfather’s love of Israel and South African Jews” by Philip Weyers on 13/12/2017. What follows are 1st hand extracts from this remarkable piece of history. In the early 1920,South Africa heard of a tragedy unfolding in Ukraine, affecting in particular the Jews. It was the Ukrainian Jews who bore the brunt of battle casualties, in the aftermath of the fall of  the Russian Czar, as a consequence of the  battle between the Red and White armies. The  situation was  exacerbated by famine and typhoid, but took a turn for the worse with the pogroms, where Ukrainian and Polish peasants joined with the military forces to kill Jews wherever they found them, the final estimate being between 100,000 and 150,000 deaths.

One of the tragic results of these pogroms were thousands of orphans, whose numbers were estimated at 400,000. Before any organized relief could be effected, a Russian born resident of Cape Town, Isaac Ochberg took matters under his wing and approached General Jan Smuts, the Prime Minister and Patrick Duncan, the Minister of the Interior. Smuts reacted with alacrity, granting permission for an unrestricted number of orphans, as many as could be saved.

In January, 1921, Ochberg persuaded the Smuts government to contribute on a pound for pound towards the rescue and repatriation effort, resulting in 250 rather than the previously calculated 200 orphans being rescued and brought to South Africa. Many of these orphans returned in later life to Europe, but many also remained in their adopted country and contributed inestimably to the South African economy adding considerably to its heritage.

The”Oubaas”[Afrikaans for a person who is a senior in years or rank], as he was referred to , was known to have a fondness and affection for South African Jews, and considered many to be his friends; often at a political cost due to the sometimes less sentiments of particularly the more conservative elements of the Nationalist Party. The Oubaas met Chaim Weizmann in June 1917, at the time he was Professor of Chemistry at the University of Manchester. He has just developed a simplified and more effective means of manufacturing TNT, which was to be of inestimable value to the Allied war effort.

Professor Richard P. Stevens describes the Smuts-Weizmann relationship as follows: “Perhaps a few personal friendships have so influenced the course of political events during the 20th century as the relationship between General Jan Christian Smuts, South Africa’s celebrated Prime minister and Chaim Weizmann, the charismatic Zionist leader and Israel’s 1st President. But the importance and insignificance of this little publicized relationship transcends the personal elements involved or its contribution to Zionist success rather, it helps throw into perspective the contradictions of Western liberalism and the psychological climate which rationalized the dominant position of a white minority in South Africa on the one hand and of  a new European settlement in Palestine on the other.”

“Jan Smuts Given Honor Where Honor Was Due” by Peter Bailey appeared in the Jerusalem Post of July 25, 2018. The introduction is appropriately worded, “Smuts was an international statesman of great repute who bestrode the world political stage like a colossus for the 1st half of the 20th century.”

Bailey reminds us that following the end of hostilities in 1918, which initiated the conclusion of WW1, a peace conference was held at Versailles in France on January 1919, between the victorious Allied Forces and the defeated Central Powers, which had been led by Germany. A Peace Treaty ensued including the Balfour Declaration granting a homeland to the Jewish people as one of its many clauses, notably at the insistence of Jan Smuts.

Subsequently, Smuts attended the San Remo Conference during April, 1920 for the ratification of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles in order to establish the League of Nations. Smuts, as the as its author ensured the inclusion of the Belfour Declaration.  What followed was the issuing of the British Mandate over Palestine , and should have resulted in a self-governing Jewish state in the whole territory between the Jordan River and the sea.

Jan  Smuts was the author of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United Nations and the only politician to serve in the British War Cabinet in both the 1st and 2nd World Wars. Further, he was the only politician  to sign the peace treaties ending global conflict after both world wars and was the only signatory to the establishment of both the League of Nations and the United Nations – a truly amazing record. One also recalls Smuts opposition to all the negative British White Papers.

From the Churchill Project: Last Words

Churchill shut himself away in his bedroom for half a day to compose a letter to Mrs. Isie Smuts [whom, incidentally, he had never met]. To an unversed reader it may seem a little overdone. Knowing Churchill as we do, we can be in no doubt that it was a genuine heartfelt expression.

“Please accept my deepest sympathy in your sorrow and deprivation. I know how vain are words in such sadness, and how much worse it is for those who stay than for those who go. But there must be comfort in the proofs of admiration and gratitude that have been evoked all over the world for a warrior statesman  and philosopher who was probably more fitted to guide struggling and blundering humanity through its sufferings and perils towards a better day than anyone who lived in any country during his epoch.”

What an accolade from such a source!