‘Winston’s hiccup’ and the Jewish homeland

“At the stroke of a pen one Sunday afternoon in Cairo in 1921,” Winston Churchill is said to have created the British Mandate of Transjordan, now known as the Kingdom of Jordan.Israel’s recent proposal to annex part of the West Bank within the framework of the Trump “Deal of the Century” peace initiative met with much criticism and condemnation. However, most critics must surely be assuaged by Israel’s suspension of annexation in favor of historic peace agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. And with the prospect of further agreements with other Gulf states, a new chapter is opening in the region, heralding a positive realignment between Israel and its Arab neighbors.Meanwhile, in America, Europe and elsewhere during the last few months, a great deal of opprobrium has been cast upon the public display of statues associated with colonialism and the slave trade, prompting widespread debate and reappraisal of the commemoration of historical figures.On a less sober note, in England, the government’s announcement of temporary lock-down measures due to the pandemic, restricting the hospitality industry’s ability to function normally, means the public will have to wait a month or so, to indulge in one of that country’s favorite pleasures: a pint of beer at the pub.All of which calls to mind a story about the British Empire, Winston Churchill and alcohol.Accounts of Winston Churchill’s predilection for alcohol are legion. He allegedly told King George VI, “When I was younger, I made it a rule never to take strong drink before lunch. It is now my rule never to do so before breakfast.” MP Bessie Braddock was said to have told Churchill, “Winston, you are drunk, and what’s more, you are disgustingly drunk.” the novelist C.P. Snow said “Churchill cannot be an alcoholic, because no alcoholic could drink that much.”Regardless of the veracity of these anecdotes, Churchill’s drinking habits were usually incidental to his political activities, although an exception to this is contained in a bizarre story concerning events in the Middle East around 100 years ago, in which Winston Churchill, Britain’s colonial secretary at the time, played a central role.

The story attributes the unusual zig-zag shape of the eastern border of Transjordan (now Jordan) to Churchill, intoxicated following a liquid lunch, hiccuping while drawing the map, thus producing the erratic borderline referred to as “Winston’s hiccup.”“The Emir Abdullah is in Transjordan,” Churchill boasted years later, where I put him on Sunday afternoon at Jerusalem.It is true that Churchill presided at the Middle East Conference in Cairo and Jerusalem in 1921, an outcome of which was the detachment of Transjordan from the Mandate for Palestine. As for the rest of the story and why Britain adopted this course of action, it’s worth examining the sequence of events from which the “hiccup” mythology arose, beginning in the first quarter of the 20th century.DURING THE First World War, in correspondence between Sharif Hussein of Mecca and British diplomat Sir Henry McMahon, Sharif Hussein agreed to assist Britain by organizing a revolt against the Ottoman Turks in return for British support for Arab independence. Hussein’s sons, the emirs Faisal and Abdullah, successfully led the revolt, and Faisal later became King of Syria in 1920. But within a few months of beginning his reign, he was deposed by French forces and ousted from Damascus, placing Britain in somewhat of a dilemma.A solution was found by compensating Faisal for the loss of his Syrian throne by Britain awarding him the Kingdom of Mesopotamia (Iraq), and arguably, in fulfillment of the McMahon pledge, Britain installed Sharif Hussein’s other son, Abdullah, as governor of Transjordan.However, installing Abdullah in Transjordan was not straightforward, since this territory formed part of the British-administered Mandate for Palestine, set up by the League of Nations at the San Remo Conference in 1920. The Mandate’s primary purpose was to reconstitute the Jewish National Home in Palestine, and since Israel’s ancient tribes had existed on both sides of the Jordan River, the Zionists anticipated the national home would extend beyond the eastern bank of the river and into Transjordan.Fortunately for Britain, although the Mandate had been drafted at the San Remo Conference, it had yet to be officially confirmed, presenting an opportunity to amend its contents. Indeed, when the Mandate was finally approved by the League of Nations in 1922, to the chagrin of the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, it contained a revised text enabling Britain to detach Transjordan from the Jewish national home.“The English never draw a line without blurring it,” Churchill reportedly said in 1948.Yet all Transjordan’s borders were not determined when Churchill was at the Cairo conference in 1921 (when he was alleged to have drawn the map), and were not finalized until 1925. Drawn by administrators, they resulted from negotiations between Britain and Ibn Saud, the ruler of the adjacent territory of Nejd, in which Transjordan acquired the Red Sea Port of Aqaba in exchange for Wadi Sirhan, a valley in Nejd that lies just inside the eastern border’s triangular jut into Transjordan, referred to as “Winston’s hiccup.”Churchill’s reputation for drinking has often been exaggerated, and although he certainly appeared to enjoy drinking and had the capacity to consume copious amounts, it rarely affected his judgment throughout his extraordinary career. While he played an integral part in the establishment of Transjordan as an independent country, the story of him accidentally creating the “hiccup” through careless draftsmanship while inebriated has more to do with imagination than reality.“I had been brought up and trained to have the utmost contempt for people who got drunk – except on very exceptional occasions and a few anniversaries,” he wrote in Churchill, My Early Life.The writer is an authenticator and dealer of 18th-century English antiques. He has written about the Évian Conference, written and produced the historical documentary film A Letter from London, and is currently working on a film about the Holocaust.

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