Lebanon's Lady Cochrane and the Zionist connection

Lady Yvonne Cochrane Sursock
Lady Yvonne Cochrane Sursock

Eulogies for Lady Yvonne Cochrane Sursock, 98, killed in last month's Beirut port blast, did not mention her support for Zionism and the vast family estates sold to Jewish settlers.

Lady Yvonne Cochrane Sursock died last month 27 days after sustaining injuries in the massive blast at Beirut port. The life of this unique, aristocratic 98-year-old woman was intertwined with the history of the entire Middle East including Zionism.

Until the day she died, Lady Cochrane lived in the Sursock Palace, the glorious family palace in Achrafieh in Beirut's Christian quarter, which was badly damaged in the huge explosion. A few days after the explosion, on August 10, with Lady Cochrane still alive, her son, Roderick Sursock Cochrane, was pictured standing in the ancient and now ruined living room, the grand piano covered with a layer of ash. Behind it, beams lie broken on the floor, and Roderick, stands amidst overturned wooden chairs. Destruction is all around.

The photograph was featured in many of the news stories about the death and life of Lady Cochrane - philanthropist, art collector and one of Beirut's most famous women. She had triple citizenship - British, Italian and Lebanese - and divided her 98 years between Naples, Beirut, London, Ireland and other places. But towards the end of her life, Beirut became her central passion. She donated funds to philanthropic causes, protected natural sites, defended local communities and focused on architectural heritage and preservation.

Following her death, the international media paid tribute to her, sharing her impressive anecdotes about her life and work and about the unique family palace that was damaged. But a significant detail in her life history was missing: Lady Cochrane and her family played a central role in the history of pre-state Israel, and had close ties with the early Zionist movement leadership as well as former President Chaim Herzog.

Lady Cochrane was one of the 190 dead, 6,500 injured, three missing and 300,000 people left homeless following the huge explosion on August 4th. An estimated 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate - which had been confiscated six years earlier from a ship in the port of Beirut and improperly stored - destroyed extensive sections of the city. The blast was so intense that it had the impact of a magnitude 3.3 earthquake; the resulting damage is estimated at $15 billion.

Lady Cochrane's residence was one of the buildings that was badly damaged - and not for the first time. The Sursock Palace, built in 1860, had already survived world wars, civil wars and attacks on Beirut. After being damaged in Lebanon’s protracted civil war, it underwent 20 years of restoration and renovation and in 2010, opened its gardens to the public for events and celebrations. Last month's explosion, which is attributed to government negligence and Hezbollah’s deep involvement in bringing weapons and dangerous substances into the city, dealt it another blow. Lady Cochrane, who dedicated her life to restoring Lebanese heritage and architecture, did not live to see the destruction. It will now be up to her successors to restore the city to its former glory.

200,000 acres in Israel

Lady Cochrane was born in Naples in 1922. Her father, Alfred Bey Sursock, was a member of one of the great property-owning families in the Middle East, and her mother, Donna Maria Teresa Serra di Cassano, was a member of Italy’s aristocratic Serra di Cassano family, a Papal dynasty.

Her family inheritance included hundreds of thousands of acres of land in the Jezreel Valley, the Western Galilee, the Hefer Valley, Haifa and Jaffa. The land in Haifa, on which the Bahai Faith’s Shrine of the Báb now stands, was owned by the family, as were major streets in Jaffa and hundreds of acres around what is now Eilat Street in Tel Aviv. These acquisitions began in in 1870, when the Turkish government sold land in Israel to subjects of the Ottoman Empire. The wealthy Sursock family (also spelled Sursuq), purchased no less than 200,000 acres throughout Palestine, including about 50,000 acres in the Jezreel Valley.

In 1891, Zionist activists entered into negotiations with the Sursock family for land purchases. Bit by bit, plot by plot, properties were purchased by Zionist movement leaders Yehoshua Hankin, Laurence Oliphant, Arthur Ruppin, the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayement Le’Israel, and the World Zionist Organization (WZO). Around 1925, the Sursock family made a long list of the transactions: areas in the lower city of Haifa, 2,500 acres in the Beit She'an Valley, 7,500 acres in the Hefer Valley. Merhavia, Mizra, Tel Adashim, Nahalal, Kfar Yehezkel, Tel Yosef, Yokneam, Ramat Yohanan and Ein Harod - all were established on land bought from the Sursock family.

Her father did business with Yehoshua Hankin, the ‘land redeemer’ responsible for most of the major WZO purchases, when the latter came to Beirut for meetings for this purpose. Hankin's niece, Tzila Shoham-Feinberg, later documented this business trip to Beirut; she accompanied her uncle and watched him sign an additional land deal. Shoham-Feinberg, who was the younger sister of Avshalom Feinberg of the NILI underground network (the Jewish espionage enterprise that assisted the British against the Ottomans in 1915-1917), wrote: "Despite strong opposition from extremist and nationalist elements in the Arab world and despite threats to his life. I personally have no doubt that without the great help that Yehoshua Hankin received from the Sursock family in various ways, in addition to the sale of land by them, he would not have redeemed the valley at the time."

In 1946, Lady Cochrane married Sir Desmond Cochrane, an Irish nobleman who served in Beirut as Ireland's Consul General, and traveled between Beirut and London. Their four children attended a school in London. In 1948, when the State of Israel was established, she still held title to multiple properties, especially in the area of Eilat Street in Jaffa and the city of Haifa. But under the Absentees' Property Law, 5710- 1950, she was declared absent and the Development Authority took control of her assets.

That same year, Lady Cochrane turned to the Israeli authorities, requesting to release the land, but was rejected. In 1966, she applied again, and this claim, too, was rejected. For years, she continued this action through her London-based lawyers, even enlisting the British Jewish community support in telling how her family had helped Jews redeem lands, set up the Zionist enterprise, in the hope that perhaps that would rescue her properties. But even that did not help.

The fledgling State of Israel was unwilling to set a precedent for a case in which a Lebanese citizen, with a proven Ottoman land registration, would receive recognition from the state and even compensation. And so, in the late 1960s, Cochrane, through British legal mediation, turned to lawyer Chaim Herzog, who would later become the sixth president of the State of Israel.

When Herzog founded his now-famous firm, Herzog Fox & Neeman in 1972, he brought with him the Lady Cochrane case. He decided to focus attention on her being a citizen of several countries with diplomatic status, as well as on the undeniable fact: the Sursock family willingly helped the Zionist enterprise to stand on its own two feet in the decades before the establishment of the state.

Abba Even and Herzog correspond

The search for the case in question brought us to the archives of Herzog Fox & Neeman on Weizmann Street in Tel Aviv. By request of "Globes", we were permitted to rummage through the old documents of the Cochrane file; an old brown box, laden with yellowing pages, was pulled off the shelf and brought respectfully up to the luxurious meeting room floor.

Adv. Meir Linzen, today the firm’s managing partner, was a young intern during the relevant years when this box was placed on his desk. He recalled this special case, perhaps his first international-geopolitical one. "Chaim Herzog was, of course, a well-known international personage, and they [Cochrane’s lawyers] addressed him as 'General Herzog'. Although most legal work is dull gray, many times, unusual cases with exotic stories like this would come in to our office. "

What do you remember from your firm’s discussions about the case?

"I remember a partner meeting with Fox, Neeman and, of course, Herzog. Our office was small then, they invited me to the meeting as an intern. The partners told Herzog that it was a lost cause, and there was nothing to do about it. But Herzog believed in young people's opinions, and I thought it was a special case. There is no story more exceptional than this one. This is a family of historic circumstance: it opposed the PLO, it opposed the Syrians. This is one of the few Arab families who spoke with and supported the Zionist enterprise.

"Under the Absentees' Property Law, 5710- 1950, there is a special committee authorized to approve exceptional cases. Lady Cochrane has approached the committee since 1950 and her appeals were denied."

When Herzog got the case and started working, he wrote a letter to then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Abba Eban. "It should be remembered that Abba Eban was Chaim Herzog's brother-in-law and they would correspond. Today, that sort of thing would probably be prohibited."

We leaf through the old documents in the file and find the correspondence: Herzog asks Eban to instruct his representative on the Custodian of Absentee Property special committee to support the release of the Lady's assets, noting that the British Jewish leaders support her. Eban consents.

In a letter dated April 28, 1969, Herzog wrote to Eban, "Dear Abba, I spoke with you at the time about my handling, at the request of Sir Isaac Wolfson and others, matters related to the property in Jaffa of Lady Cochrane who is the wife of Desmond Cochrane who is, among other things, Honorary Consul-General of Ireland for the Lebanon. Lady Cochrane comes from an Arab family that is well-known here, however she married Sir Desmond before 1948. As you will see from the attached, the Irish Foreign Minister is personally interested in this affair and, along with him, other good Jews such as Marcus Sieff, etc. The issue must be approved by the inter-ministerial committee however this apparently requires support from the representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Migdal. In light of this, I am handing this issue on to you so that you can instruct Dr. Migdal accordingly. Yours, C. Herzog. "

On May 30, 1969, Eban replied: "Dear Chaim, I hereby acknowledge receipt of your letter of April 28, 1969 regarding Lady Cochrane. I learned from the Director of the Claims Department, Dr. Migdal, that Mrs. Cochrane's request was brought before the inter-ministerial committee in 1967, and at the initiative of my office. However, all members of the committee - with the exception of the representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs - voted against the request. To the best of my knowledge, there are no precedents for releasing absentee assets to 'enemy subjects’ and also residents of an Arab state. I am therefore afraid that even if there is a re-hearing of Ms. Cochrane's claim, it is doubtful whether her request will be approved. However, I have instructed Dr. Migdal to support Mrs. Cochrane's request, should her request come up for discussion, in view of the special interest shown in the fate of the claim by Wolfson and Sieff and the Ireland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Regards, Abba"

But then, a changeover takes place at the Israeli government. The Foreign Minister departs his post, and the new Foreign Minister, Moshe Dayan, decides not to take a position on the matter, thus dropping it.

Following the negative response from the Custodian of Absentee Property special committee, Adv. Herzog decided to appeal to the High Court of Justice. He asked for help from his son, Michael "Mike" Herzog, then 26 and an intelligence officer. Subsequent to that request, Mike plunged into the history books and located citations of the Sursock family. "Before the High Court hearing, I provided him with about ten books," he says. "He wanted to show the High Court justices that this was not a regular absentee property case, and my part was to research the family history for the hearing."

"It was also important for him not to set a precedent in the area of properties, because it could have been a slippery slope. I remember him deliberating whether to go to the High Court or not, out of fear for setting a legal precedent. Everyone told him, you're going to lose the case, there's no way. But he studied the material, considered the positive attitude of Lady Cochrane's family towards Zionism and Zionist settlement, and decided that her case was different. I remember preparing a brown bag for him, a kind of suitcase, and putting the books with their bookmarks inside. "

The brown storage box contains many other documents. The folders are removed and spread out on the wood table. Out of a matte blue folder emerges a letter with an original signature; former President of Lebanon Camille Nimr Chamoun wrote on May 8, 1980: "To whom it may concern: Lady Cochrane and her whole family are well known to me. Her father Alfred Sursock, was a man of great political influence, and Lady Cochrane has always followed a decidedly patriotic line, to her own peril. She always fought against the occupation of Lebanon, whether by the PLO or by Syrian forces. She did so through the press and the mass media, despite the insufficient means at her disposal."

"This is an amazing story. When did the President of Lebanon and the Israeli Foreign Minister ever cooperate on a legal case?" says Isaac Herzog, former chairman of the opposition, now chairman of the Jewish Agency - and son of Chaim Herzog.

But of all the amazing details in the story, it seems, the fact that Lady Cochrane's claim was eventually accepted is perhaps the most amazing. "Herzog presented the High Court the argument of effective nationality, when a person holds several citizenships," Linzen says in explaining Herzog's winning legal argument. "Lady Cochrane's husband was an Irish diplomat. He convinced the High Court that her stay in Lebanon was out of diplomatic necessity, and the High Court ruled that the special committee must reconsider. Following the ruling, Herzog reached an agreement with the committee to sign a monetary compensation agreement. All contact with her took place through a law firm in London. "

How much was she eventually paid?

"If I remember correctly, the amount paid to her was quite small. These were huge areas in Jaffa and Haifa, but the decision was about reverting to the committee for discussion; the financial agreement was signed with the Development Authority."

Why do you think the Sursock family supported the Zionist enterprise?

"I assume they had business considerations. But it should be remembered that this was the period prior to Palestinian nationalism. There were Palestinian farmers inhabiting and working the land, and they thought that the Jewish people coming to Israel would be good for the region."

If so, then an aristocratic daughter from Lebanon managed - using money that enabled her to hire the best lawyers - to obtain a letter from the President of Lebanon and the approval of an Israeli foreign minister to release valuable properties. But we can assume that the simple poor will never be able to reclaim what was theirs.

"The rule in 99.99% of absentee property cases is that people will not receive the property unless there is a peace agreement. There will be no return of property, at most there will be monetary compensation. Return of property cannot stand. That is, after all, the foundation of all foundations here."

"My mother was a dynamic woman"

Somewhere within our perusal of documents stored at the law firm, we found correspondence stating that Lady Cochrane and Desmond Cochrane had divorced. Their four children completed their studies in the UK. Son Roderick is Lady Cochrane's successor in preserving the family’s assets and documenting its history.

When Roderick learned we had obtained the file from the Herzog Fox & Neeman archive, he expressed great interest in it, and asked that we help him gain access to the original documents, including a letter from President Camille Chamoun and a letter from Tzila Shoham-Feinberg. "My mother was a very dynamic and determined woman," he tells Globes. "My consolation is that she died without knowing of the magnitude of damage done to her home."

In the wake of this article, Herzog Fox & Neeman has decided to transfer the treasures within the brown storage box to the archive at the Yad Chaim Herzog Organization, so that the story may be properly preserved; lawyers for the Herzog family and Roderick Sursock Cochrane are already in contact.

"My father was very concerned about this case because of the Zionist aspects," concludes Isaac Herzog. "He had a well-developed sense of justice and felt this was the way to thank the Sursock family for agreeing to sell land to the ‘land redeemers’. He talked about this case for years; the case also connected him to Ireland [Chaim Herzog was born in Belfast and his father Rabbi Issac Herzog was the Chief Rabbi of Ireland before becoming Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel]. The case links between Beirut and Haifa, between different religions, and the whole story could have been the plot of a good Middle Eastern film. The tragic end of Yvonne, Lady Cochrane, illustrates more than anything else, how the Middle East has not changed."

en.globes.co.il - on September 13, 2020 © Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Lady Yvonne Cochrane Sursock
Lady Yvonne Cochrane Sursock
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