Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship By Martin Gilbert Henry Holt 359 pages; $30 Churchill’s Promised Land: Zionism and Statecraft By Michael Makovsky Yale University Press 342 pages; $35
In 2002, the BBC ran a phone-in competition to discover who was the greatest Briton of all time. Nearly half a million people voted for Winston Churchill, leaving Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, William Shakespeare, Princess Diana and John Lennon far behind. Despite the crassness of 21st-century celebrity culture, it was remarkable that people who had not even been born during World War II instinctively remembered Churchill with deep gratitude. His rhetoric and command of the English language, quoted frequently in Sir Martin Gilbert’s Churchill and the Jews and Churchill’s Promised Landby Michael Makovsky, put to shame the contemporary speeches of a verbless Tony Blair and a befuddled George W. Bush.
His words in 1940 so impressed David Ben-Gurion that he repeated them in a letter to his wife: “We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” These words, so often quoted, are even today no mere slogans, worn out by the passage of time and colored by sentimental hindsight, but the symbolic defiance and resilience of the British people to oppose the ushering in of a new dark age for humankind. With the Nazi-Soviet pact in operation and the US neutral, Britain stood isolated and in retreat. Hitler was on the brink of invasion, hoping to be the first to repeat William the Conqueror’s achievement in 1066. David Low’s famous cartoon, depicting a British soldier at the cliff’s edge, waving his fist at incoming German bombers, bore the caption “Very well, alone.” This evocative and powerful image, published after the fall of France, has carried its meaning down the decades. As Ben-Gurion wrote to Churchill in 1961: “I saw you then not only as the symbol of your people and its greatness, but as the voice of the invincible and uncompromising conscience of the human race at a time of danger to the dignity of man, created in the image of God. It was not only the liberties and the honor of your own people that you saved.”
Yet it could have all turned out so differently. There were all too many British politicians who resented Churchill’s elevation to the premiership – those who wanted to press for a deal with Hitler in 1940 through the good offices of Mussolini. If Churchill had not defiantly opposed such a course at a time when Britain was at its lowest ebb, if he had been defeated by his political adversaries during those fateful days, it is no exaggeration to state that the victory of Nazism would have created a new demonic order in the world where there would be no place for the Jew. Sir Martin Gilbert is well-known as both Churchill’s biographer and a historian of the Jews. He has masterfully welded these two enthusiasms to produce an enticing, well-researched account. Gilbert devotes a chapter to Churchill’s testimony to the Peel Commission in 1937 – which was kept secret by the commissioners. The testimony reveals Churchill’s passionate defense of the Balfour Declaration and his long-term support for the Zionist cause. He spoke about the eventual rise of “a great Jewish state, numbered by millions” and about the importance of Jewish immigration. Churchill rebuked the Peel commissioners for their argument that the Jewish influx had been inflicted on the indigenous Arab population. He responded: “Why is there harsh injustice done if people come in and make a livelihood for more and make the desert into palm groves and orange groves? Why is it injustice because there is more work and wealth for everybody? There is no injustice. The injustice is when those who live in the country leave it to be a desert for thousands of years.”
As Michael Makovsky argues in his book, Churchill saw the Zionists as “civilizers” and the promoters of 19th-century liberalism. Churchill’s orientalist approach would be deemed politically incorrect today, but then again he was a product of Victorian romanticism, an admirer of Benjamin Disraeli and a profound believer in the benefits of the British Empire. It seems that following his time as a soldier in Sudan and Egypt, he did not become an uncritical devotee of the Arab world as were many in the British upper classes. Yet he often spoke with pride in establishing Transjordan in the 1920s and that a stable state had emerged under the Hashemites. In contrast, he exhibited disdain for the leaders of the Palestinian Arabs, not least because they aligned themselves with Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Significantly, Churchill opposed partition in 1937. Martin Gilbert discovered Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s letter to him in July 1937 in the Churchill papers with details of a meeting with the Revisionist leader at the home of James de Rothschild. Churchill was clearly influenced by Jabotinsky and condemned Peel’s proposals – in stark contrast to Chaim Weizmann’s endorsement of them.
Churchill’s long life – he was born in 1874 and died in 1965 – parallels the rise of the Zionist movement. Weizmann and Churchill were born three days apart and their friendship spanned half a century. He represented Northwest Manchester as a Liberal MP when Weizmann was a chemistry lecturer at the city’s university. The constituency had a sizable Jewish electorate, and it was here that he was first introduced to the aspirations of the Zionist movement and the depth of British anti-Semitism. Ironically, it was Churchill who condemned the anti-aliens legislation, designed to keep out thousands of East European Jews from Britain, while Arthur Balfour endorsed it.
Churchill inherited a philosemitism from his father, Randolph, who had grown up in the company of the Hirsches, Cohens, Wertheimers and Bischoffsheims. As Randolph told his then fiancee, the American Jenny Jerome, in 1873, “Like all Jews’ places, it is a wonderful place for eating, every kind of food. I must confess I rather like it.” Randolph’s childhood schoolmate was Lord “Natty” Rothschild and when his gentlemen’s club banned Jews, he promptly tendered his resignation. Churchill did not treat all Jews the same. He made a distinction between Bolshevik Jews whom he detested and Zionist Jews whom he saw as almost a counterbalance. National Jews were to be admired, but he condemned “the schemes of the international Jews.” Moreover, his often reckless anti-Communism occasionally carried in its train insensitivity toward Jews – and this brought forth Jewish protests.
Makovsky draws attention to the fact that Churchill’s embrace of Zionism was not linear. For example, he did not raise Jewish claims to Palestine when in government during World War I and neither said nor wrote anything on the Balfour Declaration when it was issued. In part, he naturally placed British interests before Jewish concerns. His vocal support for Zionism was often muted by the Irgun’s refusal not to retaliate against Arab attacks in the 1930s and its campaign against the British military in the 1940s. He was silent after Lord Moyne’s assassination by Lehi in 1944 and pointedly refused to meet his old friend, Weizmann.
In reality, Churchill dipped in and out of active support for the Zionist cause. While his support for a Jewish state was permanent, political constraints in Britain and Palestine often reduced him to inactivity. Above all, he was also extremely weary of the ingrained anti-Semitism in the Conservative Party and a periodic dislike for Jews within Britain in general. As colonial secretary in the 1920s, Churchill rebuffed all attempts to halt Jewish immigration. Yet there were many ranged against him. Gilbert quotes from a debate on the Mandate in the House of Lords in 1922 when Lord Sydenham suggested that the Palestinian Arabs would never have objected to “the establishment of well-selected Jews; but, instead of that, we have dumped down 25,000 promiscuous people on the shores of Palestine, many of them quite unsuited for colonizing purposes, and some of them Bolsheviks, who have already shown the most sinister activity.”
In the 1930s, it was not the innate anti-Semitism of the Nazis that offended, but the slight against liberal sensitivities and English gentility. As prime minister Neville Chamberlain wrote to his sister a few weeks before the outbreak of World War II, “No doubt Jews aren’t a loveable people; I don’t care about them myself; but that is not sufficient to explain the pogrom.” Churchill throughout his life refused to kowtow to such a mentality. He was personally devastated by the destruction of European Jewry and frustrated by the profound opposition to Zionism he often encountered. He was seen as being “too fond of Jews.”
Within a few days of his ascension to the premiership, there were calls for the return of all 11 British battalions from Palestine because the Nazi invasion of Britain seemed imminent. In view of Arab hostility and pro-Nazi sentiment, Churchill suggested that the Jews of Palestine should be armed. His colonial secretary strenuously opposed this idea for fear of “the worst possible repercussions on the Arab world.” Following the sinking of the refugee ship Patria, General Wavell wanted to ship the survivors to Mauritius. Again Churchill intervened and telegrammed Wavell: “Personally, I hold it would be an act of inhumanity unworthy of the British name to force them to reembark.”
Gilbert mentions a meeting in 1993 in London on the 50th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, where Churchill’s grandson was the speaker. A woman in the audience told him: “We had one of the few radios in the ghetto and, whenever your grandfather was due to broadcast on the BBC, my family and friends would gather round. I could not understand English, but I knew that if I and my family had any hope of coming through this war alive, it depended upon that one, strong, unseen voice… I was the only member of my family to survive. I was liberated by British forces in 1945.”
Churchill’s voice will still be heard by the generations that come after us. Jews, especially, will stand in awe and in respect before him.
Jerusalem Post 27 December 2007