Commentary Magazine


Churchill and the Jews by Martin Gilbert
Churchil's Promised Land by Michael Makovsky

Works & Days

Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship
by Martin Gilbert
Henry Holt. 384 pp. $30.00

Churchill’s Promised Land: Zionism and Statecraft
by Michael Makovsky
Yale. 368 pp. $35.00

In the upscale Jerusalem neighborhood known as the German Colony, several small side streets are named for Gentile supporters of Zionism and the Jewish people. Apart from the French author Emile Zola, the Czech president Tomas Masaryk, and the South African prime minister Jan Smuts, the names they bear are those of Englishmen. There is the Tory prime minister David Lloyd George, a chief architect of the Balfour Declaration; the early 20th-century British Labor-party leader Josiah Wedgewood; Colonel John Henry Patterson, commander of the Jewish Legion that fought in World War I; the pro-Zionist British general Wyndham Deedes, and so on. Missing from the list, though he more than once proudly proclaimed that “I am a Zionist,” and called Jews “the most formidable and remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world,” is Winston Churchill.

To the best of my knowledge, indeed, there is no street, road, place, or square named for Churchill anywhere in Israel. While this reflects no animus toward him in Israeli historical consciousness, it indicates no special place of honor, either. Why this should be so, when no other ranking 20th-century politician was more outspoken in his support of Jewish causes, is an interesting question. Two new books, Martin Gilbert’s Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship, and Michael Makovsky’s Churchill’s Promised Land: Zionism and Statecraft, help provide an answer.

Gilbert and Makovsky come to their subject from opposite ends of a scholarly career. Gilbert, an extraordinarily prolific British historian, has published over 50 works on modern Jewish and European history, including a multi-volume biography of Churchill. For Makovsky, whose Churchill’s Promised Land is an expansion of several chapters in his doctoral thesis, this book is his first. The two studies also have different and complementary emphases, Gilbert’s dwelling more on Churchill’s personal life and relationships, Makovsky’s on Churchill the global strategist. And yet the striking thing about them is how much they agree. Their similar conclusions leave the reader reasonably convinced that, at least in regard to Jews and Zionism, the man they describe was the man Churchill was.

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This was an Englishman of aristocratic background and Blimpish views whose father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was—uncharacteristically for a member of his class—socially friendly with Jews and sympathetic to them. From his father, Winston Churchill inherited a philo-Semitism that never left him. Jews were among his earliest political and financial backers, and it was because of them that he chose to run for parliament in 1904, at the age of twenty-seven, from a heavily Jewish district in Manchester. Elected to the House of Commons, he helped lead a successful fight against a proposed Aliens Bill that would have curbed Jewish emigration from Czarist Russia, and in 1910, now Home Secretary, risked political criticism by sending in troops to quell anti-Jewish riots in South Wales, the only ones of their kind in modern English history.

Between these two dates, Churchill also issued an official statement expressing “full sympathy” for the “restoration” of the Jewish people to a national “center” of its own in accordance with its “traditional aspirations.” Although he did not specifically mention Palestine, preferring to stay out of the intra-Jewish debate then taking place between Zionists and “Territorialists” over the best location of a Jewish homeland, this was in effect the beginning of a lifelong identification with the Zionist cause.

And yet both Gilbert and Makovsky leave one with the impression that Churchill’s rhetoric on Jewish and Zionist issues was almost always more forceful than his actions. As minister of munitions during World War I (in which capacity he commenced a long friendship with Chaim Weizmann, whose wartime contribution as a chemist to the British arms industry was great), he apparently played no role in the British cabinet’s adoption of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, and soon after the war’s end he recommended washing Great Britain’s hands of newly conquered Palestine and dumping it, along with the rest of the dismembered Ottoman Empire, in the lap of the League of Nations. Even though he had just published a controversial newspaper article championing Zionism as a bulwark against Bolshevism in “the struggle for the soul of the Jewish people,” his considered opinion, overruled by Lloyd George, was that administering Palestine as a British mandate committed to furthering Jewish national goals was too much trouble to be worth undertaking.

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This double aspect of Churchill’s attitude toward Zionism was to be accentuated in the years to come. After Palestine became part of the British Empire, he assumed direct ministerial responsibility for it when appointed colonial secretary in 1921. Great Britain’s Palestine policy, tugged in different directions by supporters of the Jews and the Arabs in government and military circles, was still in a formative stage. Here, one would have thought, was a golden opportunity for a sympathetic British politician to set it on a firmly pro-Zionist course.

But Churchill, despite his pro-Zionist pronouncements, some made in face-to-face encounters with Arab leaders during a trip to Palestine and the Middle East, was hesitant. On the one hand, he rejected Arab demands to repudiate the Balfour Declaration and grant home rule to the Arabs of Palestine. But he also refused to replace Palestine’s meticulously “even-handed” High Commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel, with a more pro-Zionist figure and administration; endorsed, against Zionist protests, Samuel’s contention that Jewish immigration should be subject to government limitations in accordance with Palestine’s “economic capacity”; concurred with Samuel again in declining, despite previous private statements to the contrary, to make the achievement of a Jewish majority in Palestine an official goal; and once again cast about for ways of relieving England of its Balfour obligations, this time by handing Palestine over to the United States.

It was a missed moment that was never to recur. After Churchill left the government in 1922 without having done anything to institutionalize Zionist aims, British policy in Palestine steadily tilted in the Arabs’ favor. The result was that, in the 1930’s, when the Jewish people desperately needed the country as a refuge from Hitlerism and European anti-Semitism, and could easily have become a majority if allowed to enter it, the British shut its gates in their faces, at first partially, and then all but completely. Although he was in no way part of this betrayal, which he eloquently denounced from the benches of Parliament, most dramatically at the time of the 1939 British White Paper that slashed Jewish immigration to Palestine to next to nothing, Churchill had helped set the stage for it.

On the whole, as depicted by both Gilbert and Makovsky, Churchill was a stronger supporter of Jewish and Zionist causes when out of office than when in it. This was perhaps only natural in view of the fact that a powerless politician is free of most of the responsibilities, pressures, and needs to compromise that one forced to govern must reckon with. Although Churchill really did think well of the Jews and poorly of the Arabs, whom he did not associate with the Western civilization that he fervently believed in and considered Jews to be an integral part of, the anti-Semitism of much of the Conservative party and much of the British public, and an empire with tens of millions of Arab and Muslim inhabitants, were realities he had to deal with both as colonial secretary and during World War II, when he unexpectedly became England’s prime minister after long years in the political wilderness.

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The World War II years were ones in which Churchill’s genuine anguish over the Nazis’ annihilation of the Jews of Europe, which he called “the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world,” and his political inability, or unwillingness, to do anything substantial about it, clashed tragically. Throughout the 1930’s, his had been a lonely voice in English politics in insisting that a war against Nazi Germany would have to be fought. Now, at the head of the British war effort, he did not wish to stand accused of jeopardizing it for Jewish and Zionist interests. What he was able to do against little domestic opposition, he did—pressure the Franco government of Spain into admitting Jewish refugees from Vichy France, for example, or get officials in Palestine to allot unused White Paper quotas for the small number of Jews who had found refuge in Istanbul.

But the bigger things continued to elude him, though not always for lack of trying. He did not manage to repeal the White Paper itself, whose cancellation in time might have allowed hundreds of thousands of doomed Jews to escape Europe. He could not get his generals to agree to bomb the Nazi death camps or the rail lines leading to them. He was unable to persuade the British administration in Palestine to arm the country’s Jews against a possible German invasion from Egypt, or to convince the British army to create the sizable Jewish combat force that he envisioned fighting the Germans under its own flag—two steps that would also have aided Palestinian Jewry in preparing itself for its future war against the Arabs. And he failed to deliver on his promise of committing England to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine once the war ended; after his electoral defeat by the Labor Party in 1945, he left office with the White Paper still intact and the British government about to revert to an anti-Zionist stance.

Nor did the pangs of conscience that Churchill felt at not having accomplished more for Zionism prevent him from continuing to oppose opening the gates of Palestine wide or from declaring in a 1946 debate in the House of Commons that it would be “really too silly” to suppose that there was “room in Palestine for the great masses of Jews who wish to leave Europe, or that they could be absorbed in any period which it is now useful to contemplate.” Zionism was a just cause in his eyes and one that, in his fashion, he believed in, but it was only one among many, and he remained prepared to subordinate it to others that seemed more important or pressing. After the establishment of Israel, too, although his attitude toward it was cordial when he again became prime minister in 1951, and he viewed it as part of the U.S.-led anti-Soviet alliance that was paramount to him, he generally allowed his less pro-Israel foreign office and general staff to determine England’s policies toward the Jewish state.

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It was precisely Churchill’s verbal enthusiasm for Zionism, it would seem, that aroused expectations in Zionist circles that were, time and again, let down. He was a far greater disappointment in this respect than was Roosevelt, who never pretended to care much about Zionism and so was less resented for what he did not do. When, after the war, Churchill failed to honor his pledge to Weizmann to press for a Jewish state, Weizmann felt personally cheated. And yet the pledge was sincere; there had been nothing to be gained politically by making it. It was just that there was much to be gained politically by not keeping it, and Churchill was above all a politician.

As one, he was probably the best friend Jews could have hoped for in the England of his day and age. But the Jewish debt to him is everlasting less for anything he did for the Jewish people specifically than for what he did for England and the world. Without him at the English helm during the early, dark days of World War II, the entire campaign against Nazi Germany might have collapsed. In theory, America and Russia might have won the war against Hitler anyway. Practically speaking, this would have been all but impossible had England sued for peace when things looked bleakest. Churchill, more than anyone, was the reason it did not.

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Between them, Gilbert and Makovsky’s books draw a portrait of a man whose affinity for the Jews was already evident as a schoolboy (“Their faults were many,” Gilbert quotes him as writing in an essay about the Pharisees, “but whose faults are few?”) and eventually came to be integrated in a comprehensive view of the Jewish place in world history (in which, Makovsky cites Churchill as remarking, “the coming into being of a Jewish state in Palestine is an event to be viewed in the perspective, not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand, or even three thousand years”).

If there is a lesson to be learned from Churchill and the Jews and Churchill’s Promised Land, it is how in the end Zionism’s fortunes depended almost entirely on its ability or failure to mobilize Jewish power. Ultimately, even a strongly pro-Zionist statesman like Churchill was not prepared to do the Zionists any favors that he did not think were in his or England’s practical interest. Had the Jewish community in Palestine grown more rapidly in the 1920’s and 30’s, and the Jewish support for Zionism in the United States been stronger, he would have done more. (In British government debates over Palestine, Churchill always sought to play the card of American Jewry as effectively as he could, while complaining privately that U.S. Jews were not as solidly organized in Zionism’s behalf as he would have liked them to be.) This is something to think about when the Walts and Mearsheimers fulminate about today’s Jewish lobby. Churchill might have welcomed such a lobby in his own day. It might have enabled him to do what he always would have liked to do but never found a way of justifying to himself or his colleagues.

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