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Winston Churchill and the Jews

William D. Rubinstein

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Jewish Historical Studies, volume 39,2004 Winston Churchill and the Jews WILLIAM D. RUBINSTEIN Winston Churchill was among the best friends the Jews ever had as a British political leader. He was a firm and, with some exceptions, absolutely consis? tent supporter of the Jews and of Zionism throughout his lengthy career. As Bernard Wasserstein put it, 'No British statesman had a more consistent and more emphatic record of support for Zionism as a solution to the Jewish problem than Winston Churchill.'1 The reasons for this lifelong commitment are, however, anything but clear, and the historian can only spell out the facts. There was no objective reason for Churchill to have been as philo-Semitic as he was. Every so often the rumour arises in anti-Semitic circles that Churchill's mother, the American Jenny Jerome, was Jewish. One would like to believe this but, regrettably - and unlike the case of Leopold Amery - there is no reason to suppose that it is true, notwithstanding the fact that Jenny Jerome was indeed born in Brooklyn. Her father Leonard Jerome was an Anglo-Saxon Protestant Wall Street stockbroker of post-Civil War America's 'Gilded Age' of capitalist fortunes; if Churchill had had some Jewish ancestry this would assuredly have been well documented long ago. Churchill's father, the famous, brilliant and erratic Tory politician Lord Randolph Churchill, had Jewish friends and associates, especially the Rothschilds, and vocally opposed the Tsarist pogroms of the early 1880s. None of this explains Churchill's philo-Semitism. Probably it is safest to conclude that the Jews represented two or three things which Churchill always admired: a kind of conservative cosmopolitanism, in Churchill's case the product of his mixed British and American ancestry; ancient, unbroken lineage; and peaceful, progressive success. Also, in his earlier years at least, Churchill was a cham? pion of the underdog, and in the 1890s was an outspoken pro-Dreyfusard, * This Presidential Lecture, presented to the Society on 23 October 2003, was based on a number of sources, including W. D. Rubinstein, A History of the Jews in the English-Speaking World: Great Britain (London 1996); Norman Rose, 'Churchill and Zionism', in Robert Blake and William Roger Louis (eds) Churchill (Oxford 1993); Harry Defries, Conservative Party Attitudes to the Jews, igoo-ig^o (London 2001); standard biographies of Churchill by Sir Martin Gilbert and others, as well as relevant issues of Hansard. 1 Cited in Yoav Tenembaum, 'The Last Romantic Gentile Zionist', The Jewish Post (New York) January 1996. 107</page><page sequence="2">William D. Rubinstein supporting Alfred Dreyfus (as did the great majority of educated English people) against his right-wing French persecutors. Churchill first encountered Jews in numbers, it seems, when he became the adopted candidate for and then the MP for the Manchester North-West constituency from 1904 to 1908. As its Liberal MP for nearly three years until he moved to Dundee, Churchill opposed the Aliens Act of 1905, and also came into contact with the strong element of pro-Zionism stemming from Manchester Jewry at that time. In December 1905 he moved a resolu? tion at a Jewish gathering in Manchester opposing the latest round of pogroms in Russia and there, for the first time, met Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader, who shared the platform with him and was, over many years, a formative influence on his pro-Zionism. In 1904-05 Churchill left the Conservative party over the issue of tariffs and, from then until 1924, became a Liberal, serving as a Liberal rather than a Tory Cabinet Minister from 1908 to 1915 and then again from May 1917 until the fall of the Lloyd George government in 1922. The ill-fated Gallipoli campaign which he masterminded meant that during the First World War Churchill, amazingly, was detested by most Tories and was outside the Cabinet between December 1915 and May 1917. He was, however, a member of the outer Cabinet, not the small inner war Cabinet, in late 1917 when the Balfour Declaration was formulated. Churchill appears to have had no direct role in drawing up the Balfour Declaration, which was produced by a small group consisting of Balfour, Lloyd George, Milner and Smuts within the Cabinet and some pro-Zionists headed by Leo Amery (who actually wrote its text) outside the Cabinet. Nevertheless, there does not seem to be the slightest doubt that Churchill, who was fully occupied as Minister of Munitions, was in total accord with it. In addition, Churchill was at the point of completely altering his political views, a product of his fears surrounding the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 which he believed represented a direct threat to democracy and Western civilization, and of the rise of the Labour party after 1918. Churchill was in the process of moving sharply to the right, leaving the Liberal party in 1922 to become an independent 'Constitutionalist' and then formally joining the Conservatives in 1924 when he was immediately made Chancellor of the Exchequer by Stanley Baldwin. Churchill had not, however, changed his lifelong pro-Zionism or support for the Jews, although it has seemed to some historians that at this time, the early 1920s, he did. They have pointed in particular to two things: the well known, perhaps notorious, article he wrote for the Illustrated Sunday Herald in 1920 and his actions as Colonial Secretary with responsibility for Palestine between January 1921 and October 1922, in the declining years of Lloyd George's government. 168</page><page sequence="3">Winston Churchill and the Jews In February 1920 Churchill produced one of the most curious and misunderstood documents he ever wrote about the Jews. In the Illustrated Sunday Herald he wrote a long feature entitled 'Zionism Versus Bolshevism: A Struggle for the Soul of the Jewish People'. He began by paying tribute to the Jews as 'beyond all question the most formidable and the most remark? able race which has ever appeared in the world'. He then divided Jewry into what he termed 'national Jews' - patriots and constructive leaders of society in England and elsewhere - but also 'international Jews' and 'terrorist Jews'. Churchill, in the mood of the times, just after the Bolshevik revolution, accepted that these later categories were part of what he termed a 'sinister confederacy' which he traced from ancient times through Karl Marx to Trotsky and Bela Kun; these he claimed were part of 'a worldwide conspir? acy for the overthrow of civilization'. Anyone familiar with right-wing rhet? oric of the time will know that, just after the Russian Revolution, the apparent gross over-representation of Jews in this and associated revolu? tionary movements was widely commented on. Then, however, Churchill introduced a theme of his own which shows, I think, his uncanny far-sight? edness. He went on to say that there was 'a struggle for the soul of the Jewish people' between Zionism and Bolshevism, and that it was altogether in the interests of moderate Gentiles therefore to support Zionism as the only realistic 'positive and practical alternative' to Jewish Bolshevism: 'Positive and practical alternatives are needed in the moral as well as the social sphere; and in building up with the utmost possible rapidity a Jewish national centre in Palestine which may become not only a refuge to the oppressed from the unhappy lands of Central Europe, but which will also be a symbol of Jewish unity and the Jewish glory, a task is presented on which many blessings rest.' There is nothing in Churchill's argument which would not have been echoed by Weizmann or Vladimir Jabotinsky. The latter in fact advocated an extreme form of Jewish nationalism as a rival to Jewish socialism. It is also the case that, since the foundation of the State of Israel, Jewish nationalism and neo-conservative doctrines closely associated with it have increasingly flourished, while Jewish left-wing socialism has sharply declined. While there are many reasons for this, probably the most important is that Jewish nationalism and international socialism are arguably incompatible, with Jews forced to choose between being nationalists and radical socialists. Certainly a majority have chosen the former, exactly as Churchill wisely foresaw more than eighty years ago. Churchill's article is sometimes used to show that he was, at this time at least, something of an anti-Semite, accept? ing the view of Jews as incorrigible radicals expressed often by the extreme right wing, but he was actually saying nothing of the kind - indeed, his argument was precisely opposite. 169</page><page sequence="4">William D. Rubinstein In March 1921 Churchill visited Palestine for the first time. He was deeply impressed by the small Yishuv, planted a tree on Mount Scopus at the site of the future Hebrew University and expressed support for the idea that 'the hope of your race for so many centuries will be gradually realised here, not only for your good but for the good of the world'.2 The British government also had to deal with the rising tide of Arab and Muslim anti Zionism as well as a backlash against the Balfour Declaration by a part of the Tory right wing. Churchill did two things to placate anti-Zionist feeling in 1921?2. First, he separated Jordan from what became the Palestine Mandate, putting the Hashemites on the Jordanian throne and closing it to Zionist settlement. Secondly, in June 1922 he issued what became known as the 'Churchill White Paper' which, while it reaffirmed support for the Balfour Declaration, stated that Jewish immigration could not be allowed to be greater than the economic capacity of the country to absorb it. At the same time he guided through Parliament the so-called Rutenberg Scheme for the electrification of Palestine, and the legal framework of the Mandate, which Norman Rose, the specialist historian of this subject at the Hebrew University, termed 'a Zionist document'. It stated that the Jews were in Palestine 'as of right not on sufferance' and defined its hope that the Jewish National Home 'may become a centre in which the Jewish people as a whole may take, on grounds of religion and race, an interest and a pride'. Churchill thus began the policy of 'constructive Zionism', the building of the physical infrastructure of the Yishuv based on limited but continuing Jewish migration, which probably most Jews at the time approved and which was continued by Leo Amery when he was Colonial Secretary in 1924-9. The Conservatives lost office in June 1929 when Labour, under Ramsay MacDonald, formed its second minority government. Churchill remained a member of the Tory Business Committee - what would now be called the Shadow Cabinet - until January 1931, when he resigned over the issue of India. He was without office until September 1939 when, shortly after the outbreak of the Second World War, Neville Chamberlain brought Churchill back to the newly formed War Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill was thus out of office for ten years and on the back benches for eight. This was, indeed, one of the worst periods of Churchill's life, described in the best-known academic study of his career up to this point, by Robert Rhodes James, entitled Churchill: A Study in Failure. Churchill was almost killed in America in a car accident in 1935 and, had he died at that time, would now be remembered only by a few scholars of the Asquith period. 2 Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill (London 1975) 4:570-1. 170</page><page sequence="5">Winston Churchill and the Jews Churchill resigned from the Tory Shadow Cabinet specifically over the issue of granting some degree of self-government to India, a goal towards which all British governments began to move in the 1930s. He was adamantly opposed to any measure of self-rule for India and, as noted, at this time became closely associated with the most right-wing elements in the Conservative party on this issue. He famously declared that it was 'alarming and also nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a kind of fakir of a type well known in the East, strid? ing half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal Palace, while he is still organis? ing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parlay on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor', and expressed the wish that Gandhi should be bound hand and foot and trampled by an elephant ridden by the Viceroy.3 Thus Churchill, a radical Liberal less than twenty years earlier, during the 1930s gained the reputation of being one of the most right-wing members of the House of Commons, and also one given to making headline-catching, rather bizarre utterances in an inim? itable style. His reputation for eccentricity was further enhanced in 1936 when he tried to launch a campaign to keep Edward VIII on the throne during the Abdication Crisis, a move which failed. When the all-party National government headed by Ramsay MacDonald was formed during the finan? cial crisis of August 1931, Churchill was one of the most senior politicians excluded from it and, largely because of his perceived extremism and eccen? tricity, remained outside the government until the war began. Although he was seen as probably the most eloquent and cleverest man in Parliament, who had used the decade to write some of his famous histories, he was also regarded as a bore who, when he rose to speak, quickly emptied the House of Commons. Given that he was probably the greatest orator the English language has produced since Abraham Lincoln, this may seem incredible, but he was in good company: Edmund Burke, the great eighteenth-century conservative theorist who was also a strikingly eloquent orator, was known as the 'dinner gong', because when he rose to speak in Parliament everyone took the opportunity to leave and eat. During this period, too, Churchill was virtually without close friends or allies. In the 1930s he had a small group of loyal supporters, such as Brendan Bracken and Robert Boothby, who stood by him, but Churchill's lone wolf independence and unpopularity meant that even future allies such as Anthony Eden were remote from him and regarded him as some? thing of an outcast. With Churchill's increasingly extreme right-wing views, one might 3 See William Rubinstein, Twentieth Century Britian: A Political History (London 2003) 174-5. i7i</page><page sequence="6">William D. Rubinstein expect him to have welcomed Hitler's anti-Bolshevik movement or to have acted as some kind of bridge to Mosley and his companions. Indeed, Churchill originally praised Mussolini in 1933, referring to him as 'the greatest law giver among men' and 'the Roman genius'. He was not overtly hostile to Hitler during the first years of the Nazi regime. Nevertheless, from the mid-i930s Churchill became renowned as the greatest opponent of Hitler's in the British political mainstream, and the most trenchant opponent of Appeasement. As it first became likely and then indisputable that Hitler's aim was the total domination of Europe - not just the incorp? oration of German-speaking areas such as Austria within the Reich - and that this directly threatened not merely British security but Western civi? lization itself, Churchill came to be seen as the most likely and best possible leader for Britain at a time of crisis, and in May 1940 became Prime Minister at the darkest period of the war. Throughout the 1930s Churchill remained a strong supporter of Zionism, and his support for and by the Jewish community in Britain increased greatly in this period, with Churchill being seen by Jews, and also by non-Jewish victims of the Nazis such as the Czechs, as their best hope among Britain's leaders or potential leaders. He remained one of the most consistent supporters of Zionism in the political mainstream: for instance in June 1937, when negotiations over the Peel Commission on the future of Palestine were being held in London, Churchill was the guest of honour at a dinner in London organized by Weizmann and attended by leading pro Zionist political figures such as Leo Amery, Josiah Wedgwood, Victor Cazalet and also (ironically) by Clement Attlee. Churchill was one of the few speakers to support the Partition of Palestine mandate, a proposal first mooted at the time, and rejected by most Zionists as a further watering down of the Balfour Declaration, although it would have led to a Jewish State. Apparently Churchill had had too much to drink, turned to Weizmann and rather cryptically said, 'You know, you are our masters - and yours and yours [pointing to other members of the party] - and what you say goes. If you ask us to fight, we shall fight like tigers.' In March 1939 the British government issued the notorious Macdonald White Paper, heavily limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine just as the Nazis were conquering Europe; to his credit, Churchill made an outspoken attack on it in Parliament, stating on 23 May 1939 that 'I was from the beginning a sincere advocate of the Balfour Declaration ... I regret very much that the pledge of the Balfour Declaration . . . [has] been violated by the Government's proposals.' Churchill voted in a minority of 181-281 opposing the White Paper, along with Amery, Brendan Bracken, Victor Cazalet, Lloyd George, Harold Macmillan (note) and most of the Labour party. In May 1940 Churchill became Prime Minister when it appeared to many 172</page><page sequence="7">Winston Churchill and the Jews that Britain was about to be invaded, and that the best that could be hoped for was some kind of accommodation with Hitler allowing Britain and the Empire to continue as a semi-independent entity. This was actually advo? cated in the Cabinet by Lord Halifax and might have enjoyed considerable support. Churchill's finest hour, and the towering reputation he enjoys, stems largely from his adamant refusal to consider this, his masterful oratory leading a united nation through the Battle of Britain, and his fight? ing on, first alone and then in the Grand Alliance with Russia and America, until the final victory. Critics of Churchill have, however, focused on the arguably negative aspects of Britain's role during the Second World War, its failure to rescue more Jews from the Nazis, its policy towards Palestine and, at home, its treatment of 'enemy aliens'. A seminar could be devoted to any of these topics, but here they can be discussed only briefly. As I have argued at length in my book The Myth of Rescue (London 1997), after 1940 it was impossible for the democracies to rescue more Jews from the Nazis, since the Jews of Europe were prisoners rather than refugees, and no one could think of a way of rescuing them from Hitler's mission of killing them all. The only thing to be done was defeat Nazi Germany, which the Allies were in the process of doing. British policy towards Palestine and Jewish emigration there was unquestionably misguided, but the problem again was not that the British would not let Jews enter Palestine but that none, or few, could escape from Nazi-occupied Europe. The point was to ensure that any Jews who managed to escape were able to stay in a place of safety, beyond the reaches of the Nazis, and not necessarily to bring them to Palestine. No Jew who escaped Nazi-occupied Europe was ever returned there by the Allies, a point which is often overlooked; it did not matter whether a Jewish escapee passed the war in Palestine or Mauritius, as long as he or she was safe. That Churchill was one of the very first to realize the importance of the Holocaust in world history is well known, especially from his famous marginal note written to Anthony Eden in July 1944 that 'there is no doubt that this is probably the greatest and most horrible single crime ever committed in the whole history of the world'. The Churchill government's panicked reaction to the threat of invasion in 1940, in which all enemy aliens (some but probably not most of whom were Jews) were arrested as potential allies of the Nazis, was, of course, ridiculous and indefensible, as the government soon realized. Had Churchill not stood firm in 1940, presumably the Nazis would have conquered all of Europe and presumably - although this is more debatable - would have murdered all the Jews, including those in Britain. It is prob? ably not realized that although around five million Jews perished in the Second World War, nearly four million European Jews managed to survive, 173</page><page sequence="8">William D. Rubinstein including nearly two and a half million in Russia. One must assume that Churchill's unshakeable resolve in 1940 helped to save all these lives, as well as the lives of countless others who would doubtless have perished under a European-wide Nazi hegemony, including many in Britain. Moreover, to this death toll must be added the six-hundred thousand Jews of the Yishuv, who were saved by Montgomery's victory at El Alamein, and the five hundred thousand in North Africa who survived the war intact. Thus, Churchill's resistance to Nazism can be reasonably credited with having saved more than five million Jews from likely death, including the Jewish community in Palestine which emerged as the State of Israel only three years later. Whenever an assessment of Churchill's impact on the Jews is made, this must surely be taken into account. Little has been written about Churchill's attitude towards the Jews and Israel in his last years, that is, between his return to power as Prime Minister in 1951 and his death early in 1965 at the age of ninety. After the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 and the end of the ensuing War of Independence, a relatively benign and quiescent period followed, at least by later standards, during which Britain and the other Western nations estab? lished normal diplomatic relations with Israel, while anti-Semitism greatly diminished throughout the Western world. Churchill's attitude and remarks at this time fully reflected this happier mood, bearing in mind that the Arab-Israeli conflict and, indeed, the whole issue of the Jews, were minor matters compared with the overriding questions of the Cold War and the maintenance of full employment at home. In 1949 Churchill renewed his former warm association with Weizmann, now President of the State of Israel, deeply marred by the assassination of Lord Moyne in 1944. T look back with much pleasure on our long association. The light grows', he added rather cryptically. Although Weizmann never again met Churchill - Weizmann died in 1952 - they held each other in mutual esteem. During this period Churchill made a number of exceptional statements about the creation of Israel which deserve to be better known. In January 1949 he had already told the House of Commons that 'The coming into being of a Jewish State in Palestine is an event in world history 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.' Often describing himself as 'an old Zionist', in June 1954 Churchill told journalists, T am a Zionist, let me make this clear. I was one of the original ones after the Balfour Declaration and I have worked faithfully for it.' Churchill then went on, T think it is a most wonderful thing that this community should have established itself so effectively, turning the desert into fertile gardens and thriving townships and should have afforded refuge to millions of their co-religionists who suffered so fearfully under Hitler, and not only under 174</page><page sequence="9">Winston Churchill and the Jews Hitler, persecution. I think it is a wonderful thing.'4 He also made a series of lesser-known but even more extreme statements about the Arab-Israeli conflict. For instance, when Nasser blockaded the Suez Canal to Israeli ships, Churchill told the Foreign Office that 'I do not mind it being known here or in Cairo that I am on the side of Israel and her ill-treatment by the Egyptians'. He told Sir Evelyn Shuckburgh of the Foreign Office that 'you ought to let the Jews have Jerusalem; it is they who made it famous'. Churchill told Sir Anthony Eden, his Foreign Minister, that 'To me the greatest issue in this part of the world is not deserting Israel'. He even approved the proposals, which surface every so often, for Israel to join the Commonwealth. 'Do not put that out of your mind', he told Shuckburgh. 'It would be a wonderful thing.'5 In conversation with the Israeli ambassa? dor Eliyahu Elath, Churchill referred to Israel's population as 'the sons of prophets dwelling in Zion', and considered the establishment of Israel 'as one of the most hopeful and encouraging adventures of the twentieth century'. It is thus clearly a pity that Churchill was not in power in the 1946-8 period when the British government under Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin handled the Palestine question disastrously and with ill will towards Jews. One cannot know what would have happened had the Tories won the 1945 election, but it seems likely that Israel would have achieved its inde? pendence in a much more generous fashion, and probably with less blood? shed. It is also worth speculating what would have happened had Churchill remained in power a year or two longer in the 1950s ? he finally retired in April 1955 - during the Suez crisis of 1956. It is possible, even likely, that Britain and France would not have undertaken the fantastic scheme with Israel but, if Britain had been under Churchill's leadership, it is known what his attitude would have been. Had he been in charge, Churchill said, 'I would never have done it without squaring the Americans, and once I'd started I would never dare stop'. It was, as is well known, the opposition of President Eisenhower which led to the failure of the Suez campaign of 1956. At that very moment Eisenhower was running for re-election on a 'Peace and Prosperity' programme and wished to contrast Western democ? racy with the Soviet brutality being visited on Hungary at the time. This is seen by most historians as a climactic moment in modern British history, marking the final loss of Great Power status and the ushering in of decades of self-flagellation and self-hatred by writers and critics about British soci? ety, which reached an apogee during the 1960s. Had Churchill fought Suez and been victorious, this might arguably have been prevented. It would also have left Israel in possession of the Sinai and Jordan in control of the West 4 Tenembaum (see n. i). 5 Ibid. 175</page><page sequence="10">William D. Rubinstein Bank, which it controlled until the 1967 war. This might - just might - have made it possible for Israel to reach an accommodation with Egypt without the endless West Bank imbroglio and the Palestinian question in the form it has taken since the Six Day War. We shall never know. In Winston Churchill Britain had a remarkable leader whose gratuitous support for the Jews is perhaps as inexplicable as his wholly implausible rise to power in May 1940. Jewish history, it is frequently said, is marked by mysterious, perhaps inexplicable, events and movements, and it is difficult not to view Churchill's powerful support for and promotion of the survival of the Jews as anything else. 176</page></plain_text>