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Jewish Journal

Books: Too fond of Jews

by Rabbi David Wolpe

August 30, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

"I cannot conceive why this martyred race, scattered about the world, and suffering as no other race has done at this juncture, should be denied the satisfaction of having a flag."
-- Winston Churchill, July 26, 1944

By the age of 26, Winston Churchill had fought in several wars, become a hero by daringly escaping prison during the Boer War, been elected to Parliament and written several popular books (including "My Early Life," which dramatically recounts his escape). Already he was well on his way to becoming what we now know him to be, the most extraordinary character of the 20th century.

Yet at the conclusion of World War II, while in the hospital for appendicitis, Churchill was voted out of office. "In the twinkling of an eye" he later wrote, "I found myself without an office, without a seat, without a party, and without an appendix." The depression that had plagued him throughout his life (he called it his "black dog") was partly the product of many genuine setbacks. Few historical figures had as rocky and uncertain a career as Churchill, an unevenness that persisted even after he became simultaneously the historian and hero of the western world.

Almost as variable as his fortunes were his political allegiances. He shifted party affiliation more than once and had his share of political opponents who reviled him as an opportunist. (A famous exchange with a constituent: "Vote for you? I'd rather vote for the devil!" To which Churchill answered, "I understand, but as he is not standing for office at this time, might I count on your support?")

Yet in the midst of his seeming inconstancy, certain principles were unshakable for Churchill, no matter how unfashionable. One of those is expressed vividly in the story with which Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert begins his newly released "Churchill and the Jews" (Henry Holt and Co., 2007). Interviewing Gen. Sir Edward Louis Spears while working on Churchill's official biography, Spears, who admired Churchill, confided to Gilbert: "Even Winston had a fault. He was too fond of Jews."

Not long ago, an anti-Semitic passage written by Churchill made its way across the frictionless terrain of the Internet. Except it was not, in fact, by Churchill, and no reader of the books under discussion would have been deceived in the first place. For though Churchill's romantic vision of Jewish history and his instinctive affection for the Jewish people was not undiscriminating, it was unwavering. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was known for his friendship with Jews, and even in childhood Churchill would bristle at remarks by adults that could be construed as anti-Semitic.

Throughout the debate over a Jewish homeland, Churchill walked a fine line between encouraging Jewish immigration and declaring a state by fiat. He knew the intensity of Arab opposition and British skittishness. Moreover, Britain was reliant on Egypt for control of the Suez Canal and on Iran for the security of the Anglo-Persian Oil Co.'s production. In the Middle East, then as now, nothing is simple.

Despite his record of powerful support, there were moments when Churchill disappointed his Zionist friends. In 1921, Churchill's White Paper vaguely encouraged gradual development and growth of the Jewish community in Palestine. That weak and amorphous support, a retreat from the Balfour Declaration, infuriated Chaim Weizmann, then the leader of the World Zionist Organization, and others, but in the end it turned out to be a dispiriting episode in Churchill's support, not a sustained diminishment of it.

According to Michael Makovsky in "Churchill's Promised Land" (Yale University, 2007), although Churchill publicly supported the Balfour Declaration, in private his feelings were for a brief while quite different, and he wished Britain could just rid itself of the problem. Speaking of Mesopotamia and Palestine, he said he wanted to "resign them both and quit at the earliest possible moment." But even this frustration gave way to his fundamental sympathy, and, as Makovsky notes, "There is no record of Churchill privately disparaging the pro-Zionist policy again for the rest of his term as colonial secretary."

Churchill's sympathy was tested. When two Stern Gang terrorists assassinated Lord Moyne and his driver, Churchill was stung and furious. Here Makovsky gives a picture of Churchill far more ambivalent than that in Gilbert's "Churchill and the Jews." In particular, Makovsky speaks of Churchill's anger at Jewish attacks on British personnel in Palestine, which led to him tack back and forth after the war in ways that suggest his weariness and frustration.

More than a decade later, with war looming, Churchill proposed a 10-year plan that included limiting Jewish immigration to 30,000-35,000 people a year. Although this was much higher than the usual yearly immigration (in 1937 Gilbert cites a figure of just over 10,000), it was far lower than the Zionists had hoped for. Still, as with previous maneuvers, Churchill did not forget the ultimate goal. In 1939, when the White Paper was adopted, which Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain explained was to ensure that the Arabs would always maintain a majority over the Jews in Palestine, Churchill responded with one of his magnificent rhetorical bursts: "Now there is the breach; there is the violation of the pledge; there is the abandonment of the Balfour Declaration; there is the end of the vision, of the hope, of the dream."

Chamberlain, by the way, commenting on the persecution of the Jews of Germany, wrote the following charming lines to his sister: "No doubt the Jews aren't a lovable people; I don't care about them myself; but that is not sufficient to explain the pogrom." That was the social world in which Churchill too often moved.

Churchill refused to commit himself to any particular scheme of statehood until the end of the war, when the allies would be victorious and the peace negotiations under way. Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion were bitterly disappointed. Shortly after the end of the war, when the King David Hotel was bombed, Churchill was again personally offended and outraged. Still he tried to calm his colleagues, because he knew that the leaders with whom he had developed a relationship, Ben-Gurion and Weizmann, were in no way responsible for the bombing. As he said in 1948, "I will never forgive the Irgun terrorists. But we should never have stopped immigration before the war."

Even before the war, Churchill's support was not motivated only by an historic sympathy, but also by his appreciation for the Jewish achievement in Palestine. "Nothing will stand in your way," he told the farmers of Rishon Lezion in 1921. "You have changed desolate places to smiling orchards and initiated progress instead of stagnation. Because of our belief in you, we are supporting the Zionist movement." He called the Zionists "splendid open air men and beautiful women" who made "the desert blossom like a rose."Churchill's fondness for Jews offset a less flattering image of Islam and Arabs. Commenting on the status of women in Islam, he once said, "Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities - but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it." He early on anticipated a threat that would loom larger as time passed. In 1921, Churchill said on the floor of Parliament: "Austere, intolerant, well-armed and blood-thirsty, in their own regions the Wahabis are a distinct factor which must be taken into account, and they have been, and still are, very dangerous to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina."

Churchill's relation to Jews was personal - he grew close to Weizmann - and was marked by deep understanding. Between the wars, Churchill commented that Bolshevism and Zionism were struggling for the soul of the Jewish people, and he prayed that Zionism would triumph. In addition, his intractable opposition to communism contributed to his understanding of the value of a democratic Israel.

Churchill knew the Holocaust was the "greatest crime" in the history of humanity. He advocated the bombing of the tracks to Auschwitz, and repeatedly expressed the deepest sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust and the most caustic rage toward its perpetrators.

When the State of Israel was declared, Churchill was clear about its significance: "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."

Gilbert and Makovsky have written books that are different in tone and even in intent. Makovsky's is intended primarily to analyze Churchill's positive but intermittently conflicted attitude toward the Zionist enterprise. It is a diplomatic history of one man's mind, showing its evolution. The book is readable and absorbing for anyone interested in the history of Zionism or Churchill's career.

Gilbert's is different, and to understand how, we should pause for a moment and say something about the sort of history Martin Gilbert writes. As a rule, great biographers - whether writing on political figures such as Robert Blake on Benjamin Disraeli or literary figures, such as Richard Ellmann on James Joyce - illuminate the subject but also insinuate their own sensibilities. The style of the biography becomes part of the story of its subject. There are even biographers who end up telling you more about themselves than about the central character of their books (read biographies by G.K. Chesterton or A.J.P. Taylor, and you might imagine you have learned more about them than about St. Francis or Bismarck). Gilbert is the exemplar of the opposing school. He has polished his prose until it is virtually transparent. Blessed with a subject of surpassing eloquence whom he has chronicled in multiple previous biographic books, he allows Churchill to speak for himself at every opportunity. Whenever the facts can be interpreted to Churchill's credit, Gilbert does so, but given his unparalleled knowledge of Churchill's life and career, no one alive has greater warrant for interpretation. In this tome, Churchill speaks to us through the undistorted prism of Gilbert's prose.

"Churchill and the Jews" presents one enchanting part of a fuller mosaic. This book, like Makovsky's, is profitably read on its own. But placed against the background of Gilbert's condensed one-volume biography, it is even more compelling.

It is no coincidence that Churchill's son-in-law and official biographer were both Jewish. With his love of learning and deep knowledge of history, Churchill estimated the Jews as follows: "Some people like Jews and some do not; but no thoughtful man can doubt the fact that they are beyond all question the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world."

Churchill was not the only prominent British statesman well disposed to the Jewish people. The great British statesmen and Prime Ministers David Lloyd George and, of course, Arthur Balfour, were also markedly sympathetic. But Churchill's willingness to repeatedly declare his affection and leave it as a legacy was extraordinary. A bafflingly complex, prodigiously gifted and intensely self-regarding man ("all men are worms, but I do believe I am a glowworm") Churchill's legacy, like that of Napoleon or Lincoln, will be a boon to historians throughout the generations. But all of them will find, to slightly twist Lord Spears' sneering phrase, that he was indeed very, very fond of the Jews.

David Wolpe is senior rabbi of Sinai Temple. His column on books will appear monthly in The Journal.

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