August 30, 2007
Books: Too fond of Jews
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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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