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It’s inevitable that scholars and authors will plumb every facet of our larger historical figures, a trait made evident by the fact that a book exists with the title Lincoln and the Coming of the Caterpillar Tractor. The subject of Winston Churchill and the Jews is not a trivial or peripheral subject, but it is difficult to treat this delicate matter in isolation, as the virtues and defects of these two books demonstrate.
Sir Martin Gilbert, fresh off Churchill and America, brings his familiar strict chronological treatment of Churchill’s interactions with leading Jews and Zionist issues throughout his long career, and as useful and thorough as Gilbert always is, this approach leaves some important interpretive gaps. It’s amusing to know that Churchill received oranges from Israel on his 83rd birthday, but it would be more useful to understand better the factors behind Churchill’s frequent distraction and hesitation over Jewish issues.
“Churchill’s essential sympathy and support for Zionist ends can only be understood justly from the standpoint of the prudent statesman.” –Steven F. HaywardMichael Makovsky’s more analytical volume attempts to fill these gaps by placing what he calls Churchill’s “nonlinear” or “erratic” Zionism into the larger context of Churchill’s grand statecraft, but his judgment of Churchill shifts as often as Churchill’s did, leaving some questions unresolved.
What is undeniable from both books, however, is Churchill’s extraordinary philo-Semitism, which represented an important departure from the comfortable anti-Semitism of his political and class peers, and is yet another piece of evidence that Churchill cannot be explained simply as a product of the Victorian age.
Churchill was the ardent friend of leading Jews in Britain and a supporter of Zionism, expressing as early as 1908 his sympathy for a “restoration” of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and successfully opposing an Aliens Bill brought to the House of Commons in 1904 that would have sharply restricted Jewish immigration into Britain. Later, as colonial secretary in the 1920s, Churchill took steps that enabled 300,000 Jews to emigrate to Palestine over the next decade, providing the nucleus for the future nation of Israel. As prime minister, in 1941, he proclaimed that “I was one of the authors” of Zionist policy. Indeed, among the lengthy catalogue of criticisms of Churchill was that “He was too fond of Jews.”
Churchill’s interest and sympathy for Jews had philosophical and cultural roots. Both Gilbert and Makovsky highlight Churchill’s comment, offered in the fifth volume of his World War II memoirs, that “No two cities have counted more with mankind than -Athens and Jerusalem. Their messages in religion, philosophy, and art have been the main guiding lights of modern faith and culture.” This was not merely a casual one-off but a highly unusual reflection coming from an otherwise unreligious man. The essential harmony of reason and revelation implied in this comment was usually found only among Roman Catholics in the mid-20th century.
Churchill understood that Christians owed this tradition to Judaism; as early as 1921, while visiting Jerusalem, he commented, “We owe to the Jews in the Christian revelation a system of ethics which, even if it were entirely separated from the supernatural, would be incomparably the most precious possession of mankind, worth in fact the fruits of all other wisdom and learning put together. On that system and by that faith there has been built out of the wreck of the Roman Empire the whole of our existing civilization.”
The story of Moses, including the exodus across the parted Red Sea, Churchill wrote in a remarkable essay in 1931, should be taken literally. Moses was “one of the greatest human beings” who is to be associated with “the most decisive leap forward ever discernible in the human story.” The Mosaic establishment of monotheism was “an idea of which all the genius of Greece and the power of Rome were incapable.” Like all of Churchill’s other historical speculations, this was not mere antiquarianism. He liked to repeat the phrase attributed to Disraeli that “the Lord deals with the nations as the nations dealt with the Jews.”
This philosophical dimension, more than his romantic imagination, or views of how Zionism was compatible with his imperialism (as Makovsky sometimes suggests), explains Churchill’s fundamental regard for Jews. But as is the case with so many other prominent aspects of Churchill’s career, there are a number of inconsistencies and contradictions in his expressed attitudes and policies toward Jews and Zionism to be observed and, if possible, reconciled.
As Makovsky puts it, Churchill was “a Zionist who often abandoned Zionism.” Now and then Churchill wobbled. Gilbert devotes several pages to recounting a controversial newspaper article Churchill published in 1920 commenting on the “struggle for the soul of the Jewish people” represented by the clash between Zionism and Bolshevism–the latter being understood as a “conspiratorial” Jewish movement. Both Gilbert and Makovsky note that Churchill was apparently taken in by The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a copy of which Churchill had recently encountered.
Makovsky’s account captures in copious detail how Churchill’s views of Zionism “were seemingly all over the place. At times he ignored and even scorned Zionism, and at times he vehemently endorsed it.” On the surface, Churchill seems susceptible to the criticism that he picked up and set aside his Zionist sympathies to suit his convenience. Churchill strongly opposed the Peel Commission’s White Paper of 1939 advocating Palestinian partition, but did nothing subsequently as prime minister to undo the White Paper. He was publicly indifferent to Zionist causes at various points in his career, but often lurched to the other extreme, sometimes making support for Zionism a “litmus test” of political rectitude.
Makovsky’s narrative of Churchill’s course often feels whipsawed by Churchill’s constant course corrections, culminating in perplexing summaries such as this: “He felt the need to distance himself from Zionism partly, and ironically, because it was never more integral to his being.” Had Churchill the amateur painter rendered his Zionism on canvas, Makovsky writes, “the final product would resemble the scattered and splattered swirls of Jackson Pollock.”
The better artistic analogy for Churchill would be the neo-impressionist Georges Seurat, whose pointillist images only become clear when one steps far enough away from the canvas to take in the whole. Makovsky explains Churchill’s inconsistencies chiefly as a function of the clash between his capacious romanticism and his British nationalism: His Zionism frequently had to take a back seat to Britain’s national interest (not to mention his own political self-interest). But the clash between sentimentalism and national interest will explain anyone’s course, while Churchill’s case in this, as in so many areas, remains exceptional.
Missing is a serious treatment of the statesman’s prudence, which is the crucial ingredient for evaluating Churchill’s many otherwise troubling changes and inconsistencies across all aspects of his career. Churchill understood (though seldom articulated directly) that the cause of Zionism depended upon the health of Western democracy itself, the precariousness of which was the dominant focus of his statecraft from the outset of World War I. He understood that the Balfour Declaration of 1917 was inspired by wartime calculations, not unlike Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, and that it would be awkward to fulfill in the short term after the war, which explains his limited public engagement with it.
Gilbert’s steady narrative captures this better, noting that Churchill saw the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine to be one of his prime postwar tasks, but which had to wait until the war against Hitler was won, to the great frustration of David Ben-Gurion and other Zionists. That Churchill could have, or might have, done more on behalf of Jews during the war is not necessarily clear, even in hindsight; and in any event requires placing the issue within the larger context of Churchill’s whole statecraft, which is never easy to do. Just as Lincoln often disappointed the Abolitionists (to whom 20th-century Zionists can be compared in some ways) by his measured course toward emancipation, Churchill’s essential sympathy and support for Zionist ends can only be understood justly from the standpoint of the prudent statesman, of whom we rightly honor Churchill as the highest modern example. When this is done, it becomes easier to share the sentiment of a Jewish prisoner in a Soviet labor camp during the war, recounted by Gilbert: “We have no bread, but we have Churchill.”
Steven F. Hayward is the F. K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI.
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