Churchill and The Jews: A Curious Match
08/24/2010 - 17:28

Reading Adam Gopnik's superb essay on Winston Churchill in the latest New Yorker, makes you wonder what Churchill actually thought about Jews. That question seemed about settled when Martin Gilbert, Churchill's official biographer and a leading British historian, published "Churchill and The Jews: A Lifelong Friendship" in 2007. 

But as Gopnik points out, Churchill's views on all human types--Germans, Slavs, Brits, Muslims, and certainly Jews--was anything but enlightened.  In fact, the growing body of recent scholarship seems most at pains to prove otherwise: Churchill was no moral visionary, but instead a hopeless 19th century romantic, entirely at ease with the ethnic chauvinism that era invoked.

The Germans, Churchill wrote, “combine in the most deadly manner the qualities of the warrior and the slave," which, in light of the context, we might be tempted to agree with. But this kind of ethnic essentializing permeates his writing throughout his life.  This is Churchill in the 1890s, when, as a young admiral in the Royal Navy, he lusted for war in Empire's far flung lands: “The British army had never fired on white troops since the Crimea, and now that the world was growing so sensible and pacific—and so democratic too—the great days were over...Luckily, however, there were still savages and barbarous peoples. There were Zulus and Afghans, also the Dervishes of the Soudan. Some of these might, if they were well-disposed, ‘put up a show.’ ”

But as Gopnik wisely notes: "We do not think this way anymore. ... As an intellectual exercise, defining Germans seems perilously close to defaming Jews."

Still, Gilbert's own book on Churchill and the Jews showed that while Churchill's views were still crudely ethnic, they were at least more benign. He felt that the Jews: "grasped and proclaimed an idea of which all the genius of Greece and all the power of Rome were incapable."  From his own observations, which were mostly at odds with his fellow educated countrymen, the Jews showed a unique sense of loyalty and resolve.  This conviction led him to endorse their dream of statehood early on, as he told a Jerusalem crowd in 1921, a Jewish homeland "will be a blessing to the whole world."

Of course, you're quite right to wonder how well the bonhomie held up after the Second World War ended and Zionist militants began terrorizing British troops. Apparently Churchill's Zionism did not waver.  As Michael Markovsky detailed in "Churchill's Promised Land: Zionism and Statecraft" (Yale University Press, 2007), however, his Zionism did occasionally take the back seat to Britain's own national interests.  But for the most part, he saw an alliance with Israel as crucial to the West.

And it's worth noting, too, that by the time Jewish militants were attacking British troops in Palestine, Churchill was out of office. Just after the war, he was unseated as Prime Minister, only to return for a last hoo-zah in 1951.  As with much of Churchill's career, his timing was impeccable.



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Eric Herschthal prefaces one of his quotations by asserting that in the 1890s Churchill was "a young admiral in the Royal Navy". Very young indeed as he did not leave secondary school until 1893. He spent the rest of the 1890s as a junior officer in the british army, resigning his commission in 1900. It was not until 1911 that he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, but this was a political position. He never served in the Royal Navy.

And yet... I’m prepared to accept that Churchill was overall favourably disposed towards both Jews and the Zionist enterprise. And yet, Churchill was the leader of Great Britain (the leader of the Free World until the US showed up) during our hour of greatest need. He was also more aware than most of the scale and pace of the Holocaust. There were limits to Churchill’s authority, and yet it’s always seemed to me that there was a great deal more he could have done to ease our plight, even just by speaking out if nothing else. Allowed more refugees into Britain? Put pressure on Britain’s allies to accept more refugees? Create a Jewish Army? Treat the Jewish people as an ally in the fight against Hitler? Press for greater (limited or unlimited) Jewish immigration into Palestine, the Jewish National Home? All these options were open to him. With all due respect to the great leader, with friends like that, do we actually need enemies? Turning the question on its head, if Churchill had been a raving anti-Semite, could our fate during the Holocaust have been much worse?