The Magazine

Was Churchill a Zionist?

Yes, most of the time.

Jun 16, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 38 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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Churchill and the Jews

A Lifelong Friendship

by Martin Gilbert

Henry Holt, 384 pp., $30

Churchill's Promised Land

Zionism and Statecraft

by Michael Makovsky

Yale, 368 pp., $35

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.

Michael 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.