Letter from London: A Well-Spoken Friend
At a time when British unions are boycotting Israel, it is gratifying to recall Winston Churchill’s steadfast support and respect for Jews.
Almost 40 years ago, on September 12, 1969, I spent the day with Sir Edward Louis Spears, a British general in World War I who had been Winston Churchill’s friend for many years. Spears urged me to paint a true portrait of the man whose biography I had just begun to write. a Having convinced himself that I was determined to do so, Spears confided: “Even Winston had a fault. He was too fond of Jews.”
This set my mind in a whirl. How did Churchill’s fault manifest itself? What effect did it have on the course of history? Did this fondness affect the fate of the Jews during World War II? Did it influence the emergence of the State of Israel in 1948? Was it mere fondness or something deeper?
Churchill’s father, lord Randolph Churchill, the son of a duke with a deeply aristocratic lineage, was unusual among his contemporaries and peers: He had Jewish friends and invited them to his home. This was frowned on in the family circle. There was no harm in inviting a Jew to lunch with you at your club, or at the House of Commons, but at home—unheard of! Churchill’s father ignored the prejudice that swirled around him in the 1880s and in face of much family and society hostility, brought his Jewish friends home. The young Churchill took his father’s side and himself enjoyed the company of his father’s Jewish friends, several of whom were to become his friends and help him when his father died.
All his life Churchill rejected anti-Semitism. As a young man he persuaded his mother to delete an anti-Semitic sentence from her memoirs. As a young politician he resigned from the Reform Club in London when it refused to elect a Jewish friend of his as a member. On the outbreak of war in 1914, he protected two of his Jewish friends, Major Frank Goldsmith and Maurice Arnold de Forest, from popular hostility—they were accused of not being loyal to Britain. After that war, he made considerable efforts to curb the anti-Semitic violence of the Russian anti-Bolshevik armies, which Britain was supporting, urging the army commanders to issue “a proclamation against anti-Semitism” and to enforce it.
In 1922, Churchill established, in legislation presented to the League of Nations, that the Jews were in Palestine “of right, and not on sufferance.” In 1933, he was one of the first British parliamentarians to speak out against the racial, anti-Semitic policies of Nazi Germany. That year he also warned of the danger “of the odious conditions now ruling in Germany” being extended by conquest to Poland “and another persecution and pogrom of Jews being begun in this new area.” In linking Nazi expansionism with the persecution of the Jews from the earliest days of Nazi rule in Germany, Churchill was six years ahead of his time.
When Albert Einstein went to see Churchill in the spring of 1933 to ask his help in bringing Jewish scientists from Germany, Churchill encouraged one of his closest friends, Oxford University Professor Frederick Lindemann, to travel to Germany and recruit Jewish scientists for positions in British universities.
Reflecting in 1934 on what the Jews could do to combat persecution, Churchill wrote:
The first is to be a good citizen of the country to which he belongs. The second is to avoid too exclusive an association in ordinary matters of business and daily life, and to mingle as much as possible with non-Jews everywhere, apart from race and religion. The third is to keep the Jewish movement free from Communism. The fourth is a perfectly legitimate use by the Jews of their influence throughout the world to bring pressure, economic and financial, to bear upon the Governments which persecute them.
Churchill always urged the Jews to be good citizens while retaining their faith and culture. His advice to his Jewish parliamentary constituents in 1907 was: Be good Jews. He then explained to them that he did not believe a Jew could be “a good Englishmen unless he is a good Jew.” A year later he told those gathered to open a new wing of a Jewish hospital that he was “very glad to have the experience of watching the life and work of the Jewish community in England; there was a high sense of the corporate responsibility in the community; there was a great sense of duty that was fostered on every possible occasion by their leaders.”
Avoiding too exclusive an all-Jewish association was another consistent theme. Churchill welcomed Jews as part of the wider British community and was impressed by how many accepted that challenge—and succeeded. There were nations consisting of hundreds of millions of people, he commented in 1954, who were “the beneficiaries every day from the genius and discoveries of the Jews.”
Keeping “the Jewish movement” free of Communism was another theme. The prominence of individual Jews in the Communist seizures of power in Russia, Bavaria and Hungary had alarmed Churchill since the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. Writing about this in 1920, he urged the Jews to abandon Communism and either enter into the national life of their own countries, as in Britain—“while adhering faithfully to their own religion”—or opt for Zionism.
Churchill regarded zionism as “a very great ideal,” writing in 1920: “If as may well happen, there should be created in our own lifetime by the banks of the Jordan a Jewish State under the protection of the British Crown, which might comprise three or four million Jews, an event would have occurred in the history of the world which would, from every point of view, be beneficial.” When, in 1939, the British Government drastically curtailed immigration to Palestine, Churchill was the leading critic in Parliament, seeking in vain to have the legislation overturned.
Fighting persecution was also Churchill’s consistent advice to the Jews, at a time when he himself was being abused by Nazi newspapers in Germany for his outspoken criticism of Nazi racial policy. Some of his most powerful words in the House of Commons after Hitler came to power were denunciations of the cruelty of Nazi anti-Semitic policies.
Anti-Semitism was anathema to Churchill. In a letter to his mother from Paris in 1898, he had described the French anti-Semitic campaign against Alfred Dreyfus as “a monstrous conspiracy,” which he was “delighted” to see exposed. When the Conservative government brought in legislation in 1904—the Aliens Bill—to curb Jewish emigration from Russia to Britain, Churchill emerged as the most forceful, and ultimately effective, critic of the bill, warning that the proposed restrictions, however justified in principle, could be used to ill effect by anti-Semitic officials and administrators. His main criticism was that the proposed controls could be abused by an “anti-Semitic Home Secretary.” He was never afraid to call anti-Semitism what it was: a reality in British life, and a dangerous one.
During World War II, Churchill suggested the removal of “anti-Semitic officers” from high positions in the British Army in the Middle East. He fought a long, difficult, but ultimately successful battle against cabinet ministers and senior civil servants who did not want the creation of an all-Jewish military force, the Jewish Brigade Group (known colloquially as the Jewish Brigade). In view of “the sufferings which the Jewish people were at present enduring,” he told his war cabinet, “there was a strong case for sympathetic consideration of projects in relation to them.” After winning that battle, Churchill insisted that the Jewish force be allowed to have the Star of David as its insignia.
“I cannot conceive,” he wrote to Secretary of State for War Sir James Grigg, who had opposed this, “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.”
As the war came to an end, Churchill hoped to persuade the ruler of Saudi Arabia, King Ibn Saud, to accept a sovereign Jewish state in Palestine. But President Franklin D. Roosevelt saw the king three days before Churchill did and assured him that the United States “would do nothing to assist the Jews against the Arabs.” Churchill, by contrast, believed that Britain had an obligation to protect the Jews of Palestine against Arab attack: In 1921, while passing through Gaza on his way to Jerusalem, the crowd that greeted him also called out: “Down with the Jews. Cut their throats.”
When the Conservative Party was defeated at the 1945 election, Churchill was no longer prime minister. But as Leader of the Opposition he continued to see the effects of anti-Semitic feeling.
Following the King David Hotel bombing in 1946, at a time of strong anti-Jewish feeling in Britain, Churchill told the House of Commons: “I am against preventing Jews from doing anything which other people are allowed to do. I am against that, and I have the strongest abhorrence of the idea of anti-Semitic lines of prejudice.”
These were Churchill’s consistent beliefs. When the British foreign minister, Ernest Bevin, refused to recognize Israel after David Ben-Gurion had declared statehood in May 1948, Churchill warned the House of Commons of Bevin’s “very strong and direct streak of bias and prejudice.”
As he had done with his mother 40 years earlier, so after World War II, Churchill warned his friends against anti-Semitic remarks—including remarks against his political opponents who happened to be Jewish. As he commented when his criticisms of Jewish terrorism in Palestine were being discussed: “The Jewish people know well enough that I am their friend.”
This was indeed so. It derived from Churchill’s deep understanding of Jewish ethics. In 1930, in a published essay on Moses, Churchill wrote of the Israelites: “This wandering tribe, in many respects indistinguishable from numberless nomadic communities, grasped and proclaimed an idea of which all the genius of Greece and all the power of Rome were incapable.”
The jewish system of ethics, Churchill wrote in a widely circulated newspaper article in 1920, was “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.” This was Churchill’s firm belief.
As Churchill’s biographer, I was criticized by one reviewer because, he explained, as a Jew I had a natural sympathy for the underdog and therefore failed to see that Churchill’s sympathy for the underdog during the appeasement years and his criticism of Nazi racial policy was a weakness, not a strength, since it blinded him to the positive virtues of Anglo-German friendship during the Nazi era.
Sir Martin Gilbert’s most recent book, Churchill and the Jews, is published by Henry Holt.