Yesterday we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Partition of Palestine, contained in General Assembly resolution 181, of 1947. Today, November 30th, we would do well to remember the birth of one of the most extraordinary men and influencing leaders of the Twentieth Century: Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill. Remembering it a day after an anniversary of the United Nations vote that created one of the legal bases for the establishment of the state of Israel is especially appropriate. After all, Winston Churchill (Oxfordshire, 1874 – London, 1965) was a fervent supporter of the Zionist cause and a good friend of the Jews.
His natural pro-Jewish sympathies can be seen early, in a letter sent to his mother from Paris in 1898. France at the time was shocked by the Dreyfus case. “Bravo Zola!” wrote young Winston, “I am delighted to witness the complete debacle of this monstrous conspiracy.” In 1905, after a second pogrom in the Russian city of Kishinev that left 19 Jews dead, Churchill spoke before a crowd in Manchester and condemned “the appalling massacres and detestable atrocities recently committed in the Empire of Russia.” In 1920, in an article published in the Illustrated Sunday Herald, he opined about the Jews that “no thoughtful man can doubt the fact that they are beyond all question the most formidable and most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.” As an anti-Communist, he harangued against what he called “the foul baboonery of Bolshevism”, but unlike other compatriots who associated the Jews with the Bolsheviks and denied them support for their national cause, Churchill saw that Zionism offered the Jews an alternative to communism. Recognizing the disproportion of Jews in the Bolshevik movement relative to the size of Russian Jewry, he nonetheless postulated that “In violent contrast to international communism, it presents to the Jew a national idea of a commanding character.”
In a message sent in 1908 to the British Zionist Federation, Churchill noted: “I am in full sympathy with the historical traditional aspirations of the Jews. The restoration to them of a center of true racial and political integrity would be a tremendous event in the history of the world.” In 1921, during a visit to Palestine, just before planting a tree on the site where four years later the Hebrew University of Jerusalem would be built, Churchill said: “Personally, my heart is full of sympathy for Zionism … I believe that the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine will be a blessing to the whole world, a blessing for the Jewish race scattered all over the world, and a blessing to Great Britain.” To a delegation of Zionists who visited him in Jerusalem he said: “I am myself perfectly convinced that the cause of Zionism is one which carries with it much that is good for the whole world, and not only for the Jewish people, but that it will also bring prosperity and contentment and advancement to the Arab population of this country.”
But not only before Hebrew audiences would Churchill defend Zionism. During a debate in the British parliament in 1922, he declared “I say, in all consistency and reasonable fair play, that does not justify the House of Commons at this stage in repudiating the general Zionist policy” and celebrated the fruits of Jewish labor in Palestine by marking the contrast with the reluctance of the Arabs: “Left to themselves, the Arabs of Palestine would not in a thousand years have taken effective steps towards the irrigation and electrification of Palestine. They would have been quite content to dwell -a handful of philosophic people- in the wasted sun-scorched plains…”.
When an Arab-Palestinian delegation went to exert pressure on him to adopt an anti-Zionist stance, he replied: “You have asked me in the first place to repudiate the Balfour Declaration and to veto immigration of Jews into Palestine. It is not in my power to do so nor, if it were in my power, would it be my wish.” After a long plea in favor of the pro-Zionist policy of the British government, Churchill admonished the Arab-Palestinian delegates: “If instead of sharing miseries through quarrels you will share blessings through cooperation, a bright and tranquil future lies before your country.”
In addition to questioning the Arabs, Churchill was critical of Islam and the fundamentalism that was beating within it. In his 1899 book The River War he wrote: “Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities –but the influence of the religion paralyzes the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith.” In 1921 he informed the House of Commons about the emerging extremism in Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabi sect. He said that the Wahabis “profess a life of exceeding austerity, and what they practice themselves they rigorously enforce on others. They hold it as an article of duty, as well as of faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions and make slaves of their wives and children.” Churchill concluded: “Austere, intolerant, well-armed, and blood-thirsty, in their own regions the Wahabis are a distinct factor which must be taken into account, and have been, and still are, very dangerous to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.”
A decade before his death he bequeathed this phrase to the Jewish people. “You ought to let the Jews have Jerusalem,” he told a British officer in 1955 at Buckingham Palace during a luncheon with the Sha of Iran, “it is they who made it famous.”
Churchill was a British politician above all things. At times he adopted positions contrary to Zionism, such as when he split a portion of the territory promised to the Jews for its National Home to create Transjordan (the current Kingdom of Jordan) or when he issued a White Paper restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine, among other measures. But it is fair to say that in his role as parliamentarian (1904-1908), cabinet minister (1921-1922) and prime minister (1940-1945) he maintained a consistent pro-Jewish personal position and a courageous pro-Zionist political stance. Beyond his role in British affairs in Palestine, his greatest contribution to the well-being of the Jewish people was -without a doubt- to have been the leader who faced rhetorically like no one else, and defeated militarily (with the support of the United States and Russia) Adolf Hitler, the greatest enemy of the Jews in history.
Postscript: all quotes can be found in Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship by Martin Gilbert.