The renowned British Prime Minister and Nobel Laureate was a proud Zionist and a great friend of the Jewish people
Among leading twentieth century statesmen, few come close to reaching the stature of Sir Winston Churchill. Long before he emerged as Britain’s – and the Western world’s – preeminent war leader, Churchill earned an enviable reputation as an articulate writer and orator. He was also an experienced soldier, who rose through the officer’s ranks in battles in India, Africa – the Sudan and South Africa’s Boer War (even escaping from a Boer prison camp) – and Europe in the First World War. His unique background, combined with a keen intellect, served him well throughout his years as prime minister of the United Kingdom during the Second World War (1940–45) and after (1951–55).
Few knew Churchill as well as the late British historian Sir Martin Gilbert. Besides his many works on Jewish and modern European history, Gilbert served as Churchill’s official biographer from the 1960s onward, producing countless volumes covering all aspects of Churchill’s rich and complex life. Among Gilbert’s noteworthy achievements is Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship (Henry Holt & Co.), in which he meticulously and persuasively details Churchill’s commitment to the Jewish people, while documenting Churchill’s important contributions to Jewish survival and Jewish self-determination – a Zionist state carved out of British Mandate Palestine.
With 27 chapters of narrative, Churchill and the Jews is an ambitious work, yet Gilbert was so skillful in his prose, readers will be more than satisfied. While deftly relating Churchill’s personal views about Jews and Zionism, and his genuine abhorrence of anti-Semitism, Gilbert links these personal details to the era’s general political context, including some of the most critical decades of modern Jewish history.
Although Churchill is best remembered for his wartime leadership and his tireless fight against Nazi tyranny, Gilbert explores Churchill’s lesser-known achievements – as a young MP in the first decade of the twentieth century and his work as a cabinet minister in the years following the First World War, when the future Jewish home in Palestine was outlined. Before and after the State of Israel was proclaimed, Churchill defended its interests. As Gilbert describes, Churchill’s sympathy for Jews was cemented early on, and was further cultivated through loyal friendships with important international Jewish leaders, such as David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weizmann.
During the First World War, Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, personally asked Weizmann, then a research chemist in Manchester, to produce vast amounts of acetone (required to produce cordite, a powerful naval explosive) in aid of the British war effort. It was a task Weizmann accomplished and the pair would remain close for the next three decades. In 1922, Weizmann, then president of the World Zionist Organization, congratulated Churchill on his White Paper in support of Zionism and free Jewish immigration. In 1949, Weizmann, as Israel’s first president, again thanked Churchill, whose speech – given as an MP when he was no longer prime minister – helped bring about Britain’s formal recognition of the State of Israel.
Gilbert provides intriguing insights into the origins of Churchill’s genuine respect and sympathy for Jewish interests. In part, it was biblically based. Churchill’s 1931 essay on Moses, published in the Sunday Chronicle, praised Judaism’s central themes – monotheism, the code of human conduct transmitted to Moses at Sinai, and Moses’ role in leading the Chosen People out of Egyptian bondage towards the Promised Land. Some thirty years later, Churchill gave a copy of this work to then Israeli Prime Minister Ben-Gurion, whom Churchill called “a great leader of a great nation.” This comment was related to Gilbert by a later Israeli president, Yitzhak Navon.
Another reason for Churchill’s positive views was familial – Churchill’s father was an important early role model. Lord Randolph Churchill had many Jewish friends, such as Baron Nathan Rothschild, head of the British branch of the Rothschild banking family, Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch and banker Sir Ernest Cassel. In fact, after Lord Randolph’s death, not only did Cassel look after the younger Churchill’s finances without charging any fee for his services but also financed Winston Churchill’s personal research library.
Churchill would go on to have many Jewish friends within his social, political and business circles. His European literary agent was Emery Reves, a Hungarian Jew born Imre Revesz, who lost family members in the Holocaust. Churchill even embraced a Jewish son-in-law when his daughter Sarah married Austrian-born Jewish actor, Vic Oliver, in 1936.
Though he had his detractors, as all politicians do, few can deny Churchill’s admirable service to his nation and his masterful wartime leadership that proved so important to the defeat of Adolf Hitler. However, few know that Churchill was also a proud Zionist and keen friend of the Jewish people, whose significant influence helped Israel emerge as an independent state. Gilbert’s book is a most worthwhile read.
This review originally appeared in the Jewish Independent newspaper.