Sir Martin Gilbert is a renowned British historian, as well as Winston Churchill's official biographer. He is the author of 72 books, including many devoted to Israeli and Jewish history, among them The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War, Israel: A History and Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction.
His latest book, Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship, provides a road map of the statesman's intricate relationship with Jewish personalities and issues during his lifetime. It also unites Gilbert's two primary interests - Churchill and the Jewish people.
Although operating in a cultural milieu in which anti-Semitism was rampant among Europe's ruling elites, Gilbert demonstrates how Churchill differed greatly from his peers, who were critical of Jews and Zionism, and scoffed at even the remotest suggestion of a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. Indeed, Churchill had close familial ties with prominent British and European Jews, and once remarked that the Jewish people were "the most formidable and most remarkable race which has appeared in the world."
World Jewish Digest recently spoke with Gilbert about Churchill's diplomatic role in the establishment of a Jewish state, his unflinching support for the Zionist enterprise and his legacy, which resounds even today.
World Jewish Digest (WJD): Could you briefly explain the ways in which Churchill advocated for a Jewish homeland in Palestine?
He truly believed the Zionists would make something special of Palestine.
Sir Martin Gilbert (SMG): His principal involvement began in 1921 when Prime Minister Lloyd George appointed him as colonial secretary with special responsibility for working out the rules and regulations of the Palestine mandate with regard to the Jewish national homeland. The first [notable] decision he made was to give the Zionists...monopoly power to modernize the country - to harness the waters of the Jordan and Yarkon rivers for electrical power, which not only would create employment for both Jews and Arabs, but also enable the Jews to begin to plan for substantial urban and rural development in Palestine. Although Churchill's decision led to fierce anti-Semitic outbursts against him in the British House of Commons, he unfailingly maintained it because he truly believed the Zionists would make something special of Palestine. He stressed over and over that it was the British government's duty, and to a certain extent the British taxpayer's obligation, to make sure that the Jews could build up the industrial potential of Palestine.
JD: What factors, in your opinion, convinced Churchill that 'the Zionists would make something special of Palestine'?
SMG: There are a couple of reasons. First, he had this very short but very intense period where he was a member of parliament for Manchester Northwest in 1904. During that time, he was deeply impressed by the ethical and communal standards of its Jewish community. Second, his admiration for the Jews was reinforced during his 1921 trip to Palestine. There was this episode, which I found in the archives of Rishon Le-Zion [an early Jewish settlement], related to Churchill's visit. A debate had gone on before his arrival between the old-timers and the newcomers. The old-timers said, 'Look, we've got an opportunity. The British minister is coming. Let's tell him all our problems - the fact that the Arabs are attacking us, that the weather isn't good, etc.' But the newcomers said, 'No, not at all. Let's show him instead what we're capable of doing,' which is exactly what they did. Churchill again was deeply impressed. In fact, the first thing he tells parliament when he gets back to London is that he's seen these people and their enthusiasm, and states unequivocally, 'I defy anybody to say that [they] should be at the mercy of Arab attacks from outside.'
Given that he had seen the idealism of Zionism firsthand, he believed the British government was right to commit itself to a Jewish national homeland and he argued strongly for it. His 1922 White Paper, [the parliamentary paper enunciating the British government's policy], that stated that 'the Jews are in Palestine of a right; not on sufferance,' was eventually passed by the House of Commons and the League of Nations. This led to the immigration into Palestine of 300,000 Jews.
WJD: Why did Zionism attract Churchill's personal sympathy?
SMG: First of all, Churchill, like many of his contemporaries, was deeply versed in the Bible, but unlike many of his contemporaries, the biblical stories were not simply something he had read and vaguely remembered. They were something he had read, remembered and, if you like, dramatized. For him, God's promise to the Jews was something that had really taken place and which he could recite at any time.
In my book...I give some excerpts from his 1931 article in the Sunday Chronicle about Moses, which takes issue with people who say that Moses was only an allegorical figure. Churchill said, 'No, not at all. This is reality and [his identity and leadership were] a genuine historical event.' But what had excited him about the Moses story was, on the one hand, the Jewish destiny -- God's promise to the Jews -- and, on the other, Jewish ethics.
"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."
There's an extraordinary passage by Churchill with reference to the latter in a speech he gave in Jerusalem in 1921, which dumbfounds me every time I read it. He said, '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.' That's an extraordinary thing to say, especially in public.
In addition, I cannot stress enough the importance of the few days Churchill spent throughout Palestine in 1921. The contrast between the extraordinary negative points of view put forth by the Palestinian Arabs and the equally positive ones put forth by the Zionists struck him enormously. Churchill didn't like negativism and he couldn't comprehend why the Palestinian Arabs were being so negative. It's quite curious. If you have a look at what the Palestinian Arabs told him, you'll find that three or four are actually in the Hamas Charter today, such as the world Jewish conspiracy and so on and so forth. That said, the Palestinian Arabs just made a bad impression on him and subsequently, he became very negative toward them; in modern terms, almost racist. When Churchill spoke to the Palestinian Arabs, he actually said to them, 'You've got to help the Zionists. They're people of quality and inasmuch as they'll succeed, you'll succeed. Without them you won't succeed.'
WJD: Why did Churchill, unlike other British government officials during his day, refuse to make concessions to Arab states or to promote policies that favored the Arabs at the expense of the Jews?
SMG: Churchill didn't like bullying or appeasement from weakness or fear. In the 1930's, he was totally against the British government's policy of appeasement toward both Germany and the Arab states. In fact, Neville Chamberlain and his government and cabinet committees were very fearful of the Arabs, saying, 'Look, the Saudis are against us. The Muslims in India are against us. The Egyptians, who had just become independent in 1936, are against us.' This led Chamberlain to make the appalling statement: 'If we must offend one side, then let's offend the Jews rather than the Arabs.' Now, Churchill couldn't accept that. In his speech against the 1939 White Paper, which restricted Jewish immigration and ended effectively Jewish land purchase in Palestine, he responded by saying, 'We're groveling to these people because they're threatening us, but we've given our pledge to the Jews. How will they react? How will Hitler react if we renege on our pledge to the Jews? What value will there be in our commitments if we don't honor this one?'
WJD: This was a great sign of moral clarity on Churchill's behalf...
SMG: Yes, I think so, but you must understand that in 1939, these Arab countries, led by Saudi Arabia as they are now in a curious way, were putting tremendous pressure on the British government.
WJD: Did you discover anything while researching Churchill & the Jews that surprised even you?
SMG: I think the thing that blew me away was when the Conservative [party] leadership in May 1940 was discussing who would succeed Neville Chamberlain in a time when the war in Europe was at a climax and Britain was in great danger. I found in the papers of the leading conservative Sir Samuel Hoare a slip of paper that listed the reasons why Churchill would not make a suitable prime minister. One of them was his 'pro-Zionist stance on Jewish land purchase.' The idea that this should be a reason for him not becoming prime minister of Britain, at a time when Britain needed, if you like, someone of his obvious qualities, is truly unbelievable.
WJD: The State of Israel will celebrate its 60th anniversary this year. As a historian, what, if anything, would you like to stress about its first six decades?
SMG: Israel is a young state and young states have to think initially in terms of survival. Look, 60 years after the foundation of the United States, it was still fighting a war with Britain. Sixty years constitute a short time, particularly for a country like Israel, which has neighbors and enemies who are not giving it much of a chance. That said, I think another very difficult problem for Israel, which is something that doesn't generally affect newer states, is the occupation since 1967. One wouldn't wish being an occupying power on anybody. It happened by accident. Israel was not seeking to be the ruler. It happened and this means that it's a burden.
WJD: In your opinion, is Israel in need of a Churchill at present?
SMG: I hope Israel has the leaders today that it needs. I think that's all you can say. You just have to hope and pray that the ones they've got are the right ones.
WJD: There have been numerous books since 9/11 that equate the battle against radical Islam as similar to that against Nazism. Do you think Churchill would draw the same parallel if he were alive today?
You mustn't give up if you believe in something strongly, especially if you see that something as contributing toward the well-being of mankind.
SMG: What they have in common, for whatever reason, is that both of them have decided that the most effective demon is the Jew. All I can say is that Churchill was a persistent opponent of anti-Semitism. In addition, he didn't feel that religion should be militant. Churchill had seen what we today call militant Islam in its worst form. As a soldier on the Pakistan-Afghan border in 1897, he had seen the most terrible things, which had been carried out by Muslim fanatics in that area. He had that experience.
WJD: As Churchill's official biographer, what do you consider to be his principal legacy?
SMG: His personal legacy was that you have to try to overcome and get past setbacks and rejections. In other words, you mustn't give up if you believe in something strongly, especially if you see that something as contributing toward the well-being of mankind.
WJD: What, according to you, is the foremost message that Jews and non-Jews should draw from your book Churchill and the Jews?
SMG: Jews should draw a lesson that they do have some friends, but that the friends they have can often be in deep trouble for being their friends. For non- Jews, I think the lesson is that Zionism is not racism. Zionism is not some aberration; nor is it neo-colonialism. Churchill, who wasn't a soft, starry-eyed person but a man with a fine head on his shoulders, understood this.
This article originally appeared in WorldJewishDigest.com