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Churchill and the Jews

Book Review: Churchill and the Jews

Author: Martin Gilbert

Published by: Harold Holt & Co., New York, pp 359

Price: Rs 1112



It is a rare book where the reader gets the clear sense in the first fifty pages itself that the time and money spent on the book will be well recompensed. Churchill and the Jews by Martin Gilbert is such a book, and is rich in information that is little researched, and yet bears great relevance to the issues of the day.

For an Indian reader, there is information in the very opening chapters that is gripping. This concerns the role of Sir Henry McMahon, the man after whom the boundary between India and Tibet defined in the 1914 Simla Conference is named. After finishing up in Delhi, he was appointed High Commissioner to Egypt, and in that capacity makes an early appearance in Gilbert’s narrative.

While serving in Cairo, he opened a correspondence with Sharif Hussein of Mecca, who was then the Custodian of the Holy Places as the appointee of the Caliph, the Sultan of Ottoman Turkey. Through Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet, the Hashemites claimed descent from the Prophet Mohammed.

The correspondence between McMahon and Sharif Hussein described the boundaries of the proposed Arab state after the presumed success of the Arab Revolt against the Turks. It gave the territory east of the line of Aleppo – Hama - Homs – Damascus to the Arabs, while retaining the western areas for their own disposal. In his private correspondence, McMahon clarified that this was done in the clear understanding that these areas were not primarily Arab-populated areas; it was these areas that Churchill proposed to carve out for the proposed Jewish state, promised under the Balfour Declaration.

The question that arose in my mind when reading this was – did McMahon leave any private letters about the Simla Conference and the McMahon Line? I hope some scholar will try and examine this aspect, which may provide valuable information for our boundary in the North. Unfortunately, the British Archives are among the most unfriendly to the user, and one is hardly likely to find anything useful online.

Anyhow, not to get ahead of ourselves: the book is about Churchill’s relationship with the Jews, primarily, of course, the Jews of Britain, but also his approach to Zionism, to Bolshevism, and to American Jewry, with Ziionism being the dominant narrative, the other two treated more sumarily. These also covered the big issues of the day, from the First World War to the Second and a bit beyond. Churchill, of course, is a character whose study is the study of the great events of the first half of the 20th Century: from 1910, he was in Ministerial office almost without a break until 1929; and then, he was back in harness in 1939, as the Second World War began, initially in the Admiralty, and then as Prime Minister. Whether or not this was the finest hour of the Empire, as he claimed, it certainly was his finest hour. In fact, his second term as Prime Minister, after 1951, was quite unremarkable, even unsuccessful.

Some of the facts in Gilbert’s book are well-known, though perhaps not so in India. We have shut out Israel from our public discourse for so long that many of the crucial facts are not known, except among some conspiracy-minded persons. We learn that Churchill and Chaim Weizmann made each other’s acquaintance as early as 1905, when they shared a dais at a public function. As Home Secretary, Churchill signed Weizmann’s naturalisation papers. And as First Lord of the Admiralty, he asked for Weizmann to help the Navy meet its requirements of acetone, in order to manufacture cordite. The item was in short suoply and Weizmann, a chemist by training, had developed a method of manufacturing it artificially.

The two men were early activists in favour of a Jewish state in Palestine, and this was the basis of a long-term friendship, which continued through the decades to when Churchill was Prime Minister and Weizmann was President of the newly-formed state of Israel. However, there is only a sketchy treatment of the question of why the British made the promise of a Jewish National Home. Gilbert gives two reasons: one, to encourage Russian Jews to help Russia stay in the War; and two, to enlist more active American support for the War effort. The first did not work, for the Bolsheviks seized power five days after the Balfour Declaration. The second did work, though Germany did its bit – and more – to push the US into the War on the side of the Entente. One of the major developments that brought the US into the War was the Zimmerman telegram, in which the German Government promised Mexico the southern states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona in return for Mexico declaring war on the US.

Inevitably, much of the book deals with the question of Palestine and the Jewish state. Once the mandate for Palestine had been given to the British, it was up to Churchill, as Colonial Secretary, to set about fulfilling the promise of the Balfour Declaration. One of his first acts was to divide the mandated territory into Transjordan and the rest – which then retained the name Palestine. Although Weizmann was keen that parts of Transjordan – up to the Hejaz Railway – should also form the Jewish home, Churchill was to boast later that he “created Transjordan one afternoon in Jerusalem”; in actual fact, he did it in Cairo.

But Churchill was quite clear that the Negev was to belong to the Jews. This is worth noting because it was across the Negev that the Germans, with enlisted Arab Bedouin levies, had tried during the First World War to attack and occupy the Suez Canal, and so the British wanted it to be secure for the future. At the same time, he was clear that the Jewish home would take generations to come into being and then too it would depend on the calibre of the Jewish leaders who would settle in Palestine – and it would fail if these leaders proved unworthy.

The official British position on the question of a home for the Jews in Palestine went through a process of steady erosion, both because of internal opposition, and because of the hostility of the Arabs. Chamberlain, of course, but several members of the House of Lords, Gen Wavell, all were opposed to Jewish immigration, as were several of the British representatives, civil and military, working in Palestine. On the Arab side, the figure of Haj Amin al-Husseini, who was appointed Mufti of Jerusalem by the self-same British Mandate authorities in Palestine, emerges as one of the staunchest opponents of Jewish immigration and one who demanded an Arab state in the entire mandated territory. In later years, when he was out of office [but still an influential voice in British politics], Churchill would ask for al-Husseini to be arrested for fomenting anti-Jewish riots, “using violence against him” if necessary. At this stage, that is, through the 1920’s, Churchill was also against any partitioning – further partitioning, to be more accurate – of Palestine.

Churchill’s time as Prime Minister was, of course, dominated by the Second World War, and there were many urgent issues that he had to deal with. But he did seek to sideline al-Husseini and advise Weizmann that Saudi King ibn Saud was the man to deal with. This was quite a change for Churchill, who had established the British commitment to the Hashemites in the aftermath of the First World War. Easier said than done of course – ibn Saud had been a resolute opponent of the Jewish National Home project, and he was to express his strong objections not only to Churchill but also, later, to President Roosevelt. The latter was also more receptive to the views of ibn Saud. But what is startling is that some segments of the Foreign Office, and the local administrative authorities, were bypassing Churchill on major issues. The decision to suspend Jewish immigration during the Second World War, for instance, was taken without informing the Prime Minister. It was, no doubt, with this experience in mind that Churchill told his Cabinet Secretary that when the War Office says it will “carefully examine” an issue, “they mean they will do it in”. This sheds unusual light on a strong and clear-headed Prime Minister and war-time leader – even he could not entirely control the actions of his subordinates.

In the final countdown, Churchill was a reluctant convert to the idea of partitioning Palestine, but he also recognised that the post-War Labour Government would not be helpful to the Jews. He advised the Jewish leaders that their best bet lay with the US. Sure enough, the Labour Government informed the UN of its intention to lay down the mandate on 14 May 1948. It was the support of the USSR and the US that finally saw the successful vote in November 1947 in the UN General Assembly that created the State of Israel.

The other, minor, narrative in the book deals with the other side of the Jewish activity in Europe during the First World War – in the Russian Empire. Though it was the scene of regular pogroms – indeed the word pogrom is itself a Russian word – the Jews were divided on how to respond to the opportunities presented by the First World War. A large number, of course, fought with the Russian Army against the Germans and the Austrians, and gave a good account of themselves. But the Germans were working with the Bolsheviks to destabilise the Russian Empire, and Churchill himself described the Bolsheviks as a “Jewish movement”. His reason for saying this was that Lenin was almost the only member of the Central Committee who was not of Jewish origin. Gilbert adds that, in fact, even Lenin’s paternal grandfather was a Jew.

Churchill was at pains to explain his stand on Bolshevism. Perhaps it is only the distance of time that allows this whole issue to be discussed with some degree of openness – in the Soviet Union, it was spoken of only in hushed tones. Churchill described the greatness of the “Jewish race”, and noted that Christianity itself owed heavily to the Jews. But there was always good and evil in mankind, and Bolshevism was the evil side – “It would almost seem as if the gospel of Christ and the gospel of Antichrist were destined to originate among the same people and that this mystic and mysterious race had been chosen for the supreme manifestation, both of the divine and the diabolical”. Not surprisingly, the Jewish Chronicle took exception to Churchill’s remarks, and made the point that these Bolshevik leaders were all atheists, and could not possible be regarded as representatives of the Jews. Nonetheless, at that time, it was widely felt that Zionism could be a counter to Bolshevism, and that was the belief Churchill was acting on. History has probably validated this view.

The author spends even less time on American Jewry, and few of the important leaders figure in the book. The exception is Bernard Baruch, who was not a supporter of Zionism. In fact, Churchill did tell Weizmann that there were many Jews in the US who did not support a Jewish home in Palestine. And yet, by 1845, he was advising the Jewish leaders in Britain that their real hope lay in enlisting American support. Against the run of events, this was forthcoming and, as mentioned already, the state of Israel became a reality in the UN General Assembly vote.

Gilbert also provides some very useful maps in the book, which the reader will have to search long and hard to find anywhere else. All in all, a very enjoyable read, and a profitable one too.

New Delhi,

August 2014.

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