April 2, 2002

The last romantic zionist gentile

Fifty-four years ago World War II came to an end, and Winston Churchill’s Conservative Government lost heavily in the polls. Forty-four years ago Winston Churchill resigned after having served for the second time as Prime Minister. Thirty-four years ago Winston Churchill died. Much has been written on Churchill’s attitude towards the Jews and the Zionist movement prior to the establishment of the State of Israel. But not much is widely known on Churchill’s attitude towards Zionism and the State of Israel after 1948.

Referring to the years prior to the creation of the Jewish state, the historian Bernard Wasserstein argues that ”No British statesman had a more consistent and more emphatic record of…support for Zionism as a solution to the Jewish problem than Winston Churchill.” Churchill considered the establishment of the State of Israel ”as one of the most hopeful and encouraging adventures of the 20th century.” Only eight months subsequent to the proclamation of the State, Churchill suggested to the House of Commons that ”The coming into being of a Jewish State in Palestine is an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand or even three thousand years.”

Churchill used to trace his Zionism back to the days of the Balfour Declaration, describing himself as ”an old Zionist.” His attitude toward Zionism remained as passionate and as explicit following his return to Ten Downing Street in 1951. Now, however, with the State of Israel firmly in place, the images he entertained became perhaps more vivid, more colorful, and as ever imbued with historical resonance.

Thus, in June 1954, Churchill stated to journalists in the United States, ”I am a Zionist, let me make that clear. I was one of the original ones after the Balfour Declaration and I have worked faithfully for it.” This was merely the introduction. He went on: ”I think it is a most wonderful thing that this community should have established itself so effectively, turning the desert into fertile gardens and thriving townships, and should have afforded refuge to millions of their co-religionists who suffered so fearfully under Hitler, and not only under Hitler, persecution. I think it is a wonderful thing.” In a conversation with Israel’s Ambassador in London, Eliyahu Elath, Churchill referred to Israel’s population as ”the sons of the prophets dwelling in Zion.”

Churchill’s attitude toward Zionism and the State of Israel was distinctively positive, the images he entertained bordering on the romantic. In this respect, Churchill had no equal among British politicians and officials in the first half of the 1950s. On almost any question pertaining to the country, Churchill’s rhetoric, more than any other decision-maker or official, was distinctively pro-Israel, reflecting, beyond political considerations and a pure judgement of principle, an emotional attachment to that country and the case it presented.

Thus, on the Suez Canal blockade by Egypt against Israel in 1956, Churchill made it clear to the Foreign Office that ”I do not mind it being known here or in Cairo that I am on the side of Israel and her ill-treatment by the Egyptians.” On the fate of Jerusalem, Churchill urged Evelyn Shuckburgh, Assistant Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, ”You ought to let the Jews have Jerusalem; it is they who made it famous.”

While still Prime Minister, Churchill argued that there was no better army in the Middle East than the Israeli Defence Force, and wished to rely on Israel rather than the Arab states in setting up a regional system of defence against the Soviet Union. He insisted that Israel should be supplied with more jet aircraft than either the defence establishment or the Foreign Office wished. He went on to stress his point by telling his Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, ”To me the greatest issue in this part of the world is not deserting Israel.” In this context, he warned Eden against following in the footsteps of one of his predecessors. ”Ernest Bevin, being temperamentally anti-semitic, made the first mistake of backing Egypt against Israel….I hope…that we both equally condemn the Bevinite anti semitic policy.”

More remarkable still, Churchill was in favour of Israel joining the British Commonwealth. ”Do not put that out of your mind,” he said to Shuckburgh. ”It would be a wonderful thing. So many people want to leave us; it might be the turning of the tide.”

Churchill’s was Israel’s best friend, and as a friend his attitude was shaped by sentiment as much as by pragmatic considerations. He was emotionally attached to Israel and its people, and his stance was a corollary of this. His oft-repeated, self-declared Zionist sympathies, his emotional attachment to the Jewish people and their restored sovereign entity, permeated his attitude toward Arab-Israeli disputes. He was, perhaps the last romantic Zionist Gentile. Or the last romantic Zionist.

CHURCHILL, SIR WINSTON (1874-1965): British statesman. He strenuously opposed restrictive legislation on immigration into England, mainly affecting Jews, 1904-5; supported the Saturday Closing and Sunday Opening Bills; and fought for specific Jewish educational rights. As early as 1908, he expressed his ”full sympathy with the historical aspirations of the Jews” to restore ”a center of racial and political integrity” in Palestine. As Colonial Secretary, he virtually cut off Trans-Jordan from the Palestine Mandated territory (1921), and in the Churchill White Paper (1922) formulated what he believed would remain the basis of Anglo Jewish cooperation. His subsequent attacks against the measures proposed in the Passfield White Paper of 1939 were based on the premise that they constituted a breach of an agreed policy expressed in his own White Paper. Under his premiership during World War II, Britain maintained her respective policy in Palestine, but his Memoirs reveal that while concentrating singlemindedly on winning the war and wishing to avoid disagreement with his colleagues, he maintained his pro-Jewish attitude throughout. He was one of the first in Britain to insist on recognition of the State of Israel.

*Dr. Tenembaum resides in Tel Aviv. He is the author of the article ”A hero without a grave” which introduces this site.