After conquering the Ottoman Turks in Eretz Yisrael, Britain was awarded the Mandate for Palestine by the League of Nations. Pursuant to that award, it appointed Herbert Samuel (1870-1963) as the first High Commissioner of Palestine (1920-25), making him the first Jew to rule the Land of Israel in 2,000 years.
In that capacity, he extended an invitation to Winston Churchill (1874-1965), then the United Kingdom’s Colonial Secretary, to visit Eretz Yisrael to see the land and discuss developing problems there, particularly the Arab desire to deport all Jews.
Exhibited here is the “Order of Celebration” issued by the Education Department of the Zionist Commission to Palestine for the Tuesday, 19 Adar II (March 29), 1921 reception for Churchill. It provides detailed instructions for schoolchildren and their teachers to follow, including dressing in holiday clothes and carrying school banners to the field of assembly, and the program, which included the singing of Techezakna, Hatikvah, and the British national anthem sung by the Blind Education Choir.
During his (only) visit to Eretz Yisrael, Churchill also participated in a palm tree-planting ceremony at the new Hebrew University in Jerusalem at which Chief Rabbis Avraham Isaac Hacohen Kook and Yaakov Meir presented him with a Torah scroll. Exhibited here is a Yaakov Ben-Dov photograph (note his ink-stamp, “Y. Ben-Dov Bezalel-Yerushalayim” on the margin of the card) in which Churchill stands next to High Commissioner Samuel; in the background is the tree Churchill planted at Hebrew University. Speaking on that occasion, he stated:
Personally, my heart is full of sympathy for Zionism. This sympathy has existed for a long time, since 12 years ago, when I was in contact with the Manchester Jews. I believe that the establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine will be a blessing to the whole world, a blessing to the Jewish race scattered all around the world, and a blessing to Great Britain. I firmly believe that it will be a blessing also to the inhabitants of this country without distinction of race and religion.
Churchill, who saw the dark side of extremism within Islam and was already distrustful of Arab nationalism, could not help but contrast the overwhelming love extended to him by Jewish throngs everywhere he went with the hostility with which he was received by the Arabs, who held violent demonstrations against the British Mandate and screamed calls to murder Jews.
En route to Lydda after leaving Jerusalem, Churchill visited Tel Aviv and was most impressed by what he observed. He also visited the city of Rishon LeZion, about which he later effusively wrote:
From the most inhospitable soil, surrounded on every side by barrenness and the most miserable form of cultivation, I was driven into a fertile and thriving country estate where the scanty soil gave place to good crops and cultivation, and then vineyards and finally to the most beautiful, luxurious orange groves, all created in 20 or 30 years by the exertions of the Jewish community who live there…
I defy anybody, after seeing work of this kind, achieved by so much labor, effort and skill, to say that the British Government, having taken up the position it has, could cast it all aside and leave it to be rudely and brutally overturned by the incursion of a fanatical attack by the Arab population from outside.
As Colonial Secretary (1921-22), Churchill was responsible for determining the future status of the Jewish national home in Eretz Yisrael, and after inspecting the agrarian, technological, and urban successes of the Zionist enterprise throughout the land during his visit there, he became convinced that the establishment of a Jewish state had great value not only to Britain, but to civilization in general.
In a historic rejoinder to Musa Kazim el Husseini, the former mayor of Jerusalem, a relative of the Jew-hating Mufti Haj-Amin el-Husseini, and a prominent Arab leader, Churchill wrote:
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. The British Government have passed their word, by the mouth of Mr. Balfour, that they will view with favor the establishment of a National Home for Jews in Palestine, and that inevitably involves the immigration of Jews into the country…. Moreover, it is manifestly right that the Jews, who are scattered all over the world, should have a national center and a National Home where some of them may be reunited. And where else could that be but in this land of Palestine, with which for more than 3,000 years they have been intimately and profoundly associated? We think it will be good for the world, good for the Jews and good for the British Empire…
The British Government have promised that what is called the Zionist movement shall have a fair chance in this country, and the British Government will do what is necessary to secure that fair chance…. You can see with your own eyes in many parts of this country the work which has already been done by Jewish colonies; how sandy wastes have been reclaimed and thriving farms and orangeries planted in their stead…
In his 1921 “Report on the Middle East Conference,” Churchill predicted that if the Jews continue their work in building a Jewish state, Eretz Yisrael would become the biblical “promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey, in which sufferers of all races and religions will find a rest from their sufferings.”
Many British parliamentarians, objecting to Churchill’s strong Zionist positions, endeavored to rescind the Balfour Declaration. In 1922, some two-thirds of the House of Lords voted for rescission, declaring that a Jewish homeland was unacceptable “to the sentiments and wishes of the great majority of the people of Palestine.”
In a speech before the House of Commons on July 4, 1922, which many critics characterize as one of the celebrated orator’s greatest speeches, Churchill passionately argued the Zionist cause, concluding, “If, over the portals of the new Jerusalem, you are going to inscribe the legend, ‘No Israelite need apply,’ then I hope the House will permit me to confine my attention exclusively to Irish matters.”
Due to Churchill’s efforts, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly, by a vote of 292-35, to set aside the decision of the House of Lords and to continue British policy as per the Balfour declaration.
Characterizing Zionism as “an inspiring movement” and describing himself as “an old Zionist,” Churchill expended efforts on behalf of Jews and Israel that were exceptional, sincere, and persistent, leaving behind a long record of activism for Jewish causes.
As early as 1904, he promoted the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael as the only solution to Russian pogroms against Jews. Running for a seat from Manchester North West, which had a large Jewish immigrant population, Churchill became intimately familiar with Jewish interests and formed a strong bond with British Jews.
He attacked his government for its Aliens Bill, which sought to severely limit Jewish immigration from Eastern Europe, and he was later a lone voice taking on virtually his entire government in opposing Britain’s infamous White Paper (1939) – he called it “a plain breach of a solemn obligation” – which greatly reduced the number of Jews permitted to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael.
As prime minister of England during World War II, Churchill battled anti-Zionist British officials and frequently intervened to ease the escape of Jewish refugees from Europe and to allow those reaching Eretz Yisrael to remain there. Among other things, he instructed Royal Navy vessels not to intercept ships suspected of bringing in illegal Jewish immigrants (1939-40); successfully pressured the Franco regime to reopen its border to Jewish refugees fleeing the Reich (April 1943); and indefatigably fought hostility within the British military establishment to create the Jewish Brigade (1944).
He actively urged FDR to support the creation of a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael, reminding him, “I am strongly wedded to the Zionist policy, of which I was one of the authors.” When he learned that Jews arriving from Hungary were being gassed at Auschwitz, he immediately put into place plans to bomb the railway from Hungary.
(Why he did not extend that strategy to bombing the rail tracks at Auschwitz remains unclear, but historians argue they may have been out of range for British bombers – although they weren’t out of range for American bombers.)
After the war, Churchill sought to arm Jews in Eretz Yisrael against the Arabs, and he worked hard to fashion a postwar regional settlement that would include a Zionist state, which he was prepared to impose on the Palestinian Arabs by force, if necessary. Even after the bombing of the King David Hotel on July 22, 1946, which he unambiguously condemned, he argued that British promises had generated great optimism amongst the Jews of Eretz Yisrael and that the government’s betrayal had understandably caused great resentment.
His faith in the future of a Zionist state bordered on the messianic, as he declared “Jerusalem must be the [Jews’] only ultimate goal…. That it will someday be achieved is one of the few certainties of the future.”
After Israel’s War of Independence, Churchill pronounced the Jewish state a great event in world history and sought to push the British government to adopt a more pro-Israel foreign policy. Characterizing Jews as “the sons of the prophets dwelling in Zion,” he considered the establishment of Israel as “one of the most hopeful and encouraging adventures of the 20th century.”
When the British government initially refused to recognize Israel, Churchill bitterly criticized it in a speech to the House of Commons in which he maintained 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.”
He severely excoriated the Atlee government and, particularly, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin – whom he unabashedly and publicly called an “anti-Semite” – for refusing to accord the nascent nation prompt recognition.
In 1950, Churchill, upon becoming British prime minister for a second time, received a warm congratulatory message from his old friend Chaim Weizmann, now president of Israel, whom he described as “like an Old Testament prophet.” In his response, Churchill wrote: “The wonderful exertions which Israel is making in these times of difficulty are cheering to an old Zionist like me.”
Notwithstanding this remarkable and extensive record of Zionist support, some commentators – based primarily upon allegations that Churchill wrote some anti-Semitic articles (although the weight of evidence suggests he did not actually write them) – argue that Churchill was an anti-Semite.
Churchill’s attitude toward Jews may perhaps best be summarized by this quote from a 1920 article, which he unquestionably wrote: “Some people like Jews and some do not; but no thoughtful man can doubt the fact that they are beyond all question the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.”
However, some evidence does exist supporting the proposition that Churchill’s wife, Clementine, and his mother, Jenny Spencer-Churchill, were anti-Semites. There is no record of Sir Winston reproving Clementine for a 1931 letter to him in which she provided a negative description of New York’s Jews, but he did chide his mother for describing Count de Bendern in an odious fashion and for publishing an offensive, anti-Semitic anecdote in her memoirs.
In the rare August 28, 1947 letter exhibited here, Clementine responds to a request that Winston intercede in the Palestine issue with the British government:
I understand your sorrow about all that is happening in connection with Palestine and I regret that I must tell you that my Husband does not think he could intervene with the present Government with any success.
This letter was written at a time when tensions between British soldiers and the Jewish population of Eretz Yisrael rose as the Jewish underground armies renewed efforts to overthrow British rule. Churchill had lost his influence in Parliament when the Labor Party was roundly defeated by the Conservative Party, and Clement Attlee, no friend of the Jews, became prime minister.
* * * * *
The Winston Churchill Forest in the hills of Nazareth was dedicated on April 6, 1967, and, on November 4, 2012, a bronze sculpture of the British prime minister was dedicated at the Montefiore Gardens over Migdal David in Jerusalem to mark the 95th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration and the 90th anniversary of Churchill’s visit to Jerusalem.
Churchill’s death in 1965 was mourned by Jews in Israel and around the world, and both Ben-Gurion and then-president Zalman Shazar flew to London to attend the state funeral and pay their respects. (Their attendance at the public funeral on Shabbat was not without controversy in Jewish circles; then-Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie walked from his hotel to attend the service.)
Exhibited here is a program for a memorial service for Churchill held at the Yeshurun Central Synagogue in Jerusalem (February 1, 1965). The program included the kindling of memorial lights and recitation of Psalm 46, addresses by Chief Rabbi Isser Yehuda Unterman and Minister for Religious Affairs Zerach Warthaftig, and a closing with Psalm 23.