Churchill's Other Alliance

Reviewed by Glenn Frankel
Sunday, December 16, 2007


A Lifelong Friendship

By Martin Gilbert

Henry Holt. 352 pp. $30

"Even Winston had a fault," Gen. Edward Louis Spears, a dear friend of Winston Churchill, once told historian Martin Gilbert. "He was too fond of Jews."

Spears's remark, which rather neatly epitomized the pervasive anti-Semitism of Britain's ruling class, is Gilbert's jumping-off point for his sympathetic but ultimately disappointing account of the singularly warm and supportive relationship between the greatest British leader of the 20th century and the Jewish people. From the moment he first launched his public career as a member of Parliament, through his years as Cabinet secretary, political outcast and heroic wartime prime minister, Churchill cultivated personal and financial ties with Jews, praised them and became an ardent champion of a Jewish national home in Palestine. It was, writes Gilbert, an unusual partnership of "a remarkable man and a remarkable people."

Churchill's profound admiration for the Jews, which was not shared by many of his closest political colleagues, was all the more amazing because it survived the rise of Bolshevism, which Churchill abhorred and which he believed was dominated, intellectually and politically, by men and women of Jewish origin. It even survived the turbulent years during and after World War II when Zionist extremists conducted a campaign of political murder against British officials, policemen and soldiers. That campaign reached its nadir with the 1944 assassination in Cairo of Lord Moyne, Britain's top colonial administrator in the region and one of Churchill's closest friends, and the 1946 bombing of British administration offices at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, in which 91 people died.

Why did the great man shower his affection on a people that could be, by his own reckoning, so cantankerous and problematic? It was, Gilbert writes, partly because Churchill saw Jewish ethics as the foundation stone for Western moral teachings. The Jews, Churchill wrote, "grasped and proclaimed an idea of which all the genius of Greece and all the power of Rome were incapable." Impressed with what he saw as Jews' sense of loyalty, vitality, self-help and determination, he endorsed their national aspirations. A Jewish homeland "will be a blessing to the whole world," he told an audience in Jerusalem in 1921.

It's also the case that Churchill had little use for Muslims. As early as 1899 he wrote of the "fanatical frenzy . . . fearful fatalistic apathy . . . [and] degraded sensualism" of Islam. "Individual Moslems may show splendid qualities," he added, "but the influence of the religion paralyzes the social development of those who follow it." While Britain's post-World War I mandate called for it to foster democratic institutions in Palestine, Churchill consistently delayed them, knowing that a freely elected legislative assembly dominated by an Arab majority would have cut off Jewish migration.

Churchill was often accused by political opponents and anti-Semites of being in the pocket of wealthy Jews. Lord Alfred Douglas, the poet and former lover of playwright Oscar Wilde, alleged that Churchill accepted bribes from Jewish financiers during World War I to manipulate wartime information for their financial advantage while he was secretary of the Royal Navy. Douglas was convicted of criminal libel and sentenced to six months in prison.

Gilbert, who is author of the definitive eight-volume Churchill biography, persuasively discredits these claims. He is less successful in debunking longstanding allegations by critics such as Israeli historian Michael J. Cohen that Churchill, while expressing horror and concern, did little or nothing to prevent the Holocaust. After Jewish leaders pleaded with the Allies in 1944 to bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz, Churchill instructed his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, "Get anything out of the Air Force you can and invoke me if necessary." Nothing happened. The Royal Air Force, it seems, had other priorities, and Churchill never followed up.

Hundreds of thousands more Jews died between July 1944 and the death camp's eventual liberation in January 1945 by Soviet troops. According to Cohen, Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, one of Churchill's public admirers, told a closed session of the Zionist Political Committee in London in June 1945 that Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and other Western leaders had ignored his pleas. "Nobody cared what happened to the Jews," Weizmann complained. "Nobody had raised a finger to stop them being slaughtered."

Gilbert's book is an ardent hagiography of a great man, and the portrait at times seems less than three-dimensional. Even less enthralling is Gilbert's reliance on long quotations from Churchill's speeches and writings. We get page after page of Churchill's remarks to the House of Commons on this issue and that, interspersed with one-line sentences from Gilbert. This is history as stenography, and the book inevitably feels like a set of out-takes from Gilbert's masterly biography. Its subject may be intriguing, but little here seems new or surprising. *

Glenn Frankel, the former London and Jerusalem bureau chief for The Washington Post, teaches in the graduate journalism program at Stanford University.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company