LONDON — Deep beneath the main London road of Whitehall lie the cabinet war rooms. From this bunker, surrounded by a military and civilian staff who rarely saw daylight for the five years of World War II, Winston Churchill commanded Britain’s war effort.
Now a museum to the country’s wartime savior, this month saw the opening of a new permanent exhibition on Churchill’s relationship with the Middle East.
Supported by the Balfour 100 committee, it offers a timely — if at times incomplete — account of the key role played by Churchill in honoring the pledges made by Britain in 1917 to help establish a Jewish national home in Palestine.
A copy of Chaim Weizmann’s 1918 pamphlet “What Is Zionism?” illustrates the decades-long relationship between Churchill and Israel’s first president. The display correctly notes that Churchill was an avowed Zionist, but its suggestion that, due to “wider political concerns,” he was inconsistent in his support is somewhat misleading.
Critically, the exhibit fails to capture the origins of Churchill’s Zionism. As Britain’s current Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson wrote in his 2014 biography of the erstwhile leader, Churchill “admired the Jewish characteristics that he shared in abundance — energy, self-reliance, hard work, family life.”
Churchill’s philo-Semitism had deep historical and philosophical roots.
“The thought, the inspiration and the culture of the Jews,” he wrote in 1950, “has been one of the vital dominants in the world history. There are none of the arts or sciences which have not been enriched by Jewish achievements.”
This was indeed a constant theme. “No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem. Their messages in religion, philosophy, and art have been the main guiding lights of modern faith and culture,” Churchill argued in his memoirs.
In the early years of his political career, Churchill formed a strong bond with British Jews; his constituency of Manchester North-West was estimated to have an electorate that was one-third Jewish.
In parliament, he fought legislation designed to curtail Jewish immigration to Britain and, appalled by pogroms in Tsarist Russia, became a believer in the Zionist cause. At a rally in Manchester against the massacres that they were both addressing, Churchill met Weizmann for the first time. Shortly after, he wrote in a letter: “I recognize the supreme attraction to a scattered and persecuted people of a safe and settled home under the flag of tolerance and freedom.”
Despite strong support from Jewish voters, Churchill lost his Manchester seat in 1908 and was then re-elected to a constituency in Scotland. But the absence of Jewish constituents did not alter his sympathies. As Martin Gilbert suggested in his book “Churchill and the Jews,” Churchill “held in high regard both the Jewish religious ethic and the Zionist ideal.”
Thus although Churchill was not involved in the discussions which led to the Balfour Declaration, he was nonetheless an enthusiastic supporter.
Writing in 1920 of Zionism as an “inspiring movement” — Churchill’s son would later recall his father describing Weizmann as “just like an Old Testament prophet” — he argued: “If, as may well happen, there should be created in our own lifetime by the banks of the Jordan a Jewish State under the protection of the British Crown which might compromise three or four millions of Jews, an event will have occurred in the history of the world which would from every point of view be beneficial.”
As the exhibition rightly notes, as Colonial Secretary in the early 1920s, Churchill would “play a key role in translating [the Balfour Declaration] into policy.”
Any inconsistency in his approach thus stemmed from the dilemma British governments would wrestle with throughout the time of the Mandate: how to square the circle of the promises Balfour had made both to establish in Palestine “a national home for the Jewish people” while also maintaining the “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities.”
But, both in and out of government, Churchill did more than many British politicians to fulfill those twin goals.
How to square the Jewish-Palestinian circle
The challenge Churchill faced is illustrated by a copy of the map he ordered of the territory which, in the wake of World War I, Britain now administered.
On a memo accompanying it, a civil servant has scrawled a warning to the new Colonial Secretary: the marked boundaries were “very approximate … disputed … a guess.”
Map in hand, Churchill departed for the Middle East in March 1921. At a conference in Cairo he laid the foundations for the Jewish national home by separating Transjordan from Palestine. His decision disappointed Weizmann, but was later seen as crucial. As James de Rothschild wrote to Churchill in 1955, “without this much-opposed prophetic foresight there could not have been an Israel today.”
In Jerusalem, Churchill bluntly refused Arab demands that Britain halt Jewish immigration and abandon its commitment to a Jewish national home.
“It is not in my power to do so,” he replied, “nor, if it were in my power, would it be my wish.” He went on to tell the delegation that the pledge was “manifestly right.”
Meeting with a Jewish delegation in Jerusalem he urged: “You must provide me with the means … of answering all adverse criticism. I wish to be able to say that a great event is taking place here … without injury or injustice to anyone.”
At a tree-planting ceremony on the site of the future Hebrew University at Mount Scopus, Churchill declared: “Personally, my heart is full of sympathy for Zionism.”
The establishment of a Jewish national home in Palestine would be “a blessing to the whole world, a blessing to the Jewish race scattered all over the world, and a blessing to Great Britain.”
But, he reminded his audience, Britain’s promise had been “a double one. On the one hand we promised to give our help to Zionism, and on the other, we assured the non-Jewish inhabitants that they should not suffer in consequence. Every step you take should be for the moral and material benefit of all Palestinians.”
Churchill was convinced that it could be. Back in London, he reported to Parliament on his visit to one of the “Jewish colonies” at Rishon LeZion where “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.”
Jewish immigration would be “carefully watched and controlled,” Churchill argued, on the basis of “expanding wealth and development of the resources of the country,” but he was nonetheless adamant in his conclusions that it would be beneficial to all.
“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,” he said.
Lobbied again in London by Palestinian Arabs two months later to end all Jewish immigration, Churchill was dismissive. The Jews, he told his visitors, “were in Palestine many hundreds of years ago. They have always tried to be there. They have done a great deal for the country. They have started many thriving colonies and many of them wish to go and live there. It is to them a sacred place.”
Nor was Churchill blind to the potential consequences of Britain’s actions, telling the Canadian Prime Minister in 1921 that, if “after many years,” the Jews “become a majority in the country, they naturally would take over.”
Churchill to Weizmann: ‘Better days will surely come’
Cast into the political wilderness in the 1930s, Churchill nonetheless maintained his Zionist sympathies, as illustrated by a copy of a letter he received from Frederick Peel in July 1936 as the Arab revolt gathered steam.
Peel, a British army officer who commanded the Arab Legion (Transjordan’s army), had attended the Cairo conference in 1921 and had remained in touch with Churchill.
Now Peel wrote to warn him that of the dangers of Britain continuing to allow Jewish immigration. But Churchill was unconvinced. As Gilbert has argued in his secret testimony to the 1937 Peel Commission, Churchill made the case that “the intention of the Balfour Declaration was that Palestine might in the course of time become ‘an overwhelmingly Jewish State.’”
When, in 1939, Britain moved to halt Jewish immigration to Palestine, Churchill opposed the government in parliament.
Referring to the Balfour Declaration — as a consequence of which, he reminded the Commons, Britain had not only received “important help in the war” but also the Mandate itself — he called the MacDonald White Paper a “plain breach of a solemn obligation.”
Twisting the knife further, he accused prime minister Neville Chamberlain of caving before “an agitation which is fed by foreign money and ceaselessly inflamed by Nazi and fascist propaganda.”
He closed by recalling prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s own support for Balfour and his call two decades before for the Zionists to “build up a new prosperity and a new civilization in old Palestine, so long neglected and misruled.”
“They have answered his call,” Churchill charged, “They have fulfilled his hopes. How can he find it in his heart to strike them this mortal blow?”
But, despite the opposition of Churchill, the Labour party and scores of its own backbenchers, Chamberlain’s government got its way.
A year later, Churchill was in Downing Street. There is great poignancy in the copy of the telegram he sent to Weizmann on the 25th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration.
“My thoughts are with you on this anniversary. Better days will surely come for your suffering people and for the great cause for which you have fought so bravely,” he wrote.
Beneath Churchill’s message, the Foreign Office’s instruction to its embassy in Washington: “You should ensure that it is understood that the message is not [repeat not] for publication.”
Uphill battle for the ‘Jewish State of Western Palestine’
Throughout the war, the prime minister faced a cabinet which did not share his enthusiasm for Zionism. His attempt to overturn the MacDonald White Paper swiftly faltered.
As Harold Wilson, an ardent supporter of Israel who would later become prime minister, wrote in his history of the relationship between Britain, America and the Jewish state: “Army and official circles in Whitehall and Palestine were determined to have none of it, Churchill or no Churchill. Downing Street disposes, but before long the rats get at it — in this case the Colonial Office, the military and the Palestine administration.”
Churchill, however, held to his beliefs, meeting regularly with Weizmann to assure that their thoughts were “99 percent identical.”
In 1941, he wrote to the War Cabinet of his hopes for the postwar establishment of “the Jewish State of Western Palestine,” which would have the opportunity “for expansion in the desert regions to the southwards which they would gradually reclaim.”
He lobbied Franklin Roosevelt, reminding him: “I am strongly wedded to the Zionist policy, of which I was one of the authors.”
And he told his senior ministers that, if the Allies were victorious, “the creation of a great Jewish state in Palestine would inevitably be one of the matters to be discussed at the Peace Conference.”
It is true that the assassination of Churchill’s great friend, the High Commissioner Lord Moyne by the Lehi in late 1944 dismayed the prime minister.
“If our dreams for Zionism are to end in the smoke of assassins’ pistols and our labors for its future to produce only a new set of gangsters worthy of Nazi Germany,” he told the House of Commons in a comparison he may not have used today, “many like myself will have to reconsider the position we have maintained so consistently and so long in the past.
“If there is to be any hope of a peaceful and successful future for Zionism, these wicked activities must cease, and those responsible for them must be destroyed root and branch,” he said.
However, the exhibition’s claim that, as a consequence of Moyne’s murder, Churchill’s support for Zionism “dwindled” is not the case.
A ‘squalid conflict’ with the Zionist community
In the closing months of the war, Churchill unsuccessfully attempted to persuade Arab leaders, most notably Ibn Saud, of the case for a Jewish “national home in Palestine” and appealed for a “definite and lasting settlement” between Jews and Arabs.
Within weeks, however, Labour had withdrawn from the coalition government which Churchill had headed throughout the war and a general election in July 1945 saw the Conservatives suffer a heavy defeat.
The new Labour government swiftly reneged on its repeated promise to support the creation of, in the words of its 1945 conference, “a happy, free and prosperous Jewish state in Palestine.”
But, within the Conservative parliamentary party, Churchill’s backing for Zionism remained a distinctly minority viewpoint. Despite this, and even at the most difficult moments domestically, Churchill stuck to his long-held beliefs.
In the wake of the bombing of the King David Hotel, he reminded the government of the “most strenuous pro-Zionist speeches and declarations” Labour had made prior to coming to power.
These, he said, had raised “all sorts of hopes” among the Jews in Palestine; the government’s betrayal of which has caused “deep and bitter resentment.”
“Had I had the opportunity of guiding the course of events after the war was won a year ago,” Churchill continued, “I should have faithfully pursued the Zionist cause as I have defined it; and I have not abandoned it today.”
If Britain was not able “to carry out properly and honestly the Zionist policy” which was a condition of the Mandate, it should withdraw, he said.
Others, too, agreed, Weizmann writing to Churchill in response: “I wish indeed that fate had allowed you to handle our problem; by now it would probably all have been settled, and we would all have been spared a great deal of misery.”
Churchill’s view of the source of that misery was evident when his son-in-law, Christopher Soames, suggested to him that British public opinion favored the Arabs and was anti-Jew.
“Nonsense,” the former prime minister replied. “I could put the case for the Jews in 10 minutes. I will never forgive the Irgun terrorists. But we should never have stopped immigration before the war.”
Later, Churchill would berate the government for the “horrible, squalid conflict with the Zionist community” it was waging in Palestine.
As a copy of the notes he prepared for a speech delivered 10 days after the State of Israel was declared highlight, Churchill strongly believed that Britain should have “enforced an equitable partition of Palestine on the morrow of our victory.”
By its delay, it had “gained nothing … but the hatred of both sides, Jew and Arab alike.”
The Labour government was to commit one final spiteful act, delaying its recognition of Israel. Churchill urged it to reconsider: the coming into being of a Jewish state, he told the House of Commons, “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.”
Three years later, at the age of 76, Churchill became prime minister for a second time. Weizmann, now the president of Israel, sent his congratulations.
From Downing Street, Churchill wrote his response: “The wonderful exertions which Israel is making in these times of difficulty are cheering to an old Zionist like me.”