Alan Aziz

The greatest Briton was one of Britain’s greatest Zionists

Churchill had a heart that was “full of sympathy for Zionism”


G4FKE6 Politics - Field-Marshal Lord Gort Memorial Service - Westminster Abbey, London

November 26, 2021 11:05

November 30th, 1874: History was changed forever on the day Winston Churchill was born. And he came to have a special significance for Jews.

Churchill was a committed ally at a time when the Jewish people were short of friends, which is why he was so involved in the establishment and protection of Israel — a legacy that continues to this day.

Even from a young age, Churchill championed a home for the Jews. His early sympathy for the Zionist cause was triggered in particular by the Tsarist pogroms, which had reached an especially ugly climax in 1905. This led him to write in private letters between 1906 and 1908 that he “recognise[d] the supreme attraction to a scattered and persecuted people of a safe and settled home under the flag of tolerance and freedom” as the “ultimate goal” of the Jewish people. “That it will someday be achieved is one of the few certainties of the future”, he wrote, not knowing then, perhaps, just how instrumental he would be in fulfilling his own prophecy.

The bond with British Jews in the early years of Churchill’s political career only furthered his dedication. Appreciating the urgent need for their own homeland, he fought against legislation in parliament designed to halt Jewish immigration. But it would take over a decade for Churchill to be in position to put his beliefs into action.

Appointed Colonial Secretary in 1921, Churchill was directly responsible for British policy in the Middle East. Only a year before this appointment, he publicly declared in a newspaper article that establishing a Jewish State “by the banks of Jordan [...] which might comprise three or four millions of Jews [...] would from every point of view be beneficial.”

Like a dog with a bone, Churchill would not give up this position, addressing Palestinian Arab leaders in Jerusalem in 1921 that “it is manifestly right that the Jews, who are scattered all over the world, should have a [...] National Home. 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?”

Churchill not only had a heart that was “full of sympathy for Zionism”, but he had also seen first-hand just how fruitful the first new Jewish communities in the previously barren, infertile land were. He was convinced that a Jewish homeland was the right thing to strive for — not only for the good of the Jews but for the rest of the world, too. Already he could see the enormous potential in this small group of people inhabiting a tiny slice of land.

Of course, this didn’t stop the lobbying against Jewish immigration. Two-thirds of the House of Lords voted to reject Balfour’s initiative, calling it unacceptable “to the sentiments and wishes of the great majority of the people of Palestine.” Yet Churchill remained steadfast in his belief. He delivered a passionate speech to the House of Commons that reversed the earlier vote, resulting in a 292-35 majority to forge ahead with Balfour’s policy. His words that day might, quite simply, have saved the Jewish homeland from extinction. And in refusing the demands by Arabia’s King Ibn Saud to stop Jewish immigration into Palestine, 400,000 Jews were able to escape Europe before the Second World War.

However, this did not diminish his concern that establishing a national home for the Jews must not come at the expense of the Arabs and Christians who lived there, a principle outlined in the Balfour declaration of 1917. This is why, in laying the foundations for a Jewish homeland in the White Paper of 1922, he separated Transjordan from Palestine. This decision was said to be the lynchpin for the Israel of today by James de Rothschild in 1955.

When it comes to what are often seen as the mutually exclusive conditions laid out by the Balfour Declaration — the need for both a “national home for the Jewish people” and the “civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities” to be maintained — it can be difficult to name an individual who has successfully managed to navigate them both entirely without criticism. Yet both in and out of government, Churchill succeeded more than most in upholding these twin goals and carving out a compromise. If we hail Balfour for his policy, we must do the same for the man who helped make it happen.

Churchill maintained his Zionist sympathies during the interim political years before becoming Prime Minister. When the Chamberlain government moved to halt Jewish immigration to Palestine again in 1939, he opposed it in parliament. Chamberlain got his way, but Churchill replaced him just one year later.

As PM he continued to work towards what he hoped would become a post-war “Jewish State of Western Palestine”, writing this in a secret memorandum to the War Cabinet in 1941 and lobbying Franklin Roosevelt with reminders that he was “strongly wedded to the Zionist policy.”

In the closing months of the War, Churchill tried to persuade Arab leaders of the case for a Jewish “national home in Palestine”, simultaneously appealing for a “definite and lasting settlement” between Arab and Jews. His attempts were in vain, with 1945 seeing his removal from power as the Conservatives suffered a heavy defeat. Churchill had to watch on as Labour immediately reneged on its repeated promise to help support the creation of “a happy, free and prosperous Jewish State in Palestine.”

The state of Israel was declared in 1948, with Churchill out of power. But his speeches at the time were so consistently supportive that David Ben-Gurion sent him a message on his 75th birthday, saying: “[Your] words and [...] deeds are indelibly engraved in the annals of humanity”. And one year later in 1951, on becoming prime minister for a second time, he responded to then-president Weizmann’s congratulations that “the wonderful exertions which Israel is making in these times of difficulty are cheering to an old Zionist like me.”

In recognising the Jewish people’s legacy — writing that there are no “arts or sciences which have not been enriched by Jewish achievements” — Churchill’s own legacy lives on to this day. His unwavering belief in the potential of the Jewish people led him to support some of Israel’s most ground breaking institutions which continue to have an impact today, such as the Technion, Israel’s Institute of Technology (where I work). It continues to churn out the most brilliant globally recognised minds and life-changing advancements.

Churchill wrote to the Technion in 1958: “I have been a Zionist for many years and I view with pleasure and admiration the maturing of the state of Israel. So to increase the technical aptitude of your people is indeed commendable. It is perhaps the most urgent requirements of any free country who wishes to preserve its standing dignity and independence.”

He was delighted to learn that the auditorium at the heart of the Technion campus would be named after him. Many British donors contributed to its construction, and it was opened with a ceremony attended by members of his family.

Churchill understood what so many before — and after — failed to. For that, his legacy should serve not only as a reminder for all that he did for Israel but for the importance of continuing to believe in its future.

If you are able to help to continue this legacy, please contact Alan Aziz:

November 26, 2021 11:05

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