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Churchill and the Jews

In an exclusive extract from his new book, Boris Johnson reveals how Winston Churchill's admiration for Jews inspired the creation of Israel

    Churchill sits with Military Chiefs Council members in the gardens of the British Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, in 1942
    Churchill sits with Military Chiefs Council members in the gardens of the British Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, in 1942

    Winston Churchill was one of the fathers of the modern Middle East. There is therefore at least a case for thinking that he helped create the world's number-one political disaster zone, and then passed that disaster zone on, like a cupful of quivering gelignite, to be the responsibility of America. It was John F. Kennedy who first provided the American security guarantee for Israel. There are many who would blame the British - and Churchill prime among them - for creating the territorial incoherencies that made that guarantee necessary. Was he guilty? If not, whom do we blame?

    As I write these words, Israel is bombing the positions of Arabs in Gaza; Hamas is firing rockets at Israel; the casualties in Syria mount higher and higher; fundamentalist fanatics have captured large parts of northern Iraq. Churchill's fingerprints are over the entire map. Have a look at that map of Jordan - what do you see? The most striking feature is that weird triangular kink, a 400-mile salient from Saudi Arabia into modern Jordan. Some say that this fact of geography can be traced to one of Churchill's liquid lunches, and to this day it is called "Winston's hiccup". That story may or may not be true. What no one contests is Churchill's role in drawing that boundary.

    He was integral to the creation of the modern state of Israel; and it fell to him to try to make sense of the abjectly inconsistent commitments of the British government. He was the man who decided that there should be such a thing as the state of Iraq; it was he who bundled together the three Ottoman vilayets of Basra, Baghdad and Mosul - Shiite, Sunni and Kurd. If you wanted to put a single man in the frame for the agony of modern Iraq, if you wanted to blame anyone for the current implosion, then of course you might point the finger at George W. Bush and Tony Blair and Saddam Hussein - but if you wanted to grasp the essence of the problem of that wretched state, you would have to look at the role of Winston Churchill.

    His epic career intersected with the Middle East at several key points (and remember that he is credited with pioneering the very term Middle East); but the most important was his role as Colonial Secretary. When Churchill took the reins at the Colonial Office, he was at the apex of an empire that comprised 58 countries covering 14 million square miles and he was responsible - one way or another - for the lives and hopes of 458 million people. It was by far the biggest empire the world has ever seen.

    With the best possible intentions and motives, Britain had made a series of promises during the First World War, the most tragicomically incoherent of which was the so-called Balfour declaration. This was really a letter from A. J. Balfour to Lord Rothschild, dated 2 November 1917, and contained this masterpiece of Foreign Office fudgerama:

    He shared the Jewish energy, love of hard work and family

    ''His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.''

    Another way of putting it might have been that the British government viewed with favour the eating of a piece of cake by the Jewish people, provided nothing should be done to prejudice the rights of non-Jewish communities to eat the same piece of cake at the same time. What prompted this bizarre declaration? Partly it was idealism. Ever since the vile pogroms in nineteenth-century Russia there had been a growing movement to find a homeland for the Jews. At one stage, the British had even toyed with finding some space in Uganda; but Palestine, the land of the Hebrew Old Testament, was the obvious place. Palestine was still relatively underpopulated; and to some extent Balfour was merely adding the official British voice to the chorus that wanted to give "a land without a people to a people without a land".

    Balfour may also have been moved by a more practical consideration: there was much anxiety in the First World War that Jewish sympathy might be inclined towards the Germans, because that was the best way of paying back the Russians for their antisemitism before the war. As Churchill himself later admitted, the Balfour declaration was partly intended to shore up Jewish support, especially in America - and its manifest muddle arose from the countervailing desire not to alienate the many millions of Muslims (not least in India) upon whose troops the British imperial forces relied.

    This was the mess that Churchill had to clear up, the beginning of the creation of that Jewish homeland promised by Balfour - and in taking that step there have been plenty of people who have accused Churchill of being a tool of the great global Jewish conspiracy.

    There are loonies out there who will tell you that Churchill's mother Jennie Jerome was of Jewish stock (she wasn't; her father was descended from Huguenots. She may have been partly Native American, but she wasn't Jewish). A little more plausibly, they will tell you that his views were warped by the very substantial donations he received from Jewish bankers and financiers: Ernest Cassel, Sir Henry Strakosch, Bernard Baruch. It is perfectly true that Churchill's personal finances would not today look good if splashed on the front page of the Guardian. He did indeed take money from these men, sometimes in considerable sums. But those were very different times, when parliamentarians and ministers were paid much less - and expected to have a private income - and it was by no means unusual for politicians to receive financial support from their admirers.

    As it happens, I don't think these donations made a bean of difference to Churchill's views about Jewry, nor to his decisions about Palestine. He was basically philo-Semitic, like his father Randolph, and had been all his life. He admired the Jewish characteristics that he shared in such abundance - energy, self-reliance, hard work, family life. As he wrote in a newspaper article in 1920, "Some people like the 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." He has from time to time been accused of adopting some off-colour sentiments - such as in an unpublished article in which he seems to suggest that Jewish people may be partly responsible for some of the resentment they inspire, and the feeling that they are "Hebrew bloodsuckers". But the authorship of the article is contested (a ghostly hand alleged) and it is surely important that it was never published. As Sir Martin Gilbert has demonstrated beyond the slightest doubt, Churchill admired Jews, employed Jews, enjoyed the company of Jews, and believed in a Jewish homeland. He was not a Zionist, he once said, but he was "wedded to Zionism".

    On the other hand, it does not mean Churchill was in any sense anti-Arab, let alone anti-Muslim. He hero-worshipped the headdress-sporting Lawrence of Arabia, and was always mindful that the British Empire was the greatest Muslim power on earth: the home in 1920 of 87 million Muslims. So when Churchill paved the way for Jewish entry to Palestine - and his 1922 White Paper encouraged more immigration - it was because he genuinely believed it would be the best thing for that otherwise arid and neglected part of the world, and that it would be the best thing for both communities. He saw Jew and Arab living side by side.

    He imagined the technically expert Schlomo giving eager young Mohammed a hand with his tractor, and teaching him the art of irrigation. He saw orchards blossoming over the desert, and prosperity for all. Indeed, he had some support for this vision from the old King Hussein himself, who wrote in his publication al-Qibla that Palestine was a "sacred and beloved homeland of its original sons - the Jews". The Hashemite King went on to make precisely the same starry-eyed prediction as Churchill.

    "Experience has proved their capacity to succeed in their energies and their labours. . . The return of these exiles to their homeland will prove materially and spiritually an experimental school for their Arab brethren in the field, factories and trade."

    Alas, things did not work out that way. As the years rolled on, tensions got worse; Jewish immigration increased, especially as the Nazi persecutions began, and Churchill was too optimistic about the caring, sharing spirit of the early Zionists.

    They did not tend to employ Arabs on their farms. There were Arab riots and protests, and the poor soldiers of the British mandate were caught in the middle, driven to shoot Arabs - when many in Britain were starting to feel that a serious injustice was being done.

    After the war, Jewish immigration became morally and physically unstoppable; and since the Arab reaction was as violent as ever, British troops found themselves trying to uphold the principles of Balfour, and to be fair to both sides.

    The British still tried to restrict the pace of Jewish immigration, and there were awful scenes as the victims of Nazi concentration camps were detained, in British-organised camps, rather than being allowed into Palestine.

    Jewish terrorists began to turn their guns and bombs on the British themselves - the very people who had created the homeland. They murdered Lord Moyne, the British minister in Palestine, and killed British soldiers who were only doing their job, to the fury of Ernest Bevin, Labour Foreign Secretary.

    Even Winston Churchill was shaken in his Zionism. He described the attacks as "an odious act of ingratitude". His relations with Chaim Weizmann, the Manchester-born father of the Zionist movement, were never the same.

    In the end, the British simply scarpered from Palestine, literally leaving the key under the mat. The flag came down, and a new nation was born.

    If you are among those who hold that the Balfour declaration was the biggest single error of British foreign policy, then you will obviously think that Churchill was wrong to give it practical effect. There again, if you think that on the whole it was right after 2,000 years of persecution to give the Jews a homeland in a place they had once occupied and that was now relatively sparsely populated; if you think it was a visionary idea to hope that their talents would let the desert bloom; if you think that it is not a bad idea to have at least one democracy - no matter how imperfect - in that part of the world, then you will perhaps think Churchill a bit of a hero.

    He could not have known in the 1920s that his vision of a land "flowing with milk and honey" would be so betrayed by the short-sightedness and selfishness of both sides. He can't be blamed for the shameful way Israelis have treated Palestinians, nor for Palestinian terrorism, nor for the generally woeful quality of Palestinian leadership. Nor can he really be blamed for the apparent disintegration of Iraq, if that is indeed what is now happening.

    Far from achieving nothing, Churchill's ideals actually helped not to perpetuate the British Empire, but to ensure that it was unbundled in a relatively dignified and effective way. It was one of the paradoxes of his life that Churchillian goals, of freedom and democracy, were espoused by the very children of the empire as they campaigned for their own independence.

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