Winston Churchill - A Good Friend of Jews and Zionism?

By Mandel, Daniel | Jewish Political Studies Review, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Winston Churchill - A Good Friend of Jews and Zionism?


Mandel, Daniel, Jewish Political Studies Review


Churchill and the Jews, by Michael J. Cohen, London & Portland: Frank Cass, 1985, second revised edition, 2003, 421 pp.

Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship, by Martin Gilbert, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2007, 359 pp.

Churchill's Promised Land, by Alan Makovsky, New Haven & London: New Republic Books/Yale University Press, 2007, 341 pp.

Reviewed by Daniel Mandel

In the second half of 2007, within a few weeks of each other, two books appeared on the subject of Winston Churchill and his relations with Jews and Zionism. The first, by Bipartisan Policy Center scholar Alan Makovsky, Churchill's Promised Land: Zionism and Statecraft, is primarily concerned with Churchill's views on and connection with Zionism as these evolved. However, in examining this motif in Churchill's career, the author encompasses virtually the whole of Churchill's experience and interaction with Jews from his earliest days. The second, by Churchill's official biographer Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship, takes as its field Churchill's connection to all things Jewish over the course of his long life. Therefore, for all intents and purposes, the two books are congruent. To this must be added Bar-Ilan University historian Michael J. Cohen's Churchill and the Jews, first published in 1 985 but reissued in a revised edition in 2003. Thus, readers are now presented with an embarrassment of riches: Churchill's relationship to the Jewish people had not been the subject of a book-length study since Oskar K. Rabinowicz's 1956 volume, Winston Churchill on Jewish Problems - - A Half-Century Survey, produced in Churchill's lifetime, long before a vast trove of official and personal papers could be scrutinized by its author.1

Cohen set out his goal clearly in the introduction to the first edition of his work. Citing Rabinowicz's conclusion that "Sir Winston is one of the giants of our time... he ranks among the greatest friends the Jewish people have had" (Rabinowicz, 16), Cohen states that "[i]t will be the purpose of this study to examine, amplify and if necessary, revise this categorical assertion" (Cohen, xvii). Indeed, Cohen's book is self-consciously revisionist and presents a far harsher judgment on Churchill's relationship to Jews and fidelity to the Zionist cause than either Makovsky's or Gilbert's. This makes examining all three works all the more important in coming to the heart of the matter, especially since there has been a tendency to review the Makovsky and Gilbert tomes without consideration of Cohen's recently-reissued work.2

Cohen and Makovsky take a predominantly analytical approach, documenting Churchill's words and deeds, measuring the correspondence between them, and drawing conclusions according to their own lights. Gilbert, in contrast, is largely descriptive and the least historiographie of the three: he has surveyed numerous published sources but rarely cites or discusses their judgments. Rather, he presents a narrative based on a wealth of information gleaned from official and personal papers in order to construct a detailed picture of Churchill in his relations with Jews and Zionism.

All three authors provide abundant evidence of Churchill's uncontested devotion to furthering the course of Western civilization, with the British Empire and its Commonwealth held by him to be the most enduring and efficacious agent of its progress. In contrast to most of his upper-class contemporaries, who often eschewed social contact with Jews, Churchill grew up widely acquainted with them. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, exceptionally for an aristocrat, maintained close friendships with various Jewish figures. Coupled with his voracious reading, this led Churchill to arrive at an early appreciation of the extraordinary role of Jews in history, particularly as a progenitor and agent of Western civilization, a conviction that imbued his attitude toward Zionism in the present.

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