Yes, Churchill Really Was a Friend of the Jews and ZionismHistorians/History
tags: Zionism, Winston Churchill
Revisionism is a long-standing cottage industry where Winston Churchill is concerned, to which Michael J. Cohen, Professor of History Emeritus at Bar-Ilan University, has contributed the contention that Winston Churchill’s support for Jews and Zionism is a myth. He devoted a book to this, Churchill and the Jews (1985, revised edition 2003), which clashes with much that is presented in the late Sir Martin Gilbert’s Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship (2007) and Michael Makovsky’s Churchill’s Promised Land: Zionism and Statecraft (2007), all three of which I reviewed in detail for the Jewish Political Studies Review (Spring 2009).
Having contributed a little to the discussion on this subject (twice on the History News Network, here and here) it has been surprising to see Cohen pressing his view in the face of the evidence that emerged in Gilbert and Makovsky’s books. In 2009, he described Gilbert as the mythmaker of Churchill’s pro-Jewish and pro-Zionist reputation in a lengthy article dissecting the latter’s book in the pages of Modern Judaism (May 2006, vol. 26, no. 2). Now, he has reiterated his charges in an opinion piece in the Israeli daily, Haaretz, (“The Truth About Churchill and the Jews,” Jan. 27).
Cohen wrote in the Epilogue of his book on the subject –– and essentially argues in his latest piece –– that there is a “glaring anomaly” between Churchill’s war time expressions of sympathy for the Jews and the “absence, almost, of any practical measures on their behalf.” This strikes me as a false, defective verdict. I would argue that Churchill’s reputation as friend of the Jews and Zionism withstands scrutiny.
Despite some undoubted inconsistencies, the pattern is clear: Churchill admired the Jews, believed they contributed to Britain and Western civilization and sought to support their national aspirations. Cohen’s contrary case is marred by the neglect of important pieces of evidence that have emerged in recent decades, while emphasizing only selected ones of his choice.
Consider the following facts, none of which appear in Cohen’s book or latest piece:
● In January 1939, Churchill urged Albania to accept Jews fleeing Germany and Austria, but promising developments in this regard were abruptly ended by Mussolini’s invasion and occupation of the country the following April.
● As First Lord of the Admiralty (1939-40), Churchill instructed Royal Navy vessels not to intercept ships suspected of bringing illegal Jewish immigrants to Palestine when he discovered that notice of this practice had been withheld from him by officials.
● In February 1942, Churchill argued successfully in the War Cabinet, in the face of opposition from the new Colonial Secretary, Lord Moyne, to release from internment approximately 800 Jewish refugees from the Darien II who had reached Palestine.
● The same year, Churchill overrode Foreign Office objections to a proposal for permitting 5,000 Bulgarian Jewish children passage to Palestine. (The War Cabinet approved, but the move was blocked by German pressure applied on Bulgaria).
● In April 1943, Churchill pressured the Spanish ambassador to have the Franco regime reopen its border to Jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich, something that occurred within a few days.
● In July 1943, he vigorously opposed in the War Cabinet plans for British naval searches of ships to find illegal Jewish immigrants.
● After the War Cabinet overrode Churchill by deciding to discourage illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine, Churchill devised a policy that bypassed it by permitting all Jews who might arrive in Palestine to stay there. One result was that, in early 1944, 6,000 Jews from Romania and Bessarabia were permitted to proceed to Palestine on British passports.
● In 1943, Churchill succeeded in having the War Cabinet approve continued Jewish immigration to Palestine beyond the 1939 White Paper’s March 1944 cut-off, up to the full limit of the 75,000 permitted by the White Paper. (Due to the Nazi success in cutting off escape route, this quota was not filled until after the War ended).
● In early 1945, he made abortive efforts to create a Jewish state within a larger Arab federation by unsuccessfully seeking to enlist, through among other things financial inducements, the support of Saudi King Saud.
In short, during the war, Churchill sought many avenues to provide refuge for Jews fleeing the Nazis, including in Palestine, and in the teeth of great opposition from virtually all of his officials. It is true that the results of Churchill’s record of persistent, often lone, activism on behalf of Jews and Zionism within the government he headed were relatively meager, but not for want of trying.
Indeed, such was the perception of Churchill’s solicitude for Jews among officials that, on at least two occasions, callous members of his own inner staff withheld from him Jewish requests out of fear that he would respond positively to them.
Some of the charges in Cohen’s latest opinion piece go even further than those he leveled in his book.
For example, Cohen convincingly demonstrated in his book that, while immediately authorizing in July 1944 the aerial bombing of the railway lines leading to Auschwitz, Churchill failed to follow up and ensure his directive was implemented. Now, however, he insists that Churchill also “rejected the bombing project” –– something not borne out by the Churchill letter he cites.
Without doubt, Professor Cohen’s researches on Churchill produced some compelling evidence that attenuate Churchill’s record. But his prosecutorial persistence in advocating his case, despite the contrary evidence that puts paid to it, remains a mystery.
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