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Churchill's Promised Land: Zionism And Statecraft
Michael Makovsky

A New Republic Book
New Haven, Conn. & London: Yale University Press, 2007.
£25. xv, 342 pp. ISBN—9780300116090.

Reviewed by Antoine Capet


The literature on “Churchill and the Jews” or “Churchill and Palestine” is already fairly copious,1 the latest addition coming from the great Churchill scholar Sir Martin Gilbert,2 and these publications naturally allude to Churchill’s attitude towards Zionists. But Makovsky’s recent book is the first to dwell specifically on the subject of Churchill and Zionism. A large number of judgments on Churchill, especially from members of the American Right in recent years, tend to idealize the great man and strive uncritically to turn him into a flawless role model.3 Makovsky, though sympathetic—his text is in no way a debunking undertaking—has a far more nuanced approach, as made clear in his last paragraph, with a purple passage which must be the ultimate effort in rejecting all Manichean temptation when writing about Churchill:

Churchill appeared on the surface as a bundle of contradictions: an aristocrat who espoused democracy; a democrat who distrusted the masses; a Briton and an American; a Conservative and a Liberal; a statesman who believed supremely in power yet indulged sentimental interests; a pragmatist who adhered to Disraelian romantic and mystical injunctions; a man of steely determination who was prone to emotional outbursts; a historian who often lacked historical understanding; a perennial and often depressive pessimist with broad, robust optimism; a restless champion of the long view; a nineteenth-century man who helped shape the twentieth century; a nostalgic Victorian who embraced new, seemingly far-fetched causes; a fervent believer in liberal civilization who allied himself with Fascists and Communists; a scourge of Nazis who forgave Nazi criminals; a rabid anti-Communist who tried to destroy the Soviet Union in one world war and embraced it as an ally in another; a cold warrior who fervently pursued a settlement with Soviet Russia; a Zionist who often abandoned Zionism; a philo-Semitic champion of Zionist land development who delivered most of Palestine to Arabs he deemed primitive and hostile; an anti-Wahhabi who relied on Ibn Saud; and so on. [265]

What Makovsky makes abundantly clear is that Churchill, though “he came to consider himself as a Zionist” [1], never had a consistent attitude towards “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”4 As is so often the case in opinions on Palestine and who really has a claim to call it his historic home, his judgments were influenced by his likes and dislikes vis-à-vis the Jews and the Arabs. Churchill’s reverence for his father Randolph is well known, but what is perhaps not so well known is that Randolph was impressed and influenced by Disraeli, the most famous Jewish-born Englishman of the nineteenth century. Makovsky makes much of the saying attributed to Disraeli, “The Lord deals with the nations as the nations deal with the Jews,” arguing that it consciously or unconsciously dictated Churchill’s conduct on many occasions. But of course, contrary to what Makovsky seems to suggest, this indirect respect for Disraeli’s pronouncements inherited from his father does not clearly denote a form of philo-Semitism, as it can be construed as a vague form of superstition—in fact an ugly variety of traditional anti-Semitism, since it insinuates that harming the all-powerful Jews can bring the Evil Eye on you.
Likewise, when Makovsky writes that he respected the Jews’ “alleged political power in Britain and the United States” [2], this is of course a double-edged argument. The word “alleged” is from Makovsky, not from Churchill—and the book always shows Churchill as adhering to the fundamentally anti-Semitic view that the Jews formed an extremely powerful pressure group which one ignored only at one’s expense, from his Jewish constituents in North-West Manchester in his early political career to the Jewish American opinion leaders before, during and after the Second World War. In the late 1930s, when Churchill felt that his country was tragically isolated in the face of the dictators, we are told that “He also worried that any weakening of support for Zionism would undercut Britain’s standing in the United States, where he continued to perceive large Jewish influence” [145]. One reason why he opposed the British Government’s policy of restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine in 1938-1939, Makovsky argues, is that “The United States would be particularly put off by a betrayal of the Jews, whom Churchill believed had great influence in that country” [153]. It is also hard to attribute Churchill’s reasoning during the war (as expounded by Makovsky) to sentimentality:

Zionism was also important to Churchill’s strategic vision. He valued the Palestinian Jews’ fidelity and strength in Palestine, as well as the impact a pro-Zionist policy had on the views of American Jews toward Britain. The exaggerated image of Jewish political power had been widely shared on both the political Left and Right in Britain for years, and often derived from anti-Semitic feelings. Churchill, however, generally saw it more neutrally, as established fact.[191]

It is naturally highly disputable that seeing “Jewish political power” as “established fact” is an attitude which is more “neutral” than “anti-Semitic.” And Makovsky continues with arguments which do nothing to dispel our feeling of malaise:

The Jews, particularly Weizmann,5shrewdly encouraged this exaggerated image, as they had during the First World War. Churchill cited the power of American Jewry to argue against a proposal to restrict Jewish purchases of land in Palestine in late 1939. He often equated appeasing American Jews with appeasing the United States. He suggested placating American Jews as a means of enhancing the support for President Roosevelt, who was Britain’s “best friend.” He often framed Palestine issues in terms of whether Britain wanted to appease the United States or the Arabs and attributed little value to the latter.[192]

Unwittingly, it seems, Makovsky therefore suggests that Churchill was more of an opportunistic Zionist than a sentimental one. And then of course, there was this nagging either-or conundrum which plagued one’s attitude to “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” after 1917, viz. any measure which seemed to favour the Jews of Palestine was seen as penalising the Arabs of Palestine—and vice-versa. In this kind of balance-sheet approach, which Churchill very soon realised could not be avoided in his capacity as Colonial Secretary after the First World War, his old-established contempt for the Arabs’ backwardness, as he saw it, played no little part in inducing him to be partial to the Jewish cause. This contempt was manifest in his record of the Sudan campaign, The River War, first published in 1899, and the way in which he described the men who resisted British advance down the Nile:

The Arabs of the Soudan are a race formed by the interbreeding of negro and Arab, and yet distinct from both. […] The qualities of mongrels are rarely admirable, and the mixture of the Arab and negro types has produced a debased and cruel breed, more shocking because they are more intelligent than the primitive savages.6

For the poor esteem in which Churchill held the Arabs all through his life, Makovsky adduces the evidence of his constant belief in the goodness of Mother Earth. If only man dutifully tills the land as Nature invites him to do, then there are rich rewards to be reaped. Failure to do so is a betrayal of man’s avocation on Earth, and he thereby forfeits his claim to the land. Churchill saw the Arabs as a people of nomads, with little or no interest in agriculture, who had criminally neglected the potentially fertile lands where they had settled [248]. This in itself justified European conquest in the Sudan, as he argued as early as 1899 in The River War: “What enterprise that an enlightened community may attempt is more noble and more profitable than the reclamation from barbarism of fertile regions and large populations?”7

But the validity of his argument was not limited to the Sudan, as he later revealed in a remarkably candid (and no doubt offensive to many) pronouncement in favour of wider Jewish settlement in Palestine which remained unpublished until it was reproduced by Sir Martin Gilbert in the Companion volumes to the Official Biography8:

If I were an Arab I should not like it, but it is for the good of the world that the place should be cultivated and it never will be cultivated by the Arabs. […] I do not admit that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to those people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, or, at any rate, a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.[156]

That Churchill was in admiration before the achievements of the Jews in Palestine is in no doubt. Visiting Jewish settlements during his official tour of Palestine in March 1921, he exclaimed: “You have changed desolate places to smiling orchards and initiated progress instead of stagnation. Because of our belief in you we are supporting the Zionist Movement” [121]. As he put it again after the Second World War, speaking of Palestine: “One has only to look up to the hills that once were cultivated and then were defaced by centuries of medieval barbarism, to see what has been accomplished” [249]. Moreover, he never forgave the Arabs of Palestine for having fought with the Ottomans against the British during the First World War, whilst the Jews fought on the British side. Later, like many of his contemporaries who knew9 or guessed what happened to the Jews deported during the Second World War, he “also believed that Jewish suffering in Europe should be redeemed by a Jewish homeland in Palestine” [196]. This of course was vehemently denied by the Arabs, who argued that they had had no responsibility in the Holocaust and did not see why they should pay the penalty for the crimes of Europeans.
It is not clear why Churchill briefly had second thoughts around 1945-48 (even if he had the Indian Muslims in mind at the time, which may point to one more aspect of his opportunism [237]). As Leader of the Opposition, he evidently seemed to have effected a radical U-turn when he declared before the Commons during a debate on Palestine: “The idea that the Jewish problem could be solved or even helped by a vast dumping of the Jews of Europe into Palestine is really too silly to consume our time in the House this afternoon” [236]. Makovsky is evidenly embarrassed by this fairly long interruption in Churchill’s otherwise constant support for the Zionist cause. The more so as Churchill, uncharacteristically, now poured glowing praise on the Zionists’ arch-enemies, the Arabs, “so great a race” [237], whom he had called “a fifth rate people” in 1921 [129]. Makovsky seems relieved that this reversal did not last, but he does not provide any real explanation for the new U-turn: “This was Churchill as Arabist, and it was false, unnatural, disingenuous, and antithetical to almost everything he thought earlier. He never again gave much consideration to Arab or Muslim concern or reaction to Britain’s involvement in Zion” [238].
His first official opportunity to express his renewed support of the Zionist ideal came early in 1949, during a heated debate in Parliament, in which he crossed swords with Ernest Bevin, the anti-Israeli (and, Churchill suggested, anti-Jewish) Labour Foreign Secretary. “Churchill abandoned his tentativeness over Zionism and offered a full-throated endorsement of the significance of the State of Israel. It was one of the most forceful pro-Zionist addresses he ever delivered, and the first since the 1939 White Paper debate,” Makovsky writes [246].
When he came back in power in 1951, he had not forgotten the percipient words which he had written to Lloyd George in 1921: “the whole of the Middle East is intimately related” [144]. He knew of course that a reversal of Labour’s policy of shunning Israel would result in alienating Egypt and its supporters in the Foreign Office—but this did not prevent him from following this path. “I do not mind it being known here or in Cairo that I am on the side of Israel and against her ill-treatment by the Egyptians,” he declared in 1953 [252].
Assessing Churchill’s attitude in his later years, Makovsky insists on the remarkable continuity in spite of his temporary post-war “betrayal”:

Churchill’s public and private remarks beginning in late 1948 suggest that his cool attitude toward Zionism from February 1945 was only a temporary, partially calculated funk. Unfortunately for the Zionists, that funk occurred at an extremely inopportune time. He betrayed them in their hour of need, and said and did nothing on their behalf for almost four key years, while they were fighting for their existence. He had betrayed his own values, and he felt ashamed. But from late 1948 on, all the elements of his old vigorous Zionism returned – historical, humanitarian, civilizational, strategic, personal, and romantic. He saw the establishment of the State of Israel as a great historical event, just as he had imagined in 1908. [257]

In 1908, during a by-election campaign, Churchill had given his unconditional support to Jewish immigration in the face of Russian persecution. Some forty years later, he also gave his unconditional support to Jewish emigration to the new State of Israel in the face of Arab intolerance. This could be seen as negative reasons for his pro-Zionist views, “the lesser of the two evils”: his dislike for the Russians and Arabs dictating his attitude. And it must be said that Makovsky insists a lot—perhaps too much?—on Churchill’s contempt for the Arabs, especially the Arabs of Palestine. Likewise, he repeatedly alludes to Churchill’s constant cultivation of the American alliance, which he believed was endangered by the objectively anti-Zionist policy followed by the British authorities for most of the inter-war years: this is of course another negative reason. In fact, Makovsky argues, “Churchill sometimes patronized Jews and, like his father, manipulated their causes on behalf of more important personal and strategic considerations and objectives” [2].
But then Makovsky also adduces very convincing positive factors to explain and justify Churchill’s pro-Zionism. He reminds us that this non-believer10 was full of respect for the Zionists’ “adherence to the Bible that was so pivotal to Western civilization” [255]—and more fundamentally, perhaps, that all his life he was “personally comfortable with Jews” [2]. A sure sign of this, we are told, is that “The Jews reciprocated this affection” [261].
The 23-page bibliography covers far more than Churchill, to include Anglo-Jewish/Zionist relations from the late 19th century to the 1950s, and provides one more good reason for ordering the book.


1. To mention books only: Cohen, Gabriel, Churchill and Palestine, 1939-1942 (Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1976). Cohen, Michael J., Churchill and the Jews (London: Cass, 1985 - Second Edition, 2003). back

2. Gilbert, Martin, Churchill and the Jews (London: Simon & Schuster, 2007).back

3. E.g. Hayward, Steven F., Greatness: Reagan, Churchill, and the Making of extraordinary Leaders (New York: Crown Forum, 2005). back

4. This is of course a quotation from the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. back

5. The first President of Israel, who had left Russia for Manchester in 1904. back

6. The River War: An historical Account of the Reconquest of the Soudan (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1899 - New English Library, 1973: 11-12). back

7. Ibid: 33. back

8. Evidence to the Palestine Royal Commission under Lord Peel on 12 March 1937. Companion 5/3: 608, 616. back

9. Among many books which reproduce documents that leave no doubt on the Allies’ knowledge of what was going on in the Nazi camps, the most comprehensive is probably: Neufeld, Michael J. & Berenbaum, Michael [Editors]. The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies have attempted it ? Based on a symposium held April 30, 1993, at the Smithsonian Institution, sponsored jointly by the National Air and Space Museum and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Published in Association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. New York: St Martin’s Press, 2000. back

10. Paul Addison speaks of “his sombre vision of a godless universe in which humanity was destined, nevertheless, to progress through the conflict between the more advanced and the more backward races.” Winston Churchill, Very Interesting People Series (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007: 6). back



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