Saving Civilization From Itself

ARTHUR HERMAN

Churchill understood that the Jews are the bedrock of Western tradition.

Why should we Anglo-Saxons apologize for being superior?" Winston Churchill once growled in exasperation. "We are superior." Certainly Churchill's views of what he and other late Victorians called the "lesser races," such as blacks and East Indians, are very different from ours today. One might easily assume that a self-described reactionary like Churchill, holding such views, shared the anti-Semitism prevalent among Europe's ruling elites before the Holocaust.

But he did not, as Martin Gilbert vividly shows in Churchill and the Jews. By chronicling Churchill's warm dealings with English and European Jews throughout his long career, and his heartfelt support of Zionism, Mr. Gilbert conveys Churchill's deep admiration for the Jewish people and captures his crucial role in creating the state of Israel. Churchill offers the powerful example of a Western statesman who — unlike other statesmen in his own time and ours — understood the malignant nature of anti-Semitism and did what he could to oppose its toxic effects.

His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, had been a close friend and ally to many wealthy British Jews, almost notoriously so, given the rancid snobbery of his circles. The son rarely failed to follow his father's inclinations, in this matter as in others. Jews like the Rothschilds and the banker Sir Ernest Cassel helped to advance Winston Churchill's early career (including watching over his finances after his father's death), and he repaid their support in part by publicly condemning the kind of anti-Semitism that was all too common in England's upper classes. But his actions were not merely an expression of personal thanks.

A student of history, Churchill came to feel that Judaism was the bedrock of traditional Western moral and political principles — and Churchill was of a generation that preferred to talk about principles instead of "values." For Europeans to turn against the Jew, he argued, was for them to strike at their own roots and reject an essential part of their civilization — "that corporate strength, that personal and special driving power" that Jews had brought for hundreds of years to Europe's arts, sciences and institutions.

A student of history, Churchill came to feel that Judaism was the bedrock of traditional Western moral and political principles — and Churchill was of a generation that preferred to talk about principles instead of "values."


To deny Jews a national homeland was therefore an act of ingratitude. Churchill became a keen backer of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, which broached the idea of creating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. As a friend to Zionist leader Chaim Weizman, and as colonial secretary after World War I, Churchill made establishing such a homeland a matter of urgency. "The hope of your race for so many centuries will be gradually realized here," Churchill told a Jewish audience in Jerusalem during his visit in March 1921, "not only for your own good, but for the good of all the world."

By "all the world" Churchill most pointedly meant to include Palestine's Arabs. As Mr. Gilbert recounts, Churchill was dismayed and disgusted by Arab resistance to Jewish immigration and settlement in Palestine. "The Jews have a far more difficult task than you," he told Arab representatives, since "you only have to enjoy your own possessions," while the Jewish emigrants from Europe and elsewhere would have to carve a society out of a barren wilderness.

Yet Churchill was convinced that Arab civilization would benefit from contact with an entrepreneurial and morally centered people. "Speaking entirely as a non-Jew," he wrote, "I look on the Jews as the natural importers of western leaven so necessary for countries in the Near East." At the same time, Churchill tried to ensure that Palestinian Arabs got their own national homeland. It was Churchill who, as colonial secretary, decided to separate Transjordan (modern-day Jordan) from the rest of Palestine, assuming that Transjordan would become the site of the Arabs' future state and that other parts of Palestine (including the West Bank of the Jordan River) would be open to Jewish settlement.

Churchill was to be disappointed by the results of his Middle Eastern efforts, as Arabs hunted down and murdered Jewish settlers by the hundreds in the 1920s and 1930s — just at the time when Adolf Hitler was building his own regime around the persecution of the Jews in Germany. As early as 1930 Churchill realized that the Nazis' anti-Jewish policies carried the stench of an ancient evil. "Tell your boss from me," he said to a Hitler acquaintance in the late summer of 1932, as the Nazi Party was on the verge of power, "that anti-Semitism may be a good starter but it is a bad finisher."

In December 1942, Churchill — now prime minister — learned from a Roman Catholic member of the Polish resistance, a man named Jan Karsky, that thousands of Jews were being rounded up and sent by cattle cars to what turned out to be the death camp at Belzec, in eastern Poland. Churchill used the Karsky report to compel the Allies, including the Russians, to condemn "a bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination" in Germany — although he understood that the best way to halt the slaughter would be the speedy destruction of Hitler's empire. The chief of Britain's air staff, Sir Charles Portal, warned that any air raids "avowedly conducted on account of the Jews would be an asset to enemy propaganda," and Churchill reluctantly bowed to his advice. Nonetheless, in 1943 he wanted a film that documented the atrocities committed against the Jews to be shown to every American serviceman before the invasion of Europe.


Martin Gilbert's book reminds us that anti-Semitism is the dark turn of the modern mind against itself, and a form of cultural patricide.


After the war, Churchill felt that the most fitting response to the Holocaust would be to punish those guilty of the most horrific crimes against the Jews and to fulfill the promise of a Jewish homeland that he and Britain had made almost 30 years earlier. When Ernest Bevin, Britain's Labour Party foreign minister, hesitated to recognize Israel nine months after its founding, for fear of inflaming Arab opinion, Churchill swung back hard: "Whether the Right Honorable Gentleman likes it or not, the coming into being of a Jewish State in Palestine is an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective, not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand, or even three thousand years." Israel was just recompense, Churchill felt, not only for what the Jews of Europe had lost but for what they had given to civilization over the centuries.

This view, of course, no longer prevails. Today the existence of Israel is apparently something to be regretted, even deplored, not only in Arab capitals but in European ones and on American university campuses. Paradoxically, such feelings intensified after 9/11, an event that should have made us all aware of who the friends of Western civilization really are — and who its enemies. Martin Gilbert's book reminds us that anti-Semitism is the dark turn of the modern mind against itself, and a form of cultural patricide.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Arthur Herman. "Saving Civilization From Itself." The Wall Street Journal (November 8, 2007).

Reprinted by permission of the Wall Street Journal and the author, Arthur Herman.

THE AUTHOR

Arthur Herman, who has taught history at George Mason University and Georgetown University, is the author of The Idea of Decline in Western History, To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World, and How the Scots Invented the Modern World. His most recent work (to be published in April 2008) is Gandhi and Churchill: the Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age. Currently Arthur Herman is coordinator of the Western Heritage program at the Smithsonian Institution.

Copyright © 2007 Wall Street Journal



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