Yes, Churchill Really Was a Friend of Jews and Zionism
Revisionism is a long-standing cottage industry when it comes to Winston Churchill. Now 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.
Cohen has a book devoted to this subject: Churchill and the Jews. His arguments clash with much of what is presented in the late Sir Martin Gilbert’s Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship, and Michael Makovsky’s Churchill’s Promised Land: Zionism and Statecraft — all three of which I reviewed in detail for the Jewish Political Studies Review.
Having contributed 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’s and Makovsky’s books.
In 2009, Cohen described Gilbert as the mythmaker of Churchill’s pro-Jewish and pro-Zionist reputation in a lengthy article in Modern Judaism (May 2006, vol. 26, no. 2). Now, he has reiterated his charges in an opinion piece in Haaretz, (“The Truth About Churchill and the Jews,” January 27).
Cohen wrote in the epilogue of his book that there is a “glaring anomaly” between Churchill’s wartime 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 opinion piece:
● In January 1939, Churchill urged Albania to accept Jews fleeing Germany and Austria. Unfortunately, promising developments in this effort were abruptly ended by Mussolini’s invasion and occupation of the country in April 1940.
● 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.
● In February 1942, Churchill argued successfully in the War Cabinet — and 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.
● That same year, Churchill overrode Foreign Office objections to a proposal for permitting 5,000 Bulgarian Jewish children to travel 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, in the War Cabinet, Churchill vigorously opposed 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 cut-off date March 1944 — up to the full limit of the 75,000 immigrants permitted by the White Paper. (Due to the Nazi success in cutting off escape routes, this quota was not filled until after the war ended).
● In early 1945, Churchill made abortive efforts to create a Jewish state within a larger Arab federation by unsuccessfully seeking to enlist — through financial inducements and other things — 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, despite 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 were relatively meager, but this was not for lack of effort.
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 leveled in his book.
For example, Cohen convincingly demonstrated in his book that, while immediately authorizing the aerial bombing of the railway lines leading to Auschwitz in July 1944, Churchill failed to follow up and ensure that his directive was implemented. Now, however, Cohen insists that Churchill also “rejected the bombing project” — something not borne out by the Churchill letter he cites.
Without doubt, Professor Cohen’s research on Churchill has produced some compelling evidence that attenuate Churchill’s record. But Cohen’s prosecutorial persistence in advocating his case, despite the contrary evidence that is so evident, remains a mystery.
This article was originally published by the History News Network.