British historian and Churchill biographer Gilbert (Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction, 2006, etc.) explores the great statesman’s early, fervent support of Zionism and wartime pleas to save the Jews from Nazi persecution.
Churchill believed the Jews, thanks to Moses and the code of conduct he received at Mt. Sinai, “grasped and proclaimed an idea of which all the genius of Greece and all the power of Rome were incapable.” Continuing his father Randolph’s friendship with prominent British Jews such as Lord Rothschild, Churchill, as a young MP in 1904, became a vocal critic of the Aliens Bill restricting Jewish immigration from Tsarist Russia. As Home Secretary, he dispatched troops to restore order after the pogrom at Tredegar, South Wales. Early on, he became friendly with the one who would most shape Zionist policy, Chaim Weizmann, the Manchester chemist whom he enlisted during World War I to manufacture explosives for British ammunition. While supporting the Balfour Declaration, Churchill was deeply wary of Bolshevism as representing the “bad” Jews. Indeed, he hoped that Zionism would work to counterbalance Jewish Bolshevik sympathies. Churchill visited the Holy Land, excoriated Islam as a “retrograde force” and lobbied against restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine, especially as Arab resistance grew and Nazi persecution of the Jews gained force. Regarding the rise of the Nazis, Churchill demonstrated extraordinary prescience as early as 1933 and continually warned in speeches and writings of the impending menace. He led the debate against Partition and called the MacDonald White Paper (devising a policy in Palestine of permanent Arab majority) a “shameful act of appeasement.” Gilbert diligently pursues Churchill’s attempts to save Jews throughout the war, his disillusionment with Jewish terrorism and failure to bring up the future of Palestine at Potsdam. The author masterfully sketches the evolution of Israel through a long, difficult British Jewish process of conception.
Gilbert’s deep, lifelong scholarship and knowledge of his subject lend his book both authority and accessibility.