Reading Adam Gopnik's superb essay on Winston Churchill in the latest New Yorker, makes you wonder what Churchill actually thought about Jews. That question seemed about settled when Martin Gilbert, Churchill's official biographer and a leading British historian, published "Churchill and The Jews: A Lifelong Friendship" in 2007.
But as Gopnik points out, Churchill's views on all human types–Germans, Slavs, Brits, Muslims, and certainly Jews–was anything but enlightened. In fact, the growing body of recent scholarship seems most at pains to prove otherwise: Churchill was no moral visionary, but instead a hopeless 19th century romantic, entirely at ease with the ethnic chauvinism that era invoked.
The Germans, Churchill wrote, “combine in the most deadly manner the qualities of the warrior and the slave," which, in light of the context, we might be tempted to agree with. But this kind of ethnic essentializing permeates his writing throughout his life. This is Churchill in the 1890s, when, as a young admiral in the Royal Navy, he lusted for war in Empire's far flung lands: “The British army had never fired on white troops since the Crimea, and now that the world was growing so sensible and pacific—and so democratic too—the great days were over…Luckily, however, there were still savages and barbarous peoples. There were Zulus and Afghans, also the Dervishes of the Soudan. Some of these might, if they were well-disposed, ‘put up a show.’ ”
But as Gopnik wisely notes: "We do not think this way anymore. … As an intellectual exercise, defining Germans seems perilously close to defaming Jews."
Still, Gilbert's own book on Churchill and the Jews showed that while Churchill's views were still crudely ethnic, they were at least more benign. He felt that the Jews: "grasped and proclaimed an idea of which all the genius of Greece and all the power of Rome were incapable." From his own observations, which were mostly at odds with his fellow educated countrymen, the Jews showed a unique sense of loyalty and resolve. This conviction led him to endorse their dream of statehood early on, as he told a Jerusalem crowd in 1921, a Jewish homeland "will be a blessing to the whole world."
Of course, you're quite right to wonder how well the bonhomie held up after the Second World War ended and Zionist militants began terrorizing British troops. Apparently Churchill's Zionism did not waver. As Michael Markovsky detailed in "Churchill's Promised Land: Zionism and Statecraft" (Yale University Press, 2007), however, his Zionism did occasionally take the back seat to Britain's own national interests. But for the most part, he saw an alliance with Israel as crucial to the West.
And it's worth noting, too, that by the time Jewish militants were attacking British troops in Palestine, Churchill was out of office. Just after the war, he was unseated as Prime Minister, only to return for a last hoo-zah in 1951. As with much of Churchill's career, his timing was impeccable.