Impossible without Churchill

Israel owes the wartime British prime minister an existential debt of gratitude.

churchill 298.88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
churchill 298.88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The celebration of Israel's 60th year of independence might have been impossible were it not for the steadfast support and encouragement given this country's Zionist founders by Great Britain's hero of the 20th century, Winston Churchill, the irascible wartime prime minister whose unswerving opposition to Nazism inspired the defeat of Adolf Hitler's barbaric hordes. His role in shaping the Jewish state's strategical boundaries, urging the creation of an effective military arm, promoting economic development and relying on the Jews' ability to govern their own country was so crucial that Israel's establishment on May 15, 1948, might have been impossible without him. This opinion, shared by many analysts and observers, is borne out in Martin Gilbert's new book, a study of Churchill's keen interest in and warm relationship with the Jews of the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. Given his track record, it is reasonable to assume, Churchill would neither be deterred nor discouraged by the dangers to Israel's survival posed today by the Islamic Republic of Iran and its proxies in the Gaza Strip and Southern Lebanon. If he could return to the Holy Land for just one more visit, entering again by way of Gaza, as he did the first time, March 24, 1921, his reaction probably would be, "The more things change, the more they remain the same." Or more likely, as a man steeped in Biblical verse, he would cite Ecclesiastes 1:9-14, to wit, "What has been is what will be, what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun." What Churchill saw, heard and experienced in the ancient city in which Samson met his downfall nearly 3,000 years ago, when the Philistine were the local rulers, is mirrored and echoed by the Palestinian Hamas regime in power today. Captain Maxwell Coote, who had served as his orderly in Cairo, recalled the 1921 scene vividly. There was "a tremendous reception by a howling mob, all shouting in Arabic, 'Cheers for the Minister' and also for Great Britain, but their chief cry over which they waxed quite frenzied was 'Down with the Jews, cut their throats.'" IN CHURCHILL and the Jews, Martin Gilbert, the wartime prime minister's official biographer, points out that the Arabic slogans were understood by Col. T. E. Lawrence (the legendary Lawrence of Arabia) and were conveyed to Capt. Coote, who recalled: "...we kept very quiet. He (Lawrence) was gravely anxious about the whole situation. We toured the town surrounded by this almost fanatical mob which was becoming more and more worked up by its shouting. No one appeared to have bargained for this, but all went off without incident." When the mob's litany was revealed to Churchill, well after the event, it had no effect whatsoever on his belief in Zionism, the Jewish people's right to establish a national home in Palestine and the goal of a sovereign Jewish state achieving independence and international recognition. Churchill's approach to what became known as the Palestine problem throughout Great Britain's 45-year long League of Nations mandate to create the Jewish National Home was based on his profound knowledge of history and brilliant grasp of international relations and strategic realities. These were among the many qualities that made him the far-sighted statesman whose heroic stand against the brutality and inhumanity of Nazi Germany saved the civilized world. They inspired him during his stint as colonial secretary to allocate eastern Palestine, east of the River Jordan, to the Arabs and all of western Palestine, west of the Jordan, to the Jews. The underlying purpose was to assure the future Jewish state political and military control of the entire area from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan Valley, i.e. contemporary Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Churchill never deviated from his espousal of Zionism, even when the cabinet and senior officials under him openly rejected it and tried to turn it into a dead letter. He was influenced to this end by his many Jewish friends and colleagues with whom he was in contact throughout his political career and until his death in 1965. GILBERT RECALLS many instances in which Churchill acted to help or rescue the beleaguered Jews. One occurred in January, 1939, when an Albanian diplomat told him his country was willing to provide a sanctuary for them. Tragically, before Churchill had a chance to negotiate the arrangements, "Mussolini sent his troops into Albania, its independence was destroyed, and the rescue scheme came to naught." He also tried to save as many Romanian Jews as possible from death at the hands of Romania's pro-Nazi Iron Guard, asking his foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, "Would it not be well to tell General Anonescu (the Romanian Fascist leader) that we will hold him and his immediate circle personally responsible in life and limb if such a vile act is perpetrated?" It was too late, however. Hundreds already had been killed. Throughout the war and its aftermath, Churchill insisted that the mass murderers be punished for their crimes. In November, 1941, he messaged London's Jewish Chronicle as follows: "None has suffered more cruelly than the Jew the unspeakable evils wrought on the bodies and spirits of men by Hitler and his vile regime...he has not allowed it to break his spirit; he has never lost the will to resist. Assuredly in the day of victory the Jew's suffering and his part in the struggle will not be forgotten. Once again, at the appointed time, he will see vindicated those principles of righteousness which it was the glory of his fathers to proclaim to the world." Churchill's belief was not fulfilled by the Allies, however. Gilbert provides hitherto unfamiliar details of President Roosevelt's crucial discussion with Saudi Arabia's King Ibn-Saud in February, 1945. He quotes FDR as having assured the Arab monarch that nothing would be done by the United States "to assist the Jews against the Arabs and would make no move hostile to the Arab people." These words were reiterated by FDR in a message sent to Ibn Saud a week before his death (April 12, 1945). He promised not to "take (any) action in my capacity as Chief of the Executive Branch of this Government, which might prove hostile to the Arab people." The writer is a veteran journalist.