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Winston Churchill’s Lifelong Friendship with the Jewish People

In August 1932, about six months before Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor, Winston Churchill found himself in Munich for research on his biography of his grand ancestor, the First Duke of Marlborough. At his hotel, he bumped into Hitler’s press secretary, Ernst Hanfstaengl, who suggested a meeting between the two—given that Hitler visited the hotel daily at 5 pm. Churchill’s response was blunt and straightforward: he would meet the future tyrant, but he would openly challenge his vile anti-semitism, stating, “Why is your chief so violent about the Jews? I can quite understand being angry with Jews who have done wrong or are against the country, and I understand resisting them if they try to monopolize power in any walk of life; but what is the sense of being against a man simply because of his birth?” 

Hanfstaengl relayed this message to Hitler, who then refused to meet Churchill, a man he viewed as a political has-been of no consequence. Churchill’s importance in defeating the barbarities of nazism and fascism are well known: leading the campaign of resistance against such monstrous tyrannies, the British statesman changed the course of history. 

However, a lesser-known aspect of his remarkable life is that Churchill was a lifelong friend of the Jewish people. Born in 1874 into the Victorian aristocracy, it was deeply uncharacteristic of his background that Churchill was both a judeophile and a zionist. Growing up, Churchill was fortunate enough to have a Jewish role model, Sir Felix Simon—a pioneering neurobiologist and laryngologist who later helped Churchill with his speech impediment. This was partly thanks to the fact that his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, also greatly supported the Jewish cause for liberation. At age thirteen, in May 1888, the young Churchill wrote a nine-page school essay on the physical geography and history of Palestine and its peoples in the era of John the Baptist. His fascination with this region and its four peoples would only grow throughout his life. 

Between 1904–1908, he was the MP for Manchester North. At a time when the Jewish share of the British population was less than 1 percent, about a third of his constituents were Jewish. Here, Churchill enveloped himself within the Jewish community and significantly contributed to their wellbeing. He was a member of the Manchester Jewish Cricket and Tennis Club and the Salford Jewish Lads’ Club; he had subscribed to the Manchester Jewish Soup Kitchen and the Jewish Amateur Dramatic Society. He also ensured that he visited the Jewish hospital and the Jewish school. His support for the Jewish people was not merely bound to his constituency—in 1904, he donated to the Benevolent Society for the Relief of Poor Jews from Austria and Hungary. The following year, he deplored and opposed the anti-semitic Aliens Act of 1905 in Parliament—designed to prevent Jews fleeing the Tsarist pogroms in Russia. Writing from the colonial office in 1908, he professed that, “I am in full sympathy with the historical aspirations of the Jews. The restoration to them of a center of true racial & political integrity would be a tremendous event in the history of the world.” 

In 1920, Churchill wrote an article titled “Zionism versus Bolshevism” for the Illustrated Sunday Herald. Often taken out of context by his detractors, many attempt to use this piece as evidence that Churchill was anti-semitic. But the premise of the article was that though many, many Bolsheviks were Jews, few Jews were Bolsheviks. In that same article, he wrote, “Some people like Jews and some do not, but not thoughtful man can doubt the fact that they are beyond all question the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.” From February 1921 to October 1922, Churchill held the ministerial position of Secretary of State for the Colonies. In March of 1921, he visited Jerusalem for the first time. On this trip, he planted a tree at Mount Scopus—the location of the future Hebrew University. Here, he professed to the crowd that “Arabs should share in the benefits and the progress of Zionism.” Eight months later, in December 1921, he gave his patronage to a concert organized by the Women’s International Zionist Organization to raise aid for Jewish women and children in Palestine.

The following July was a pivotal and dangerous moment in the history of the zionist cause. Two-thirds of the House of Lords had voted to repudiate Britain’s promise in the Balfour Declaration. Churchill refused just to sit by and allow Britain to abandon its promise to the Jewish people. On July 4, he rose to the House and gave what many consider to be one of his greatest speeches. As he told his fellow parliamentarians that day, “I appeal to the House of Commons not to alter its opinion on the general question, but to stand faithfully to the undertakings which have been given in the name of Britain and interpret in an honorable and earnest way the promise that Britain will do her best to fulfill her undertakings to the Zionists.” His speech was a success, and it swung the House of Commons to continue the declaration with 292-35 votes, overriding the House of Lords. 

Had it not been for this defining speech, as the late historian Paul Johnson put it, “without Churchill, it is very unlikely that Israel would ever have come into existence.” A few years later, in January 1926, Churchill attended and spoke at the Festival Dinner on Jewish Religious Education at Belgrave Square in London. As the society president wrote to him in a letter of thanks, “On behalf of the Jewish Community who I know most gratefully appreciate the compliment you paid them by coming.”

The 1930s were unkind to Churchill. Politically isolated, he was seen as a shadow of a once-formidable politician. Churchill was continually warning the world of the dangers of nazism and the threat it posed to the free world and the Jewish peoples of Europe—despite being declared by many in the establishment as a warmonger. In November 1935, he wrote an article for the Strand Magazine titled “The Truth about Hitler” and described the tyrant as “that one Austrian corporal, a former house-painter.” It was in this daring piece that he implored humanity not to ignore the vile, institutional anti-semitism underway in Nazi Germany: “No past services, no proved patriotism, even wounds sustained in war, could procure immunity for persons whose only crime was that their parents had brought them into the world. Every kind of persecution, grave or petty, upon the world-famous scientists, writers, and composers at the top to the wretched little Jewish children in the national schools, was practiced, was glorified, and is still being practiced and glorified.” Unsurprisingly, it was banned in Germany.

Churchill’s appointment as prime minister on May 10, 1940, was one of the most essential actions in the twentieth century. That same day, a Palestinian Jewish student called Ben Gale sat in a crowded lecture hall in Tel Aviv. In the middle of that lecture, its teacher was interrupted by the announcement that Winston Churchill had just been appointed British Prime Minister. As Gale later recounted to the historian Sir Martin Gilbert, “Everyone in the large hall stood up and cheered wildly. With Churchill at the helm, there was no hope for the Jews of Palestine!” 

Winston’s support for the Jewish people during the Holocaust never wavered. As he wrote in July 1943, “I have never forgotten the terrible sufferings inflicted upon the Jews, and I am constantly thinking by what means it may lie in our power to alleviate them, both during the war and in the permanent settlement which must follow it.” He fully supported and pressed the war cabinet for a Jewish Brigade within the British Imperial forces with the star of David on their flag.

Upon learning of the extent of the horrors occurring in Auschwitz in July 1944, Churchill immediately sent a telegram to his Foreign Secretary authorizing the bombing of the railway lines, “Is there any reason to raise these matters at the Cabinet? You and I are in entire agreement. Get anything out of the Air Force and invoke me if necessary.” As his official biographer said of this document, “I have never seen a minute of Churchill’s giving that sort of immediate authority to carry out a request.” Unfortunately, the Allied Air Forces decided not to bomb the railway lines due to significant range issues and lack of accuracy. Any success of such a campaign would have been slim to none. 

Following the war, as leader of the opposition, he lamented that the British government did not recognize the State of Israel when both the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the United States did so in 1948. After Britain finally recognized Israel in 1949, Chaim Weizmann—the first president of Israel and Churchill’s lifelong friend—sent him a telegram thanking him. Within Churchill’s reply, we can see an accurate summation of his views of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. In his reply, he hand-wrote, “The light grows.”

Andreas Koureas is an aspiring economist and historian. He is currently studying Political Economy at King’s College London. His main research focus is on Winston Churchill and the British Empire. He has written for publications such as The Spectator and academic institutions like Hillsdale College. He is writing a paper on the Bengal Famine for a peer-reviewed journal later this year. Follow him on X: @AndreasKoureas_.

Image: Shutterstock.com. 

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