Musings / Churchill Street?

The great British statesman, who was a Zionist, deserves some recognition on the ground.

I own to what I believe to be a mild form of an almost ubiquitous Jewish malady. Exemplified in the chestnut about elephants and the Jewish Problem, it is our habit of seeing the world through exclusively Jewish spectacles. At its most paranoid you can observe it in the deliberations of those panels of Jewish experts soberly awarding points to the candidates for the United States presidency, the sole criterion being, if elected, how good they will be for the Jews. You might well ask how any self-respecting Jewish American could face his rabbi having voted for Barack Obama, rated at only 5 out of 10, when he could go for a glatt-kosher 8.37 Rudy Giuliani.

I recently found myself looking through those Jewish spectacles. We were having dinner at the home of some friends. Our host wondered aloud why there was no street in Israel named after Winston Churchill. Serendipitously, the same question was asked publicly a couple of weeks later by Minister Isaac Herzog in his review of Sir Martin Gilbert's book "Churchill and the Jews" ("Founder of the Jewish State" in the Haaretz Books supplement, Dec. 7, 2007). The minister expressed surprise that Churchill's friendship toward the Jews and Zionism had never achieved recognition in Israel. I thought it a good question.

It is surely not that our towns have no streets or squares available to name after the great statesman. Israel's cities are replete with streets named after men and women of staggering obscurity - unknown French statesmen, forgotten early Polish Zionists, unread Russian men of letters. Although it is a seaside resort, my own town has an incongruous penchant for the macabre in its choice of street names. Aside from streets named after submarines and destroyers lost with all hands, we have a "Victims of the Gallows Street," a "Martyrs of the Holocaust Street," a "Prisoners of Zion Street" and a street named for that ultimate oxymoron, "the Jews of Silence." No tourist trap, Herzliya!

So why no Churchill Boulevard? That Churchill was a friend of the Jews and, by extension, of Zionism, was an opinion that I had never bothered to test. It did not occur to me that anyone thought otherwise. So I was taken aback when a couple of guests at the dinner - both incidentally of American origin and both, I confess, better informed than I - treated my statement that Churchill had been a Zionist with derision. Their case for the prosecution was that when, in 1921, as secretary of state for the colonies, Churchill had direct responsibility for the Mandate, he favored restrictions on Jewish immigration to Palestine. I do not think that I have ever found myself properly equipped to win an argument of this nature and this occasion was no exception.

Not that the dinner critics denied the one fact that even the revisionists who have been chipping away at his image for years concede in his favor: If my enemy's enemy is my friend then Churchill must be adjudged one of the greatest friends the Jewish people ever had. While Hitler's natural allies on the right - not to mention left-wing intellectuals such as George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells - welcomed the advent of Nazism, Winston Churchill, like a biblical prophet, never ceased thundering against the Nazi regime.

Timely support

But if I wanted to defend Churchill's reputation as a Zionist, I needed facts to support my lazy assumption that he had been one because I had heard it somewhere. So, the publication of Martin Gilbert's book was a timely one. Gilbert is an extraordinarily prolific historian who has written more than 70 books. Two principal interests dominate his oeuvre: Winston Churchill (as his official biographer, Gilbert wrote the last six volumes of the eight-volume authorized biography of the statesman), and the Jews. You might say that a treatise by Gilbert on Churchill and the Jews was a book waiting to happen.

Knowing something of Gilbert's preoccupations, I picked up the book expecting it to put the subject's relationship with the Jews in a favorable light. I was not disappointed. No one can finish reading Gilbert's book without concluding that Churchill's admiration for the Jews was a genuine one. That is not to say that the specific accusation leveled by my fellow dinner guests was incorrect. To the chagrin of his friend Chaim Weizmann, Churchill, in office, adopted a policy that Jewish immigration to Palestine would henceforth be limited by the economic capacity of the country to absorb new immigrants. But, set in the context of his career-long support for the Jews, it would be churlish to challenge Churchill's right to recognition in Israel. It is a little like exculpating Hitler because he loved animals.

I do not believe you would find a British Jew who ever thought otherwise. I had grown up taking Churchill's friendship for us as a given. Churchill was part of our family lore. Take my grandmother. She arrived in England in 1905 knowing no English and chose not to emerge from that happy state of ignorance for the remaining 60-something years of her long life. She herself was stateless. In order to become a British citizen, you had to demonstrate a basic proficiency in the English language. There were no exceptions to this rule; it is said that one of the great writers of English prose, the American-born novelist Henry James, was compelled to prove his knowledge of English when he applied (successfully, of course; his sponsor was none other than the prime minister, Herbert Asquith) for British nationality shortly before his death in 1916.

The English of most of the naturalized British subjects I have met is more akin to that of Hyman Kaplan than of Henry James, but however low the language barrier was, it was too high for my grandmother. So when I heard her say something in English the occasion was a memorable one. The words were "Mister Churchill" and they were said with great affection as she pointed to a newspaper photograph of the best-known face in Britain.

Our particular branch of the Foxes could not claim any close connection with the Churchills. But my father was, on one historic occasion, in close proximity to Winston. Returning from school in January 1911, my father heard the sound of gunfire on a neighboring street. He was an unwitting witness to the notorious Siege of Sidney Street. Hand on heart, I cannot say that the 10-year-old schoolboy actually saw police and troops shooting it out with a gang of desperate armed revolutionaries. But the home secretary, the already famous Winston Churchill, was there, watching the battle in the heart of the Jewish East End. He stuck his head out too far. His top hat was pierced by an anarchist bullet and he was heavily criticized for unnecessarily exposing himself to danger.

As for ridiculing the assertion that Churchill was a Zionist, the great man himself unabashedly claimed to have been a "Zionist since the days of the Balfour Declaration." The man who never wavered in his support for a Jewish state and who more than any other person symbolized the battle against Nazism, deserves a square in his name in every city in Israel.