Ahead of Republican Primaries, Winston Churchill Is Back in Style in U.S. and Israel

Nearly 50 years after Winston Churchill's death, Israelis are founding a local Churchill society as GOP politicians pay homage to the British wartime leader (or at least his bust).

Lital Levin
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Lital Levin

Three years have gone by since U.S. President Barack Obama removed the bronze bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office.

The bust, rendered by Sir Jacob Epstein, had been given on loan by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to then-U.S. President George W. Bush, as a token of solidarity after the September 11, 2001, attacks. The bust stood before Bush as he led America during years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Russel Rothstein in his home, January 4, 2012. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Governing Britain during World War II, Churchill fought the Axis powers, famously vowing to "fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills."

"We shall never surrender," Churchill pledged, in words that George W. Bush found inspiring.

Winston Churchill, center, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace on VE-Day, May 8, 1945. It no longer feels as if Britain is proud of winning.Credit: AP

When Barack Obama moved into the White House, he replaced the bust with an image of Abraham Lincoln and the Churchill bust was returned to Britain. But now that the Republican Party primaries are heating up, Churchill is in once again - both in the United States and here in Israel.

Republican candidate Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, declared that should he be elected president he would restore the Churchill bust to the Oval Office. U.S. Speaker of the House John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, also proposed bringing the bust to Capitol Hill, saying it hasn't gotten the respect it deserves.

While U.S. politicians have been talking about what to do with a sculpture of Churchill's head, Israeli Churchill fans have founded the Churchill Society of Israel, an affiliate of the worldwide Churchill Centre.

The brainchild behind the new organization is Russell Rothstein, a married father of five who moved to Israel from the United States 13 years ago and has long admired Churchill, who died on January 24, 1965, at the age of 90.

The values of the wartime prime minister don't exert enough of an influence in Israel, said Rothstein, who works at a high-tech company.

"I'm not an expert, but I think that there's a lot to learn from him," he said. "He displayed rare leadership during a crucial period, and he had a lot to say about social justice, education and growth of impoverished sectors."

"At a time when there is so much anti-Zionism in the world, it's important to recall that Churchill, whose accomplishments as someone who fought for liberty and justice are know throughout the democratic world, was extremely positive regarding the establishment of the Zionist state," said Rothstein. "That's why it is so important to establish a Churchill Society of Israel. It will help us, as a state."

Ori Katzir, who also helped found the group, said it is seeking the ideological support of well-known figures such as Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill's official biographer, and Lee Pollock, executive director of the worldwide Churchill Centre.

"Churchill's relevance today is based on the ideals for which he stood: a belief in a parliamentary system of government and democratic values, a belief in 'the harmonious distribution of the world among its peoples,'" Gilbert said when asked about the new Israel branch of the center.

Gilbert, author of "Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship," said the British prime minister "had a conviction of the primacy of Jewish ethics," adding that he "knew his Bible well, and wrote of how the Israelites 'grasped and proclaimed an idea of which all the genius of Greece and all the power of Rome were incapable.'

"He also praised Jewish communal life because the Jews, as he had seen in Britain before the First World War, 'had the corporate spirit of their race and faith.'"

In "Churchill and the Jews," Gilbert says, "I show how his knowledge of the Zionist ideal, and his belief in a future Jewish state, impacted on his strong support for Zionism, despite his initial fears (in 1919 ) that the Zionists 'take it for granted that the local population will be cleared out to suit their convenience.'"

Regarding anti-Semitism, Gilbert says: "Churchill told the House of Commons at the height of the anti-Semitic upsurge in Britain following the King David bombing of 1946 and the killing of the two British sergeants in 1947: 'I have the strongest abhorrence of the idea of anti-Semitic lines of prejudice.'"

Rothstein said he thinks Churchill would be proud of today's State of Israel.

"That's a topic for a symposium, what would Churchill say about Zionism today, but in the final analysis I believe that he would be impressed by the Jewish people's achievements in the State of Israel," he said. "Churchill was a man of action, and much of his support for Zionism consolidated after he saw our pioneering achievements."

But historian Eli Shaltiel, a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, said Churchill was more complex than that.

"Churchill made a number of anti-Semitic statements," said Shaltiel. "He was no stranger to the anti-Semitic orientations common to his contemporaries and class, and he stopped showing interest in Zionism after his friend, Lord Moyne, was murdered in Cairo."

Moyne, the British minister resident in Egypt, was killed in 1944 by members of the Jewish underground militia the Stern Gang.

"Churchill didn't really live in this world, in many respects," said Shaltiel. "He was a man of the 19th century in the 20th century."

Though noting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is another Churchill enthusiast, Shaltiel said he was not convinced that Churchill makes such a great model for leadership.

"He was so eccentric that it's easy to turn him into a cultural hero," said Shaltiel, who has a photograph of the British leader on the refrigerator of his home. "He was controversial all his life, but what remains is a heroic legacy. That is well enough, but I don't establish museums. Historians have much more complex views about this figure. He was a tangled mixture of huge weaknesses and marvelous qualities."



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