“One of the most amazing things about Winston Churchill was his ability to drink – I mean to drink enough alcohol to fell an ox and to continue to function,” – so began visiting London Mayor Boris Johnson's talk Tuesday evening, speaking on the occasion of the inaugural Winston Churchill lecture in Jerusalem.
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Johnson, author of The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, went on to tell the packed audience at Mishkenot Shaananim that while Britain’s greatest wartime leader “started the day with a weak whisky and water – which he used as a kind of mouthwash,” the suggestion that the “famous triangular kink in the border between Jordan and Saudi Arabia –known as Winston’s hiccup,” was the result of a “post-prandial slip of the ruler,” when he was Colonial Secretary - was, promised Johnson to much laughter, nothing but myth.
In between cracking up the audience with such vignettes, the popular London mayor, who is leading a three day economic oriented trip to Israel this week and proving almost as popular with Israelis as he is at home, also shared some more serious thoughts on Churchill and his relationship to and history with this country.
“What is certainly not a myth is that Churchill drew that mapand that he was one of the fathers of the modern Middle East,” said Johnson. “He even coined the term Middle East, or helped to popularize it.”
“He drew the boundaries of Syria, he put the three vilayets of Baghdad and Mosul and Basra together to create modern IraqHe put the Hashemites on the throne of Jordan, where they still are, and he was absolutely indispensable to the foundation of modern Israel.”
Johnson talked of how Churchill came to Israel in 1922 as Colonial Secretary, and spent time listening to the case of both the Jewish community and the Palestinian Arabs. This, quipped Johnson, “.because it was his job to give effect to that masterpiece of Foreign Office Janus facing doublespeak and equivocation, the Balfour Declaration.
“If Balfour had been responsible for His Majesty’s government’s policy on cake, he would have been pro-having it and pro-eating it,” added the mayor, with a cheeky smile, to great applause.
Churchill’s belief that the area to the west of the Jordan was the place where a homeland could be created for the Jewish people was a reflection, stressed Johnson, of Churchill’s “deepest personal sympathies.” All his life, said Johnson, Churchill “followed his father in being pro-Jewish and if he was not Zionist.he was ‘wedded to Zionism,’’
Moreover, continued Johnson, Churchill attested on many occasions that admired the Jewish people – probably, noted Johnson, “for qualities that he evidently shared himself: energy, self-reliance, hard work, family life.”
“If we look at the history of modern Israel there is no doubt that the comparison can be extended – and that there is something Churchillian about the country he helped to create. There is the audacity, the bravery, the willingness to take risks with feats of outrageous derring-do.”
Johnson went on to talk about some of the impressive tech companies he encountered here—sharing his marvel at such inventions as glasses that read what’s on a page to their wearers, to solar panels that generate electricity “even from the London sunshine.”
Looking at Israel today, said Johnson, there is clearly much of the “rebellious and original” Churchillian spirit to be found. But that spirit is traced not merely to Churchill love of tinkering with machines and conceiving of ideas, but, Johnson stressed, more importantly, to the British leader’s fundamental progressiveness. “He believed in the power of human imagination and invention to improve the world.
He was an idealist and it was in that spirit of idealism and optimism that he approached the notion of a Jewish homeland.”
Johnson was at his most - relatively - serious when he broached the matter of Churchill’s hopes and dreams for the Palestinians.
“When he wrote his 1922 White Paper that paved the way for accelerated Jewish entry into Palestine, Churchill imagined Jews and Arabs living side by side, with technically expert Jewish farmers helping the Arabs to drive tractors,” said Johnson.
“He imagine orchards blossoming over the desert, and when he spoke to an audience at the Hebrew university, he said that his audience had the chance to create a land flowing with milk and honey - but he warned that ‘every step that you take must therefore be for the moral and material benefit of all Palestinians’”
“I think today we have to admit that the present situation does not entirely accord with that Churchillian vision,” said Johnson, adding, “not yet.”
“But I think that if he were able to see Israel today Churchill would still be optimistic,” concluded Johnson. “He would still be hopeful that one day, with common sense and imagination on both sides, the Israeli economic miracle – that he foresaw – would spread to the whole region; and I have no doubt that it can.”