Benjamin Netanyahu is a known admirer of Winston Churchill. A portrait and sculpture of “the Lion” who steered Britain through World War II and led the allies to victory over the Nazis are displayed at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Netanyahu wants to be remembered as the angry prophet who warned against the Oslo Accords and the Iranian nuclear program, and stood alone versus the Israeli establishment and Western leaders who groveled before Yasser Arafat and Ali Khamenei – as Churchill warned in the 1930s about the dangers of Adolf Hitler when the British establishment sought appeasement with Germany.
There are other similarities between Netanyahu and Churchill: the American background, the cigar-smoking, the oratorical gifts and memorable sloganeering, the living off other millionaires, the concentration of political power.
“The Cabinet is deplorable — dumb men most of whom disagree with Winston but none of whom dare to say so. This state of affairs is most dangerous,” Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies wrote in the diary he kept of his visit to London during the war. “The Chiefs of Staff are without exception Yes Men, and a politician runs the services. Winston is a dictator; he cannot be overruled, and his colleagues fear him.” Something just a bit milder could be written about the current Israeli government.
But where Netanyahu most strongly resembles Churchill is his policies, not his personality. Sir Winston wasn’t only the gatekeeper who stood up to Hitler and refused to compromise with him. He was also the most prominent and vocal supporter of British imperialism and colonialism. Sympathetic biographies of Churchill tend to minimize this part of his long career, but he believed in the superiority of the white race, especially of the English-speaking peoples, over the natives of the colonies.
He hated Indians and their culture and particularly despised Mahatma Gandhi (“a half-naked fakir”). He called Kenyan rebels “savages armed with ideas” and the Arabs “barbaric hordes who ate little but camel dung.”
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At the height of the war against Hitler, Churchill’s government asked the American military to do its best to avoid putting black troops on British soil. Churchill also declined to aid victims of the severe Bengal famine and was indifferent to its 1 million victims, blaming them for hoarding and speculating.
Netanyahu doesn’t speak with such racism and condescension, but like Churchill he takes pride in his affiliation with the West and the English language, and he has never shown the slightest trace of interest in the language, history or culture of the Arabs and Islam, or of the African asylum seekers. He sees Israel’s control over the millions of Palestinians in the territories as a national and security necessity, just as the object of his admiration believed that the empire was vital for Britain.
The political debate in Israel is awash in historical comparisons to Nazi Germany. This is the history that is taught here; the examples are known to every Israeli and ignite emotions because of the Holocaust. But the comparison is unfounded, even after the nation-state law. If you’re looking to compare present-day Israel to a European power from the ‘30s, Britain is a much more apt choice than Germany, Italy, Spain or Hungary.
This is because the British maintained a model democracy in Westminster and a military dictatorship in India, Africa and Palestine – just as Israel maintains a democracy in Tel Aviv and Givat Ram and a “fighting stance” in Nablus and Hebron. Human dignity and liberty here, military orders there. Think of how the British devoted bottomless energy to constitutional questions such as whether the king had the right to marry an American divorcée while they jailed Indian independence leaders Gandhi and Nehru for years.
The similarity doesn’t end with the leaders’ positions. In Britain there was never an anti-colonialist and anti-imperialist movement of significant weight. Critics of the empire and the subjugation of its subjects, and there were some – like George Orwell in his classic essay “Shooting an Elephant” – never organized as a political force or generated widespread public protest, unlike opponents of slavery and racial segregation in America.
The British loved the empire, even if it made them uncomfortable at times. Rule over India and control of the passage to India were perceived as a much greater national interest than the rights of British subjects in the colonies.
In Israel there is no real opposition to the occupation either. In our political system, the view of Israeli rule over the Palestinians in the territories runs the gamut from divine imperative to a pain in the butt to inescapable political necessity (“no partner”). Everyone is just fine with the dual regime of human dignity here and military orders there. The few who expose and decry this dichotomy are portrayed in the mainstream and political media as traitors or kooks.
Ultimately, the British Empire didn’t disappear because of internal protest, UN votes or an international boycott. It collapsed because Britain needed America to save it during the war and the economic crisis that followed, and the price of salvation was independence for India and later for the other colonies in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
In his book “Churchill’s Empire,” British historian Richard Toye writes that the old Lion understood this very well, despite his statements against the liquidation of the empire and his private assurances to colleagues that the hatred between Hindus and Muslims would keep the British in India. Churchill was only spared the actual work of dismantling the empire when he lost the election at the end of the war. This was left to his successor, Clement Attlee.
How will Netanyahu’s story end?