Was Churchill a Friend of the Jews and Zionism?


Dr. Daniel Mandel is a Fellow in History at Melbourne University and author of H.V. Evatt and the Establishment of Israel: The Undercover Zionist (Routledge, 2004). His blog can be found here.

When I recently published a piece debunking the recent crop of revisionism (including his attitude to Jews) surrounding Winston Churchill in the American Spectator, a number of familiar and important questions came in from readers expressing doubt as to Churchill's partiality for Zionism and Jews. Their objections can be split into three:
1. Since Churchill in 1922 excised Transjordan from Palestine, thus denying to Zionism more than half of the territory earmarked for the Jewish National Home, is Churchill perhaps not overrated as a friend of the Jews?
2. If Churchill was such a good friend to the Jews, why did the restrictive provisions of the 1939 White Paper, which limited Jewish immigration into Palestine to 15,000 annually for the period 1939-1944 after which any further immigration would be dependent on Arab approval, remain in force under his leadership?
3. Since the failure of the RAF to bomb Auschwitz and of the British Army to stop the farhud (pogrom) against the Jews in Baghdad in 1941 have been attributed respectively to the RAF and the British Foreign Office, are we to surmise that Churchill lacked control of his own government and armed forces?
These are my answers:
1. The excision of Transjordan in 1922 from the territory in which the development of the Jewish National Home was to proceed was one of a number of decisions that was made during Churchill's visit to the region as Colonial Secretary, which included the creation of Iraq. Transjordan was then, as now, a largely arid tract of territory with no Jewish settlements. As such it was established as emirate for Abdullah, son of Sherif Hussein of Mecca and a British ally, by way of payment for services rendered during the First World War.
It was said by his deeply pro-Zionist political adviser, Richard Meinertzhagen, that Churchill saw the force of his argument that this decision deprived Zionism of room for development, but by then the decision had been made and could not be undone. Undoubtedly to Zionism's loss, the decision was not aimed at harming the movement, support for which was in fact reaffirmed as being unchangeable British policy in the 1922 White Paper. Nonetheless, it is a justified point that Churchill's decision caused a major part of Palestine to be lost to Zionism.
2. It is perfectly true that upon becoming Prime Minister in May 1940, Churchill did not overturn the 1939 White Paper, whose terms he had so eloquently denounced at the time in the Commons. The White Paper was retained because such was then the weakness of the British position that disowning it at that point was thought likely to precipitate a calamitous Arab revolt. This was probably a mistaken calculation, but in the circumstances of May 1940, it prevailed.
However, the question remains as to why Churchill did not discard it later and it was one I put to the Churchill biographer, Martin Gilbert, when I interviewed him in 1987. He responded that, from the outset, Churchill fought a Cabinet almost uniformly hostile to permitting Jewish refugees into Palestine. When Churchill was effectively overruled on this point by the Cabinet in March 1942, he and his Colonial Secretary, Lord Cranborne, bypassed its decision by devising a new policy that, contrary to the White Paper, permitted all Jews who might arrive in Palestine to stay there. The arrival of so few Jews and the failure to fill even the existing 15,000 annual quota was attributed by Gilbert to the virtual impossibility that by then existed for Jews to escape from Europe, which, he noted, the Mufti of Jerusalem, a  Nazi collaborator, worked hard to achieve.
When the White Paper's absolute ban on Jewish immigration was due to come into effect in May 1944, Churchill refused to sign it into law. Gilbert's 1993 address, "Churchill and the Holocaust: The Possible and the Impossible," concisely elaborates this and other matters which, viewed in combination, provides a different picture to that of unfulfilled friendship and sympathy.
To name some further significant facts: as First Lord of the Admiralty (1939-40) Churchill ended the practice of Royal Navy vessels intercepting refugee ships bound for Palestine when he discovered the  Foreign Office and Colonial Office had initiated this policy without his knowledge. When the British Commander in the Middle East, General Archibald Wavell, sought to have deported  from Palestine a group of Jewish refugees who had entered the country aboard the Patria, Churchill intervened to prevent it. He also pressured a BBC that was then reluctant to report on the Nazi targeting of Jews for murder, to do so.
In January 1944, Churchill's Cabinet approved in principle a new partition plan for Palestine, which was due for adoption in the very week in November 1944 that the British Minister of State in the Middle East and Churchill's friend, Lord Moyne, was assassinated by Lehi (Stern Gang) members. Churchill's support of Zionism thereafter became subdued but endured and he withstood demands at home for a military crackdown on the Jewish community in Palestine. The Cabinet however shelved partition.
The same year, in the face of persistent opposition from the British military establishment, Churchill pushed through the creation of a Jewish military force. Indeed, such was the perception of his concern for Jewish causes that, on two  occasions, callous members of his own inner staff withheld from him Jewish requests out of fear that he would respond positively to them. In short, Churchill, virtually singled-handedly, fought an indifferent and hostile bureaucracy to help the Jews and Zionism.
3. Gilbert has explained inAuschwitz and the Allies that the failure of the RAF to bomb Auschwitz et al. was the result of its commanders overriding Churchill's directives on sometimes spurious logistical grounds. The farhud in Baghdad was permitted to occur due largely to the defective judgement of the British ambassador, Sir Kinahan Cornwallis and Wavell, not Churchill, who at one stage even had to prod the latter to use the forces at his disposal to establish British authority in Iraq. Elie Kedourie has a typically authoritative account of these matters in the last two chapters of his Arabic Political Memoirs and Other Studies.
Therefore, we are not to conclude that Churchill was a poor friend of the Jews or that he had lost control of his own government. Rather, even the most formidable of democratic war leaders have to contend with contrarily-minded bureaucracies and must perforce delegate important decisions to diplomats and commanders in the field. So much of the tragedy (and glory) of history is the role played by individuals in the situations they find themselves.