A hundred years ago, on March 24, 1921, to be exact, an important visitor came to Palestine to witness firsthand the progress of the Zionist endeavor to build “A national home for the Jewish people,” as stated in the 1917 Balfour Declaration. That man was Winston Spencer Churchill, at the time Great Britain’s Secretary of State for the Colonies, and during World War II, its illustrious Prime Minister. The 1920 San Remo conference gave Britain the mandate for the administration of Palestine, and Churchill, an avid supporter of Zionism, came to see how his vision was unfolding.
In light of the Palestinian Arabs’ resistance to the Jewish settlers, Churchill declared: “It is manifestly right that the Jews should have a National Home where some of them may be reunited. And where else could that be but in this land of Palestine, with which for more than 3,000 years they have been intimately and profoundly associated.”
Acclaimed British historian Martin Gilbert, author of the book Churchill and the Jews, included numerous quotations by Churchill. In one of them, he writes that an Arab delegation protested the expansion of the Jewish settlement in Palestine. In response, Churchill told them, “I am myself perfectly convinced that the cause of Zionism is one which carries with it much that is good for the whole world, and not only for the Jewish people, but that it will also bring with it prosperity and contentment and advancement to the Arab population of this country.”
Indeed, Churchill’s interest in the success of the Jewish National Home went deeper than a sense of historic justice. His passion for Zionism stemmed from his sense of the Jewish fate with regard to the whole world. In Palestine, which is now the State of Israel, Churchill felt that the Jews could realize their vocation. Accordingly, during his visit, he said, “My heart is full of sympathy for Zionism. The establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine will be a blessing to the whole world.”
An even more surprising nuance about Churchill’s affinity for Jews had to do with his discernments about the nature of the Jewish society. I have written countless times about the significance of unity for the Jews. Throughout the ages, our sages have stressed numerous times that unity is the core of Judaism, that the people of Israel were forged only after they agreed to unite “as one man with one heart,” and that the example of unity is what the world wants to see from them.
Regrettably, for all their efforts, our sages did not convince their obstinate people; perhaps a distinguished member of the nations expressing precisely the same view will help us come to terms with our vocation. Churchill was not always aware of the importance of unity for the Jews, or as he referred to it, their “corporate spirit.” But some years before World War I, he got to know the Jews of Manchester. According to Gilbert, “His experience with Manchester Jewry had introduced him to the Jewish communal emphasis on social responsibility and self-help, with which he had been much impressed. … Churchill added that he had been ‘much struck … by the nature of the work that community had in hand.’”
Moreover, Churchill seems to have realized that for the Jews, unity had a deep spiritual meaning, and not merely a worldly benefit to yield. Gilbert writes that Churchill “did not think that people could unite in communities ‘unless they possessed some guiding principle. They in that part of Manchester had the spirit of their race and of their faith. He counselled them to guard and keep that spirit. It was a precious thing, a bond of union, an inspiration, and a source of great strength.’”
During a meeting in support of the Jewish Hospital Fund in Manchester, Churchill said that recently, we have heard a great deal about corporate life, but “If we were going to live decent lives in such great masses of people, we would have to study the corporate organization of society in a way we had hitherto not attempted to do. We had got to band ourselves together for definite purposes.” In Churchill’s eyes, the corporate life “was worth nothing unless it had behind it personal effort. The mere mechanical arrangement of society into larger combination would be utterly sterile unless those larger combinations were sustained by a great spirit of personal interest and of impersonal aspiration.” He was convinced that if the Jews could keep that spirit, “They would have created a new thing in the world; they would have brought from the realms of the infinite something new into the arena of mundane affairs.” In fact, Churchill was so convinced of the power of Jewish unity that he stated that it would be “a lever which could remove vice, disease, sorrow and want, which could wipe away the grossnesses of our state in the world, and which would be of far greater value than any stereotyped or hidebound official organization.”
Moreover, Churchill realized that worldly Jewish unity could be successful only if it were tied to the spiritual essence of Jewish unity. It seems as though in his eyes, that unity made them “a light unto nations,” an example to follow. In his words, “If we were to have the higher corporate life, we must have the higher corporate incentive; we must have the larger spirit, the larger driving power. The Jews were a lucky community because they had that corporate spirit, the spirit of their race and faith.” Churchill would not “ask them to use that spirit in any narrow or clannish sense.” He believed it would be “far from their mood and intention, far from the counsels that were given them by those most entitled to advise. That personal and special driving power which they possessed would enable them to bring vitality into their institutions, which nothing else would ever give.”
At the end of his speech about the corporate nature of the Jewish spirit, Churchill concluded with a humorous, if stern advice: “Be good Jews.” And perhaps to show his appreciation for Jewish unity and desire that the Jews would share it, he added, amid cheers: “A Jew cannot be a good Englishman unless he is a good Jew.”
It is my wish for the people of Israel to take the advice of our sages, to listen to the wishes of the nations, and forge the unity that we must then share with the world. Our unity, above all our many differences, shines a light that the whole world wants. If we spread this light, the world will embrace our nation for the first time in our history.
[Credit: Yousuf Karsh. Library and Archives Canada, e010751643]