Was Churchill Antisemitic–and Does it Matter?

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

A newly-discovered unpublished article by Winston Churchill, written in 1937, claimed that Jews were “partly responsible” for the mistreatment that they suffered.

Does the article prove that Churchill was antisemitic? And does it matter if he was?

The article, titled “How the Jews Can Combat Persecution,” was found recently by Cambridge University historian Dr. Richard Toye in the Churchill archives. In it, Churchill denounces the “cruel and relentless” persecution of the Jews. But he then criticizes German Jewish refugees in England for their willingness to work for less pay than non-Jewish laborers, which –he claims– caused antisemitism.

Churchill’s article also justifies antisemitic responses to Jewish moneylenders: “Every Jewish moneylender recalls Shylock and the idea of the Jews as usurers. And you cannot reasonably expect a struggling clerk or shopkeeper, paying 40 or 50 per cent interest on borrowed money to a ‘Hebrew Bloodsucker’, to reflect that almost every other way of life was closed to the Jewish people.”

Churchill biographer Martin Gilbert believes the article may have been written not by Churchill himself, but by his ghostwriter. Even if true, that does not really absolve Churchill, since a public figure must bear responsibility for what he permits to be written in his name. This particular article was authored in 1937 and then withdrawn from consideration by Churchill three years later, following a dispute over which publication would use it. It is unknown if Churchill had second thoughts about the article’s contents.

Some of Churchill’s earlier statements about Jews and Communism indulged in antisemitic stereotypes, such as referring to the Russian Bolshevik leadership as “Semitic conspirators” and “Jew Commissars.” Yet Churchill genuinely sympathized with pogrom victims and strongly endorsed Zionism.

Churchill was not the only public figure whose sometimes less than flattering private views about Jews were accompanied by support for Zionism.

A recently-discovered account of a 1939 conversation between President Franklin Roosevelt and then-Senator Burton Wheeler quoted FDR as saying, “You and I, Burt, are old English and Dutch stock. We know who our ancestors are. We know there is no Jewish blood in our veins …”

A recent book about the owners of the New York Times, by scholars Susan Tifft and Alex Jones, quoted FDR complaining about a “dirty Jewish trick” which he claimed the Times’ owners had used to keep their newspaper within the family. It has also long been known that Roosevelt told French military leaders in North Africa in 1943 that limits should be placed on local Jews entering some professions, lest there be a recurrence of “the understandable complaints which the Germans bore towards the Jews in Germany…”

Harry Truman, too, had some less than pleasant things to say about Jews. A Truman diary found four years ago included this passage: “The Jews, I find, are very, very selfish. They care not how many Estonians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Yugoslavs or Greeks get murdered or mistreated as D[isplaced] P[erson]s as long as the Jews get special treatment. Yet when they have power, physical, financial or political neither Hitler nor Stalin has anything on them for cruelty or mistreatment to the under dog.”

It is difficult to know if the private statements by Truman, Roosevelt or Churchill about Jews affected their public positions on Jewish issues.

Truman urged the British to admit Holocaust survivors to Palestine, but he never seriously pressured London to do so. He is fondly remembered for granting diplomatic recognition to the State of Israel minutes after the state was created, although he refused to send Israel weapons to defend itself against the invading Arab armies.

Roosevelt expressed sympathy for the Jews who were being massacred by the Nazis, but refrained from taking meaningful steps to help them. On occasion, FDR told the British they should open Palestine to Jews fleeing Hitler, but he was never willing to really lean on Churchill to do so.

Churchill supported the Zionist cause throughout his career, often vigorously so and in the face of fierce opposition within his own cabinet. Yet when it mattered most, his support was more in the realm of rhetoric than action. As prime minister during the Holocaust period, Churchill left in place the harsh White Paper policy that kept all but a handful of Jews from entering Palestine, thus trapping them in Hitler’s inferno.

Prof. Henry Feingold has asked, “Is it conceivable that a policy that severely curtailed Jewish immigration and land sales in Palestine … [at a time when] to deny its availability meant that death was almost certainly the alternative … was not at least partly motivated by anti-Semitism?”

We may never know the answer to that question, but in the end, it may not even matter. Whatever his motives, Churchill’s policies spoke for themselves.

March 2007