On December 10, 1948, Winston Churchill rose to address Parliament. As Leader of the Opposition, he questioned why Clement Attlee’s Labour Government in general and of its Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, in particular, had refused to recognize the newborn Israeli state.
The United States and the Soviet Union, who by this time were disagreeing on most everything else, had both recognized Israel almost immediately on its Declaration of Independence, the 72nd anniversary of which was celebrated this week. But Britain had let the months go by with no action.
Israel’s independence was contested by force of arms. American Secretary of State George Marshall had opposed it because he thought that there was no way the Jewish community in the Holy Land could withstand the combined forces that had already commenced deadly assault on it. Bevin perhaps did not want to recognize a stillborn state that could not defend itself successfully.
But by December, Israel had beaten off the invading armies of Egypt and Syria, and had held its own against Jordan’s Arab Legion as well as the many guerilla forces that had threatened to kill the Jewish nation off. Armistice negotiations were going on at Rhodes and would soon be completed successfully. But still there was no move by Foreign Secretary Bevin to offer diplomatic recognition.
This was the world affairs background when Churchill rose to speak. But there was a personal element, as well. Churchill’s war leadership had been something remarkable, rising to a level of the great figures not only of Britain’s long past but of the world scene. He had correctly and powerfully framed the fight against Nazism as a fight of civilization against totalitarianism. He had galvanized first the UK and then the entire free world to join the fight with all they had, knowing themselves to be figures on the vast stage of history, devoting their lives to the good that humanity has ever hoped for against an unspeakable evil. As he put it in one of his most powerful speeches at the height of the Battle of Britain, “If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say this was their finest hour.”
The British electorate rewarded Churchill’s magnificent leadership by turning his party out of power in a landslide. The mood was enough of the heroics; we now must pick up the pieces of our shattered home. The new prime minister, Attlee, was the opposite of Churchill in affect; Churchill characterized him once as “a sheep in sheep’s clothing.”
Attlee’s government did not know what to do with its Palestine Mandate. Initially, Jews thought he would be sympathetic. But with Bevin in the lead, they increasingly tried to forge a policy that would not endanger their oil investments in the Middle East. It didn’t work well, and the Mandate sank more and more deeply into violence, as pressures mounted for the realization of the treaty promise of a Jewish national home.
Churchill had become highly critical of the government’s policy, but now it was reaching a level where he felt it had sunk to anti-Semitism. Hatred of Jews was at the foul center of the Nazism that he had mobilized the world to fight. That Britain should be setting policy because of such an unworthy animus would put it in the wrong in the mighty flow of civilization. It was that perspective that he brought to the debate — we are a part of a history that has been unfolding over millennia and must be considered in that light. He addressed Bevin:
Whether the Right Honorable Gentleman admits or not, and whether we like it or not, the coming into being of a Jewish state in Palestine is an event in world history to be viewed in the perspective, not of a generation or a century, but in the perspective of a thousand, two thousand or even three thousand years. This is. A standard of temporal values or time values which seems very much out of accord with the perpetual click-clack of our rapidly changing moods and of the age in which we live. This is an event in world history.
This epitomized Churchill’s conservatism. He sought always to convey a sense of a great theme of civilization that must rise always above the “click-clack” of our all-too-quick modern mood swings. That perspective is what enables us to see that the sacrifices we must make daily in being a part of a working civilization have moral significance and can rise — and should rise — to moral grandeur.
Certainly, that perspective remains necessary to appreciate Israel today. We may still share Churchill’s appreciation of the great sweep of history, which Israel’s existence makes us aware of, and even more, the spiritual and ethical vision that has been what that history has brought to the world and the world is still making its own. It beckons us not to applaud it from a distance but to join in it, each following the genius of one’s own ever-unique relation to the core of all existence, finding the path to Isaiah’s vision of the time when “nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war any more.”