Saturday, February 03, 2007

The abuse of history

I read Maleiha Malik's article comparing anti-Muslim racism with the anti-Semitism of the early 20th century. She does little more than state the obvious that racism takes similar forms regardless of whom it is aimed at in any period. She also makes the point that whole groups of people can be affected by the actions of a minority, especially in the midst of a 'moral panic'. So, not very startling. A general unease with the misuse of Islamophobia as a term does not alter the fact that there is widespread and deplorable racism against people of Asian origin, but anti-Semitism has hardly gone away either. There are many contestable views in the article, but at least Malik is consistently anti-racist.

There was one thing that bugged me though. She used a quote to imply that Winston Churchill was an anti-Semite. I couldn't square that with his known Zionism. She wrote the following:

Today the Middle East is the focus of a challenge to American political and economic hegemony, which is being presented as a "civilisational conflict with Islam". Nearly a century ago, the Russian revolution sent shockwaves through western states and financial markets. Anti-semites argued that Jewish involvement in revolutionary politics was part of a conspiracy by "the homeless wandering Jew" to replace European states with their "Hebrew nation". Winston Churchill, as secretary of state for war in 1920, wrote an article in the Illustrated Sunday Herald claiming there were three categories of Jews - good, bad and indifferent - and arguing that they were part of a "worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilisation and for the reconstitution of society on the basis of arrested development".

OK the first sentence is worthy of a bit of fisking but I am an historian and it was the history that was worrying me. Where did her quote come from? This is the joy (?) of the Internet, it didn't take me long to find the article she refers to plastered all over neo-Nazi web sites, including David Irving's publishers Focal Point (and no, I am not going to link to them on principle).

At first, I had my doubts as to its validity due to the far right's typical technique of bolstering credibility by quoting seemingly authoritative academic sources. All the sites carried the same line that the authorship of the article "has been authenticated by one of the world's leading Churchill bibliographers, Richard Heinzkill, of the University of Eugene, Oregon". In fact, he was from the University of Oregon, which is based in Eugene, and it seems that Heinzkill was an ordinary librarian with no connection to the far right. All I could find by him was a 1993 article on the history of Oregon newspapers and a joint 2001 article entitled, The Perception of Image and Status in the Library Profession. He retired in 2000. In the 1984 letter that he wrote to David Irving, published on the site, he describes himself as "not enough of a Churchill scholar to discuss his stand on Zionism" and speculates that it might have been ghost written by Edward Marsh. He quotes his source for the attribution of the authorship to Churchill as Frederick Woods. Woods is in the British Library catalogue as the author of A Bibliography of the Works of Sir Winston Churchill (St Paul's Bibliographies, 1979). I guess that Heinzkill must have just looked it up in the book. Not very impressive, but I suppose that as the article has the by-line, "By the Rt. Hon. Winston S. Churchill", this masterful piece of expert authentication might just be right.

So I looked at the text. Of course, it is hugely misrepresented. Churchill starts by saying,

Some people like Jews and some do not; but no thoughtful man can doubt the fact that they are beyond all question the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has ever appeared in the world.

Hmm, not quite the words of a racist. What about the quote about the "world wide conspiracy"? It is there, but Churchill was talking about Bolshevism. However, then he does exactly what Malik accuses him of (and the Fascists celebrate) and equate Bolshevism with a malign form of Judaism. He had accepted, hook, line and sinker, the very common right-wing myth of the Jewishness of Communism. To modern eyes, it reads as completely unacceptable and not wholly sane. But where were these "three categories of Jews - good, bad and indifferent". The answer is nowhere really. It is a misreading. Whilst Churchill categorised Jews, he wasn't identifying and praising a group of "Uncle Toms", he was being virulently anti-revolutionary and ardently pro-Zionist. On top of which there were more than three categories. Another group he praised were the "National Jews" in pre-revolutionary Russia:

As bankers and industrialists they have strenuously promoted the development of Russia's economic resources, and they were foremost in the creation of those remarkable organisations, the Russian Cooperative Societies. In politics their support has been given, for the most part, to liberal and progressive movements, and they have been among the staunchest upholders of friendship with France and Great Britain.

Again, hardly the words of an anti-Semite. His stereotypes were the "International" and "Terrorist" Jews who were malign global revolutionaries. However, salvation was at hand, the struggle for the Jewish soul was now one between these and Zionism. And it is Zionism "which directs the energies and the hopes of Jews in every land towards a simpler, a truer, and a far more attainable goal" that must triumph. This article is a pro-Zionist tract. For Churchill, Zionism is the saviour of the Jews. He is calling for them to reject Bolshevism and embrace Zionism. This, Malik glosses over.

Churchill may have indulged himself in the casual anti-Semitic prejudices of his day, and particularly of his class, concerning the Russian Revolution. However, he writes as a betrayed lover rather than as a convinced racist. His beloved people had fallen in with the wrong crowd; they needed to come back from futile international utopianism to the practical nationalism of building a state of their own in the Promised Land. His Zionism was steadfast from the Balfour Declaration onwards. A real expert on Churchill, Martin Gilbert, has a new book out this summer, Churchill and the Jews. The synopsis makes interesting reading.

Churchill and the Jews covers the whole life of this greatest of Britons -- from his youth, when he was shocked by the anti-Semitism displayed during the Dreyfus Affair, to his last meeting with David Ben-Gurion in 1960, when he gave Ben-Gurion an article he had written about Moses. In the intervening years, during which Churchill cemented his place in history, his affinity with the Jews remained undimmed, even though his championing of Zionist issues and interests was often like a red rag to the bull of the British Establishment. One of those closest to Churchill once confided to the author that "Winston had one fault -- he was too fond of Jews." What does this mean? How did this fondness manifest itself? Exploring all aspects of his life and career, Churchill and the Jews sheds new light on a key figure of the twentieth century and how his attitudes affected not just the prosecution of the Second World War but the establishment of a Jewish state that followed it.

You can't expect good history from those who like to "revise" it but Malik is an academic and both she and the Guardian's editors should be a bit more scrupulous about their research. The false association between the Jews and Bolshevism was widely believed, but using a misconstrued quotation from Churchill as an exemplar is a serious distortion.

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