Churchill had no Jewish ancestry; his claim to an exotic origin came from a possible American Indian ancestor. But from his early years the Jews held a fascination for him. As a schoolboy at Harrow, the stories of the Old Testament were an integral part of his education and imagination. One of his earliest surviving essays was ‘Palestine in the time of John the Baptist’. Writing about the Pharisees, Churchill asked his reader – in this case his teacher – not to be too censorious about that ‘rigid’ Jewish sect. ‘Their faults were many,’ he wrote, and went on to ask: ‘Whose faults are few?’ At the age of thirteen he could himself be forgiven for describing the ‘minarets’ of the Temple of Zion.
In Churchill’s family circle, his father Lord Randolph Churchill was noted for his friendship with individual Jews. The butt of a popular clubland jibe that he only had Jewish friends, he was even rebuked by members of his family for inviting Jews to dine with him at home. On one occasion, when a guest at an English country house, Lord Randolph was greeted by one of the guests, a leading aristocrat, with the words: ‘What, Lord Randolph, you’ve not brought your Jewish friends?’ to which Lord Randolph replied: ‘No, I did not think they would be very amused by the company.’
Churchill, a devoted son eager for his father’s approval, took his father’s side in this pro- and anti-Jew debate. The Jews whom his father knew and invited to dine were men of distinction and achievement. One was ‘Natty’ Rothschild, 1st Baron Rothschild, the head of the British branch of the Rothschild banking family, who in 1885 became the first Jew to become a member of the House of Lords. Another was the banker Sir Ernest Cassel, born in Cologne, a close friend of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII.
When Churchill’s father despaired of his son succeeding in the army examination in 1892, he wrote to Churchill’s grandmother that if the boy failed again in the examination, ‘I shall think of putting him in business.’ He was confident that he could get the young Churchill ‘something very good’ through Rothschild or Cassel. Shortly before Churchill’s nineteenth birthday, his father took him to Lord Rothschild’s country house, Tring Park. The visit went well. ‘The people at Tring took a great deal of notice of him,’ Lord Randolph wrote to Churchill’s grandmother.
It was just before his eighteenth birthday that Churchill had reported to his mother how ‘young Rothschild’ – Nathaniel, second son of the 1st Baron Rothschild – had been playing with him at Harrow School, ‘and gorged eggs etc some awful sights!’ Fifty years later, the son of ‘young Rothschild’, Victor Rothschild, who succeeded as third baron shortly before the Second World War, was to be responsible for checking Churchill’s wartime gifts of food and cigars to make sure they did not contain poison. For Victor Rothschild’s bravery in dismantling an unexploded bomb hidden in a crate of onions – a bomb timed to explode in a British port – Churchill would recommend him for the prestigious George Cross.
Another branch of the Rothschild family whom Churchill knew was the family of Leopold Rothschild, at whose house at Gunnersbury, just outside London, he dined while he was an army cadet in 1895, and whose son Lionel, later a Conservative MP, he befriended at that time. Lionel was at school with Churchill’s younger brother Jack. ‘He is a nice little chap,’ Churchill wrote to Jack, ‘and the Leo Rothschilds will be very grateful to you if you look after him.’ Churchill added: ‘Their gratitude may also take a practical form – as they have a charming place at Gunnersbury.’
Also a Jewish friend of Churchill’s parents was the German-born throat specialist, Sir Felix Semon. In 1896, shortly before Churchill left Britain for India as a soldier, he consulted Semon about his speech defect, the inability to pronounce the letter ‘s’. An operation was possible, but Semon advised against it; with ‘patience and perseverance’ he would be able to speak fluently. ‘I have just seen the most extraordinary young man I have ever met,’ Semon later recalled telling his wife. After telling Semon of his army plans, Churchill confided: ‘Of course it is not my intention to become a mere professional soldier. I only wish to gain some experience. Some day I shall be a statesman as my father was before me.’
Churchill’s parents were also friendly with the Austrian-born Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a leading Jewish philanthropist, at whose house in London they were frequent guests. The Baron’s adopted son, Maurice, known as ‘Tootie’, later Baron de Forest, first met Churchill in the late 1880s at Hirsch’s racing home near Newmarket. During one of his school holidays, he was a guest at Hirsch’s house in Paris.
Paris at the time of Churchill’s visit in 1898 was in turmoil following the trial and imprisonment of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, accused of being a German spy. Emile Zola had taken up the captain’s cause, and in a powerful article headed ‘J’Accuse’, denounced the government and the anti-Semitism of the French army, and exposed the falsity of the charges. ‘Bravo Zola!’ Churchill wrote to his mother. ‘I am delighted to witness the complete debacle of this monstrous conspiracy.’
After Lord Randolph Churchill’s death in 1895, shortly after Churchill’s twentieth birthday, his father’s Jewish friends continued their friendship with the son. Lord Rothschild, Sir Ernest Cassel and Baron de Hirsch frequently invited him to their houses. In an aside in the first volume of the official biography, Churchill’s son Randolph wrote, with a verbal twinkle: ‘Churchill did not confine his quest for new and interesting personalities and friends to Jewish households. During this period he was sometimes invited into Gentile society.’
While soldiering in India in 1897, Churchill was keen to find a newspaper willing to take him on as its war correspondent. ‘Lord Rothschild would be the person to arrange this for me,’ he wrote to his mother, ‘as he knows everyone.’ On his return from India in the spring of 1899, eager to embark on a political career, Churchill again found Lord Rothschild a willing facilitator. He was pleased to find, while dining at Rothschild’s London house, that another of the guests, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, A. J. Balfour, ‘markedly civil to me – I thought – agreed with and paid great attention to everything I said.’
It was his father’s friend, Sir Ernest Cassel, who offered to look after Churchill’s finances after his father’s death. Churchill, having made his first earnings through his writing, told Cassel, ‘Feed my sheep.’ This the banker did, investing Churchill’s eventually considerable literary earnings both wisely and well. Cassel made no charge for his services.
In preparing to go to South Africa as a war correspondent in 1899, Churchill sought funds for his kit and provisions. Lord Rothschild gave him £150 and Cassel gave him £100: a total sum that was the annual income for many middle-class families. In 1902, Churchill’s second year in Parliament, Cassel secured him a £10,000 stake in a loan offered that year by the Japanese government. On that investment, Churchill wrote to his brother Jack, ‘I hope to make a small profit.’ In 1905, Cassel furnished a library for Churchill’s bachelor flat in London’s Mayfair. Cassel’s help to Churchill was continuous. Bonds that he bought for Churchill in the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in 1907 provided him with the salary he paid to his typist – twice over. When Churchill married in 1908, Cassel gave him and Clementine a wedding present of £500: some £25,000 in the money values of today.
Churchill valued his friendship with Cassel. When Cassel died in 1921, Churchill wrote to Cassel’s granddaughter Edwina Ashley that her grandfather was ‘a good and just man who was trusted, respected and honoured by all who knew him. He was a valued friend of my father’s and I have taken up that friendship and I have held it all my grown life. I had the knowledge that he was very fond of me and believed in me at all times – especially in bad times.’
On 22 January 1901 Churchill was in Winnipeg, towards the end of a lecture tour about the war in South Africa – and his escape from a Boer prison camp – when he learned of the death of Queen Victoria. ‘A great and solemn event,’ he wrote to his mother, ‘but I am curious to know about the King. Will it entirely revolutionise his way of life? Will he sell his horses and scatter his Jews or will Reuben Sassoon be enshrined among the crown jewels and other regalia? Will he become desperately serious? Will he continue to be friendly to you?’
The King, Edward VII, did remain friendly to Churchill’s mother, and did retain his friendship with the Baghdadi-born Jew Reuben Sassoon, whose nephew Philip Sassoon – a future Secretary of State for Air – was to become a friend of Churchill and, with his sister Sybil, a generous host at his home, Port Lympne, on the Channel coast. H. H. Asquith, soon to become Prime Minister and Churchill’s patron, described the Jews in a letter to a female acquaintance – who, ironically, later converted to Judaism – as ‘A scattered and unattractive tribe.’ Churchill made no such comments, publicly or privately. Indeed, in a letter to his mother in 1907, he warned her against publishing a story in her memoirs that was clearly anti-Semitic, about a leading politician, Lord Goschen. ‘I do not think that the Goschen story would be suitable for publication,’ he wrote. ‘It would cause a great deal of offence not only to the Goschens, but to the Jews generally.’ It might be a good story, but, he told his mother: ‘Many good things are beyond the reach of respectable people and you must put it away from your finger tips.’
Until 1904, Churchill’s acquaintance with Jews was entirely social. But within four years of his entering Parliament, it was to become political, and decisive.
Copyright © 2007 by Martin Gilbert. All rights reserved.