Was Winston Churchill an anti-Semite? That stunning accusation was raised last week after the University of Cambridge issued a news release hyping a new book by one of its historians, Richard Toye.
The release said that while researching his book, Lloyd George & Churchill: Rivals for Greatness, which chronicles Churchill's relationship with British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Toye found an article written by Churchill in 1937 titled "How the Jews Can Combat Persecution." While offering advice to Jews, Churchill supposedly wrote that "they have been partly responsible for the antagonism from which they suffer."
Worse, Churchill allegedly wrote: "The central fact which dominates the relations of Jew and non-Jew is that the Jew is different. He looks different. He thinks differently. He has a different tradition and background."
This news was particularly disheartening to me, having just come home from a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Two months ago, I stood where Josef Mengele once determined the immediate fate of new Jewish arrivals at the camp.
"Too bad [U.S. Assistant Secretary of War] John McCloy didn't take Churchill's advice and bomb this place," a friend in my group offered, a reference to the fact that Churchill had advocated doing exactly that in 1944. Churchill's record, or so I thought, was one of consistent support for the Jews. There is great proof of these sentiments. My favorite was documented by William Manchester and other historians, who tell the story of Churchill and Hitler almost meeting in the summer of 1932. The meeting was canceled by Hitler only after Churchill told an intermediary, "Why is your chief so violent about the Jews. . . . how can any man help how he is born?"
How, then, to treat the new revelations that cast Churchill in this most unflattering light? I endeavored to speak to Toye, and then to Churchill's official biographer.
Toye conceded to me that, contrary to the Cambridge news release, Churchill did not write those words - Adam Marshall Diston did. Diston was a British journalist and Churchill ghostwriter. Apparently, Diston was given a set of instructions by Churchill, which he followed in writing the article. Churchill read what Diston produced and didn't make significant changes, Toye told me.
According to Toye, Churchill then tried to have it published in Liberty in 1937, but the magazine Collier's objected (on the basis of Churchill's past work for the latter magazine). He then offered it to Strand magazine in Britain - but Strand had accepted a similar article by Lloyd George. Later, in 1940, a Sunday Dispatch editor came across the article and asked to publish it, but now Churchill refused, his secretary calling it "inadvisable."
"My basic point on which I rest my case really is that Churchill was willing to approve these sentiments for publication under his own name," Toye said. "He didn't make any big changes. He went off and tried to get it published, and failed through accident, not because he didn't agree with the sentiments."
Sir Martin Gilbert disagrees with Toye's assessment. Gilbert is Churchill's official biographer, and the author of more than 70 books. I spoke with him in London.
He told me that Toye hadn't realized that Churchill didn't write those words until he (Gilbert) brought it to his attention the day before I had spoken with Toye. Gilbert told me he had brought this matter to light back in 1982, after finding the article in the very library where Toye was presently doing research.
"It's a fact that not one word of it was written by Churchill," Gilbert said. "That's the bottom line. . . . You can't be called an anti-Semite for something you didn't write, didn't write one word of."
But then how to explain Churchill's attempts to publish the article under his own name? Is it possible that Churchill agreed with its faint anti-Semitic leanings, or was he just inattentive in reviewing what Diston wrote?
It would seem to be the latter. Toye himself notes the article's "well-meaning" message: The persecution of the Jews was wrong and must be stopped.
And as Gilbert told me, Churchill's public support of the Jews at times came with great political risk in Britain. He cited an episode in which Churchill addressed the British Parliament, telling them he had the "strongest abhorrence" of the idea of anti-Semitism. "And the House of Commons didn't like it because they knew he was talking about them," Gilbert told me.
A look at the instructions to Diston regarding the article shows no trace of anti-Semitism. First, Churchill asked Diston to express that Jews should be good citizens of the country to which they belonged. Second, Gilbert said Churchill urged Jews to avoid overly exclusive associations in daily life.
Third, Churchill was adamant about keeping the Jewish movement free from communism. And finally, Churchill felt Jews were justified in using their influence in economic or financial realms to put pressure on governments that persecuted them.
"Well, of course, there's nothing whatsoever anti-Semitic about those four points," Gilbert said.
Gilbert also said he would address the matter when he publishes his book Churchill and the Jews in the fall.
"It would have been appalling if I'd missed out on something like this, just as it's appalling that Dr. Toye failed to consult my existing work. How bizarre," he told me.
Bizarre indeed, I thought. Just as there are new revelations that Jesus was married and Lincoln gay, now it's Churchill's turn. Perhaps there isn't enough to write about.
Follow Michael Smerconish on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@smerconish