Sunday, April 08, 2007

Churchill's Jewish Ancestry - Not!   posted by DavidB @ 4/08/2007 04:17:00 AM

This post has only a marginal relevance to gnxp, but for those who may be interested I am putting it below the fold.

In the British Press there has recently been some controversy about Winston Churchill and alleged anti-semitism. An unpublished magazine article of 1938, not written by Churchill but allegedly approved for publication in his name, contains references to Jews which would get him into trouble today, though at the time they would have seemed relatively innocuous.

But what I want to discuss is a claim that Churchill himself had Jewish ancestry on his mother's side. According to a letter by Mark Corby in the London Times on 22 March, 'his mother Jenny Jacobson/Jerome was a New York Jew, as was pointed out by Moshe Kohn in an article in the Jerusalem Post of January 18, 1993'. But a letter on 26 March from David Watson denied this, claiming that Churchill's American ancestry could be traced back to the early 18th century, without a sign of any 'Jacobson'.

Now I don't personally care much whether Churchill had Jewish ancestry or not, but I see from the internet that this claim (specifically, that his maternal grandfather changed his name from Jacobson to Jerome) is popular in certain circles. Why did Churchill hate that nice Mr Hitler? Why did he betray the Aryan race? Why, it's obvious, isn't it - he was one of those!

So I wanted to see whether there is any basis for the claim. I began with an internet search, but found nothing to support the claim other than repeated references to the article by Moshe Kohn. Since a newspaper article is hardly a good primary source, this does not inspire confidence. My next step was to visit a library with excellent biographical collections. There are countless biographies of Churchill, a few of his mother Jenny, and one of his mother's father, Leonard Jerome. On browsing relevant parts of these, I found them unanimous in tracing Churchill's Jerome ancestry back to Timothy Jerome, of Huguenot descent, who migrated to America around 1717. Of course, this might all be an elaborate cover story, but if so it is one that could easily be refuted. The biographies contain references to public figures, such as Leonard Jerome's uncle Judge Hiram Jerome, and records in public archives which could be checked by anyone suspicious of a cover-up. The only serious gap in the official records of Churchill's ancestry is a long way back in the female line, which cannot be traced beyond his great-great-grandmother, Anna Baker. According to family legend, she was part-Iroquois Indian, which the family believed accounted for the prevalence of dark eyes or complexion in the family. This does have a certain whiff of cover-up, but if so the cover-up may be of something other than Jewish blood. According to one account, Churchill himself believed there was a drop of black somewhere in his ancestry (see Elisabeth Kehoe, Fortune's Daughters: The Extravagant Lives of the Jerome Sisters (2004), p.4). In any case, the usual claims of Jewish ancestry concern Churchill's mother's father, Leonard Jerome, and not the female line leading back to Anna Baker.

Nevertheless, to be sure that I had not missed anything, I searched the internet again, and found two pieces of 'evidence' occasionally cited in support of the story. One is a claim that Churchill's cousin, the Irish writer and politician Shane Leslie, wrote a biography of Churchill which was left unpublished at Churchill's insistence, allegedly because it let the cat out of the bag concerning the Jeromes' Jewish ancestry. But Shane Leslie also wrote his own autobiography, Long Shadows, published after Churchill's death, in which he described his Jerome ancestors. Leslie passed on his researches into the family history to his daughter, Anita Leslie, who wrote biographies of both Leonard and Jenny Jerome, and to Ralph Martin, biographer of Jenny (Ralph G. Martin, Lady Randolph Churchill: A Biography (1969).) None of these books mentions any Jewish ancestry. If Shane Leslie had discovered a secret which he was persuaded not to publish during Churchill's lifetime, why would he continue to suppress it after Churchill's death?

The other piece of 'evidence' is a claim that the historian David Irving had proved Churchill's Jewish ancestry in his book Churchill's War. If David Irving told me the time, I would check five different clocks before I accepted it, but he does admittedly have a reputation for finding new documentary evidence (usually provided by elderly Nazis), so I naturally went back to the library to look at Churchill's War. In volume 1, published in 1987, I find nothing to suggest any Jewish ancestry for Churchill. But in volume 2, published in 2001, at last we find a reference - in a real, published book - to Churchill being 'born of partly Jewish blood' and having a 'part-Jewish mother' (page xii). So I turned with trembling hands to the end-notes (page 855) to find the documentary basis for these assertions - only to find nothing but a reference to Moshe Kohn's article of 18 January 1993!

So it seems that all roads lead to Kohn. I therefore decided I must track down his article in the Jerusalem Post. I did not expect this to be easy, but I found that the JP has searchable online archives going back at least to 1993. On searching for articles by Moshe Kohn referring to Churchill I got a surprise. There is indeed a relevant article, but its date is not 18 January, as stated by Irving and all the others, but 15 January. This has two fairly obvious implications: first, those repeating the incorrect date are copying directly or indirectly from David Irving, and second, they have not read the article for themselves. If they had, they might be less confident in their assertions.

The article itself is clearly aimed at an Israeli audience with Israeli preoccupations. It begins with a passage of heavy sarcasm:

THANK God - at last we know the truth about Winston Churchill: he was a psychopathic revanchist, obsessed with defeating Germany in World War II, thus preventing Adolf Hitler from saving civilization from the Red menace. Several rational British historical revisionists have just revealed this, half a century after Churchill inflicted all that pain and grief on those poor Germans.

These 'revisionists' are not named, but David Irving himself (at that time still not entirely discredited) is one obvious target. Another possibility is John Charmley, whose book Churchill: A Political Biography, appeared around the beginning of 1993.

But Kohn continues:

Or is it a related idiosyncrasy that bothers those revisionists? I mean the streak that caused Churchill to draw on Jewish - particularly biblical - modes and language, especially regarding the treatment of enemies like Hitler and Mussolini. Are they particularly galled by his penchant for calling on God, despite his rejection of "the Christian or any other form of religious belief" (as he wrote to his mother in 1898)? And with typical Churchillian cunning, he did all that in the name of "Christian civilization"... (That cunning no doubt came to Churchill in the Jewish genes transmitted by his mother, Lady Randolph Churchill, nee Jenny Jacobson/Jerome. )

And that's it. That is the entirety of Kohn's discussion of Churchill's alleged Jewish ancestry. It is not even clear that it is intended seriously. (Kohn died in 2005, so we cannot ask him.) The whole of Kohn's first paragraph, directed at the 'revisionists', is written in a mode of sarcasm. (The rest of the article is a defence of Churchill, who is presented as a model for hard-line Israeli politicians.) Kohn evidently suspected that the revisionists had an underlying anti-semitic motive, and his reference to Churchill's Jewish ancestry may be nothing more than an allusion to some pre-existing anti-semitic rumour or fantasy. On the assumption that Moshe Kohn himself was Jewish - which seems a fair guess - he would hardly have seriously referred to 'cunning... in the Jewish genes': a stereotypical piece of anti-semitic nonsense. But even if Kohn's reference to Churchill's Jewish ancestry was intended seriously, it is of no value as historical evidence, and no competent historian would rely on it without supporting documentation.

I conclude that there is no worthwhile evidence to support the claim of Jewish ancestry, and there seems to be strong documentary evidence against it. I say seems, because I have not examined the archival sources for myself. But the burden of proof is on those who wish to show that the official account is false.

PS: to avoid confusion, I should make it clear that I am not David Boxenhorn, who occasionally contributes to this site. David is an Israeli, and therefore might be thought to have a personal interest in the issue. I do not.

PPS: While on Churchillian themes, I take the opportunity to recommend the HBO/BBC drama The Gathering Storm. I was impressed by this when it was first screened, and I watched it again recently on DVD. It has a superb cast, including Albert Finney, Vanessa Redgrave, Jim Broadbent, Derek Jacobi, Tom Wilkinson, Linus Roache, Lena Headey, Celia Imrie, Hugh Bonneville, and a host of familiar character actors in minor roles. Indeed, this got a bit distracting: I kept expecting Hugh Laurie to pop up playing Bertie Wooster. Also, the background music was sometimes intrusive. And the script (like Churchill's memoirs on which it was based) was probably unfair to Stanley Baldwin. But all quibbles apart, it was a fine drama, above all for Albert Finney's performance as Churchill.