A Historian’s Jewel, Part III

Arthur Balfour


Well, the question of who is a Jew is an old, old contentious one. So is the question of what the Jews are. Can you be a Jewish atheist? Well, of course you can! (Otherwise, Israel might empty out.) (At least that used to be true. Maybe I’m behind the times, what with the burgeoning Orthodox and all.)

Anyway — too big a subject for a breezy lil’ column like this one.

Winston S. Churchill, King of the Philo-Semites (and much else): “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.”

Himmelfarb quotes Churchill quoting Disraeli: “The Lord deals with the nations as the nations deal with the Jews.”

I was reminded of something Charles Krauthammer told me. Let me give you the relevant slice of my 2009 piece on him:

Asked the bald question of whether Israel will survive, he says, “If it doesn’t, I think it will mark the beginning of the terminal decay of Western civilization.” He notes that he is not a believer. But he quotes from the Bible, where God tells Abraham — actually, Abram, at that point — “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee.” It is interesting, if only as a historical matter, that those nations that have been kind to the Jews have flourished, and those that have not, have not. Krauthammer points to Spain, after 1492. “And we don’t even have to look at Germany, though that’s an obvious example.”

Let me go to Churchill again (though it’s sometimes hard to tell where Churchill leaves off and Charles begins). In the Holy Land, he said, the Jews had brought to the Arabs “nothing but good gifts, more wealth, more trade, more civilisation, new sources of revenue, more employment, a higher rate of wages, large cultivated areas and better water supply — in a word, the fruits of reason and modern science.”

This relates to one of the main points of George Gilder’s brilliant 2009 book, The Israel Test. (I reviewed it here.) If only the Arabs would take advantage of the dynamism of Israel, rather than trying to destroy it . . .

Above, I referred to Churchill as the “King of the Philo-Semites” — but let me not slight Paul Johnson, in our present day. He should at least share the crown. His History of the Jews is not only a great work of history. It is a noble act. And there’s a lot more, in Johnson’s voluminous and golden writings . . .

Give Gilder a piece of that crown too.

Himmelfarb writes, “[Churchill’s] Zionist zeal was reinforced by news about the persecution of Jews in Germany, which roused his fervor against Nazism and made a Jewish home in Palestine seem all the more imperative. Clement Attlee later recalled ‘the tears pouring down his cheeks one day before the war in the House of Commons, when he was telling me what was being done to the Jews in Germany — not to individual Jewish friends of his, but to the Jews as a group.’”

Our author has her “issues” with philo-Semitism — her complaints about it. So do a lot of people. Do you know this old quip? “Philo-Semitism is the higher anti-Semitism.”

But, for goodness’ sake, philo-Semitism is better than anti-Semitism. It may have been weird for an English earl to bow to Jews in Germany (although I think it’s wonderful that Shaftesbury did so, and I can understand completely his impulsion to do so). But when you compare that with what other people in Germany had done to the Jews, and would do . . . You know?

Philo-Semitism is, in part, a response to anti-Semitism. This should be obvious. If the Jews had been left alone by the world, Shaftesbury wouldn’t have given a thought to them, much less bowed to them.


Himmelfarb ends her book touchingly — by quoting one of the last essays of her late brother, Milton Himmelfarb. “Hope is a Jewish virtue,” he said.

A lot of us know Milton Himmelfarb for a famous quip — to the effect that Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.

I can’t remember when he said or wrote this, but it was decades ago — and it’s still true, pretty much.

What does Gertrude Himmelfarb have in common with Ike? For one thing, a brother named Milton — and a prominent brother at that.

Not long ago, I was listening to a lieder recital of Marlis Petersen, the German soprano. As usual, I was thinking of what I would say in my review. I thought of a line I’ve used about Anne Sofie von Otter, the Swedish mezzo, more than once: “A recital by her is an evening in the company of a civilized woman.”

To read a book by Gertrude Himmelfarb is to be in the company of a civilized woman: erudite, understanding, eloquent — civilized. How gratifying.

To order Jay Nordlinger’s new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.


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