Churchill on the Egyptians: “Set the Jews on them.” Or so it is alleged.

Churchill on the Egyptians: “Set the Jews on them.” Or so it is alleged.

Egyptians and all that

A.M. in India fol­lows Churchill issues and strives to under­stand the truth. He ques­tions what Win­ston Churchill said about the Egyp­tians….

Good after­noon, I’ve emailed you before. If it’s not too much trou­ble could you please ver­i­fy whether Sir Win­ston actu­al­ly said this? “If we have any more of [Egypt­ian] cheek we will set the Jews on them and dri­ve them into the gut­ter from which they should nev­er have emerged.”

* * *

We may accept this as like­ly. It is hearsay and the source was not pro-Churchill. It occurs with­out con­text in books by Clive Ponting, Steven Ambrose, Lawrence James, and Michael Makovsky. The source is Eve­lyn Schuck­burgh, Antho­ny Eden‘s pri­vate sec­re­tary: Descent to Suez: For­eign Office Diaries 1951-1956 (New York: Nor­ton, 1987), 29:
[Churchill] made a tremen­dous attack on the Egyp­tians late at night when A.E. was talk­ing about the trou­bles with them. Ris­ing from his chair, the old man advanced on Antho­ny with clenched fists, say­ing with the inim­itable Churchill growl, “Tell them that if we have any more of their cheek we will set the Jews on them and dri­ve them into the gut­ter, from which they should nev­er have emerged.” He then sank back, exhaust­ed, into his chair. None of this seemed very help­ful, but it was most amus­ing. He talked at great length about the war and about his trips to the Mid­dle East at that time–fascinating rem­i­nis­cences which obvi­ous­ly inter­est him more than today’s prob­lems.

Background

King Farouk was wide­ly con­demned for his cor­rupt and inef­fec­tu­al gov­er­nance after the Sec­ond World War. Egyp­tians chafed under the British pres­ence in the Suez Canal, and their army’s fail­ure in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War. Pub­lic dis­con­tent against Farouk rose to new lev­els. In Decem­ber 1951, many Egyp­tians left the Canal Zone and the British began import­ing labour to replace them. It was the begin­ning of the end for Farouk, deposed in July 1952. Four years lat­er came the Suez Cri­sis.

Like most of Churchill’s cracks about for­eign peo­ples, this was made in pri­vate, and had noth­ing to do with pol­i­cy. No one con­tem­plat­ed “set­ting the Jews” on Egypt over dis­con­tent­ed Egyp­tians. (It took nation­al­iz­ing the Suez Canal to do that: Israel joined the Anglo-French in armed inter­ven­tion, with­draw­ing in the face of U.S. oppo­si­tion.)

Churchill’s line is easy to quote out of con­text to label him anti-Egypt­ian (though in this case at least, not anti-Semit­ic). The spin the writ­ers put on it is varies accord­ing­ly. Stephen Ambrose in his Eisen­how­er biog­ra­phy, says Churchill was “giv­ing advice.” Lawrence James says WSC was “beside him­self with rage.” Ponting, who despised Churchill, says it showed “his usu­al con­tempt for the Egyp­tians.” Makovsky says Churchill “often den­i­grat­ed native peo­ples fight­ing impe­r­i­al British con­trol.” (Ponting and Makovsky appar­ent­ly nev­er read Churchill’s praise of native peo­ples fight­ing out­side con­trol from his ear­li­est books to his Sec­ond World War mem­oirs.)

So, A.M., it is appro­pri­ate is to accept the diarist’s ver­sion. Shuck­burgh describes it as a brief out­burst from a not-very-inter­est­ed PM. I think that might be true! Of course, diarists also tend to make revi­sions in their diaries—especially when pub­lish­ing them years after the fact.

2 thoughts on “Churchill on the Egyptians: “Set the Jews on them.” Or so it is alleged.

  1. I don’t think “set­ting the Jews on them” implied that he thought of them as dogs. I think he was refer­ring to their evi­dent prowess at beat­ing the Egyp­tians. A Jew­ish friend was amused by this, say­ing that if the Jews had as much clout as the anti-Semi­tes claim, they would be rul­ing the world.

  2. Thanks so much for this. Re: “At least not anti-Semit­ic” one could argue – and I would – that if the quote is true, he’s talk­ing about Jews a if they were dogs, albeit use­ful dogs, which is pret­ty anti-Semit­ic.

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