Churchill was a persistent opponent of anti-Semitism. He warned both his mother and two of his closest friends against anti-Semitic utterances. He was a consistent sympathizer of Jewish national aspirations and described the Jewish system of ethics as “incomparably the most precious possession of mankind, worth in fact the fruit of all other wisdom and learning put together.”
On May 10, 1940, the Germans invaded Holland, on their way to France, and, perhaps England. On May 11, Churchill became prime minister, succeeding Neville Chamberlain. First priority, at a time of acute danger, was to make it clear that a new wind was blowing, that there was no more time for dithering. In his first cabinet meeting on that same day, May 11, his government decided to intern all German and Austrian nationals near the coast, on the grounds that some of them may be “fifth columnists.”
In the second half of May and in June, throughout the U.K., thirty thousand men and women (relatively few women) were incarcerated, the majority of them Jewish. Under Chamberlain most of them had been examined, judged and found to be genuine refugees who were exempted from internment. These decisions were now overturned. On May 12,the roundup of “enemy aliens” near the coast began. Soon, the area was widened. In July, 2,290 were shipped to Canada.
With the exception of The Daily Mail, there had been no vociferous public demand for the rounding up of dangerous aliens. Churchill could have said: “England has always been a haven to refugees from oppression. The Jews were the first victims of Nazism. We will make every effort to accept their offer to help us fight our common enemy and seize only those who are deemed to be suspect.”
Not many would have criticized him.
But he did not say that. On the contrary, he shifted responsibility for internment operations from the Home Office to the no-nonsense War Office and decreed, as it were, that the Jewishness of most of the enemy aliens now resident in England was irrelevant (and difficult to prove anyway) at a time of acute danger. That would make the new situation of desperate urgency crystal clear.
There is no evidence that he found it difficult to make the decision. It is not mentioned in Martin Gilbert’s Churchill and the Jews.
Until Hitler arrived on the scene with his own definition of who was and who was not “Aryan” most of the thirty thousand internees had considered themselves Germans and Austrians first, and Jews second.
Churchill did the same.
Sources: Martin Gilbert, “Churchill and the Jews,” and Eric Koch, “Deemed Suspect”