ON THE THIRD DAY OF MARCH 1913 an elegantly dressed middle-aged man approached the entrance to the British Foreign Office in Whitehall. Nahum Sokolow1 had receding brown hair, blue eyes, a mustache, and a trim goatee. Born fifty-three years earlier in Wyszogrod, Russian Poland, he was descended from a line of distinguished rabbis, and himself a brilliant student, indeed deemed a prodigy by his teachers, he had been destined originally for the rabbinate too. But a religious career did not appeal to him. He left the village shtetl for Warsaw and made his livelihood in the world of letters. He learned to write and speak fluently in more than half a dozen languages. By 1913 he was a newspaper proprietor and editor and one of the best-known and most prolific Jewish journalists and litterateurs in the world.
He also served on the actions committee, or executive board, of the World Zionist Organization, whose headquarters were located in Berlin. Nahum Sokolow’s diplomatic and political skills more than equaled his talent for journalism and writing. They were not the result of formal training; he had picked them up, one must assume, in the salons of Warsaw, and in Cologne, where he relocated to serve the Zionists, and later in Berlin; also perhaps from the diplomats and politicians he met as a journalist. In any event he learned them well. As one who knew and worked with him would later write: “His handsome appearance,2 his air of fine breeding, his distinguished manner, his gentle speech, his calculated expression, his cautious action, his well-cut clothes, his monocle [made him] the diplomatist of the Zionist Movement.” Already in 1913 Sokolow had traveled the world for the Zionists, honing his diplomatic expertise on European officials, Turkish bureaucrats, Arab leaders, and fellow Jewish nationalists from many countries. His purpose this day was to meet with Foreign Office representatives and through them to bring the British government up-to-date on Zionist affairs and accomplishments. The long-term goal, of course, was to enlist their support. Nahum Sokolow did not think that would happen anytime soon.
The Foreign Office occupied a grand edifice in 1913, as it does today, within surroundings that could hardly fail to impress. The building’s eastern facade stretches the length of Parliament Street in Whitehall; its Italianate western frontage includes a six-story tower overlooking the white-pebbled Horse Guards Parade, where jousting tournaments used to take place during the reign of Henry VIII. In 1913 occasional ceremonies and exhibitions still were held on the parade grounds, but usually red-jacketed, metal-helmeted, mounted sentries from the Queen’s Household Cavalry stood permanent guard there. Beyond the parade lies lush St. James’s Park and its lake, which together provide an almost pastoral backdrop, suggesting the parkland of a vast royal country estate.
Inside the building marble floors and columns, a grand red-carpeted staircase outlined by polished gleaming banisters, arched windows, glowing chandeliers, and elaborately patterned ceilings and walls could not be more different from the interior of any public building in provincial Poland—or provincial anywhere. The men who worked at the Foreign Office in 1913 knew this. When it came to measuring themselves against visitors, no matter how distinguished and no matter where from, they suffered few insecurities.
The Jew from Wyszogrod had to cool his heels for nearly three months before entering. Soon after his arrival in England he applied for an appointment, and two months later, on February 12, 1913, an official grudgingly got around to acknowledging that “somebody could see him if he calls, but [because Turkey, a friendly power, opposed the Jewish nationalist movement] the less we have to do with the Zionists the better.” Three weeks after that Sokolow finally got inside the door. We cannot know what his private feelings and hesitations might have been, but he would have taken in the splendid surroundings without betraying them. When he learned that Foreign Office permanent under secretary Sir Arthur Nicolson had no time to receive him after all, Sokolow would not have allowed even a shadow to cross his face.
Instead he concentrated his well-honed diplomatic skills upon Nicolson’s private secretary, the Earl of Onslow. Smoothly, even charmingly no doubt, the Zionist diplomat explained to this gentleman that his movement aspired to till the soil of Palestine; that it had successfully established more than two dozen agricultural colonies there; and that it had its difficulties with Ottoman officials and policies. “It [is] to the advantage3 of Great Britain,” he said, “to have the Jewish element increase in a country next door to Egypt,” but the point was not taken. Indeed, little of Sokolow’s message seems to have gotten through. “Jews have never made good agriculturalists,” Nicolson sniffed after conferring with his aide about the meeting. “In any case we had better not intervene to support the Zionist movement. The implantation of Jews is a question of internal administration on which there is great division of opinion in Turkey. The Arabs and the old Turks detest the movement.”
No doubt the Earl of Onslow behaved with impeccable courtesy during his ninety-minute interview with the Zionist diplomat; no doubt, too, so acute an observer as Nahum Sokolow privately registered the earl’s unexpressed disdain for Zionism. Still he refused to be discouraged. The World Zionist Federation had had few if any formal contacts with British officials since the death of its founder Theodor Herzl nearly a decade before. The reestablishment of relations, however tenuous, was cause for satisfaction. Moreover, the great powers must consider the question of Palestine someday, and then this initial visit would be viewed as “a preparatory step.”4
In the meantime Nahum Sokolow would work to consolidate the toehold he had gained. A little more than a year later, he wrote to request a second audience. The Zionists had been busy; the Foreign Office should receive an update. It was July 1914, however, and unknown to him, Europe was teetering. Foreign Office mandarins were even less inclined to meet with him than before. “It is not really necessary,” one wrote, “that anyone’s time should be wasted in this way, but as M. Sokolow has been received before I suppose we might tell him that we shall be happy to see him again. I strongly object, however, to being myself the victim.” In the end no one was victimized, except perhaps for Nahum Sokolow, and he had merely wasted his time. “I think,”5 decided the responsible official, “we can safely reply that no useful purpose would be served by a verbal statement but that if he will be good enough to submit a report in writing it will receive careful consideration.” Sokolow appears not to have written the report. No doubt its composition was interrupted when, only a few weeks later, the European powers descended into the madness of world war.
Not too many months later, when the Foreign Office discovered an interest in Zionism after all, Sokolow would be back. But prewar indifference to Jewish nationalism was widespread; the British public, including the vast majority of British Jews, shared it. Of 300,000 Jews living in Britain in 1913, only 8,000 belonged to a Zionist organization. Of the 150,000 Jews living in London, fewer than 4,000 called themselves Zionists. The great majority of British Jews were recent immigrants, or were the children of immigrants, refugees from the pogroms of Russia and eastern and southern Europe. They found new homes in the squalid “two-up, two-downs” of East London’s narrow streets and alleyways and in the less salubrious quarters of the great industrial cities like Manchester and Leeds and other provincial centers. They labored in sweatshops as tailors and furriers and seamstresses; they served as clerks and shop assistants and bookkeepers; they toiled in northern factories and mills. Some succeeded in opening their own small shops or businesses. Intent upon earning their daily bread, such people had little time for Zionists, who spoke to them of a promised land several thousand miles away in Palestine. Few wished to deny their Jewish heritage, but few wished to assert it by joining a utopian movement, populated, as they thought, by dreamers and visionaries.
Jews whose families had lived in Britain for more than a generation or two were even less likely than the newcomers to identify with the Zionists. Some of them had prospered as businessmen or financiers; others had entered the liberal professions. Among this fortunate minority, an even smaller number had grown extraordinarily rich. In London the families occupying this apex of Jewish society lived in the West End and were referred to as the “Cousinhood.” This informally designated body consisted of only a few extended families, often linked by marriage: the Rothschilds, Montefiores, Mocattas, Cohens, Goldsmids, Samuels, and Montagus, to name some of the most prominent. Most of them were active in the worlds of finance and philanthropy; a few had risen in politics to enter Parliament, where they sat on both sides of the House. Two literal cousins belonging to the Cousinhood, Herbert Samuel and Edwin Montagu, served in Asquith’s Liberal government.
Such figures lived like other Englishmen of their class, set apart from them, however, by the religion they practiced and the response it evoked among certain of their fellow citizens. But British anti-Semitism was relatively mild, and as a result most of the Cousinhood viewed with patriotic affection the country that since 1858 had afforded them and their coreligionists equal civil and political rights. They considered themselves to be Jewish Britons, not British Jews, and they abhorred Zionists, who insisted that Jews constituted a separate people or nation, unassimilable by Britain or by any other country except Palestine.
This did not mean that they ignored the plight of Jews already settled in Palestine. Some among the Cousinhood were generous in their support. But they did not wish to live there themselves, and they did not believe that establishment of a larger Jewish presence there would contribute much to a solution of the “Jewish problem” in Russia or Romania, or lead to the reduction of anti-Semitism more generally. That a latent sympathy for Zionism underlay this prewar indifference became apparent only a few years later. World War I changed everything, including the attitude of the British government toward both the so-called Zionist dreamers and the Ottoman Empire. Once Zionism entered the realm of practical politics, British Jews flocked to the Zionist banner. Interestingly, however, many among the Cousinhood continued to hold themselves aloof.
In prewar England three main Zionist associations struggled to gain purchase. The most important, historically speaking, was the English Zionist Federation6 (EZF). This body, founded in 1899, was the local branch of the World Zionist Organization that the Austrian Theodor Herzl had established two years before. On the eve of World War I about fifty EZF branches dotted the map of Britain in the provincial cities and important towns, in some of the universities, and in London. Its membership rolls contained about four thousand dues-payers. But the prewar EZF did not flourish, lacking impact upon the mass of poor immigrant Jews and upon the British Jewish establishment, including the Cousinhood. It contained a number of able men, including a few with outsize personalities; but its impact upon prewar Britain, Jewish and non-Jewish, was negligible.
Aside from its seeming utopianism, the EZF failed to prosper before the war because its leadership engaged in unedifying quarrels, sniping, and backstabbing. Plain cussedness and egotism prompted much of it, but a genuine ideological difference existed as well, mirroring a split in the international movement. Some Zionists held, as Herzl had done, that their proper role was political and diplomatic: Zionists must focus on persuading the great powers to support establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The Turkish sultan and his government must be the first target of their politicking, since Palestine lay within the Ottoman Empire.
Britain, which was relatively free of anti-Semitism, was both liberal and imperial, held extensive interests in the Middle East, and still possessed some influence over Turkey, should be the second target. Germany represented a third, and Russia a fourth, but especially for British Zionists, the latter two powers were very much an afterthought. They agreed with Herzl that the great fulcrum upon which Zionists could shift world opinion was in England. During his visits to Britain, Herzl met with Liberal and Conservative politicians and other influential people, testified to a parliamentary commission, and addressed public and private meetings. In other words, he did his best to utilize the fulcrum. In 1914 Leopold Greenberg, proprietor and editor of Britain’s leading Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Chronicle, and Joseph Cowen, a shirt manufacturer and current president of the EZF, still were trying to do that.
Herzl never found the proper lever, however, and because the plight of Jews in Russia especially remained dire, some political Zionists developed an alternative strategy. Herzl himself broached it in 1903 in Basel, Switzerland, at the sixth Zionist Congress, after meeting with British colonial secretary Joseph Chamberlain and British foreign secretary Lord Lansdowne. Lansdowne had offered to allow unrestricted Jewish immigration into Uganda. East Africa was not Palestine, Herzl acknowledged to the Congress, but it could be a safe refuge for any Jew wishing to leave Russia. The recent bloody pogrom in Kishinev, where at least forty-seven Jews had been murdered, many hundreds injured, and their property looted and destroyed, proved the necessity of this new strategy. Moreover Uganda need not be a permanent resting place for the immigrants—they could move on to Palestine if and when it opened to them.
A majority of Zionist delegates supported Herzl’s line of reasoning, but the opposition was intense. The very Russian Jews most in danger of pogroms, including the Zionist delegates from Kishinev, led the charge against it. In his willingness to abandon Palestine, even if only temporarily, they charged, Herzl had proved himself a traitor to Zionism. Their feelings ran so high that they marched out of the hall. In the end, without abating their hostility in the slightest degree, they agreed to a temporary compromise: An exploratory group would report back the following year on Uganda’s suitability for colonization. But Herzl died7 that year, of a broken heart according to some, and the East African scheme, although debated again at the next Zionist Congress, in 1905, essentially died with him.
In the years before World War I political Zionists divided between those for whom Palestine was the sine qua non and the territorials, who believed that a way station in Uganda or somewhere else deserved consideration. In the wake of the 1905 congress, when Uganda was taken off the table, some of the territorials, led by a charismatic Englishman, the author Israel Zangwill, broke away from the Zionist Federation altogether to found their own Jewish Territorial Association (ITO). This constituted a second Zionist organization in Britain, apart from the EZF, although since it did not necessarily aim for Palestine, it was Zionist mainly in the sense that it was Jewish nationalist. By 1914 it had a headquarters in London and branches scattered throughout Europe. It had about as many British members as the EZF did. Its strategy was to get the desperate Jews of Russia and Romania somewhere else—in fact, almost anywhere else that was safe. Uganda now was closed to them, but the ITO helped Jews move, or looked into the possibility of helping them move, to Galveston, Texas, Mesopotamia, Western Australia, British Honduras, Brazil, Mexico, and Cyrenaica, among other places. From those locations, if ever it became truly feasible, and if they wished to do so, the Jews could decamp yet again, this time for Palestine.
Meanwhile, within the EZF, a faction of practical Zionists emerged to constitute a powerful opposition to the politicals. Moses Gaster, the haham or chief rabbi of the Sephardic Jews in Britain, took the lead among this contingent. An extraordinary figure, Romanian born, bearded and bulky and tall, quarrelsome and egotistical, Gaster was also a profound scholar of Jewish and Middle Eastern history, linguistics (he could speak and write in ten languages), mythology, and even English folklore. Unfortunately Gaster quarreled not only with politicals such as Greenberg and Cowen but with his fellow practicals too. Indeed there appears to have been virtually no one with whom the learned haham did not quarrel eventually.
In one respect the practicals resembled Zangwill’s territorials: They did not believe that a great power would support establishment of a homeland for the Jews in Palestine anytime soon. Unlike the territorials, however, they failed to find Uganda, or any other temporary substitute for the Promised Land, even slightly beguiling. They fashioned an alternative strategy to both territorial and political Zionism that emphasized building up Jewish society within Palestine as it was, and strengthening Jewish culture throughout the lands of the Diaspora. They worked to settle Jewish immigrants in the agricultural colonies and in Palestinian towns; to improve conditions for them; and to establish schools, hospitals, clinics, and the like. Simultaneously they strove to turn Hebrew into a living language. They founded a Hebrew journal to publish Hebrew literature and poetry. Above all they wished to establish a Hebrew university in Jerusalem. It would be a beacon and a shining example; it would showcase Jewish abilities and accomplishments. They believed that eventually a Jewish homeland would be built upon such practical and cultural accomplishments, that in fact they were its precondition.
Personality clashes and the ideological rift between political and practical Zionists eventually led the latter group, Gaster at their head, to partially secede from the EZF. Without giving up membership in the parent body, the WZF, they managed to take over a third Jewish organization in Britain with Zionist inclinations, a debating society called the Ancient Order of Maccabeans, and to persuade the WZF that Zionist affairs in Britain should be managed by a Joint Zionist Council composed of EZF members and Maccabeans working together. Zangwill’s ITO remained an outlier, unrepresented in the WZF. This was the arrangement on the eve of World War I.
Finally, still another tendency arose among these fissiparous English Zionists, although its aim was to bridge the fissures. After all, the practicals had never abandoned politics and diplomacy altogether, only deemphasized them in favor of practical and cultural work. Now a group among the culturals argued for a synthesis of practical, cultural, and political-diplomatic Zionism. At the 1911 WZF congress they carried the day. Just before the outbreak of war, this synthetic approach more or less characterized the international organization, but not the EZF, in which the obstinate politicals Greenberg and Cowen remained influential.
The leader and spokesman of the synthetic Zionists at the 1911 congress was a delegate from Britain belonging to the WZF’s actions committee. Chaim Weizmann was also a leader of a so-called Democratic Fraction of Zionists that while not explicitly advocating strategy or tactics, did so implicitly by objecting to Herzl’s grand airs and to the grandees surrounding him. This advocate of both synthesis and simplicity was “pre-eminently what the8 Jewish people call folks-mensch,” wrote one who came to know Weizmann very well, “a man of the people, of the masses, not of the elite, a leader in whose breast beat the common heart of man.” Originally from Russia, the folks-mensch was sturdily built, of perhaps a little more than middle height, with a great dome of a forehead and a short dark beard covering his cheeks and jaw. He had attended every Zionist congress except the first. Though well known within the WZF, he was by no means a power in its English branch. In 1911 he successfully ran for election as one of its two vice presidents. That brought him a few steps nearer the top, but he still spent the prewar years in relative obscurity within the world of English Zionism, laboring hard on the practical and cultural fronts, especially on the campaign to build a Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Later all the Zionists in Britain would recognize that he possessed an unrivaled talent for Herzlian political and diplomatic work. Chaim Weizmann, more than any other individual, would orchestrate the wartime campaign for British support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
Born in Motol, near Pinsk, Russia, in 1874, Weizmann was the son of a relatively prosperous timber transporter. As a child he excelled at his studies, beginning in his village’s filthy single-room cheder (Jewish elementary school). At secondary school in Pinsk, which was slightly less insalubrious, one of his teachers instilled in him an abiding love of science, particularly chemistry. This subject he chose to pursue at the university level, but in Germany, not in Russia, where the obstacles placed before Jews who aspired to higher education were humiliating and nearly insuperable. He then carried out his graduate work in Switzerland and earned his doctorate summa cum laude in 1899 from the University of Fribourg. In 1904 he took up a post at the University of Manchester in a chemistry lab. Six years later he became a naturalized British subject.
Weizmann loved his laboratory and would do important work there, but he loved Zion more. That was a central theme of the cheder he had attended in Motol, where his instructors taught him in Yiddish, not Russian. It was a central theme of his university days too, when he played a leading role in the Russian-Jewish Academic Society in Berlin. He had always at heart been a fervent Zionist, although sometimes, from impatience or disgust or exhaustion, he sought to distance himself from the movement. One of these episodes occurred in 1904 after Herzl recommended the Uganda scheme, which Weizmann opposed vehemently. It was then that he thought to begin a new life in Britain. But such emotions never lasted long. He stayed in Britain, coming eventually to revere it, but by 1905 he was back in harness for the Zionists again.
Although Weizmann opposed Herzl’s Ugandan gambit, many of the London politicals, Greenberg and Cowen among them, favored it. In fact Greenberg, a natural-born wire-puller, had been instrumental in bringing Herzl and Joseph Chamberlain together. When Weizmann arrived in England, he found himself ostracized by the politicals, who held his opposition to Herzl against him. Greenberg would hardly speak to him. But the practicals, including the volcanic Gaster, embraced him, indeed sought to administer a bear hug. But the haham was never a reliable or easy ally. Weizmann would cooperate with him when necessary, but before long he built up an alternative Zionist base in Manchester, where he continued to pursue his academic career. This Manchester school of Zionists would later prove an important source of money and brains for British Zionism; it would come to rival London for influence. Moreover it provided Weizmann with comradeship and spiritual sustenance of incalculable value.
A remarkable trio—Harry Sacher, Israel Sieff, and Simon Marks—constituted the heart of Weizmann’s Manchester school. Sacher was born in 1881 in London, the son of naturalized Polish Jews. His father labored as a self-employed tailor. Like Sokolow and Weizmann before him, Sacher excelled as a student. He gained entrance to New College, Oxford, no mean feat for a Jew without important connections, and went on to earn a first in history. He continued his studies at the Universities of Paris and Berlin. But when he failed to win a fellowship at his old college, he took up a position with the great liberal newspaper, The Manchester Guardian. For an interlude in London he was called to the bar; and for a time he worked for The London Daily News; but soon after 1914 he returned to the Guardian. This momentous step would enable him to facilitate a developing friendship between his friend and mentor in Zionism, Chaim Weizmann, and his friend and mentor in British liberalism, the Guardian’s editor, C. P. Scott. The latter would prove crucial to Weizmann’s political ascent.
Sacher, seven years younger than Weizmann, never escaped the latter’s shadow nor even tried to, serving always as a junior collaborator and aide. But he held strong views of his own, indeed appears to have been something of an iconoclast. His opinions did not always coincide with Weizmann’s. At times the great man felt that Sacher was a thorn in his side, more trouble than he was worth. They quarreled often; their correspondence is full of accusations and justifications and reconciliations. But neither Sacher nor Weizmann was difficult au fond, as Gaster was. No breach between them ever proved so wide that it could not be bridged. The two remained close friends throughout our period.
As for Simon Marks and Israel Sieff, who were, respectively, seven and eight years younger than Sacher and therefore very much junior to Weizmann, they played lesser roles in Zionist deliberations regarding policy and strategy but greater roles as facilitators, fund-raisers, and organizers. Like Sacher, they offered their acknowledged leader valuable spiritual nourishment and friendship. The two had grown up on the same street in Manchester, attended the same primary and secondary schools in the same class, and gone into business together, founding what eventually became the Marks & Spencer chain of department stores. Sieff appears to have been closer to Weizmann, serving as his unpaid personal assistant. He later wrote that when they first met, Weizmann swept him off his feet; Sieff wished to impress him and boasted that he could raise more money for Weizmann’s Zionist efforts than anyone else. Weizmann put him9 to the test, admitting that he had great need of a good schnorrer (Yiddish for an engaging beggar). Sieff passed the test with flying colors.
Sacher, Sieff, and Marks would occupy a secondary tier in the Zionist leadership, subordinate to Weizmann and Sokolow, during the maneuvering that preceded the Balfour Declaration. Their role, especially Sacher’s, was more complex than has hitherto been appreciated. It is an odd tangential part of our story that Marks married Sieff’s sister and that both Sacher and Sieff married sisters of Simon Marks. The Zionists seemed to have had their own Cousinhood.
The other Zionist to whom Weizmann grew very close before the war was Asher Ginzberg, who he acknowledged was wiser and more experienced in Zionist and Jewish affairs than himself. Ginzberg had moved from Russia to London in 1907 to represent the interests of the Wissotsky Tea Company. At first glance he did not impress, being slight and bald, with a thin, bearded, bespectacled face, but in fact he was formidable, charismatic, and iron-willed. Among all the prominent Zionists of this period, it was Ginzberg who thought most seriously about the Arabs living in Palestine. He criticized Zionist attitudes toward them: “We are used to thinking of the Arabs as primitive men of the desert, as a donkey-like nation that neither sees nor understands what is going on around it. But that is a great error.” As early as 1891 he warned against the “repressive cruelty”10 employed by Zionists in their dealings with Arabs. Instinctively an advocate of underdogs, he belonged to the Democratic Fraction of the WZF, in which Weizmann played an important role.
Ginzberg condemned Herzl’s political Zionism, regarding the proposed move to Uganda as a scheme for a quick solution to the “Jewish problem” through emigration. There could be no shortcut to Zion, Ginzberg argued. In fact, negotiating with the sultan, the kaiser, or the British colonial secretary wasted effort and time. Even planting colonies in Palestine missed the point.
Ginzberg was probably the chief and most effective advocate of cultural Zionism. An observant Jew, he was not religious in a conventional sense. While always insisting upon the spiritual value of a Hebrew renaissance, he emphasized Judaism’s rational and ethical aspects. Judaism was to him an ethos and approach to life, which he thought must permeate the Jewish people and become inseparable from daily living. Only that way, he wrote, could lovers of Zion attain their great goal. An accomplished journalist, essayist, and when occasion demanded polemicist, he published only in the Hebrew language, in a prose that was remarkably spare and precise. The man who did not waste words adopted the pen name Ahad Ha’am, “one of the people.”
So during those years before the war Chaim Weizmann, the folks-mensch from Motol, sometimes took the train down to London to visit his fellow Russian, Ahad Ha’am, “one of the people.” They would have explored and developed their understanding of spiritual and cultural Zionism; they would have pondered goals and tactics and strategies. They would have deplored the attitudes of the politicals like Greenberg and Cowen and vented, or perhaps chuckled, over the antics of the difficult haham, Moses Gaster. When the war broke out, Weizmann naturally turned first of all to his admired friend, Ahad Ha’am, to discuss what Zionists ought to do.
In August 1914 Zionists lacked easy entrée to the Foreign Office, but a Jewish anti-Zionist, Lucien Wolf, did have access to it, if not always easily.
Wolf was director of the Conjoint Foreign Committee of British Jews, the offspring of two parent bodies.11 One was the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which by 1914 had been offering guidance to the British Jewish community, molding British Jewish opinion, and representing that opinion to the British government for a century and a half. The board consisted of delegates elected by members of British synagogues, but it was not a religious body, let alone a truly representative one. In fact it was dominated by the Cousinhood, and since its foundation in 1760, this elite section of British Jewry had successfully worked the board behind the scenes. True, one of its presidents, Moses Montefiore, became famous for drawing public attention to the persecution of Jews abroad, but he did so in his capacity as a private citizen. The board did not sponsor his ex officio activities. It did not wish to draw attention to itself or to British Jews more generally because it did not wish to give a handle to anti-Semites who might deem the board, or British Jews, too influential. For all that the board spoke for the community to the outside world, it looked inward, conceiving of the community it represented as a distinct and potentially embattled entity, and it strove mightily to protect it.
The other parent of the Conjoint Committee, the Anglo-Jewish Association (AJA), had been founded in 1871 and boasted a membership as socially elite as that of the Board of Deputies. All who belonged to the AJA paid an annual subscription of at least a guinea (a pound and a shilling, which was a substantial sum in those days). The AJA did not even pretend to be a representative body. Nor did it aspire to exercise the kind of communal authority that the board did. It aimed to protect Jews from anti-Semitism both at home and abroad. It took public political positions on their behalf. It held that British Jews differed from Quaker, Congregationalist, and Catholic Britons only in the religious belief system to which they adhered. The Board of Deputies maintained that British Jews constituted a distinct entity; the Zionists contended that they were a distinct nation; but the AJA argued that British Jews were Britons who happened also to be Jewish. One AJA leader went so far as to found a Reform synagogue whose outward forms of worship differed little from Anglican forms.
The Board of Deputies and the AJA, while maintaining their distinct identities, came together in 1878 to found the Conjoint Foreign Committee of British Jews because both groups wished to more effectively sway British foreign policy where Jewish interests were at stake. The AJA welcomed the combination because it thought a conjoint committee could more effectively advocate on behalf of Jews living in countries where assimilation was impossible. The board welcomed it, even though it meant abandoning its traditional low profile, because Moses Montefiore had retired; board members feared that without him they could lose all influence over government foreign policy. The Conjoint Committee numbered fourteen members, six each from the two parent bodies, which maintained their separate existence, plus their presidents, who would serve as president and vice president of the new committee in alternating years.
The two groups established the Conjoint Committee in 1878 specifically to influence the Congress of Berlin, which was about to meet in the wake of the Russo-Turkish War. In its first public intervention the Conjoint Committee lobbied British officials on behalf of Balkan Jews. It wanted them to encourage the congress to establish religious toleration throughout the Near East and especially in Romania. At first the British officials’ efforts appeared to bear fruit: The congress mandated religious toleration, just as the Conjoint Committee had hoped it would. But toleration of religious minorities was never put into effective practice in the Balkans before 1914. Romania especially ignored it.
In 1878 the Conjoint Committee’s future director, Lucien Wolf,12 was twenty-one years old. Born in London, he was the son of a Bohemian pipe manufacturer who took part in the revolutions of 1848 and fled to England after their failure. Thus while Lucien Wolf would later work closely with the Cousinhood, he came from a relatively modest background.
He learned from his father to cherish British liberal traditions: political and economic freedom, religious tolerance. He attended schools in Brussels and Paris and learned to write and speak in French and German as fluently as in English. That he was a patriotic Briton cannot be doubted, but he radiated the cosmopolitanism of a continental sophisticate. A man of medium height and build, he sported nearly a handlebar mustache; his brown hair thinned as he aged. His eyes were weak, and he wore thick spectacles. He smoked cigarettes. Like Nahum Sokolow, Wolf became a brilliant and brilliantly successful journalist, with an interest in Jewish affairs. Simultaneously he honed an untutored genius for diplomacy.
Wolf’s attitude toward Jewish matters was complex. He rejected the notion, common in the AJA, that Jewish Britons were indistinguishable from other Britons except for their faith. Early in the twentieth century Claude Montefiore, a nephew of Moses Montefiore and a long-serving president of the AJA, developed Liberal Judaism, which eliminated ritual and national identification altogether and emphasized moral and ethical values and a vague monotheism that might appeal to anyone. Wolf publicly rebuked him. “To denationalize” Judaism, he charged in The Jewish World in September 1882, would be “to lose it and with it the work of 50 centuries.” In Judaism, he maintained, the religion and the race were “almost indistinguishable.”13
At times he seemed almost to embrace cultural Zionism. He actively nurtured Jewish cultural organizations such as the Jewish Historical Society, the Jewish Literary Society, and the Union of Jewish Literary Societies. He joined the Ancient Order of Maccabeans, whose aim in part was “the promotion of the interests of the Jewish race,” and which as we have seen came eventually under the sway of Moses Gaster and other cultural Zionists.
But Wolf was not quite a cultural Zionist: It was the history of the Jewish people (from which their ethnic and religious identities could not be separated) that moved him most deeply. But ethnic labels meant little to him, and religion as such even less. He wrote that a friend “once said of me14 that my Judaism was not a religion at all but a cult of auld lang syne. I think he was right.” He was too much of a liberal to embrace the Jewish nationalism that was the raison d’être of even the most cultural Zionists. Jews could assimilate in an adopted homeland without losing their cultural distinctiveness, he believed, if only their hosts were sufficiently enlightened, which is to say sufficiently liberal. In fact, he judged Zionism to be a creed of anti-liberalism and despair, precisely because it rejected assimilation on the grounds that “anti-Semitism is15 unconquerable.” To his dying day, Wolf insisted that it could be conquered. In the end he chose to work with Claude Montefiore, founder of Liberal Judaism, after all, although he continued to think the creed “chilly” and “high flown.” He did not identify16 with Ahad Ha’am, exponent of cultural Judaism and cultural Zionism.
Wolf abhorred Russia’s official anti-Semitism, and his unsparing and trenchant criticisms of it brought him to the attention of the Conjoint Committee. After the pogrom in Kishinev in 1903, the committee approached him for advice on how best to mobilize the Foreign Office to protest to Russia. Ironically, Claude Montefiore, AJA president and therefore one of two protagonists on the Conjoint Committee, must have been instrumental in the decision to contact his former critic. Wolf’s connection with the committee would last for twenty years; the relationship with Montefiore lasted even longer. The founder of Liberal Judaism would deliver a moving eulogy at Wolf’s funeral in 1930.
Between 1908 and 1914, when Balkan Jews were in continuous danger, Wolf gained control over the Conjoint Committee’s relationship with the Foreign Office. Ostensibly subordinate to the committee’s two presidents, Montefiore and David Lindo Alexander, in fact Wolf established an ascendancy over them, turning the committee into a sort of shadow Foreign Office. He cemented relationships17 with various Foreign Office figures. Subtle, dexterous, indefatigable, and knowledgeable, Wolf shuttled between meetings with the Conjoint Committee and meetings at the Foreign Office. His last great prewar18 effort was to persuade the Foreign Office to reaffirm the commitment to religious liberty that the great powers had stated at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. He got the statement on July 28, 1914. Catastrophe broke upon the world only a week later.
Even better positioned to influence Britain’s foreign policy was Herbert Samuel, a member of the Cousinhood who in 1914 belonged to the cabinet of Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith. Son of a prosperous banker, Samuel had graduated from Balliol College, Oxford, with a first-class degree. In 1889 he took part in his older brother Stuart’s successful campaign to represent the East End district of Whitechapel on the London County Council. Whitechapel was a filthy, impoverished, and overcrowded neighborhood, the home of many thousands of recent Jewish immigrants. The terrible conditions Samuel saw there moved him deeply. Governments exist to ameliorate poverty, he concluded, a conviction that never left him. His early political connections were with the radical wing of the Liberal Party and the moderate Fabian wing of socialism. In 1902 he published Liberalism: Its Principles and Proposals, which would provide a moral and practical foundation for many of the reforms that the Asquith government carried out only a few years later.
Samuel’s political ascent also began in 1902, when he gained entrance to Parliament. When the Liberals won the general election of 1905, he gained minor government office, and then in 1909 he gained cabinet rank as chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Five years later he climbed higher still, to become president of the Local Government Board. As he advanced, he learned impassivity. Although he still believed in the meliorating role of government, “he conveys no impression19 of enthusiasm,” wrote a journalist, “and is as free from passion as an oyster.” He championed mild, incremental social reform, such as an act ending child imprisonment, restricting corporal punishment, and establishing juvenile courts. His approach was piecemeal and painstaking. The same journalist wrote that he was “a splendidly efficient instrument, but never an inspiration.”
Nor was he much liked by his colleagues, who judged him, unfairly, to be both interfering and self-serving. Anti-Semitism may have lain at the root of this dislike. Certainly it was at the root of an ugly episode, the Marconi Scandal, in which he became embroiled in 1912. Journalists discovered that several cabinet ministers, including David Lloyd George and Sir Rufus Isaacs, who was Jewish, had profited from inside knowledge to make gains on the stock market. Samuel attracted criticism too, although he had nothing to do with the business. The critics attacked him because he was Jewish.
Samuel endured this trial with characteristic stoicism, betraying little, which only furthered the false impression that he was a man of stone. But beneath his expressionless exterior, the president of the Local Government Board nursed an unexpected, indeed counterintuitive, emotional bond with the Jewish people and a romantic attachment to the goals of the Zionist movement. “Zionism was the one20 political passion of a singularly passionless career,” writes the best historian of his life and times.
Where it came from, we cannot tell: Samuel himself never said. He seemed the sort of wealthy, assimilated, disconnected Jew whom Zionists despised. Yet he cherished his link with his father’s brother and business partner, Samuel Montagu (who had reversed his first and last names). Montagu was in the Cousinhood but not entirely of it. Immensely wealthy and forceful, he took his religion seriously. He visited Palestine more than once and wished to purchase land there. Not a formal Zionist, he had many Zionist connections. When Herbert Samuel’s father died unexpectedly, Montagu interested himself in his nephew. Perhaps his preoccupations influenced the younger man.
Samuel had a second, more direct connection with Zionism: none other than the disputatious practical of the EZF, Rabbi Moses Gaster. The link came21 via Samuel’s wife, one of whose childhood friends had gone on to marry the haham of England’s Sephardic Jews. The wives remained close, and as a result the two couples socialized on occasion. At least once Gaster sought a political favor from Samuel, asking him to help obtain naturalization papers for a Russian émigré, none other than Chaim Weizmann. Samuel obliged. Naturally enough, when sometime later he became acquainted with Zionist ideas, he looked to Gaster for reading material. “I remember Dr. Gaster22 being associated from time to time with my early inquiries into the Zionist Movement,” Samuel later recalled. That happened after 1914, but before the war he held at least “a benevolent goodwill23 toward the Zionist idea,” as he told the West London Zionist Association in 1919. He had no intention in those days of doing anything about it.
The announcement of war on August 4, 1914, fell upon Herbert Samuel like a thunderclap, as it did upon Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow and Lucien Wolf. For these men, as for so many, it had profound impact upon their lives, which now would intersect in unforeseen ways. At this moment of supreme crisis, prime ministers and monarchs and generals occupied center stage. But the proto-Zionist Herbert Samuel, the folks-mensch Chaim Weizmann, the subtle diplomat Nahum Sokolow, and the anti-Zionist Lucien Wolf—the Jewish protagonists in the struggle for and against the Balfour Declaration—were waiting in the wings.