CHAPTER 10

The Assimilationists

AT THE OUTSET OF WORLD WAR I, British Jews who believed in assimilation had very different preoccupations from Zionists. Enjoying full legal and civic equality, they understood themselves to be the beneficiaries of many decades of toil and tears and hard political organizing. Now a mood created by the war seemed to call their hard-earned gains into question. The war stoked nationalist passions, giving scope to xenophobes and anti-Semites who usually inhabited the fringes and dark corners of national life. In 1914, when British Zionists began to anticipate the prospective carve-up of the Ottoman Empire, these other British Jews, the vast majority, were more likely to focus on a prospective carve-up much closer to home—in fact, right at home. British chauvinists and bigots were manifestly gaining an audience, and the Jews had become their target. Rights that had been won over decades, these Jews feared, could be lost in months.

They had grounds for their concern. With the war only three weeks old, two policemen appeared at the door of Lucien Wolf’s London home. Despite his prominency someone had denounced him to the authorities, presumably as a pro-German, perhaps as an undocumented alien or likely spy, possibly simply because he was Jewish. Wolf happened to be ill in bed that day. “They threatened to remain1 outside my door until they saw me,” he reported a few days later, “and said to my housekeeper that they would not be‘pleasant for me before my neighbors.’” Wolf rose from his sickbed to invite them inside, but they behaved in a “cruelly aggressive” manner and with “exceptional hostility.” They demanded to know his nationality. “They not only catechized me in a very peremptory tone, but insisted on having documentary proof of all my replies.” Wolf, born in Britain, thought of himself quite rightly as a patriotic Englishman.

A few weeks later Wolf endured another form of humiliation. Leo Maxse, editor2 of the anti-Semitic National Review, was fulminating in print against German Jews who, he claimed, controlled the British press and favored Britain’s enemies. In one article he specifically mentioned Lucien Wolf of The Daily Graphic. Explaining the situation to his editor, Wolf hardly thought it necessary to repeat that he was not German, or even to mention that his three sons were serving, or soon would be serving, in the British army. He merely noted that although his column, “Foreign Office Bag,” appeared regularly in The Daily Graphic, he had no position of authority with that newspaper. Before the war Maxse’s campaign might not have mattered much, but now it did. Wolf discovered that many of his colleagues would no longer talk to him. Then his employer suddenly fired him—from a job he had held for a quarter century. No non-Jewish3 British journalist of this period suffered so harshly, according to Wolf’s most recent biographer. Deeply depressed, Wolf wrote at this time: “My misfortunes extend4 to almost every aspect of my life and I see no prospect of ever being able to overcome them.”

He could have been forgiven, then, for concluding that true assimilation for Jews in Britain was unattainable just as the Zionists claimed, and that Jews who thought they had attained it were fooling themselves. But he drew no such conclusion. Rather he judged that the liberal Britain he cherished, in part because it permitted Jewish assimilation, had come under attack by enemies from within as well as from without. Wolf could make only one response, and that was to fight back. He threatened to sue5 the odious Maxse. As soon as the two policemen had left his house, he telephoned the Special Branch of the CID to complain of his treatment. He followed up with angry letters to the commissioner of police and to the assistant commissioner, protesting the “quite undeserved” indignity that had been placed upon him.

In so energetically defending himself, and defending liberal principles, Wolf provided historians with a lens through which to understand the anti-Zionism of Jews who believed in assimilation. The Zionist, whatever his political inclinations and affiliations, holds that wherever the Jew may reside, he can be truly at home only in one country, Palestine. To him, birth matters more than environment. Wolf rejected this formulation. During this early part of the war, an acquaintance named Spielmann, a third-generation Briton, was nevertheless a target of xenophobes because of his German name. Wolf argued in a letter to a friend that even if Spielmann had been born in Germany, it would not matter so long as he had lived mainly in England: “All we have to consider6 are birth, environment and psychology, and psychology owes much more to environment than to the mechanical accident of birth.” British jingoes and Jewish nationalists both mistakenly emphasized the accident of birth, according to Wolf; they represented two sides of the same coin, and both sides were inimical to liberalism. Without ever minimizing his own Jewishness, Lucien Wolf insisted, against Maxse and against the Zionists, that Jews could and should assimilate in Great Britain or in any other country where they chose to live. But in defending this bedrock liberal principle, Wolf could only oppose Zionism, which meant eventually opposing its leader, Chaim Weizmann, even though the latter’s views on other subjects often were liberal too. On this crucial point the two men differed profoundly; and so in the end, Wolf became Weizmann’s chief and most effective British Jewish opponent.

Wolf responded to the outbreak of war as many other British Liberals did, first appalled, then resolute in opposition to Germany. In fact, he saw farther than most. “It is not only the carnage7 that will be frightful, but the economic exhaustion and the starvation which will be infinitely worse; and then when peace comes … desolation and certain revolution everywhere,” he wrote to a friend. “There will be no choice between the military dictator and the socialist and in the end socialism must triumph.” It was not precisely accurate, but it was a closer forecast of the postwar situation than many made at the time.

Wolf never doubted that Britain had been right to declare war on Germany: “We were bound8 to fight on the Belgian question.” Nor did he query the judgment of Foreign Secretary Edward Grey: “As far as I can see he has acted very well.” In fact he articulated the British liberal justification for war with more clarity and force than many professional Liberals. His country was fighting “a war of ethical opinion,” he declared. Austria’s German-backed invasion of Serbia, Germany’s invasion of Belgium, and her threat to Britain’s mastery of the seas must all be resisted, but the essence of the problem Germany posed was “the German people9—or rather a large section of them—have become saturated with a philosophy which has sought to rationalize and justify their dominating instincts and ambitions, and has actually reached the point of molding and directing the national policy.”

That philosophy’s progenitor had been Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Wolf explained; its more recent spokesman had been Heinrich von Treitschke, who argued that the individual lived to serve the state, not vice versa; that war was a positive good; that treaties, which limited the state, should be ignored; and that the state should be racially homogenous. This autocratic German creed directly contradicted Britain’s liberal one, which was based upon the thought of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill among others. It contradicted the liberal, tolerant creed of Judaism as well. “With their invincible10 attachments to things of the spirit and with their strongly marked individualism [Jews] would not easily have embraced the modern German conception of the finality of the military State,” Wolf argued. “For them the State was made for the individual, not the individual for the State. Nor could they imagine Jews acquiescing in the doctrine of the necessity and eternity of war as a God-given principle, or in the idea of the citizen as before all and above all a soldier. All this struck at the very root of Jewish teaching.”

Here were two sides of another coin, in Wolf’s view: liberal Britain and liberal Judaism (not to be confused with Montefiore’s religious doctrine of Liberal Judaism). That the German philosophy emphasized anti-Semitism was no mere “political eccentricity.” Rather it was “a logical consequence of [Treitschke’s] main teaching.” This was a crucial linkage: “The makers of Anti-Semitism are the makers of the present war. Both are the logical outcome of the same order of barbarian ideas. They are the hideous twin progeny of a hideous teaching.”

Inconveniently for the consistency of Wolf’s argument, however, tsarist Russia had allied with liberal England and France against autocratic Germany. So too, within a year, did that other bastion of anti-Semitism and conservatism, Romania. The government of neither country intended to moderate its treatment of Jews. Particularly Jews in Russia, and Jews who lived in the path of the Russian army as it marched west, suffered at its hands from pillage, rapine, false accusations of treason, and summary executions. This Wolf learned from reports that poured into his office from Jewish contacts on the Continent. He knew, however, that to ask the Foreign Office to protest right now would do no good. The Foreign Office had tolerated but hardly welcomed the Conjoint Committee’s prewar exhortations to condemn Russian and Romanian anti-Semitism. It would not stand criticism of these allies during wartime. Troubled, Wolf sought to justify his self-imposed silence—to himself perhaps as much as to anyone else: “To me there have always11been two Russias. The Russia I am fighting for today is the Russia I have always fought for—the Russia of Liberalism and progress which is now the whole of Russia because it is on the side of my own country—Liberal England—and against the forces of Prussian reaction.” The argument was not convincing, but it is illuminating. In 1914 nearly the entire world was convulsed in war, and one side was committed to the defense of liberalism, Lucien Wolf believed. How could he ever bend his knee to those other opponents of liberalism, the Zionists?

He could not. The two branches of political British Jewry—that is to say, the Zionists led by Weizmann and the assimilationists led by Wolf—were fated to engage in a fierce competition for the support of the British government. The competition was as far-reaching, if not as personally dangerous to its protagonists, as anything engaged in by Sharif Hussein and his sons far to the east, and it mainly concerned the fate of the same strip of land. But first the Zionists and the assimilationists explored the possibility of cooperation.

In certain ways the careers of Weizmann and Wolf at this stage run parallel. Weizmann began his ascent to leadership among British Zionists with the onset of the war. Only a month or two later Wolf agreed to become the Conjoint Committee’s paid director (having lost his job with The Daily Graphic); henceforth he would be the chief public advocate of Jewish assimilation in Britain. Weizmann proposed that influential Jews plan for the peace conference that would end the war. As director of the Conjoint Committee, Wolf had as a primary task planning for that very conference, not least since during wartime the committee could not play its customary role as protector of oppressed Jews in Russia and Romania. It was only natural, then, that Weizmann and Wolf, or their delegates, should come into contact.

And so they did, on November 17, 1914. That day, acting upon Chaim Weizmann’s instructions (which may have been concerted with Ahad Ha’am, given the closeness of the two men), Harry Sacher called upon Lucien Wolf12 at his offices at 2 Verulam Buildings, Grays Inn. Wolf would have received the talented younger Jewish journalist with interest verging on pleasure.

That day Sacher did not represent his position altogether accurately to Wolf. True enough, he reflected Weizmann’s views faithfully on the Jewish attitude toward Russia’s continuing anti-Semitism. “Silence during the war is our best chance, or rather [our] only chance,” he averred, and Wolf agreed, however reluctantly. Sacher was truthful again in stating that he and his friends believed there was at least “a faint chance” of something good for Russian Jews coming out of a peace conference, which was precisely what Wolf also thought. But on the crucial question (for Zionists) of Palestine and his group’s plans for it, Sacher misled Wolf, almost certainly wittingly, although his purpose remains obscure. He was a cultural not a political Zionist, he assured his host. The return to Palestine was the prerequisite for developing Jewish culture and nothing more. “Political demands or a Jewish state I should not press for, or raise, if we could get Jewish unanimity on such a basis as this.”

That had been true only three weeks earlier, before Turkey entered the war, but since then leading cultural Zionists, as Sacher must have known, had embraced political Zionism and its goal of a Jewish state in Palestine, even if they did not say so publicly. Only seven days after Sacher met with Wolf, James Rothschild would urge Weizmann to “ask for something which … tends towards the formation of a Jewish State.” But Weizmann’s mind had been prepared for this change already, in discussions with Ahad Ha’am and, one must assume, with Harry Sacher.

Wolf did not yet know of these meetings, but well informed as he was, he probably knew that strict cultural Zionism was waning. Nonetheless he took Sacher’s statement at face value, discerning in it a possibility for cooperation between Zionists and the Conjoint Committee. A program limited to cultural Zionism “would be welcomed by the ‘leaders’” of Britain’s Jewish community, Wolf pronounced. “For such work in Palestine there was more sympathy than [Sacher] imagined.” Additional discussions between Zionist principals and the heads of the Conjoint Committee might lead to positive results.

In fact, Lucien Wolf was every bit as capable of misdirection as Harry Sacher. In their ensuing correspondence13 Wolf encouraged the younger man to help arrange the Zionist–Conjoint Committee meeting. Simultaneously, however, he was attempting to undermine the Zionists’ credibility with the Foreign Office. He found out that Greenberg and Zangwill already had lobbied there; reports of Weizmann’s various triumphs reached him as well. But traditionally the Conjoint Committee represented British Jews’ foreign policy interests to the British government, and Wolf meant for that tradition to continue. These other men were interlopers, in his view.

On January 7, 1915, as director of the Conjoint Committee, Wolf cautioned Francis Acland, parliamentary under secretary of state, “against unauthorized persons14 who approached the Foreign Office on questions concerning the interests of our foreign coreligionists.” More specifically, Wolf warned “that Mr. Zangwill had no official connection with our leading organizations,” and that Greenberg, while editor of The Jewish Chronicle, nevertheless “was very often in conflict with our communal chiefs.”

Then he struck a particularly low blow—indeed a stunningly hypocritical one, given that he himself had been the recent target of the xenophobe Leo Maxse. “The Zionist organization,” he warned Acland, “was foreign and was almost entirely controlled from alien-enemy countries.”

In other words, some of the Jewish protagonists in our tale were as capable of dissimulation as the Emir Hussein and his sons were; as capable, even, as the British politicians who later would simultaneously encourage (or at least not actively discourage) both Arabs and Zionists to think they would someday control the same bit of land, Palestine.

The initial meeting between Wolf and Sacher had established the parameters of the Zionist-assimilationist relationship. The benefits of cooperation were plain to both sides, but disdain, distrust, and dissimulation overshadowed them. Weizmann and Wolf would continue to jockey for influence with the Foreign Office and with high-ranking government officials, even as meetings to define the basis of a joint effort were taking place. Those meetings, however, only served to emphasize the two parties’ profound disagreement over the status and role of Jews in Britain and in the world.

On March 13, 1915, Prime Minister H. H. Asquith’s Liberal cabinet convened at 10 Downing Street to discuss the revised memorandum prepared by Herbert Samuel on the future of Palestine. Samuel had toned it down since showing the original version to his leader two months earlier. He had eliminated the rhetorical flourishes, to which Asquith referred disdainfully as practically “dithyrambic.” And this time he explicitly ruled out any attempt to found a Jewish state there: “Whatever be the merits15 or the demerits of that proposal, it is certain that the time is not ripe for it.” But the justifications for British action in the region remained from the original memorandum, and this time he took great pains to emphasize that non-Jews in the region must receive equal treatment under any future scheme.

Once again Samuel prepared the ground carefully. Prior to submitting the memorandum to the cabinet, he consulted several times with Weizmann, with Moses Gaster, and with various other experts, including a few who had returned recently from the Middle East. Then he sent the modified document to cabinet colleagues whom he judged sympathetic: Viscount Haldane, the lord chancellor; Jackie Fisher, the first sea lord; and Lord Reading, or Rufus Isaacs, the (Jewish) lord chief justice. Reading reported to Samuel that Lloyd George was “inclined to the sympathetic16 side—your proposal appeals to the poetic and imaginative as well as to the romantic and religious qualities of his mind.” Samuel would have known this already from his talks with the man.

But when the cabinet met, according to Asquith, only Lloyd George strongly supported the proposal, and he “does not care a damn17 for the Jews or their past or their future, but … thinks it would be an outrage to let the Christian Holy Places … pass into the possession or under the protectorate of ‘Agnostic Atheistic France’!” This remark casts rather an unflattering light upon Lloyd George’s early wartime sympathy for Zionism. Was he thinking more about keeping France out of Palestine than about letting Jews in? Historians have not made much of Asquith’s comment, although they know it well.

The prime minister barely bothered to hide his own distaste for a Palestine into which the scattered Jews of the world “could in time swarm back from all quarters of the globe and in due course obtain Home Rule (What an attractive community!).” But if the letter he wrote to Asquith after the meeting is anything to go by, it was Edwin Montagu, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Herbert Samuel’s own cousin, who objected most strenuously to everything the president of the Local Government Board proposed.

Perhaps no individual better exemplified the success of Jewish assimilation in Britain than Montagu. (Or, perhaps, its failure, depending upon whether you take Wolf’s or Weizmann’s approach to the question.) Outwardly Montagu had it all: enormous wealth, inherited from his father, the great banker and Liberal politician Samuel Montagu (Lord Swaythling); cabinet rank at an early age; the friendship of important figures such as Prime Minister Asquith, whose parliamentary private secretary he had been; and a country estate called Hickling in Norfolk. Like many country gentlemen who owned estates, he enjoyed the shooting and was himself a fair shot. One morning he “fired about two hundred18 and thirty shots at pochard and tufted ducks, bagging about forty-five, which was not so bad.” He was a big man, with heavy-lidded eyes, large hands, and in 1915 a receding hairline. Despite this rather imposing physiognomy, “children and animals19 took to him at sight.”

Soon too he would have a beautiful and aristocratic wife, Venetia Stanley—the very confidante to whom Asquith had written so disparagingly of Samuel’s “dithyrambic” memorandum. Asquith was accustomed to write disparagingly to her about Edwin Montagu too. The prime minister simply could not forget that his close political colleague was a Jew. In his correspondence with her, he referred to Montagu as “the Assyrian” and to his grand London residence as the “silken tent.” When she married Montagu, Asquith sent congratulations and presents but felt great dismay, a sentiment compounded of jealousy, loneliness, and, one cannot dismiss it, a genteel but unmistakable anti-Semitism.

Montagu was mordantly witty, politically clever, emotional, malicious, and thin-skinned. He wore his heart upon his sleeve. Surely he was aware that Asquith perceived him not so much as a colleague who happened to be a Jew, but rather as a Jew who happened to be his colleague. And if Asquith thought this way, then what of his other cabinet colleagues, and everybody else? Montagu wished to be recognized as a Briton who practiced the Jewish religion. In this regard his position was that of Lucien Wolf. In fact, he stood in relation to Wolf much as Samuel stood in relation to Weizmann—a Jewish supporter who belonged to the government.

On March 16, 1915, in response to his cousin’s memorandum, Montagu wrote a letter to Asquith. It was an attempt at demolition, a complete rejection not merely of the tactical considerations that Samuel had advanced as reasons for a British protectorate in Palestine but also of their underlying premise of eventual Jewish autonomy there.

“Palestine in itself offers little or no attraction to Great Britain from a strategical or material point of view,” Montagu charged. Its possession by Britain would facilitate the defense neither of Egypt nor of the Suez Canal. Moreover it was “incomparably a poorer possession than, let us say, Mesopotamia.” Nor would Jews find great fulfillment working the land there, whatever Zionists like his cousin might say: “I cannot see any Jews I know tending olive trees or herding sheep.”

What Montagu objected to at the most basic level, however, was the Zionist assumption that Palestine was the homeland of a distinct Jewish people: “There is no Jewish race now as a homogenous whole. It is quite obvious that the Jews in Great Britain are as remote from the Jews in Morocco or the black Jews in Cochin as the Christian Englishman is from the moor or the Hindoo.” A Jewish homeland in Palestine would be composed of “a polyglot, many-colored, heterogeneous collection of people of different civilizations and different ordinances and different traditions.” Unless conditions were completely insupportable where they lived now, the Jews of the world would be better off to stay put and assimilate—as he had done.

If they did not, Montagu argued, and instead moved in great numbers to Palestine and established a homeland there, they would become unwelcome everywhere else. “Their only claim to the hospitality of Russia, Bulgaria, France, Spain, is that they have no alternative home, no State of their own, and they want to be and are patriotic citizens working for the good of the countries in which they live … When it is known that Palestine is the Jewish State which is really their home then I can foresee a world movement to get them away at any cost.” And he closed with a heartfelt plea: “If only our peoples would … take their place as non-conformists [members of a religious sect not belonging to the Church of England], then Zionism would obviously die and Jews might find their way to esteem.”

Asquith read this impassioned document and smiled. He thought it “racy,” he wrote to Venetia Stanley. He seems not to have shown it to any of his colleagues, but the conflict between Montagu and Samuel served its historical purpose, mirroring the competition between Wolf and Weizmann, and between assimilationists and Zionists more generally. At this stage the assimilationists still had the advantage, but Samuel had performed a great service for Zionism: His memorandum, and its rejection by his own cousin, demonstrated conclusively to cabinet ministers that the British Jewish community had split. The Conjoint Committee no longer voiced the views of a monolithic bloc, if ever it had done. And that Samuel, their most prosaic associate, had been the one to articulate the Zionist position may have gone some way to persuading them that Zionism had entered the realm of practical politics after all.

About a month later, on April 14, 1915, the first formal meeting20 between the Zionist leadership and the Conjoint Committee convened. Five months had elapsed21 since Sacher’s initial approach to Wolf, testifying to the maneuvering for position in which both sides had since engaged. Ironically, when the two groups finally did get together, neither Sacher nor Weizmann even attended; the latter because he could not take time away from his laboratory, the former perhaps because the Zionist veterans considered him too junior. But during the interval a pair of Zionists from the central office in Berlin had traveled to England: Yehiel Tschlenow, who would soon return to his native Russia, and Nahum Sokolow, whom we have met already. Three additional men22 represented the Zionists, including the haham Moses Gaster. The assimilationist contingent included Claude Montefiore and David Alexander, president and vice president respectively of the Conjoint Committee, and of course Lucien Wolf.

The first thing to become absolutely clear at the meeting was that the cultural Zionist program, to which Sacher had initially referred, no longer applied, if ever it truly had done. Tschlenow, in a long introductory speech, pointed out that at the peace conference following the war, even small nationalities such as Finns, Lithuanians, and Armenians would “put forward their demands, their wishes, their aspirations.” He then asked his anti-Zionist friends: “Shall the Jewish ‘people,’ the Jewish ‘nation,’ be silent?”

Note here that Wolf, in his written account of the meeting, placed the words “people” and “nation” in quotation marks. Those tiny vertical scratches signaled the profound chasm separating the two camps. Wolf believed that asserting that the Jews constituted a distinct nation would fatally undercut his argument that British Jews really were Jewish Britons. It would deny the possibility of genuine Jewish assimilation in Britain or anywhere else. It contradicted his liberal assumptions. He refused to make the required assertion.

Tschlenow further argued that Turkish entry into the war had upset all previous calculations. For if the Allies defeated the Ottomans, then “there is a good chance that Palestine may fall to England and that England may hand it over and give it to the Jews.” It was now or never: “If the Jews do not develop Palestine and make it populous and cultivated and civilized and flourishing, others will do so.” He envisioned a “big Jewish Commonwealth … 5,000,000 souls … or more … [as] in days of old.” To which Moses Gaster added, “The Zionists intended to go in and work for ‘the whole hog,’ Nothing less than a Commonwealth would satisfy them.”

So much for cultural Zionism! On what basis, then, might political Zionists and the Conjoint Committee find common ground? Tschlenow contended that the Zionist goal of a Jewish commonwealth in Palestine and the Conjoint Committee’s desire to ameliorate conditions for Russian Jews were complementary, not antagonistic. Once the Jews possessed Palestine and could immigrate freely to that place, “there would be fewer Jews in Russia,” and a smaller Jewish community would be perceived as a lesser threat and therefore attract less persecution. Gaster added that “when the nations knew a Jew could go off to his own country they would persecute him less.” And Sokolow chimed in: “If Palestine was a British protectorate, and if England held it as a legally secured home for the Jews, England would be more interested in preventing the persecution of the Jews elsewhere and in obtaining rights for them.” But the Zionists insisted on the primacy of their own political program. Efforts to improve the Jewish lot, as noble and useful as they might be, “would and could never be the solution of the Jewish problem. That solution lay only in Zionism.”

Wolf and his colleagues seem to have been unsurprised by the jettisoning of the cultural program, which greatly reduced the possibility of meaningful cooperation between the two groups. They asked their guests two pertinent questions: “How would Palestine become a Jewish country?” and of equal importance: Would “special rights … be asked for the Jews” once they had entered into it?

The Zionists did not mince words in reply. Special rights would be asked for and would be necessary, Gaster explained, “till the Jews were so numerous, and in so large a minority, that they would predominate by weight of numbers.” As to how the Jews should enter Palestine, a Jewish Chartered Company with Britain’s backing “would take care that Jews should be the prevailing settlers.” Sokolow added that if Britain established some form of control over Palestine, “she would clearly and obviously take such necessary steps as to secure that the Jews should be the predominant people in Palestine [and] that it should be their country. The one point followed from the other.”

It was an uncompromising performance, albeit politely delivered. The Conjoint Committee promised to consider it and to respond. Within days Wolf wrote a fourteen-page encapsulation of his own optimistic liberal creed:

The whole tendency of the national life in Eastern Europe is necessarily towards a more enlightened and liberal policy … The present war, through the preponderance of Great Britain and France on the side of the Allies, must give a great impulse to liberal reforms in Russia … Sooner or later the statesmanship of the countries concerned will, for their own protection, deal with [the Jewish problem] in the way in which it has been successfully dealt with in Western Europe and America … There is no solid ground to despair of eventual success.

Therefore, Wolf argued, the Conjoint Committee must reject the Zionist approach. Not even unrestricted Russian Jewish emigration to Palestine, he argued, would improve conditions for the majority who must stay behind; after all, the massive Russian Jewish migration to America had not done so. Moreover, far from improving things, the establishment of a Jewish commonwealth would “at once relieve persecuting countries of much of their present incentive to pursue a policy of emancipation.” Like Edwin Montagu, Wolf believed that anti-Semitism would increase, not decrease, upon establishment of a Jewish commonwealth. The Zionist approach ran “counter to all experience and probabilities, and is essentially reactionary.”

So much for Zionist tactics; Wolf then dismissed the Zionists’ fundamental premise.

The idea of a Jewish nationality, the talk of a Jew “going home” to Palestine if he is not content with his lot in the land of his birth, strikes at the root of all claim to Jewish citizenship in lands where Jewish disabilities still exist. It is the assertion not merely of a double nationality … but of the perpetual alienage of Jews everywhere outside Palestine.

Thus political Zionism threatened to undermine even the most assimilated Jews. It threatened to make strangers of Jews like himself, and his colleagues on the Conjoint Committee, in the land of their birth, England.

Wolf went on to reject the Zionist claim to special privileges for Jews once they had arrived in Palestine. Britain, the likely future suzerain power in Palestine, specifically barred special privileges based upon religion. Moreover “nothing could be more detrimental to the struggle for Jewish liberties all over the world,” than for Jews to claim special privileges anywhere. “How could we continue to ask that the Russian Government shall make no distinction between … Jews and Christians?” he asked.

In sum, the Zionist scheme if implemented,

would not only aggravate the difficulties of unemancipated, and imperil the liberties of emancipated Jews all over the world, but in Palestine itself it would make for a Jewish state based on civil and religious disabilities of the most mediaeval kind, a state, consequently which could not endure and which would bring lasting reproach on Jews and Judaism. Indeed it could not be otherwise with a political nationality based on religious and racial tests, and no other Jewish nationality is possible.

The main lines of disagreement could hardly have been more clearly stated. The Zionists replied to Wolf on May 11, 1915; exactly one month later the Conjoint Committee wrote a rejoinder, ending with the pious hope “that the progress of events may lead to such an approximation of the views of the two parties as to render some useful scheme of cooperation yet possible.”

It would not happen. On the crucial issue of Jewish nationality, neither side budged. Consultations and discussions would continue, and memoranda would be written from both sides, but the gulf remained unbridgeable. Henceforth their competition for the ear of the government would grow increasingly fierce. And although Wolf began from the better-established and therefore more advantageous position, Weizmann was an absolute master of the political game.

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