The Road Forks

A YEAR AND A HALF into the war, the British government and the Foreign Office faced a grim situation. On the Western Front, despite appalling sacrifices, the Allies had achieved only a bloody stalemate. In the east a war of comparatively rapid movement had produced equally indecisive results. To the south, Turkey had beaten Britain at Gallipoli; in Mesopotamia it had captured and interned thousands of British troops and officers at Kut. Meanwhile Serbia had fallen to the Austrians, and Italy’s belated entry into the conflict on the side of the Entente had done little to help, either in the southern theater or anywhere else.

Thus the view from Whitehall early in 1916: If defeat was not imminent, neither was victory; and the outcome of the war of attrition on the Western Front could not be predicted. The colossal forces in a death-grip across Europe and in Eurasia appeared to have canceled each other out. Only the addition of significant new forces on one side or the other seemed likely to tip the scale. Britain’s willingness, beginning early in 1916, to explore seriously some kind of arrangement with “world Jewry” or “Great Jewry” must be understood in this context. The British never believed that the Jews alone could alter the balance of the war, but they did come to believe that the Jews could help fund it; and perhaps more important, they could persuade mightier forces to weigh in or out or to stand firm. Many Britons in 1916, including policy makers, apparently believed in the existence of a monolithic and powerful Jewish factor in world affairs. But there was no such thing. The government’s wartime decision to appeal to the Jews was based upon a misconception.

A year and a half into the war, that misconception formed part of the worldview of Gerald Henry Fitzmaurice, the former British dragoman in Constantinople whom Grand Sharif Hussein had successfully courted in 1908 when he wanted British support for his candidacy to become emir of Mecca. Hussein had discerned in the British dragoman a likely ally: When it came to Ottoman politics, Fitzmaurice was an ultraconservative who shared the sharif’s admiration for Sultan Abdul Hamid II as well as his hatred of the Young Turks. Sharp-featured, with receding ginger hair, piercing eyes, and a full handlebar mustache, the dragoman possessed “an eagle mind and a personality of iron vigor,” according to T. E. Lawrence, who nevertheless did not like him. He exercised great influence (too much, and of the wrong kind, as Lawrence saw it) over a series of British ambassadors to the Ottoman government.

From his appointment to Constantinople as a junior consul in 1905 until his recall to London in February 1914 (by which time he had been promoted to chief dragoman in Constantinople and first secretary in the diplomatic service), Fitzmaurice did his best to pump life into the moribund Ottoman court and to sustain its cruel, corrupt, and capricious ruler. Aubrey Herbert, then an honorary attaché in Constantinople (along with Mark Sykes and George Lloyd), likened him to the chains of ivy that may sometimes hold up a great and ancient but rotten oak tree. And like certain other British diplomats, scholars, and journalists of the era, Fitzmaurice labored under the misperception that the Young Turks who had thrown out Sultan Abdul Hamid II and taken control of the empire were dominated by Jews and dömnes, or “crypto-Jews.”1 These Jewish puppeteers,2 according to this worldview, were part of a wider conspiracy to gain control of the Ottoman Empire in order to acquire Palestine for the world Zionist movement.

Fitzmaurice reenters our tale now because he was probably the first responsible British diplomat to suggest that Jewish power, both in Turkey and elsewhere, held the key to Entente victory in World War I. He imparted this piece of wisdom to Hugh James O’Bierne,3 CVO (Commander of the Victorian Order) and CB (Commander of the Order of Bath), an experienced, accomplished, and well-respected British diplomat who apparently saw no reason to doubt it. The two men came into contact4 in Sofia, to which Fitzmaurice had been sent in February 1915 to link up with dissident Turks who opposed their government’s alliance with Germany; O’Bierne arrived in July 1915 as part of a British team tasked with bribing Bulgaria to join the Entente. Fitzmaurice took part in this mission as well, but it proved unsuccessful because Britain could not offer Bulgaria what she wanted most—territory in Macedonia that had been occupied by Serbia during the Second Balkan War. Germany, on the other hand, could offer it; unlike Britain, she was Serbia’s enemy. After some hesitation5 the Bulgarian prime minister, Vasil Radoslavov, accepted Germany’s inducement to align with her in the war. Mere days later, just before Bulgaria declared war on Britain, O’Bierne and Fitzmaurice beat a hasty retreat. Back in London, the former dragoman took a position with the Intelligence Division at the Admiralty Office, while O’Bierne went to work at the Foreign Office.

Late in 1915 or early in 1916, Fitzmaurice met Moses Gaster; possibly Herbert Samuel6 provided the introduction. At any rate the former dragoman learned something of the Zionist program from the haham of the British Sephardim and applied it to what he thought he knew about who really ruled Turkey. To put it baldly, Fitzmaurice put two and (something less than) two together and came up with five. He reasoned thus: The Allies should offer Palestine to the dömnes of Constantinople, in return for which they would withdraw their support from the Ottoman regime. This would result in the latter’s collapse. Allied victory would follow. Moreover, as Jews everywhere focused on returning to, and building up, their promised land, the shadowy, malign7 influence of world Zionism would fade. This was the insight Fitzmaurice shared with Hugh James O’Bierne at about the turn of the year 1915–16.

O’Bierne was primed to entertain the notion and even to appreciate it. Only a month earlier the Foreign Office had received a memorandum that likewise emphasized the power of Jews, in this case American rather than Turkish. Its author, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, was a prominent U.S. Zionist with English connections. Now he wished to warn the Foreign Office about German propaganda among the American Jewish community, which, he stressed, possessed significant political and financial power. Fortunately for the Allies, the professor said, this group held instinctive pro-British and pro-French views, but also, and for obvious reasons, strong anti-Russian ones. To win over American Jews, he recommended, among other measures, “a very veiled suggestion8concerning nationalization in Palestine,” by which he must have meant some form of French or British control.

Only a few weeks later a second memo reached the Foreign Office, again emphasizing the power of Jews and seconding the American’s warning. It came from none other than Sir Henry McMahon in Egypt. In the midst of his ambiguous but far-reaching correspondence with Grand Sharif Hussein, the high commissioner had received a report on the views of “a prominent Italian businessman and head of the Jewish colony at Alexandria.” McMahon found the report so suggestive that he summarized it and forwarded it to his masters in London. Apparently his informant feared that the Allies risked losing Jewish support, especially from the all-important American branch, because of Russian anti-Semitism. Also like the American professor, this gentleman thought that Jewish support could be a factor in the war and that it could be obtained easily enough. “What the Jews9 in America were waiting for,” the Italian businessman averred, “was only the knowledge that British policy accorded with their aspirations for Palestine.” If Britain did not act quickly to assuage this longing, he warned, then Germany might.

These reports filtered into the Foreign Office entirely unknown to our Jewish protagonists, but they too, each in his own way, continued their attempts to persuade British authorities that the Jewish factor was important. Herbert Samuel gave a copy of his cabinet memorandum to Sir Mark Sykes, who had just finished negotiating his agreement with François Georges-Picot. Sykes and Picot were about to leave for Russia to seek support for their proposed postwar partition of Ottoman territories. Sykes was hardly a Zionist at this point, but on the eve of his departure he reported to Samuel that “I read the memorandum10 and have committed it to memory and destroyed it—as no print or other papers can pass the R. Frontier except in the F.O. bag.” Indeed when Sykes read the report, it lit a lightbulb in his mind. All during the wearying journey to Russia, he would ruminate on the Jewish factor, and his ruminations would soon help to shape British policy. Like O’Bierne, he was primed. It is worth noting that Sykes, O’Bierne, and Fitzmaurice all were devout Catholics who perhaps had learned in their early years that Jews represented a powerful and mysterious world force, one that, they now thought, could be activated on behalf of the Allies if only the proper switch could be found. Alternatively, it is conceivable that the Catholicism of Sykes, O’Bierne, and Fitzmaurice had nothing to do with the fact that they were among the small cadre of British officials who first discerned a potential ally in “world Jewry.”

As for Chaim Weizmann, he was hard at work in the laboratory, perfecting a process for fermenting acetone from grain rather than from wood, which was growing scarce. Acetone is an essential ingredient in the manufacture of cordite for explosives. His work was so important and successful that it brought him into further contact with leading government officials, including Lloyd George, whom Asquith just had made minister of munitions. Meanwhile he remained engaged in his great charm offensive, teaching Zionism to Jews and non-Jews alike. By now the Rothschild women had taken him in hand, coaching him on how to speak and act at the nonacademic version of high table. The erstwhile folks-mensch proved to be as quick a study in the drawing and dining rooms of the British elite as he was in the chemistry department. A testament to his effectiveness: At one of her dinner parties during this period the Marchioness of Crewe was heard to remark to Robert Cecil, “We all in this house are ‘Weizmannites.’” Nancy Astor invited Weizmann to dine one evening with a number of luminaries including Balfour and Philip Henry Kerr, editor of the influential Round Table (soon to become a member of Lloyd George’s personal secretariat). “You must speak Zionism11 to Dr. Weizmann,” Mrs. Astor instructed as they sat down to dinner. The Zionist leader had developed access to policy makers and managed to keep the issue of Palestine before them.

As for Weizmann’s anti-Zionist Doppelgänger, Lucien Wolf was seeking to impress on Britain’s governors the importance of the Jewish factor too. He recognized, however, that during a world war Britain and France would never risk the Russian alliance in order to win Jewish sympathy. He knew that the Zionists were suggesting that Britain could win Jewish support by promising to satisfy Jewish aspirations in Palestine. Quite rightly, he feared that this concrete program was more appealing to the Foreign Office than his own more nebulous approach of trying to get Britain and France to pressure Russia without offending her. Then, unexpectedly, an initiative launched from across the English Channel showed him a possible way forward. France also wanted the Allies to woo the Jews, and she asked Lucien Wolf to help.

The French worried12 that Germany was already outbidding the Entente for Jewish backing and that German success could have serious repercussions, especially in America, where, as they too believed, the Jewish community was financially powerful and politically influential. To counter this possibility, the French government dispatched to New York two professors (both Jewish) as emissaries and appointed a French Committee for Information and Action Among the Jews of Neutral Countries (Comité française d’information et d’action auprés des juifs des pays neutres) to support their efforts. Based on the professors’ reports, the French government came to conclusions similar to those reached by the various informants of the British Foreign Office. While French and British pressure on Russia might win friends among American Jews, it would inevitably alienate the Russian government. Dangling the bait of Palestine before American Jews, however, could appeal to them without necessarily estranging the tsar’s ministers. The Quai d’Orsay instructed the Jewish professors to tell American Jews that the end of Ottoman rule in the Middle East would lead to an extension of liberty and increased Jewish settlement in Palestine.

Meanwhile the comité had concluded that Britain should establish an organization parallel to theirs and asked Lucien Wolf to form it. Wolf recognized a double opportunity. Both as a Jew and as a British patriot, he wanted to win Jewish backing for the Allies; promising Jews an increased role in Palestine after victory, without going so far as to embrace Zionist prescriptions, could win it. Simultaneously such a task would enable him, and the Conjoint Committee, to outflank Dr. Weizmann. Immediately he prepared a memorandum for the Foreign Office. “I am not a Zionist13 and I deplore the Jewish National Movement,” he began, yet now was the moment for the Allies to declare their sympathy with Jewish aspirations in Palestine and to promise to grant them equal rights there after the war; facilitate their immigration to it; guarantee “a liberal scheme of local self-government for the existing colonies”; support construction of a Jewish university in Jerusalem; and recognize Hebrew as one of the languages of the land. If the Allies did these things, Wolf wrote, they “would sweep the whole of American Jewry into enthusiastic allegiance to their cause.” The next day Wolf saw Robert Cecil at the Foreign Office and offered to head up a team of propaganda committees in all the Allied capitals, especially in London, to publicize this program. (A supreme British committee was not what the French comité had in mind.) He volunteered to carry the message about the future of Palestine to America himself.

The Foreign Office refused to be stampeded. It weighed Wolf’s proposal along with Fitzmaurice’s recommendation, the American professors’ memorandum, and Sir Henry McMahon’s report upon the views of the Italian businessman. What Wolf was suggesting, it noted, differed only in degree from what Weizmann wanted. The Foreign Office, which previously had had little time for Zionism, now underwent a crash course. It forwarded Wolf’s memo to the British ambassador in Washington, Cecil Spring Rice. Rice had never liked Wolf. His negative response was predictable.

Impatiently awaiting word, Wolf received worrying information from a French contact: “Mr. Lloyd George has14 formally assured Dr. Weizmann who is his ‘right hand man’ at the Ministry of Munitions that Great Britain will grant a charter to the Jews in Palestine in the event of that country coming within the sphere of influence of the British Crown.” Lloyd George had done no such thing, but Wolf accepted the warning at face value, and it galvanized him. On March 3, 1916, he sent Robert Cecil a second memorandum, this one containing a “formula” for Palestine that went about as far as a man who did not believe that Jews constituted a distinct nationality could go toward Zionism. Wolf proposed:

In the event of Palestine15 coming within the spheres of influence of Great Britain or France at the close of the war, the Governments of those Powers will not fail to take account of the historic interest that country possesses for the Jewish community. The Jewish population will be secured in the enjoyment of civil and religious liberty, equal political rights with the rest of the population, reasonable facilities for immigration and colonization and such municipal privileges in the towns and colonies inhabited by them as may be shown to be necessary.

Then Wolf did his best to precipitate the Foreign Office’s decision. In another message sent three days later, he added that if the Foreign Office accepted his “formula,” he would announce it at a mass meeting of Jews, to be held in East London the following Sunday, March 12.

Wolf sensed correctly that his influence among policy makers was ebbing. “We should inform16 Mr. Wolf that his suggested ‘formula’ is receiving our careful and sympathetic consideration, but that we must consult our allies and that that must take time,” Hugh O’Bierne minuted. In other words, the Foreign Office would not allow Wolf to tell his meeting that the British government endorsed his “formula” for Palestine. Lord Crewe, substituting as foreign secretary for Sir Edward Grey, who was ill, added that “Mr. L. Wolf cannot be taken as the spokesman of the whole [Jewish] community.” Crewe was already a “Weizmannite,” according to his wife, and would have known that the Zionists would not be satisfied with Wolf’s “formula.” By now perhaps Robert Cecil had become a “Weizmannite” too: He repudiated Wolf even more thoroughly than Lord Crewe had done. “May I add,” he appended to O’Bierne’s minute, “that if and when we are allowed by our allies to say anything worth saying to the Jews it should not be left to Mr. Lucien Wolf to say it?”

Thus the tectonic plates of Britain’s Jewish policy began to slide. On February 28, 1916, O’Bierne composed the first Foreign Office minute to link the fate of Palestine both with Jewish interests and with British chances of victory. Here the influence of Dragoman Fitzmaurice was dominant, for O’Bierne aimed at influencing the Jews of Turkey, not of America. “It has been suggested17 to me,” he told his colleagues, “that if we could offer the Jews an arrangement as to Palestine which would strongly appeal to them, we might conceivably be able to strike a bargain with them as to withdrawing their support from the Young Turk government which would then automatically collapse.” But the influence now of American and Italian and French informants, and of the Quai d’Orsay more generally, as well as of Weizmann and Lucien Wolf, meant that the focus would shift from Turkey’s to America’s Jews and then to Jews everywhere. “To obtain Jewish18 support,” Lord Reading explained to Edwin Montagu only three weeks after O’Bierne wrote that initial minute, finally had become “the objective of the Foreign Office.”

Here two geopolitical matters deserve consideration.

Much as Britain might wish to obtain the support of Jews by dangling the bait of Palestine before them, she could not act as a free agent. She had to consult her partners in the Triple Entente, France and Russia. Russia was likely to approve the idea, so long as the Christian holy places did not fall under non-Christian control, because she would rather offer concessions somewhere far away than relax anti-Semitic policies at home.

French acquiescence, however, could not be taken for granted. France might wish to court the Jews, but France had long-standing claims to Syria, even to “greater Syria” or Syria intégral, which meant Syria defined to include most of Palestine. These claims to territory (except for a northern slice) she had tentatively sacrificed during the Sykes-Picot negotiations in London, which envisioned a condominium of powers governing the region. But the French certainly did not consider that Palestine was Britain’s to dangle before the Jews or anyone else. If, after due consideration and consultation, an offer of Palestine to the Jews was to be made, France would want to be among the countries to make it.

But whatever shape such an offer might take, neither Sykes nor Picot had foreseen the need for one while negotiating their agreement in London. The Sykes-Picot Agreement already allocated Palestine, and not to the Jews. Indeed, the Sykes-Picot Agreement did not speak of Jewish interests at all. Herbert Samuel and Edwin Montagu knew this fact, but both men were bound by cabinet etiquette not to speak.

Moreover, an important actor on the Middle Eastern stage might have thought that Britain had already offered Palestine to him. What precisely Grand Sharif Hussein understood to be the likely borders of his projected Arabian kingdom remains obscure; and so do the British negotiators’ ideas about them. Some of them were now thinking that it would not contain Palestine, but precisely to whom Palestine would belong remained unclear. The Sykes-Picot Agreement envisioned a condominium. O’Bierne wrote in his initial minute: “The Jews could be given special colonizing facilities which in time would make them strong enough to cope with the Arab element, when the management of internal affairs might be placed in their hands under America’s protection … [or] under the administration of some neutral nationality if the United States would not agree.” In other memoranda diplomats mentioned Belgium as a neutral power that might serve as trustee. France and Britain nourished their own ambitions as well.

That Jews eventually should form the predominant element, whichever European power or combination of powers oversaw the country, was not in doubt. Already Britain contemplated extending Wolf’s “formula” in a direction that would please the Zionists. Crewe informed the British ambassadors to Russia and America that if the Allies did agree to court Jewish opinion, part of the inducement could be that “when in the course of time19 the Jewish colonists in Palestine grow strong enough to cope with the Arab population they may be allowed to take the management of the internal affairs of Palestine (with the exception of Jerusalem and the Holy Places) into their own hands.” Weizmann could have asked for little more.

That the Arabs’ reaction would be negative if they learned about such plans, nobody doubted. “It must be admitted,”20 O’Bierne noted, “that if the Arabs knew we were contemplating an extensive Jewish colonization scheme in Palestine (with the possible prospect of eventual Jewish self-government), this might have a very chilling effect on the Arab leaders.” So Britain must keep the approach to world Jewry secret. But Lucien Wolf did not realize that his “formula” cut across promises made to Sharif Hussein and continued to push the government to accept it. Eventually Robert Cecil felt obliged to shut him down. “The present time,”21 he warned Wolf, “would, in the interests of the Jews themselves, be badly chosen for the publication of any formula such as that suggested.”

In other words, at this very preliminary stage of their courtship of “world Jewry,” British officials who had previously been wooing Arabs now understood that they faced a fork in the road. “It is evident,”22 wrote the percipient O’Bierne, “that Jewish colonization of Palestine must conflict to some extent with Arab interests. All we can do, if and when the time comes to discuss details, is to try to devise a settlement which will involve as little hardship as possible to the Arab population. We shall then, of course, have to consult experts.” In the initial minute he had indicated which expert he was likely to favor: “I would suggest that we might consult Mr. Fitzmaurice.”

The British government could not choose one course without disappointing the advocates of the other. That did not stop them from choosing. They thought that the fate of the British Empire was at stake.

At eight o’clock on the evening of Sunday, June 4, 1916, Hugh James O’Bierne joined Lord Kitchener and his staff at the King’s Cross railway station in London. They all boarded the overnight train to Scotland. At Scapa Flow the next day they transferred to the HMS Hampshire, a 10,850-ton coal-burning cruiser. Their destination was Russia; O’Bierne had served several terms there as a diplomat, eventually rising to the rank of minister plenipotentiary in Petrograd. He would have proved an invaluable resource for Kitchener there.

But they never arrived in Russia. On the night of Monday, June 5, a German mine sank their ship, killing all but twelve of the Hampshire’s 650-man crew and every member of Kitchener’s party. Thus the first Briton to conceive the Arab Revolt and the first to write a Foreign Office minute advocating an alliance with the Jews went down together, perishing within minutes of each other in the icy North Sea. Rarely does history afford such a weird and awful symmetry.

But by that date the divergent courses charted by the doomed pair could not be reconciled. Champions of each would compete with ever more fury. Nor were Kitchener’s and O’Bierne’s the only paths to win advocates. A new phase was opening in the struggle to define a crucial portion of the postwar, post-Ottoman Middle East.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!