SIR MARK SYKES and François Georges-Picot both arrived in St. Petersburg at the beginning of March 1916. Their main job was to turn the Anglo-French (Sykes-Picot) agreement into a tripartite Anglo-French-Russian one. That did not prove difficult: Within weeks, Britain and France formally agreed to Russian control of Constantinople, the Turkish straits, and Ottoman Armenia; Russia essentially accepted the remaining division of territory between Britain and France foreseen by Sykes and Picot. Thus did the Triple Entente divide the prospective Ottoman carcass even before they had skinned it, even before it was dead; thus in the spring of 1916 did they fight the war to end all wars, on behalf of small powers, nationality, liberalism, and the like.
Nevertheless, during the long journey to the British embassy in Petrograd, Sir Mark may have been racking his brain to come up with a switch to turn on the Jews. No sooner did he arrive than he read Lord Crewe’s remarkable, nearly Zionist, telegram of March 11 to Sir George Buchanan, the British ambassador. Crewe, it will be recalled, had forwarded Wolf’s “formula,” asking Buchanan to sound the Russians on it. The Foreign Office, Crewe added, believed the scheme “might be made1 far more attractive to the majority of Jews if it held out to them the prospect that when in course of time 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.” What would the Russians think of this addition to Wolf’s “formula”? Crewe wanted to know. Buchanan inquired, and the Russians thought it good, he reported to the Foreign Office. The tsar’s ministers would make no difficulties about such promises to Jews, they had informed him, as long as the holy places remained under international control. Eventually this provision would be written into the Tripartite Agreement.
But now the British had to worry about the French, who believed that Palestine belonged to greater Syria and therefore that Palestine’s northern parts would belong to them, as Sykes and Picot had arranged when they negotiated their agreement in London only a few short weeks earlier.
After his sessions with Picot, who could better understand French reservations about Palestine than Sir Mark Sykes? Nevertheless he must have read Crewe’s wire with mounting enthusiasm. That it reflected policies adumbrated in Herbert Samuel’s memorandum (although not Samuel’s desire for a British protectorate) provoked from him an effusion of telegrams, on March 14, 16, and 18. He had been thinking about Zionism after all; the cable merely gave him license to express what was in his mind or perhaps helped crystallize what was in it. In any event, those three telegrams inadvertently revealed the hopes, contradictions, tensions, guile, and prejudices now at work in shaping British and Allied wartime policy toward both Jews and Arabs.
Sykes immediately sought out the French diplomat, who had read the relevant portions of the telegram courtesy of the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Dmitrievich Sazonov. The latter had gotten the telegram from Buchanan. Unlike Sykes, Picot did not care for what he read. An international condominium governing Palestine was one thing, he told his friend, but Jewish control of the land was something else entirely. Indeed, he predicted that French patriots would oppose such a policy, with violence if necessary. Sykes insisted upon the necessity of some such move, and enumerated the ostensibly “inestimable advantages2 to allied cause of active friendship of Jews of the World.” Picot “reluctantly admitted” the force of his argument: Conceivably France, as a constituent member of the proposed condominium, could agree to do something in Palestine to satisfy the Jews after all. But that was not what Sykes had in mind. The Jews favored British rule in Palestine, he explained, not French or international rule.
But the two men were accustomed to collaborating. With Sykes leading, one suspects, they concocted a new scheme for Palestine that they hoped would appeal to its three prospective signatories, as well as to the Jews and even to Sharif Hussein. Their plan was that an agent of the sharif (perhaps one of his sons) be made sultan of Palestine under French and British protection and with Russian concurrence; that the three great powers agree upon a method of administering Palestine’s holy places; that the new state establish an incorporated chartered company to purchase land for Jewish colonists, who would then become citizens with equal rights to Arabs; that Britain arbitrate any disagreement between the chartered company and the state; and that France arbitrate any disagreement regarding administration of the holy places.
Sir Mark may have thought that he and Picot had squared the circle, but his colleagues in London disagreed. The chartered company would lead to Jewish domination of Palestine, which the Arabs would oppose; and appointment of an Arab sultan would alienate the Jews. They telegraphed Sykes to put the Samuel Memorandum out of his mind. But Sir Mark, original and irrepressible, continued to ruminate. The difficulties of the situation multiplied in his mind. First, Britain needed France in order to win the war against Germany, but Britain’s newly revealed interest in Palestine, even if on behalf of the Jews and in order to secure the common cause, might nevertheless estrange her crucial partner. Second, the British and French both needed the Jews (or thought they did), but the Jews’ preference for a British protectorate might cause the French to spurn them.
Third, the Allies needed the Arabs to revolt against Turkey. The Arabs might think Britain had promised them Syria including its coastal portions, but France claimed all of Syria, including the coastal portions. Moreover the Arabs had no inkling that Britain and France together were now contemplating making some gesture toward the Jews involving Palestine, which was land the Arabs also wanted and perhaps thought already had been promised to them. Sykes no longer knew what to suggest regarding the conflicting French-Arab claims: “I have repeatedly told Picot3 that Arabs will not consent to the French holding the whole coast as French territory, but he remains unmovable.” As for the proposed gesture toward “Great Jewry,” which surely would alienate the Arabs, and as for the general division of Ottoman territory that the three Allies now were planning, Sykes warned: “Keep actual terms of provisional agreement from knowledge of Arab leaders.”
Secret diplomacy was the only sort to employ, Sykes argued in his third telegram, when “we bump into a thing4 like Zionism which is atmospheric, international, cosmopolitan, subconscious, and unwritten, nay often unspoken.” He must have spent March 17 pondering the mysteries and powers of international Judaism and discussing them with Buchanan and Picot, and maybe even with the Russians, although their attitudes toward Jews were well known. He concluded, as he now informed the Foreign Office, that the Zionists represented “the key of the situation,” by which he meant nothing less than the key to victory in the war. “With ‘Great Jewry’ against us,” he warned, “there is no possible chance of getting the thing thro’,” that is, defeating Germany. Jewish ill will would mean “optimism in Berlin, dumps in London, unease in Paris, resistance to last ditch in C’ople, dissension in Cairo, Arabs all squabbling among themselves.” But give the Zionists a reason to support the Allies, and everything would change. “If they want us to win they will do their best which means they will (a) calm their activities in Russia, (b) Pessimism in Germany, (c) stimulate in France, England and Italy, (d) Enthuse in USA.” He was heartened because “P[icot] now sees this and understands it and will put it to those who count in France.”
In short, Sykes’s exposure to Zionism at a crucial moment in the war led him to adapt, but hardly to relinquish, his prewar prejudices and stereotypical thinking about Jews. He continued to believe in their enormous if subterranean power, but where previously he had deemed “Great Jewry” a malign force, now he discerned its positive dimensions and wished to harness them. What seems more remarkable nearly a century later is not that this one individual held such views but rather that they were apparently shared by François Georges-Picot and the men of the Quai d’Orsay in Paris; and by Sir George Buchanan, representing Britain in Russia and the mandarins of the Foreign Office back in London; that is to say, the bulk of the policy-making elite of the two Western liberal great powers. The group in the Foreign Office worried that Sykes had spoken too freely with Picot about Jewish preference for a British rather than a French protectorate in Palestine. They did not want the French to think that they themselves nourished any hopes of gaining that land, although in fact some of them were beginning to. But that Sykes might have gripped the wrong end of the stick altogether; that his notion of Jewish world power was outrageously, egregiously, mistaken; that it was based upon romance and myth and age-old prejudice, not upon fact; and that it was at heart profoundly irrational does not seem to have occurred to any of them. Robert Cecil had expressed the common misconception only a few weeks earlier, upon reading McMahon’s report on the views of that Italian businessman in Alexandria: “I do not think it is easy5 to exaggerate the international power of the Jews.”
Although Sykes’s and Picot’s efforts in Petrograd had direct relevance to Sharif Hussein, who was at that very moment polishing plans for his rebellion against Turkey, the Foreign Office did not even for an instant consider telling him about them.
In Sir Mark Sykes, the Zionists had gained a vigorous, resourceful, and well-placed ally. In early April he returned from Russia to London, where he went to work for the secretariat of the Committee of Imperial Defense. This brought him into close contact with the cabinet’s War Committee. As energetic as ever, he authored a series of “Arabian Reports”; launched an investigation into the Zionist movement; and shuttled back and forth as the liaison between government departments concerned with Middle Eastern affairs. The Foreign Office’s rejection of his first plan for Palestine does not appear to have daunted him in the least. Nor did the Foreign Office appear to hold that plan against him. Not quite belonging to the tiny number who fashioned government policy, Sykes’s views really counted when the policy makers looked for information, context, interpretation, and advice.
Practically his first move upon returning home was to contact Herbert Samuel and explain to him the plan for Palestine that he and Picot had devised. Samuel would have taken it in impassively enough, we may imagine, given what we know of his personality, but it rang a tocsin in his mind. He immediately telephoned Moses Gaster and Chaim Weizmann and proposed a meeting to talk things over. Gaster suggested that Nahum Sokolow be invited as well, and Samuel agreed. The four men gathered at Gaster’s home, Mizpah, at 193 Maida Vale, on April 11. Samuel recounted Sykes’s plan. Afterward Gaster waxed enthusiastic in his diary: “It practically comes to6 a complete realization of our Zionist programme. We are offered French-English condominium in Palest. Arab Prince to conciliate Arab sentiment and as part of the Constitution a Charter to Zionists for which England would stand guarantee and which would stand by us in every case of friction.” This is the only record of the meeting. We do not know what Weizmann and Sokolow thought, nor even what Samuel thought, but it is doubtful that any of them deemed an Anglo-French condominium to be a realization of their Zionist program. It is not clear whether Sykes had mentioned to Samuel, or Samuel to the three Zionists, that in fact the Foreign Office had not approved his and Picot’s proposals.
Sykes had also asked Samuel to arrange for him to meet London Zionists. Interestingly, the president of the Local Government Board first put him in touch not with Weizmann (of whose ascent he was well aware), nor with Joseph Cowen (or any other official of the English Zionist Federation), nor even with Nahum Sokolow (who was the highest-ranking official of the World Zionist Organization in Britain), but rather with his old friend Moses Gaster. It was a case of friendship trumping judgment. Samuel wrote to thehaham, asking him to contact Colonel Mark Sykes: “The suggestion about which7 I came to see you a few days ago originated with [him] … [He] is in very close touch with the Foreign Office and … has recently visited Russia in connection with this subject. As the matter should be kept absolutely confidential I think it would be better for him to see you alone, at all events in the first instance.” Gaster then wrote to Sykes suggesting alternative times and places for a tête-à-tête. He may not have grasped the golden opportunity this connection represented, saying that if he must go to Sykes, then the meeting should take place the following week, “as I am still suffering from a virulent attack of lumbago.” Sykes’s reply suggests that making the connection was an urgent matter to him; he did not want to wait until next week. “My Dear Rabbi,”8 he wrote, “If it would be equally convenient for you I should be glad if I might call upon you at 4:30 on Tuesday.”
So it began: Mark Sykes made personal contact with English Zionism, a significant moment in the prehistory of the Balfour Declaration. At this preliminary meeting he brought Gaster up-to-date on relevant matters. Then he arranged for Gaster to make contact with the British government (G. H. Fitzmaurice at the War Office, again, and Lancelot Oliphant at the Foreign Office); and with the French government too (François Georges-Picot). Sykes questioned9 the haham closely on Zionist history, present policies, and future goals and requested that he prepare maps locating significant Jewish settlements in Britain, continental Europe, Russia, Ottoman Eurasia, North Africa, and the Middle East including Palestine.
Unfortunately, Sykes had not made contact with the right Zionist. Moses Gaster was jealous, self-important, quick to take offense, and sometimes neither clear-sighted nor clear-minded. He told Sykes that he could speak for and control the Zionist movement in Britain, but that was not true. Although he had enthused about the Franco-British condominium for Palestine in his diary, he strongly opposed it to Sykes in person, indicating that even a German-British condominium would be preferable because at least the Germans were not interested in Egypt. He attributed this idea to Chaim Weizmann, whom Sykes had not yet met, but Weizmann could not conceivably have favored such an idea. In the end Gaster failed to impress: Picot told Sykes10 that he found thehahaminteresting but lacking a realistic grasp of the situation. He would like to meet someone else. Sykes, who was nothing if not quick, no doubt was thinking along similar lines.
And then Sykes did meet a Zionist with a more realistic grasp, a burly Jewish Palestinian agronomist (born in Romania) who was on terms with Djemal Pasha in Damascus and who was also a British spy. Aaron Aaronsohn11 is yet another extraordinary character in a tale replete with them. He flits briefly across the stage now, playing an important role in Mark Sykes’s final conversion to Zionism.
Aaronsohn had built a brilliant reputation as Palestine’s foremost authority on agriculture and agricultural science. Invited to America by the Department of Agriculture to advise on wheat cultivation in the western states, he made an electric impression. He turned down a professorship at the University of California. After a session with Louis Brandeis, the future Supreme Court Justice wrote: “He is one of the12 most interesting men I have ever met.” American Zionist philanthropists jumped to fund his next project, an agricultural experimental station, to be established in Athlit on the coastal plain at the foot of Mount Carmel. Once war began, it turned out to be the perfect location for making clandestine rendezvous with agents dropped from British naval vessels.
As a prominent Jewish Palestinian, Aaronsohn had served in Jerusalem as an administrator of American relief funds. This brought him into contact with Djemal Pasha. When a plague of locusts descended upon Palestine in the summer of 1915, the Turkish minister of marine appointed Aaronsohn to defeat it. The agronomist had carte blanche to travel the country. He recorded his observations in a diary, and they were not only about locusts. He noted troop movements and gun emplacements too.
Where most Jews in Palestine believed they should do nothing during the war to excite Turkish suspicion, let alone reprisal, Aaronsohn scorned such timidity. Contact with Djemal Pasha convinced him that Zionism had no future under Turkish rule. What precisely he thought should be the relationship between Zionists and the Western powers is obscure, but he had no doubt the Jewish movement needed an Allied victory. His brother Alexander, his two sisters, Rivkah and Sarah, and a colleague at the experimental station in Athlit, Absalom Feinberg, agreed.
In January 1915 Turkish authorities arrested Feinberg, accusing him of contact with British ships anchored in Haifa Bay. The accusation was false, but it gave Feinberg an idea. When he gained his freedom, he went to Aaronsohn with a plan: They would supply the British navy with information they gleaned in their travels as agronomists. Aaronsohn approved. A first attempt to make contact with the British in Cairo failed: Officials there were preoccupied with preparations for the Arab Revolt and thought this unsolicited advance might have been inspired by Germany. A second approach, to British Intelligence in Port Said, proved fruitful—there the responsible official was willing to take a chance. Some two weeks later in the dead of night, a British sailor slipped ashore near Athlit. A packet of papers awaited him. The clandestine organization had made its first delivery. Eventually the Aaronsohns and Feinberg established the NILI spy ring.13 (NILI was an acronym of a verse from 1 Samuel 15:29, Netzach Yisrael Lo Yeshaker, “the eternity of Israel will not lie.”) They recruited twenty-one active members; eventually more than a hundred individuals aided the group in one way or another.
The NILI spy ring, whose ultimate goal was the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, carried out missions as dangerous to its members as any of Sharif Hussein and his sons’ efforts to establish a new Arab kingdom. NILI’s informants worked on the land, in the towns and cities, and even in the Ottoman army. But in October 1917 the Turks intercepted one of the carrier pigeons by which the members communicated with one another. Nearly all the NILI activists paid with their lives; some of them, including Aaronsohn’s sister Sarah, who took her own life, died after dreadful torture.
The year before this awful dénouement, Aaronsohn had been traveling the country on agricultural business, recording what he saw in his diary. In June 1916 he gained information about a planned Turkish advance upon Suez. He thought a preemptive British counterthrust might enable a Zionist takeover in Palestine. He decided to deliver this message, along with the diary, to the British in person. But he would not go to Cairo, which had rejected his circle’s initial approach; and his contact in Port Said had been captured by the Germans while sailing home on leave. So Aaronsohn went to London.14 His route was perforce circuitous; it required resource and courage. He traveled to Damascus, Constantinople, Vienna, and Berlin (where he connected with American Zionists), then to Stockholm and Copenhagen. In the Danish port he made contact with the British consul. He boarded the Danish liner Oskar II, bound for the United States. When she reached the Orkney Islands, not far from where Kitchener and Hugh James O’Bierne perished, a British patrol boat intercepted her. British officials interviewed all passengers in their cabins. Aaronsohn’s stateroom, they informed the Danish captain with a wink and a nod (for Aaronsohn had just informed him of the plan), was “full of German stuff.” They “arrested” the “German spy” and brought him to London.
It was a funny kind of arrest. The authorities arranged for Aaronsohn to stay at the First Avenue Hotel in High Holborn under an assumed name. They permitted him to attend the theater at night and to sightsee during the day. But Scotland Yard and the War Office thoroughly debriefed the “Inhabitant of Athlit,” as they called him in their reports. Aaronsohn provided them with details on Turkish and German troop movements, the economic and political situation in Syria, and the general mood of people and soldiers. More important perhaps from his own point of view, Aaronsohn marshaled his intimate knowledge of the Palestinian terrain to urge the feasibility of a British invasion. He knew even the most obscure passageways of the Syrian interior, the high and low ground, where water could be found, and so on, arguing for British help in establishing Jewish rule in Palestine. Inevitably the authorities concluded that he should be brought into contact with Sir Mark Sykes.
The two met on October 27 and appear to have talked mainly about Zionism. They met again three days later with the ubiquitous G. H. Fitzmaurice in attendance as well. Aaronsohn reverted to the immediate theme: the need for a British invasion of Palestine. Sykes heard him out. He hoped Britain soon would be in a position to help, he said, but “it requires work.” Of course it did. Fitzmaurice, whose idea it first had been for Britain to approach the Jews, must have been pleased. A third meeting took place a week later. By now Aaronsohn realized that his interrogators at the War Office could not commit the Foreign Office to any specific policy; that the Foreign Office sympathized with but would not make a public statement about Zionism; and nor would Mark Sykes. He wrote in his diary, after this third and final meeting, that although his mission had been successful in convincing British authorities that the NILI group could play a useful role, “Au point de vue diplomatique, fiasco.”
His pessimism was mistaken. Sykes the diplomat gave nothing away, but Aaronsohn had made a strong impression. The Zionist returned to the Middle East, to Cairo, where he went to work for British Intelligence. Thus he avoided the dreadful fate of his sister and other NILI agents. (He would die in an airplane crash in 1919.) In the spring of 1917, when Sykes returned to Egypt on a diplomatic mission, he sought out the charismatic agronomist first of all. He preferred the settler-scientist to the vain and bombastic Moses Gaster. Indeed when he had asked the haham about Aaronsohn, the rabbi did little to strengthen his credibility. Aaronsohn was probably a Turkish agent, Gaster warned. “I do not trust [him]. An ambitious man.”
If Moses Gaster was not up to the job, and if Aaron Aaronsohn toiled for Great Britain in far-off Cairo, then which Zionist could Mark Sykes productively work with? He did not yet know of Chaim Weizmann, or knew at best only the scantiest details, and Weizmann did not yet suspect the importance of Sir Mark Sykes. But the two could not remain unacquainted for long.
The day after the newspapers broke the story of Lord Kitchener’s death in the North Sea, and only shortly after Sykes had returned to England from Russia, a public meeting convened15 in the vast Egyptian Hall of the Mansion House in the City of London. This imposing building, with its grand marble portico supported by six Corinthian columns, is the official residence of the city’s Lord Mayor. Many of the city’s formal functions take place there; it is where Britain’s chancellors of the exchequer still deliver their annual report on the state of the economy. The purpose of the present meeting was to mark the collection of £50,000 under the auspices of Sir Charles Wakefield, London’s lord mayor that year. The fund would provide aid to Armenian Christians living in the war zone with Russia, victims of a brutal Turkish policy of virtual ethnic cleansing. Sir Mark Sykes, among others, addressed this meeting, over which Wakefield presided.
Sykes’s interest in the Armenian question had the same root as his interest in the Arab rebellion and his growing interest in Zionism. The three nationalities (he now conceived the Jews to be a nation too) could serve the needs of the British Empire in the former Ottoman dominions, he thought, and the empire could reciprocate by serving the needs of these three long-suffering peoples. Sykes’s evolving views on race, nationalism, and imperialism require separate treatment, not least for the light they shed upon Britain’s evolving wartime policy on these subjects. Suffice to say here that just as Sykes had sought out Zionists in London with whom to work, so too he had sought out Armenians: hence his presence at the Mansion House on that June afternoon.
A self-conscious Armenian community existed in London. It published a monthly journal called Ararat; it sponsored various cultural organizations grouped under an umbrella organization, the Armenian United Association of London; and it supported the British Armenia Committee, which publicized Turkish-inflicted sufferings upon Armenians in their native land and which had a parliamentary branch led by the Liberal MP for North-West Durham, Aneurin Williams. This parliamentary contingent belonged to the radical wing of the Liberal Party and looked to tsarist Russia to liberate Armenia from the yoke of the Young Turks. This was the general attitude of politically conscious Armenians in England, up until about 1919.
One such politically conscious Armenian boasted an Anglicized name. James Aratoon Malcolm was born in Persia, to which his Armenian ancestors had moved in Elizabethan times. There they engaged in shipping and commerce, often with English interests, so that they had come to enjoy a special relationship with the commercial representatives of the United Kingdom. They were well disposed to Jews and accustomed to business dealings with them. In 1881 Malcolm’s parents sent their son to study in England (eventually he attended Oxford University), placing him with an old Jewish friend and agent of the family, Sir Albert Sassoon.
After leaving Oxford, Malcolm stayed in London to represent the family firm. Possibly he cut corners in his business dealings. “His previous career16 as a financier will not bear enquiry,” observed an official at the Board of Trade in August 1916. Moreover, if the reaction to him of the famous author John Buchan was typical, he faced obstacles that scarcely could have been anticipated. Buchan had been posted to the News Department of the Board of Trade during the war. The Foreign Office asked for information on Malcolm. “I only once met Malcolm,”17 wrote the author of The Thirty-nine Steps, “and he looked an exceedingly unpleasant Jew.”
In fact, this Armenian Catholic’s true métier appears to have been not commerce and finance (his ostensible British occupations) but rather politics, if not the public kind. He gloried in the role of a fixer, happiest pulling strings or at least thinking he was pulling them, from behind the scenes. During July 1944 he wrote a twelve-page account of his connection with the Zionists during World War I. It is a grandiloquent document and possibly not entirely reliable, but it does suggest the crucial role he played, or liked to think he had played, nearly thirty years earlier.
A few months before Sykes delivered his speech at the Mansion House, the Armenian Catholikos appointed Malcolm to the five-member Armenian National Delegation, whose purpose was to represent Armenian wartime and postwar interests in Europe. Malcolm became its British representative. His work for the delegation brought him into contact with officials at the War Office, Foreign Office, Cabinet Office, and various embassies in London. Possibly it brought him into contact with Sir Mark Sykes.
Malcolm claims in his manuscript to have known Sykes before the war and to have introduced him to Zionists late in the autumn of 1916—an obvious misstatement, for Sykes knew about Zionism as early as March of that year and not as the result of Malcolm’s efforts. But the Armenian probably did play a role in introducing Sykes to Chaim Weizmann. By autumn 1916 Sykes was searching for an alternative to Moses Gaster; he had met and been impressed by Aaron Aaronsohn. One day, feeling low about his failure to work Zionism effectively, he bumped into Malcolm in Whitehall Gardens and asked whether he had any Zionist connections. As it happened, the previous year Malcolm had recruited Leopold Greenberg of The Jewish Chronicle to the Russia Society, founded to spread knowledge in Britain of the country that Armenians hoped would liberate their homeland from the Turks. On Sykes’s suggestion, Malcolm called at Greenberg’s offices and explained that his friend wished to meet the true leaders of Zionism in Britain. Greenberg immediately mentioned Weizmann and Sokolow, a self-effacing and generous gesture, given the nature of his relationship with the former at any rate. He promised to introduce Malcolm to them. Shortly afterward the introduction occurred at Weizmann’s newly acquired London home in Addison Road. Other Zionist leaders were present as well. “I recounted the gist18 of my several conversations with Sir Mark,” Malcolm recalled. “Dr. Weizmann was most interested and asked his colleagues for their views. All of them, and notably Mr. Sokolow, were skeptical and hesitant. But Dr. Weizmann … asked when he could meet Sir Mark Sykes. I said if I could telephone to Sir Mark I might be able to fix it there and then. Accordingly I rang him up, said I was speaking from Dr. Weizmann’s house and asked when I could bring him along. Sir Mark fixed the appointment for the very next day, which was a Sunday.”
For what it is worth, the Leonard Stein Papers at the New Bodleian Library in Oxford contain a clipping entitled “James Malcolm—the Gentile Zionist,”19 unidentifiable as to author, date, or even publication, that confirms this version of events. But other accounts suggest20 that Weizmann himself initiated the contact with Sykes, although only after meeting Malcolm, because only then did he understand the crucial role Sykes played in advising the government about Palestine. At any rate we know from Gaster’s diary that Weizmann, Greenberg, and Malcolm met with Sykes on Sunday, January 28, 1917. Weizmann called Gaster that evening. “He had met Sir Mark21 Sykes and found out that he was an old friend of mine,” Gaster recorded. “He realized that the whole problem rested now in Sir M’s hands and that he was the man on whom our Zionist hopes hang.”
The haham understood immediately that Weizmann’s intrusion threatened his own role. He penned a letter to Sykes the next morning: “Can I see you anywhere22 just for a few moments? One of my co-workers told me last night of the interview which he had with you … it is of some importance that I should put matters and persons in the proper light before you. Caveant Consules.” Perhaps in response to this letter, Sykes called him back, but the ensuing conversation only can have confirmed Gaster’s fears. Weizmann had made a good impression. “He was earnest in his plea for Zion,” Gaster recorded Sykes telling him. Worse still, Sykes had urged Weizmann “to formulate proposals, to prepare for some machinery.” Gaster felt it keenly that Sykes had said this first to Weizmann and not to him—“As I understood him when he now spoke to me!” And unkindest cut of all: “I then learned that W.23 had another appointment with him that evening.”
Sykes clearly recognized in Weizmann the Zionist he had been seeking, while Weizmann immediately recognized in Sykes the highly placed government official with whom Zionists could most effectively work. Gaster had been obstructing the relationship, to the cost of the movement as a whole. Weizmann would deal with the haham; meanwhile he and Sykes planned yet another meeting, this time to include a representative group of responsible Zionist leaders. Gaster could take part, but his role would be diminished. This was, in fact, the breakthrough moment for Weizmann and for Zionism. A crucial connection was about to be forged.