EUROPE HAD BECOME a charnel house. The number of casualties mounted into the millions, staggering the imagination, beggaring description. No government implicated in such slaughter could survive, not even H. H. Asquith’s carefully constructed coalition in England. It fell on December 5, 1916, not long after the Battle of the Somme, in which Britain suffered more than 400,000 dead, wounded, or captured. It was the last British cabinet in which members of the Liberal Party formed a majority.
Asquith’s supporters lamented that the war had transformed into liabilities some of Liberalism’s proudest prewar features, such as a willingness to compromise and a cautious approach to the expansion of government power. Liberals mourned the inutility of tolerance, judiciousness, and moderation during wartime. On the other side, Asquith’s political opponents—and even some of his friends, albeit with more or less reluctance—emphasized the government’s indecisiveness, lack of organization, general ineffectiveness, and drift. William Waldegrave Palmer, second Earl of Selborne and a Conservative member of Asquith’s coalition in which he served as president of the Board of Agriculture, voiced typical complaints in an aide-mémoire that he wrote upon resigning in June 1916. The prime minister, he thought, would have made a great judge during peacetime. “As a War PM,” however, he had been “quite hopeless … He had … no ounce of drive … not a spark of initiative.” As for the foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, Selborne deemed him equally irresolute: “He never came to the Cabinet and said ‘this is the position, this is what I think ought to be done, do you agree?’” Selborne rendered a more positive verdict on David Lloyd George, the man who would replace Asquith as prime minister: “Very clever, with vision, precision, driving power and courage in wonderful combination.” But Selborne did not trust Lloyd George: “He would leave anyone in the lurch anywhere if he thought it suited his purpose.” (We will have reason to recall this assessment later.) Selborne also made insider observations of Herbert Samuel (“a clever, efficient1 and straight little Jew”) and of Edwin Montagu (“a very clever Jew … he will go far”).
Six months later, when Lloyd George wrested the premiership from Asquith, he offered cabinet positions to both those clever Jews. Samuel declined without hesitation, remaining characteristically, undemonstratively, and steadfastly loyal to his previous chief. His cousin Montagu, however, agonized. At first he withstood temptation, writing to Asquith, “I do not want you2 to cease to be Prime Minister because I am certain that any other Prime Minster cannot succeed.” He hoped the king would bring Asquith and Lloyd George together and “endeavor to arrange an accommodation between you.” It did not happen. The Liberals had split, weakening themselves irreparably. Six months later Montagu accepted a job from Lloyd George after all, as minister without portfolio in charge of reconstruction. He would be the only Jew holding a senior post in Lloyd George’s government when it came time to debate the Balfour Declaration. His anti-Zionism remained undiminished.
Meanwhile Lloyd George took measures to streamline his government. Asquith’s dozen-strong cabinet had debated and dithered; the new prime minister installed a War Cabinet of only four members in addition to himself. Two were party leaders, Andrew Bonar Law of the Conservatives and Arthur Henderson of Labour. More important, he appointed two conspicuous Conservative imperialists: Lord Nathaniel Curzon, a former viceroy of India, and Sir Alfred Milner, who had been the high commissioner in South Africa during and immediately after the Boer War. Both men had vigorously opposed Lloyd George during the latter’s radical anti-imperialist phase, but both possessed administrative genius and a prodigious capacity for work. Wisely, Lloyd George focused on these latter qualities.
But Curzon and Milner had not changed their imperialist spots. When the government discussed the future of the German and the Ottoman Empires, these men staked broad terrorial claims for Britain. Perhaps they influenced their prime minister, for Lloyd George too staked broad claims. Meanwhile the new, lean cabinet worked efficiently and at full throttle, calling upon other members of government only when necessary. One upon whom it called often was Arthur J. Balfour, the Conservative imperialist whom Lloyd George had made foreign secretary.
The new prime minister, it will be recalled, belonged to the camp of easterners who sought a way around the abattoir on the Western Front. Curzon, the former Indian viceroy, favored the “eastern” strategy too, and so did Milner. All three, Lloyd George in particular, distrusted the commander in chief of Britain’s forces on the Continent, Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, who could think only to throw more and more men against the Germans. They had no high opinion either of the chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson, who essentially shared Haig’s outlook and approach. As civilians, they did not quite dare to overrule these top military experts, but the ascendancy of easterners in the cabinet meant that Lloyd George’s government, more than Asquith’s, would look with favor upon those who requested support for the Arab Revolt against the Turks,3 or who asked for reinforcements for the army in Egypt so that it could engage the Turks in Palestine and push them out of Syria altogether. That this approach might help Zionists as much as Arabs, the Zionists in England quickly realized. Given their preference for a British protectorate in Palestine, they realized too that the new government’s willingness to expand Britain’s imperial reach in the Middle East might redound to their benefit. They had lost their chief advocate in the cabinet, Herbert Samuel, but from the sea change in the British government’s general outlook, they gained.
In far-off Egypt, the sea change swept up General Murray. He appears to have been a rather cautious warrior. Slowly, systematically, he pushed his forces beyond the Suez Canal into the Sinai Peninsula, beating off Ottoman attacks, extending supply lines and a water pipe, aiming for the port town of El Arish, only twenty-five miles south of the Palestinian border. “The Turks … are fine fighters, especially behind entrenchments,” he warned Robertson back in London. “Their handling of machine guns is excellent … I am proceeding with all due precautions.” A week later El Arish fell to Murray’s well-prepared forces. But the easterners who had just taken hold of the government wanted much more than El Arish. Robertson wrote to Murray, “The War Cabinet is very4 impatient. They want a victory every day and if they do not get it they begin to propose going to some fresh place to find one. They are giving me a good deal of trouble.”
Murray attempted to provide his masters in London with a fresh victory. On March 26, 1917, his troops crossed the border into Palestine, aiming for Gaza, some forty miles farther up the Mediterranean coast. Twice the Turks beat them back, the second time inflicting heavy casualties, although nothing like those on the Western Front. Murray wrote to Robertson, perhaps in propitiation, “I feel that it is a great blessing to have a straight white man at the head of affairs.” But Robertson was not all that straight. He never mentioned to Murray what he actually thought: that the War Office had sent Murray to Egypt “in order to get him5 out of the way … and there they have kept him all these months knowing that he was no good.” Nor did he inform the man who had taken El Arish of the War Cabinet’s growing disillusionment with his stumbling Palestinian campaign. Murray discovered it as a bolt from the blue: “I have just got6 your telegram notifying that [General Sir Edmund] Allenby takes my place.” Lloyd George instructed this new man, whom he had recalled from France, to take Gaza and continue right up through Palestine and into Syria. The ultimate aim was to capture Damascus and to drive the Ottoman Empire from the war, but he wanted Allenby to capture Jerusalem on the way, by Christmas; it would make a fine seasonal gift for the British people. He promised to ensure that Allenby had the means to do it.
The Zionists in London sensed these shifting currents. They caught the tide and rode it, balancing with great skill.
With the help of the Persian Armenian, James Malcolm, Chaim Weizmann made his first contact with Sir Mark Sykes on January 28, 1917. The two protagonists quickly realized each other’s importance and the need for fuller discussion and closer cooperation. A second meeting between Sykes, Weizmann, and the latter’s Zionist allies must take place soon, but because Herbert Samuel could not attend until the following week, it was put off until February 7. All concerned appear to have realized that Moses Gaster would have to be handled delicately. Malcolm, who happily assumed the role of go-between, wrote to Sykes: “From what I hear7 it seems that Dr. Gaster wants to take the leading part, whereas the general impression is (including I think both yours and mine) that Dr. Weitzman [sic] … should take the leading part in the negotiations.”
Malcolm relished his role as intermediary, meeting with Zionists, meeting with Sykes, and interpreting (or occasionally misinterpreting) one to the other. Clearly he aspired to be more than a bit player fostering Sykes’s connection with Zionism; he wanted to facilitate an effective Zionist movement. He understood that Sykes increasingly viewed the peoples of the Ottoman Middle East—Armenians, Arabs, and Jews—as links in a future chain of British dependencies. Possibly his own mind had been moving along a similar track, or perhaps he merely wished to curry favor. At any rate he wrote to Sykes, “For some time past I have considered that the greater object of the establishment of the proposed new autonomous States in the Near East should be a defensive federation between them … in close sympathy with England and France. This is one of the reasons why I have interested myself in the Palestine question.” He wanted each people to be sufficiently organized so as to be able to negotiate with its future protector.
Malcolm took the opportunity to lecture Sykes about Jews: “Most people have misunderstood the Jewish character. The Jew will always stick to his bargain, but he will never consent to readjusting the terms of an agreement.” Himself the unwitting target of John Buchan’s misdirected anti-Semitism as we have seen, Malcolm was not above indulging in anti-Semitic thinking of his own. Somewhat obscurely, he blamed the Jews for starting World War I: “In the Near East hitherto the Jew has pursued an exclusive policy, which has perhaps contributed more than anything else to bring about the present war.” On the other hand, he also believed that the Jews held the key to future peace. “The question of finance will be a great factor in the future,” he lectured Sykes. “It would therefore be important to secure the sentimental support, at least, of the Jewish people.”
For the Zionists, the week preceding February 7 passed in a blur of small conferences, preparations, and a fair amount of scheming. Weizmann’s assiduous cultivation of Rothschilds now began to pay off. James de Rothschild agreed to attend the February 7 meeting; so did Walter Rothschild, who, upon his father’s death, had taken up the role of titular head of the British branch of the family and therefore of the British Jewish community. Herbert Samuel agreed to attend as well, as did Nahum Sokolow. Weizmann also mobilized Harry Sacher and tried, unsuccessfully, to bring in Ahad Ha’am. It was to be a gathering of Weizmannites with the man who, they now realized, played the crucial role in advising the British government on its Middle Eastern policy.
Weizmann had determined to end Moses Gaster’s role in representing Zionism to such important people. He must have conferred with Sokolow about how to do it; probably the two men together buttonholed James de Rothschild and persuaded him to suggest at the February 7 meeting that Sokolow take up the critical diplomatic role. On Thursday, February 1, Weizmann and Sokolow met with Gaster at his home. They did not mention the plan they had concerted with James Rothschild but managed to antagonize thehahamnonetheless; this was not hard to do. Gaster “was laying down the8 law … I had to tell him off once or twice,” Weizmann noted. On Monday, February 5, Sokolow and Weizmann met with James Malcolm at the latter’s club, the Thatched House. Afterward Malcolm reported to Sykes, reiterating that “it is the opinion9 of the Jews that Dr. Weitzman [sic] should have the matter in hand here.” Finally on the night before the meeting Weizmann met with Gaster yet again. Without mentioning the plan with James de Rothschild, he suggested that the haham voluntarily make way for Sokolow. Gaster absolutely refused. When he learned10 that Weizmann had invited Sacher and Ahad Ha’am to attend the meeting next day, he invited allies of his own, including Joseph Cowen, the outgoing EZF president.
But Gaster’s men were already spent forces in the Zionist movement, as he himself soon would be. Weizmann and his allies clearly permitted Gaster to host and to chair the gathering as a matter of form. (“The most important11 meeting ever held concerning Zionism was held here under my chairmanship,” Gaster proudly asserted afterward in his diary.) But at this meeting, where a British government official finally met a Zionist delegation and took its claims seriously, Weizmann and Sokolow and their designees dominated; henceforth they, not the haham, would negotiate on the movement’s behalf. They allowed Gaster to present Sykes with a document encapsulating12 the Zionist program, but they had drafted and polished it themselves. (Gaster may have had some input.) When Sykes mentioned that on the next day he would be seeing Picot, who was then attached to the French embassy in London, and that it would be useful for a Zionist to accompany him to put the Zionist case, the haham assumed he would be the one to do it. But James de Rothschild nominated Sokolow for the job, and the meeting, dominated as it was by Weizmannites, agreed. Weizmann himself did not feel the need to represent Zionism to Picot at this point. As Leonard Stein puts it, “He needed no formal13 credentials to give him the commanding position he occupied de facto in the transactions which followed.”
For his part, Sir Mark Sykes went to the meeting on February 7 expecting the eclipse of Gaster and intending to mobilize Zionism’s more effective leaders both on behalf of the Allies and on behalf of British suzerainty in Palestine, and to throw this in the face of France. The Weizmannites happily agreed to be thrown. They wanted a British protectorate in Palestine above all. They believed that Britain afforded her (white) colonial subjects more liberty than any other imperial power did. They believed that France insisted upon making her colonial subjects into French citizens, erasing their national identities. As Jewish nationalists, they could never accept that. They believed that a condominium of imperial powers over Palestine, even one consisting of Britain and France, would be nearly as bad as purely French rule; its members would quarrel among themselves, and all Palestinians, including Jews, would suffer. They feared that Britain and France were planning a joint condominium over Palestine, but the only one they would agree to would be international control over Palestine’s holy places.
They did not realize that a year previously Sykes and Picot had agreed precisely to international control of Palestine as a whole, the so-called Brown Area, except for the British corridor running west-east and the northern slice that would go to France. Herbert Samuel, who had been a member of the cabinet when the Sykes-Picot Agreement was made, knew of this plan but was bound by cabinet oath not to speak of it. The meeting on February 7, then, was based upon at least three layers of deceit. In the first layer, Sykes was attempting to undermine an agreement with France that he (and Herbert Samuel) knew the British government already had accepted, that he himself actually had helped to negotiate, and that bore his name. In the second layer, Sykes and Samuel both were keeping the Sykes-Picot and Tripartite Agreements secret from everyone else at the meeting. From his French contacts James de Rothschild had gained some inkling of them. Twice he asked Sykes to confirm that Britain had made no promise of Palestinian territory to France. The first time Sykes replied that “no pledges had been given to the French concerning Palestine,” an outright lie if Zionist definitions of Palestine’s borders are accepted. The second time he referred the question to Samuel: “Mr. Samuel replied14 that he could not reveal what had been done by the Cabinet.”
The third layer, historically speaking, may have been the most important of all. No one at the meeting except for Sykes knew of the McMahon-Hussein correspondence or that Arabs might believe Palestine had been promised to them. On this subject, Sykes merely said: “The Arabs professed15 that language must be the measure [by which control of Palestine should be determined] and [by that measure] could claim all Syria and Palestine. Still the Arabs could be managed, particularly if they received Jewish support in other matters.”
Given this triple burden of ignorance, Sokolow performed amazingly well the very next day when he appeared at 9 Buckingham Gate, Sykes’s London residence, to meet Monsieur Picot. He impressed the French diplomat in a way that Moses Gaster never had done. Cagily, Sykes chose to remain in the background. He wanted Sokolow to make the running, and Sokolow obliged. When Picot asked the Zionist for a general explanation of the aims of his movement and Sokolow delivered one, Picot expressed great interest and complimented him on his exposition. But then he wanted to know, how did “the Jews propose to organize themselves as a nation in Palestine?”
Mr. Sokolow replied16 that they would establish themselves in the same way as the French and English had established themselves in Canada or the Boers in South Africa, viz. by settling on the land. A nation should be built up like a pyramid on a broad base and strong foundation. This foundation was the land.
Notably, Sokolow did not mention that Arabs already resided on Palestinian land. At this moment they appear to have been as invisible to him as black Africans had been to Boers intending to move to Cape Town, and Native Americans to the French and English colonists on their way to Canada.
M. Picot expressed his approval of this view and said he had never believed that Jews, who had been out of touch with the land for so many years, would be able to succeed as agriculturists. But having seen with his own eyes the new Jewish Colonies in Palestine he was convinced of the possibility. “What I have seen is marvelous.” [Ce que j’ai vu là-bas est merveilleux.]
So at this moment the Arabs were invisible to Picot too.
Sokolow then came to the main point, indicating that the Zionists yearned above all for a British protectorate in Palestine. Picot demurred silkenly: “But Sir, you must know as a politician that this is an affair of the Entente.” (Mais Monsieur, vous devez savoir, comme politician, que c’est l’affaire de l’Entente.) The Jewish diplomat parried with great dexterity: “Mr. Sokolow agreed with this but said that the Entente could not govern Palestine.” Picot stuck to his guns: “Ninety-five per cent of the French people were strongly in favor of the annexation of Palestine by France.” The crucial disagreement was over which country, England or France, should have the predominant influence in Palestine; and the crucial dynamic for which Sykes had been maneuvering was for Zionism to make Britain’s case. But there was no rupture. Sokolow and Picot agreed to discuss matters further the following day. The Frenchman took his leave. Sykes could barely contain his glee. He “expressed to Mr. Sokolow his great pleasure in listening to the discussion. He said that he was very satisfied with the outcome of the meeting.”
Sykes would have been equally pleased next day, when Sokolow and Picot met without him at the French embassy. This time butter would not melt in Sokolow’s mouth. “Zionists and Jews generally17 had the greatest respect for and trust in France,” he assured Picot (reads the résumé of the meeting). They believed that France “was destined to play a great part in the East.” They “confidently looked forward to her influential moral and material support in their endeavors on behalf of the Jewish people.” Moreover, “Zionist aspirations would not prejudice French interests but were on the contrary in perfect harmony with the great traditions of France.” Picot, if he did not employ butter, employed honey: “He personally would see that the facts about Zionism were communicated to the proper quarters and he would do his best to win for the movement whatever sympathies were necessary to be won so far as compatible with the French standpoint on this question.” It is hard to imagine such an interchange between Picot and the tempestuous Gaster.
Thinking, no doubt, of the rights of Belgians trampled by Germany, and of Serbians trampled by Austria, Picot remarked at one point “In one respect France was specially disposed to take an interest in the Zionist movement. He referred to the cause of the small nationalities which, in France, had been taken up with greatest ardor and was inspiring every citizen to an extraordinary extent.” With these words Picot conceded the main Zionist point, that Jews constituted a nation and were not mere adherents of a belief system.
Sokolow pounced at once, justifying Weizmann’s faith in his diplomatic skills: “Mr. Sokolow thereon expressed his great satisfaction that the Jews were considered in France as one of the smaller nationalities which were now struggling for liberty. This would be a guarantee that their cause would be treated in the same spirit of justice and equity which France would show the other nationalities.”
Picot tried to backpedal. “This point was not yet quite established … he was afraid that if the Jewish question was put in this way, viz. as the case of a small nationality, it would meet with considerable opposition, more perhaps from French Jews than from true Jews.” Note that he thought French Jews—that is to say, Jews who had assimilated in France—were not “true Jews.” He had ceded the Zionist case, possibly without even realizing it.
Smoothly, courteously, Sokolow let him down nicely: “The question whether all the Jews accept the national standpoint was after all a theoretical one … when a good practical scheme for the colonization of Palestine by Jews was put forward all opposition would vanish, including the opposition of the French Jews.”
Now Picot did introduce the Arab question, “speaking,” he assured Sokolow, “as a friend of the Jews.” If the “good practical scheme” to which Sokolow referred meant demanding “special privileges” for Jews in Palestine, then that would encourage the other peoples of the region to demand something similar. “This would almost certainly lead to grave complications which would prejudice the progress of Jewish colonization.”
It was like the meeting between Zionists and assimilationists at the rooms of Lucien Wolf all over again. Sokolow in his reply could fall back upon well-honed arguments: “The Zionists had considered every aspect of the problem and knew quite well that every great movement had inevitably to meet with opposition and difficulties of various kinds. The mere granting of equal rights to the [Jewish] inhabitants of Palestine was insufficient to build up a flourishing [Jewish] colony in that country.” But he revealed too a blind spot that almost all his fellow Zionists shared. Just as the peoples who lived already in South Africa and Canada had been invisible to the Dutch, British, and French colonists who intended to move to those places, so the Arabs of Palestine remained invisible to Sokolow: “The question of equal rights was rightly raised in a country already populated and settled, which was not the case with Palestine … Palestine was a country where the chief need was to attract capable and devoted settlers.”
As the meeting was drawing to a close, Picot suggested that Jews should do more to show their support for the Allies. Now Sokolow revealed just that bit of steel that distinguished Zionists from other Jews who wished to speak for Jewry. Assimilationists must always ask the great powers for recognition, for favors, for protection from anti-Semites. By contrast, Sokolow spoke as the representative of a power whose support the other powers needed: “To win the sympathies of all the Jews for the Entente the simplest way would be to show them clearly that the cause of Jewish liberty was intimately bound up with the success of the Entente.” Anyway, as he also pointed out, “it was not necessary for him to prove the devotion of the Jews to the Entente. The fact that three-quarters of a million Jews were fighting for Russia (in spite of their legal disabilities and sufferings) was the best proof.”
Sokolow’s had been a formidable performance—that has to have been Sykes’s conclusion when he learned of it. As he said next day, when Sokolow and Weizmann arrived at his house to report and to plan the next moves, “the result of the interview [Sokolow’s with Picot] would be satisfactory … it was a valuable thing that Mr. Picot had an opportunity of informing himself of the Zionist demands as approved at the conference held at the residence of Dr. Gaster on the 7th of February.” That was as much as Gaster had to do with it now; Sokolow and Weizmann pressed forward without a backward glance. They wanted special facilities to communicate with Zionists in Russia and America. Sykes agreed to expedite the matter. The next day he telephoned to say he had done so. Sokolow and Weizmann must have realized that a corner had been turned: The British government recognized them as leaders of a movement worth facilitating.
A whirlwind of meetings had established the Weizmannite ascendancy in the mind of Sir Mark Sykes. On Sunday, February 11, a meeting of the English Zionist Federation confirmed the ascendancy of Weizmannites among British Zionists as a whole. Joseph Cowen was stepping down as president of the EZF, and there could be only one successor. No one even ran against Chaim Weizmann, who had previously arranged that “those friends of mine18 with whom I have been in close cooperation all these years” should become members of the EZF council. He meant the Manchester contingent—Sieff, Marks, and Sacher—as well as London allies such as Leon Simon and Samuel Tolkowsky. Chosen by acclamation, his control of the EZF assured, Weizmann offered the delegates as clear a statement of his single-minded vision, and as clear an assessment of the current situation, as they could have wished for:
From certain information19 in their [his circle’s] possession—information of a very reliable nature—they had every reason to hope that they were standing appreciably nearer the realization of their cherished aims … Although Zionism had always been regarded as a dream, it was now easier of achievement and was much simpler than emancipating the Jews [of Russia, Romania, Poland] … They were standing at a critical moment and now, more than ever, was it necessary for them to concentrate all their energies for their definite Zionist purpose.
On the very next day, February 12, preliminary reports of a revolution in Russia reached London. The epochal, earth-shattering news was particularly welcome to British Zionists, not merely because it signified the end of the tsar’s hated anti-Semitic regime but also because under a new, more liberal Russian government, the job of emancipating Russia’s Jews would fall more clearly to Russian Jews than to British Jews or the British government. Moreover, Britain’s governors, ascribing enormous power to world Jewry, worried that Jews would determine whether their Russian ally stayed in the war against Germany or succumbed to pacifism and Bolshevism. This consideration made Zionism even more important to Britain’s rulers. Thus by mid-February 1917 the road stretching out before the delighted eyes of Chaim Weizmann seemed clearer, and more hopeful, than it had ever been.
It would be a mistake, however, to assume that the followers of Chaim Weizmann constituted a monolithic bloc and that they all agreed about the next steps. In particular, some of the Zionists of Manchester, his closest friends and allies, his most devoted adherents, had ideas of their own.
Early in 1915 Harry Sacher had had “the curious experience20 of being dismissed from [the Daily News] because I was not sufficiently bellicose for a Quaker proprietor.” His refusal to join in the general enthusiasm for world war was a tip-off that he made up his own mind and plowed his own furrow. He was something of an iconoclast. So, of course, was his old employer who took him back at The Manchester Guardian, C. P. Scott (whose relationship with Chaim Weizmann we noticed earlier). And so was another journalist in Scott’s employ, Herbert Sidebotham. Called “Student of War,” Sidebotham had written brilliantly on the Boer War and on the Russo-Japanese War; his articles on the current conflict were, according to French general Ferdinand Foch, “the only thing of the21 kind in the press worth reading.”
Sidebotham argued that Britain must protect her position in Egypt, and especially the Suez Canal, by taking not merely the Sinai Peninsula but also Palestine. Once the Turks were thrown out, Britain should permit no other power to occupy that country, not even France, whose long-standing Middle Eastern interests threatened Britain’s position there, if not presently, then prospectively. Sidebotham believed, however, that the Jews could control Palestine—not because it was their historical homeland, or because the world owed it to them to make up for past misdeeds (that would be part of his later position), but rather because the Jews, first under British protection but eventually as a Crown colony with dominion status, would constitute an outpost of progressive civilization in the region and a bastion of British support. They would guarantee the canal for Britain. Sidebotham wrote in his autobiography that he came to Zionism “on grounds of British22 interest and with the single idea of helping the victory of the Allies in the War.” But his employer, Scott, sided with the Zionists, and his colleague Sacher played a leading role in the Zionist movement. It would have been strange if the Zionists had not established close relations with so promising a recruit.
Shortly after returning to The Manchester Guardian, Harry Sacher married Miriam Marks, sister of Simon Marks. Marks had married the sister of his best friend, Israel Sieff; Sieff had married Marks’s other sister. Into this close-knit little society, Sacher introduced Herbert Sidebotham. “He loved music23 as he loved fine literature … He had a taste for good wine and great liking for good company. He could listen as well as talk.” Perhaps over good food and drink the four friends discussed ways to turn Sidebotham’s expertise to Zionism’s advantage.
They consulted with Weizmann and others in London. Sidebotham agreed to write a memo for the Foreign Office outlining the strategic advantages that Britain would gain from supporting the Zionist claim to Palestine. It made no discernible impact. Then the four took the next logical step, forming a British Palestine Committee (BPC), of which they would be the nucleus. (It also contained some of the most important London Zionists in the Weizmann circle, including Weizmann himself, but this contingent rarely if ever attended committee meetings, which took place in Manchester.) The purpose of the committee was “to promote the ideal of an Anglo-Jewish Palestine which it is hoped the War will bring within reach.” They sent out a letter to likely supporters, asking them to lend their names as patrons:
There are many Jewish nationalists in England who look forward to the establishment of a Jewish State in Palestine under the British Crown. There are many Englishmen who hold it to be a very important British interest that Palestine should be part of the British Imperial system in the East. Thus, not for the first time in history, there is a community alike of interest and of sentiment between the British State and Jewish people.
The response was discouraging. Sidebotham writes, “I think we received24 about ten replies in all, of which half were purely formal acknowledgments. Of the remainder, two were opposed to us.” But two positive replies are worth noting: C. P. Scott lent his name immediately. And although Mark Sykes declined to become a patron (“As I am officially25 employed at the Committee of Imperial Defense, it would be impossible for me to accept the office of Patron of your Committee”), he was not unsympathetic: “I have always considered26 that Jewish Nationalism is inevitably destined to play a great part in the future.” And he added to his letter a postscript: “Could you send me 4 or 5 of your pamphlets?” At this time Sykes was still in closest contact with Moses Gaster, but he may already have been noting Gaster’s deficiencies and seeking alternative sources of information on Zionism.
Even without a long list of notable patrons, the BPC pushed forward. On January 26, 1917, it published the first issue of Palestine, a weekly review and journal of opinion. Sacher edited and wrote the occasional piece for it, as did Sieff and Marks, who also provided much of its funding. Sidebotham composed most of its articles, hammering at a few main themes: notably that “unless Palestine comes27 under the flag of the Power holding Egypt [namely England] it will, in the hands of a hostile Power, be a perpetual menace to its safety”; and “only the Jewish race and our association with the forces of its nationalism can secure [in Palestine] … a colony capable of development into a self-governing dominion of the British Crown.” Quickly Palestine established28 itself as an important source of information for anyone interested in Zionism.
Mark Sykes read Palestine, which did not always please him. He objected first of all to the BPC publicly advocating a British protectorate for Palestine, as it did in the journal’s very first issue. Weizmann conveyed Sykes’s concern to the committee. Sieff responded, “We29 … must at whatever cost persistently and unequivocally place our views before the F.O.… We must close our ears to Sykes’ remark re our articles.” Sykes reiterated his concerns at the meeting with Weizmann and Sokolow on February 10, when the three discussed Sokolow’s interviews with Picot: “It was necessary to keep the idea of British suzerainty in the background for the time being, as it was likely to intensify the French opposition.” Again he mentioned the journal: It was “much too emphatic in its exposition of the British interests in Palestine.” Weizmann and Sokolow agreed, but muzzling their Manchester colleagues was not so easy.
On February 15 the BPC published an article envisioning a Palestinian state whose western border was the Mediterranean Sea and that stretched north as far as Damascus, southeast to Basra, southwest to the Gulf of Aqaba, and northwest along the existing Turco-Egyptian border. This was too much for Sykes altogether. Again he complained to Weizmann. He must have been quite angry for “it was most unpleasant,”30 Weizmann reported afterward to Sokolow. “I wrote to the Manchester people and I hope that they will be careful.”
But they would not be. In fact, Sykes’s sensitivity to Palestine’s borders set them thinking. “There is no doubt31 in my mind,” Sieff wrote again to Weizmann, “that Sir M. has come to an agreement with the Arabs, and his interest in Jewish political aspirations in Palestine is only secondary.” In his letter Weizmann must have warned that the BPC risked harming Britain’s good relations with France. Sieff shot back, “Yes, our articles do enormous harm, but it is harm in the right direction. It may harm the Arab kingdom, but that is no concern of ours.” He then suggested, “You may diplomatically hint that you are not responsible for the ‘hot-headed youths’ of the British Palestine Committee. If any communication is to be made on our work, let it be made to us.”
At this Weizmann threw down the gauntlet in the form of a telegram: “Letter received.32 Disagree completely, your attitude renders further efforts here useless, we therefore decide to resign everything on Thursday.” He meant that he and the other London members would resign from the BPC. Sieff backed down: “‘Palestine’ this week33 will contain a Jewish article which will meet the wishes of Sir M.”
But the dispute did not end. On March 1 Palestine published Sidebotham’s rebuttal of an article in the last week’s Nation that had argued against a British protectorate. To this Sidebotham riposted, “We must have a projecting bastion in front of a line of communication so vital as that of the [Suez] Canal … Let us beware of repeating the mistake of the mid-nineteenth century politicians who regarded every fresh extension of territory as an increase of responsibility that ought to be avoided.” Sykes, and Weizmann, must have thrown up their hands.
The refusal of the Manchester contingent to fall into line pointed to a grave danger for Chaim Weizmann. At first glance Manchester and London seemed to be disagreeing merely over whether to advocate a British protectorate in Palestine publicly or to hold back, at Britain’s behest, for political reasons; and whether to push a definition of Palestine’s borders that was expansive or modest, as Britain preferred, at least for the moment. At a more profound level, however, the dispute called the Zionist alliance with Britain into question. This was to strike at the root of Weizmann’s strategy and therefore at Weizmann’s role as principal Zionist leader in Britain. It took the boldest and most perspicacious of the Manchester school to see it and to state it, but Harry Sacher did not draw back. When, a few months after the initial disagreement, Palestine again published articles that Sykes, and therefore Weizmann, objected to, Sacher wrote to his friend Leon Simon that Weizmann and Sokolow were “tying Zionism up34 indissolubly with a ‘British’ policy, even though that should mean partition and condominium.” Therefore they were “guilty of sacrificing Zionist interest to British.” They risked “preferring British Imperialism … to Zionism.” “Where we differ from35 the London folk,” Sacher explained to Simon in another letter, “is that they are determined to tie Zionism up with the F.O. [Foreign Office] and to take anything the F.O. is graciously pleased to grant. I don’t trust the F.O. and I am convinced that we shall never do anything with them except by convincing them that we are a power. That, Chaim and his tactics will never achieve.”
But Sacher underestimated the skill with which Weizmann and Sokolow had been maneuvering. Weizmann, for his part, privately branded Sacher “an extremist and36 a ‘Draufgeher’ [fire-eater,] with … a very marked lack of the sense of reality.” But he did not make the mistake of underestimating him: As Weizmann well knew, Sacher remained among the most talented and formidable of his followers. The relationship between the two men stretched, sometimes to bending, but never to the breaking point. The Zionist leader still had good reason for optimism in the spring of 1917.