Climax and Anticlimax


The Ascendancy of Chaim Weizmann

THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT issued the Balfour Declaration in early November 1917. For the twelve months preceding that date, especially for the last six, the Zionists under Weizmann’s leadership moved steadily, almost implacably, toward their goal. Obstacles they brushed aside, or overbore, or undermined. Yet Zionist victory never was preordained. To contemporaries, everything seemed to be up in the air almost until the last moment. Furthermore, under certain circumstances even Zionist implacability would have availed them little.

Think back to the fruitless meeting between representatives of the Conjoint Committee and the Zionists at Lucien Wolf’s offices in 1915 and the correspondence that preceded and followed it, and to the “formula” Lucien Wolf then devised in hopes of stealing Zionist thunder but which the Foreign Office refused to endorse. Afterward contact between the two Jewish groups lapsed. Wolf’s assimilationists on the Conjoint Committee focused on preparing for the postwar settlement, at which they hoped British and French leaders would demand abolition of the cruel disabilities from which Jews in Russia and Romania continued to suffer. They pressed the Foreign Office to promise to make such demands at the appropriate moment. The Zionists, of course, pushed forward with their campaign for a Jewish homeland in Palestine under British auspices. To an outsider, it might have seemed that the two movements would continue along separate and parallel tracks.

In fact the two groups rode upon converging rails. When unavoidable collision came, Zionists would insist that Jews constituted a distinct nationality and must therefore receive distinct privileges while building their homeland in Palestine; against them the assimilationists would insist with equal resolve that Jews cherished a belief system in common and nothing more. As Liberals, the assimilationists held the thought of special privileges for their coreligionists in Palestine, or anywhere else, as anathema.

Another point of convergence made the smashup more complete when it finally occurred: Both groups sought the ear of the Foreign Office with equal determination. Increasingly this aspect of their competition resembled a turf war. But with regard to the future of Palestine, there could be only one victor.

Imagine two railway carriages, one containing British Zionists, the other British advocates of Jewish assimilation, rumbling down the tracks at increasing speed, flashing past signposts warning of an impending collision. One signpost had come into view during the summer of 1916, with publication of Zionism and the Jewish Future, edited by Harry Sacher. This book aimed to acquaint non-Zionists with the general history and aims of the movement. Unobjectionable enough, one would have thought, except that two essays in particular deeply offended the advocates of assimilation. The first, by Weizmann, argued bluntly that no matter what success and prominence a Jew who attempts to assimilate achieves, he “is felt by the outside1 world to be still something different, still an alien.” From this it followed that “the position of the emancipated Jew, though he does not realize it himself, is even more tragic than that of his oppressed brother.” In other words, unlike the British or French Jew, the Russian or Romanian or Polish Jew, miserable as he might be, at least knew where he stood. Then in a later chapter, Moses Gaster dismissed those who refused to acknowledge that Judaism was the “expression of the religious consciousness of the national life of the Jew.” He put his conclusion as bluntly as had Weizmann: “The claim to be Englishmen of the Jewish persuasion—that is, English by nationality and Jewish by faith—is an absolute self-delusion.”

Open attacks couched in contemptuous or even pitying terms—the Cousinhood and its “foreign secretary,” Lucien Wolf, were unaccustomed to such treatment. Worse than the tone, however, was the accusation of deluded incomprehension. Wolf understood Weizmann and Gaster to be threatening “the position of emancipated2 Jews as citizens of their native countries.” He and Claude Montefiore, president of the Anglo-Jewish Association, published essays of rebuttal in The Fortnightly Review for November 1916 andThe Edinburgh Review for April 1917. “How can a man3 belong to two nations at once?” Montefiore asked rhetorically in his article, the first of the two to appear. No man could belong equally and simultaneously to two nations. One who tried to only opened himself to the charge of divided loyalties. “No wonder that all anti-Semites are enthusiastic Zionists,” Montefiore commented bitterly. Wolf dismissed Zionist claims with like decisiveness:

The Zionist wing4 of the [Jewish nationalist] movement was never tired of claiming that it expressed an unbroken national yearning of over 2,000 years … The Jews were always primarily a religious people and their national life in Palestine was a phase of their greater history as a church. The religion could live without it, and the exiled people soon lost their political yearning and merged their hopes of national restoration with the Messianic teachings of their prophets and sages. The restoration they prayed for was the fulfillment of a Divine Scheme of human redemption.

Wolf’s and Montefiore’s articles were only the most visible of a number of published replies to Sacher’s Zionist book by advocates of assimilation. The Zionists answered back in a further series of articles and pamphlets.

Both parties to the controversy considered themselves aggrieved. “So long as this5 [Zionist] view was put forward by obscure writers we took no notice,” Wolf wrote to a friend in France. When leading Zionists such as Gaster and Weizmann made their charges, however, then the chief advocates of assimilation must reply. Meanwhile Sokolow was charging in a letter to an American Zionist that “the ‘campaign’ was6 started by an article in The Fortnightly Review.”

For every advance made by the Zionists, Wolf sought a counterstroke. Weizmann had been courting Rothschilds, especially Walter, who in 1915 inherited the baronetcy from Nathan, his father, and with it leadership of the family and of British Jewry, although he was mainly interested in zoology, ornithology, and entomology and seems to have been something of an eccentric. Weizmann made of this unlikely figure a committed Zionist. “As my sister-in-law will7 have told you I am arranging for an interview with Mr. Balfour,” Walter Rothschild wrote to Weizmann in his large, scrawling, almost childish hand. “I fully realize the great importance of doing everything to further the Zionist cause with the Government in view of the persistant [sic] and purile [sic] opposition carried on by Lucien Wolff [sic] and the C[onjoint] C[ommittee].” Meanwhile Wolf was courting Walter’s uncle Leopold, who counseled moderation, not attack. Wolf found himself constrained to write placatingly to his Rothschild: “I am afraid you8 imagine that I am eager for the fray but I assure you this is not so … but I do feel most strongly and most earnestly that, in the highest interests of the Jewish community, we cannot leave the situation as it is … The foolish things published by the Zionists … have seriously compromised the situation of the Jews all over the world.” But Leopold was ill and would soon pass away. So another signpost flashed by, this one warning that the advocates of assimilation were losing their grip on Britain’s most important Jewish family, while the Zionist grip was strengthening.

Weizmann, Wolf knew, had held meetings with mandarins including Balfour at the Foreign Office. Rumors probably reached him of Weizmann’s meetings with Prime Minister Lloyd George as well. This was a game two could play, he must have thought, not least since he had been playing it long before Chaim Weizmann arrived upon the British scene. On January 30, 1917, he managed his own interview with Balfour, ostensibly to register Conjoint Committee discontent with the government for refusing to promise to take up the Jewish question at a peace conference after the war. It represented a grave defeat for the Conjoint Committee, and Wolf protested Britain’s unwelcome decision to Balfour. But he took at least as much time to educate the foreign secretary on the relative strength of assimilationists and Zionists.

The Conjoint Committee, he explained to Balfour, was

the only body authorized to speak for the Jewish communities, not only of the United Kingdom, but of the British Empire. It represented 150 congregations, including all the chief synagogues, in addition to the Anglo-Jewish Association and its many branches, and a very considerable section of the foreign Jewish community established in this country who were represented by the delegates of certain of the East End Synagogues, and more especially of the Friendly Societies, which alone have a membership of about 40,000.

By contrast, Zionism “was only a part of the Jewish National Movement, which was largely inspired by the general struggle for Nationalist autonomy and independence in Eastern Europe.” Among West European Jews, including British Jews, Wolf insisted, “there was no specifically Jewish National Movement, and relatively very few Zionists.”

So far in the interview Wolf had emphasized the turf-war aspect of his struggle against Zionism. But then he stressed that it was a battle over principles as well, and he placed the assimilationists’ principles within Britain’s liberal tradition. “We should rejoice if the Zionists made Palestine the seat of a flourishing and reputable Jewish community,” he informed the foreign secretary. “We should have no objection if that Jewish community developed into a local Jewish nation and a Jewish state.” What they did object to was Zionist subversion, as they understood it, of the twin principles of emancipation and assimilation elsewhere, as well as to the “proposal to give to the Jews of Palestine privileges not shared by the rest of the population of that country.”

Balfour, as he took it all in, seemed to Wolf to be both patient and sympathetic. But perhaps, inadvertently, the foreign secretary revealed where his true sympathies lay. He strongly objected to anti-Semitism, Balfour told Wolf, but Jews “were exceedingly9 clever people who in spite of their oppression achieved a certain success which excited the jealousy and envy of the peoples among whom they lived.” Conceivably this observation anticipates the view he would publicly express later: that recognition of Jewish nationality and establishment of a Jewish national home would raise the status, and therefore alleviate the treatment, of Jews everywhere. Here then we may notice another signpost warning of the future smashup; if so Wolf did not perceive it.

Additional signposts appeared, and these Lucien Wolf saw well enough. His counterpart in Paris, Jacques Bigart of the Alliance Israélite, reported that Nahum Sokolow (present in that city on the European mission we have treated previously) had said that the British government largely approved the Zionist program already—and so did the French. Alarmed, Wolf immediately contacted the Foreign Office. “The Presidents of the10 Conjoint Committee are anxious to be informed, if possible, whether this statement is accurate,” he wrote. “I am to add that in the opinion of the Presidents … a great injustice would be done to the Anglo-Jewish community, and very serious mischief might result, if an agreement on the Palestine Question were concluded without their participation, more especially as the gentlemen with whom His Majesty’s Government have so far been in negotiation are all foreign Jews, having no quality to speak for the native Jews of the United Kingdom.” (Note that Wolf did not scruple to play the antiforeigner card. By now it had become a staple of the British anti-Zionist repertoire.) He received in reply a mollifying response11 from Sir Ronald Graham. Wolf pressed for further assurances, which Robert Cecil provided him at a face-to-face meeting on May 8. But Cecil also warned Wolf against publicly quarreling with the Zionists. It would be inconvenient for the Foreign Office and would do the Anglo-Jewish community no good.

Was Cecil’s warning a signpost too? Wolf remained uneasy. With the two presidents of the Conjoint Committee, David Lindo Alexander and Claude Montefiore, he plotted strategy. Montefiore thought he could approach Lord Milner of the War Cabinet, with whom he was personally acquainted. Wolf immediately endorsed12 this plan. Montefiore saw Milner on May 16. He argued the assimilationists’ case and urged the government to stick with the Conjoint Committee because its British-born members better represented Jewish interests than foreign-born Zionists such as Weizmann, Sokolow, and Gaster. Milner tried to reassure him. The Foreign Office would consult the Conjoint Committee before deciding upon its policy for Palestine. On the other hand, he acknowledged that “Mr. Lloyd George was impressed by and sympathetic to many of the ideas of the Zionists,” and he downplayed Conjoint Committee fears of the Zionist program: “Anti-Semitism and emancipation depended upon far other considerations than the erection of a small Jewish autonomous community in Palestine.” As to whether Britain13 would grant special privileges to Jews in Palestine if she proclaimed a British protectorate there, he would not be pinned down.

Montefiore left the meeting not reassured. “I would beg of you,”14 he reiterated to Milner the following day in a letter, “to trust your own fellow citizens who, at all events, are Englishmen through and through, and whose sons are serving in England’s armies, rather than foreigners who have no love for England, and who, if the fortunes of war went wrong, would throw her over in a trice and hurry over to Berlin to join the majority of their colleagues.” It was the chauvinist card yet again, but Milner did not mind. Montefiore “is an able, temperate15 and most honest man,” he wrote to Robert Cecil, “and when he begged me almost passionately to be very careful how we commit ourselves to Sokoloff or Weizmann I am sure that he does so from an honest conviction that they are not reliable guides.” But Milner too leaned toward the Zionists. Five months previously he had read Herbert Samuel’s Zionist memorandum and wrote to him: “Among the possible16 alternatives which you review, the one which you yourself favor certainly appears to me the most attractive.”

Three days later Wolf received a report of Chaim Weizmann’s most recent address to a Zionist conference in London. “I am entitled17 to state in this assembly,” Weizmann had announced, “that His Majesty’s Government is ready to support our plans.” This repetition of Sokolow’s claims in Paris reinforced Wolf’s conclusion that Zionism stood upon the verge of a great triumph. Only desperate measures could now rescue the position of the Conjoint Committee; the advocates of Jewish assimilation now must stake all or lose all.

On Tuesday, May 17, Wolf, Alexander, and Montefiore presided over a meeting of the Conjoint Committee to discuss the situation. The group decided “to issue a public18 statement of their attitude on the Zionist question.” They drew it up “there and then … and approved [it] with only two dissentients.” The statement hammered “the Zionist theory19 which regards all the Jewish communities of the world as constituting one homeless nationality, incapable of complete social and political identification with the nations among whom they dwell.” It condemned the Zionist proposal “to invest the Jewish settlers in Palestine with certain special rights in excess of those enjoyed by the rest of the population, these rights to be embodied in a Charter, and administered by a Jewish Chartered Company.” They further resolved to publish the statement not only in the Jewish press but in The Times. Those members of the Conjoint Committee, Wolf foremost among them, who claimed that the statement was couched in conciliatory language, were either fooling themselves or attempting to fool others.

Wolf left the meeting accompanied by Joseph H. Hertz, Britain’s chief rabbi, who had attended by special invitation and had cast one of the two dissenting votes. The two men stood outside the Regent’s Park tube station. As Wolf wrote afterward, Dr. Hertz reiterated “his regret at20 the action that had been resolved upon. He asked me whether anything could be done to stop it. I said … if Dr. Weizmann and Dr. Gaster could be induced to modify or otherwise explain away their published statements obviously there would be no longer any need for the action resolved upon.” Hertz reported that Wolf went further: “‘And you would render21 a great service to the community’ he told me, ‘if you could induce them to do so.’” Acting upon this advice (although Wolf denied that he ever gave it), the chief rabbi contacted Leopold Greenberg, editor of The Jewish Chronicle, “because he was the only man who could bring pressure to bear upon the Zionist leaders.” Alarmed, Greenberg got in touch with Wolf.

On Tuesday evening, May 22, the Zionist editor and the Jewish “foreign secretary” met for nearly three hours at Wolf’s home. Over the course22 of a wide-ranging discussion, Greenberg argued that the quarrel between Zionists and anti-Zionists concerned the Anglo-Jewish community primarily and should not be aired outside it. Wolf replied that Zionists had published outside the Jewish press and that the Conjoint Committee, in defending itself, reserved the right to publish where it would. In fact, Wolf and his colleagues had just decided to give their statement to The Times; it was published there on Thursday, May 24. But Alexander refused23 to publish the statement in The Jewish Chronicle without Montefiore’s explicit assent, and Wolf could not reach Montefiore on Wednesday the twenty-third, so it was too late for the statement to appear there since the Chronicle published on Fridays. That The Jewish Chronicle did not publish the statement, but The Times did, made a bad impression on the Jewish community as a whole and alienated Greenberg further, if that were possible. Nor can it have pleased Sir Robert Cecil, who had warned against a public dispute. That Wolf threw down the gauntlet anyway must be an index of his increasing alarm.

Publication of the Conjoint Committee’s statement in The Times created a firestorm. Lord Walter Rothschild picked up his copy that morning, read the offending piece, and dashed off a response. He sent it to Weizmann: “If you approve24 please go and see the Editor personally and hand it to him. I fear it is not in very good style and not as clean as I could wish.” Weizmann did better than that. Not only did he polish Rothschild’s letter, which The Times published on Monday, May 28, but in his own more formidable prose he took on the committee as well: “It may possibly be inconvenient to certain individual Jews that the Jews constitute a nationality. Whether the Jews do constitute a nationality is, however, not a matter to be decided by the convenience of this or that individual. It is strictly a question of fact.” The chief rabbi sent in a letter too: “I cannot allow your readers to remain under the misconception that the said statement represents in the least the views held either by Anglo-Jewry as a whole or by the Jewries of the Oversea Dominions.”

To Wolf, Alexander, and Montefiore, The Times had seemed a natural outlet for expression of the views of the Cousinhood. It was the newspaper of record for England’s governing class, of which they formed at least a tangential section. They may even have hoped that The Times would endorse their position, but if so they miscalculated. The same Wickham Steed who a few weeks later would warn Weizmann of Henry Morgenthau’s pending journey to Gibraltar wrote The Times leader for May 29. He endorsed the Zionist movement: “It had fired with a new ideal millions of poverty-stricken Jews … It has tended to make Jews proud of their race.” And he condemned the Conjoint Committee’s statement in Weizmann’s own words: “It may possibly be inconvenient to certain individual Jews that the Jews do constitute a nationality. The question is one of fact, not argument.”

Other newspapers took a similar line. “Does not the Jew already stamp himself as a stranger and an alien?” asked The Glasgow Herald. “Whether it be his religion or his inextinguishable pride of race or his hopes and dreams in the fulfillment of prophecy is he not now ‘a stranger and a sojourner’ in our midst? The barrier is there and whether he has once more a land of his own … or whether he remains as he is … it does not seem to us that his status would undergo visible alteration in the near future.” Even The Nation, an organ of the nonsocialist Left in which Lucien Wolf usually found comfort, failed to comfort him this time. Editors of The Nation did not actually endorse the Zionist position but nor did they completely endorse assimilation. Rather they cherished “the hope that for25 the sake of the very numerous body of Jews who are not and do not want to be assimilated and absorbed, an international regime may be possible in Palestine which would secure a cultural focus for Hebrew Nationalism.”

Within the Anglo-Jewish community itself, debate stoked by the Zionists raged fiercely. Samuel Cohen of Manchester, a provincial vice-president of the English Zionist Federation, proudly claimed to be a chief stoker. “It was26 … thanks to the interest I have taken and the energy I have displayed that the Board [of Deputies] … were bombarded with letters of protest from the Synagogues and Societies all over England,” he boasted to Weizmann. The journal Palestine, turning things upside down as only the clever Harry Sacher could, accused Wolf and his partners of being pro-German in thought if not in deed:

The ordinary non-Jew27 knows that the Jew whether he admits or denies the existence of a Jewish nation is nevertheless distinguishable and distinct from the non-Jew … He does not however deduce from that the conclusion that the Jew is unfitted to be a citizen … and when Messrs. Montefiore and Alexander express the fear that he might they are betraying what must be called a Prussian conception of the State. The Prussian idea … is that all citizens must be as nearly as possible alike in their outlook upon the world … This … as we are all beginning to see is the root cause of the war.

Leopold Greenberg, furious that Wolf had ignored his plea to keep the quarrel with Zionism within the family, as it were, wrote more ferociously still. “All that the Committee28 have achieved is to exhibit the Jewish people in its worst aspect—in a state of strife and disunion—and to injure, pro tanto, the Jewish prestige. It is a sorry result but one for which they should be quickly brought to account.” Even Israel Zangwill, who was making his way back toward the Zionist position, condemned the committee’s “manifesto” in a private letter to Wolf. Its publication had been “a grave error29 … Palestine at your price is not worth having, and is certainly nothing to be thankful for.”

On June 2, at a meeting of the council of the Anglo-Jewish Association, one of the two pillars upon which the Conjoint Committee rested, Moses Gaster mounted a Zionist attack: He moved a vote of no confidence in the AJA leaders. Gaster no longer held the chief position among Zionists—Weizmann had that now; but he delivered a stem-winder of a speech, demonstrating the histrionic skills that once had brought him to the fore. The association “had declared the Zionists30 to be faithless to their past. How dared they take their name and glory away? They were a nation … The statement which had been published would be quoted over and over again as if they intended to justify oppression … It was an irreparable blunder that such a manifesto should have been given to the world.” But, the advocates of assimilation gave as good as they got. Montefiore mocked Gaster: “The most curious thing about the Zionists was that directly the least thing was said in criticism of their acts they set up the most fearful howl and complained bitterly, as though they were a privileged body.” Sir Philip Magnus, MP, insisted that advocates of assimilation did not oppose establishment of Jewish colonies in Palestine, only establishment of Jewish rule. Gaster and his friends should accept “the formula put forward by the Conjoint Committee and … endeavor to establish in Jerusalem a great center of Jewish learning and culture.” The haham saw which way the wind was blowing. He withdrew his motion.

Two weeks later, however, on June 15, at the most heavily attended assembly in its history to date, the second pillar of the Conjoint Committee, the Board of Deputies, collapsed entirely. The board had before it the following motion of censure:

That this Board having considered the views of the Conjoint Committee as promulgated in the communication published in The Times of the 24th May, 1917, expresses profound disapproval of such views and dissatisfaction at the publication thereof, and declares that the Conjoint Committee has lost the confidence of the Board and calls upon its representatives on the Conjoint Committee to resign their appointment forthwith.

One by one the censurers spoke. The statement had been “issued at an inopportune31 time,” said one. “It was disingenuous in origin, defamatory in effect, and altogether unrepresentative.” Was there so much trouble “in the community that The Times should be the mouthpiece of Anglo-Jewry while the Anglo-Jewish press had been ignored?” wondered another. A third charged that publishing in The Times had been “a case of super chutzpa.” A fourth: “If any man of honor, whether pro-Zionist or anti-Zionist, voted against a resolution of censure he did not deserve to be a member of the Board representing Anglo-Jewry.” Although most speakers focused upon the impropriety of the Conjoint Committee airing Jewish linen in public, Lord Rothschild attacked a main plank of the assimilationists’ position: “I have always thought that such a Home [a Jewish Palestine under British protection] was only meant for those people who could not or did not desire to consider themselves citizens of the country in which they lived, and I can truly say that the National Zionists have done nothing, and would never do anything, inconsistent with the status of the true British citizen of which I am proud to be one, just as proud as I am of being a Jew.”

The supporters of the Conjoint Committee, including Alexander, Magnus, and Wolf himself, ably defended their conduct and outlook, but the vote at the end went against them, 56-51. Wolf would claim that this tally showed how nearly even were the two sides. The scholar who32 has studied the event most closely points out that the vote reflected provincial jealousy of London leaders and resentment at their high-handed ways more than support of the Zionist position per se. What mattered at the time, however, was perception, and here nuance did not apply. The officers of the board understood themselves to have been defeated and surrendered their posts. Lord Rothschild understood them to have been defeated too. “I write to tell you33 that we beat them by 56–51 and Mr. Alexander … and the rest have all resigned,” he reported to Weizmann. “I have written to Mr. Balfour asking for an interview for yourself and me for Tuesday or Wednesday and I shall be able to prove to him that the majority of Jews are in favor of Zionism.” Other leading Zionists too perceived the episode as a defeat for the advocates of assimilation. Sacher crowed, “It is a great victory.”34

With support from the Board of Deputies withdrawn, there could be no Conjoint Committee. This the Foreign Office recognized at once. “This vote35 signifies the dissolution of the Conjoint Committee,” noted Sir Ronald Graham, “and it will no longer be necessary to consult that body.”

The smashup had taken place at last. Jewish anti-Zionists had been deprived of their most powerful instrument. Weizmann could have been excused for thinking that the last Jewish obstacle to the great goal finally had been removed.

But he would have been wrong. The Conjoint Committee was dead, but Weizmann’s own colleagues remained disputatious as ever. He would have to make them realize, once and for all, that they could not do without him. And even then, before he could finally grasp the nettle and pluck the rose, he would have to overcome, too, his own growing desire to escape from their ceaseless carping by simply throwing up his hands and walking away.

British Zionists argued over at least four major issues. One we have discussed already: the question of a separate peace with Turkey, which pitted Sacher and Simon in particular against Weizmann and most of his colleagues. Another we have also glimpsed: Despite Weizmann’s wishes, the British Palestine Committee in Manchester would not wear a bridle fashioned by the Foreign Office. This issue reemerged in early May 1917, just as Lucien Wolf was nerving himself for his ill-fated showdown with Zionism. The BPC organ Palestine printed two articles condemning international control of the promised land even though its editors knew that the Foreign Office and, therefore the London Zionists, wished them to keep quiet on the subject. When he saw the articles, Weizmann hit the roof. He threatened to withhold a £500 subsidy for the journal. He accused one BPC member, Israel Sieff, of practicing mere “hobby Zionism.”

Sieff, deeply wounded, climbed down immediately: “I intend to send36 in my resignation to the B.P.C.,” he wrote to his leader. “It almost breaks my heart … [but] I dare not imperil the cause … I am desolated that it should have meant an addition to your burden of anxieties and worries.” Harry Sacher would not back down, however. “I don’t mind37 the charge of ‘indiscipline.’ It’s the kind of charge that leaves my withers unwrung.” For him the issue encapsulated the essential contradiction between his approach and Weizmann’s. The latter was “determined to tie Zionism up with the F.O. and to take anything the F.O. is graciously pleased to grant.” Weizmann had become more British than Jewish, Sacher charged. He, however, would remain independent.

The third issue dividing Weizmann’s Zionists was the proposal to create a Jewish regiment to fight in Palestine. This scheme found its fiercest proponent in a young Jewish Russian journalist who had made his way to Britain shortly after the outbreak of war, Ze’ev (Vladimir) Jabotinsky. For him, the idea grew naturally from his prewar activities organizing Jewish defense leagues in Russia. At first Weizmann professed neutrality on the subject. But he grew close to Jabotinsky. After a meeting with Lloyd George in April 1917, he realized the government favored creation of a Jewish regiment too. Shortly after the meeting Weizmann came out in support.

Some British Jews saw a myriad of difficulties here. If a distinctly Jewish regiment appeared in Syria to fight the Turks, it might lead to reprisals carried out by Ottoman troops against Jewish civilians. Moreover, who in Britain would join? Most Jewish Britons of military age already served in their country’s armed forces. The prospect of combing them out and placing them in separate Jewish battalions offended the advocates of Jewish assimilation—and even many Zionists. Some twenty thousand Russian Jewish immigrants of military age, hitherto exempt from conscription, lived in the East End of London. Perhaps they could be induced to join the regiment. In fact, such men would not join any section of any army that fought on the same side as the tsar. Even after the Russian Revolution overthrew the tsar’s anti-Semitic regime, these immigrants remained unenthusiastic about the war. Should they be compelled to enlist in the regiment on pain of deportation? The government thought so, but many Jews, including many Zionists (Weizmann among them), could not stomach forcing such a choice upon them.

Men like Sacher in Manchester and Simon in London opposed the scheme for yet another reason. They thought that in advocating a Jewish regiment, Weizmann once again was sacrificing Jewish needs to British needs. Simon wrote to Nahum Sokolow: “We Zionists38 are the heirs and the keepers of the great Jewish tradition, and we are false to our trust, and show ourselves incapable of realizing its true worth if we allow ourselves to get into a frame of mind in which the rightness of our cause can be imagined to depend in any way on the success or failure of a petty military scheme—and a scheme which is in no sense our own.” Sacher and Simon thought Weizmann had been seduced by the “jingo” Jabotinsky. “Chaim Weizmann has caught39 from Jabotinsky the disease of Cadetism, that’s the long and the short of it,” Sacher wrote. When Weizmann would not disavow the regiment, Simon resigned from the Zionist Political Committee in protest.

He rejoined it, however, when Weizmann asked him to. The Zionist leader could turn upon his difficult colleagues the same charm and persuasive powers that he employed when dealing with the great and the grand. Nevertheless his leadership style often left much to be desired. He could be dictatorial. He could sweetly take the pulse of his associates and then ignore it. Here is the fourth issue bedeviling British Zionists at this critical stage in their history: the personality of Chaim Weizmann himself.

Weizmann was like a great juggler, keeping half a dozen balls in the air at once. During 1917 he courted the Foreign Office and Sykes and Balfour and Lloyd George. He courted Lord Rothschild. He confronted and vanquished Lucien Wolf and the Conjoint Committee. He kept tabs on Sokolow’s mission to France and Italy. He traveled to Gibraltar to defeat Henry Morgenthau. He was dealing simultaneously with other matters that we have not even looked at: For example, what should be his group’s relations with the representatives of international Zionism, with American and Russian Zionists, with Zionists in Palestine? He was carrying on work of national importance in the laboratory. No man engaged at such a pitch would have responded well to an unending stream of criticism from his closest friends and associates.

On August 16, 1917, the same Samuel Cohen of Manchester who claimed to have stirred up the synagogues against the Conjoint Committee wrote to Weizmann: “You act on your40 own without acquainting or consulting any of your colleagues … it is time that this state of affairs should change and be improved.” That day the EZF executive council, of which Weizmann was president, convened its regular monthly meeting. A London delegate41 made a motion censuring the president for lack of leadership on the question of the Jewish regiment: Most Jews opposed it; Weizmann would not. Something snapped, and he resigned the presidency on the spot. To Israel Sieff that night, he declared that British Zionism was bankrupt. The next day he wrote to Sokolow that he was quitting not only the EZF but also the Zionist Political Committee, which had been formed by his friends largely to ease his burden of work and to provide him with a sounding board.

Faced with the possibility of Zionism sans Chaim Weizmann, his colleagues almost unanimously beseeched him to reconsider. Even Leon Simon, one of the chief critics, did so: “I think it no less42 my right than my duty to ask you as a friend not to give up the struggle.” Thus reassured, Weizmann appeared to relent; he continued to attend meetings. But the air had not yet sufficiently cleared. At a meeting of the Zionist Political Committee held on September 4, the question of the Jewish Regiment was aired yet again. Yet again Weizmann’s attitude came in for criticism. Yet again Weizmann declared that he could no longer tolerate such distrust. He wrote that night to Sokolow, “The atmosphere43 surrounding me is full of suspicion, envy, and [a] certain fanaticism, in the presence of which any fruitful work is impossible to me.”

Once more the confidence-restoring letters poured in, begging him to reconsider. Perhaps he would have done so in any event, or perhaps he intended merely to impress upon his colleagues his own indispensability. He wrote afterward to C. P. Scott that his threats to resign “had the effect44 of sobering them down,” as if that had been his intention all along. Or possibly an extraordinary letter from Ahad Ha’am proved decisive. This remarkable figure had remained in the background, but the letter he wrote to Weizmann on September 5, 1917, demonstrates that his voice and influence, whenever he chose to exercise them, must have been powerful, perhaps even decisive.

For the first time45 in all the years of our friendship I take the liberty of speaking to you not only as a friend … but like an older and more experienced comrade who was in the fight when you were still a schoolboy and who probably directly or indirectly influenced to a certain extent the molding of your opinion in Jewish problems. Now in this capacity I must say that what you intend doing is literally a “stab in the back” to the whole Zionist cause … You are too clever to fail to see that the effect of your so-called “resignation” would be the lowering of the prestige of the Zionist representatives in the eyes of those on whom at this critical moment depends the fate of our cause. It is not because you are absolutely indispensable. No man is absolutely indispensable. Had you left the work for some reasons beyond your control, such as serious illness or an accident, that would have been bad and harmful enough. Yet the work could have been carried on by someone else and would not have been shaken in its very foundations. [Or] … had you from the start appeared before those in power as the elected representative of the Zionist organization, as its “diplomatic” representative (as it was later the case with Sokolow) your “resignation” would not have caused great surprise either, since they are used to the principle of elected representation and would have found nothing odd in the replacement of one person by another …

Your case however is quite exceptional. You did not start as an elected representative of a “collective” unit but as an individual Zionist. Your personal qualities coupled with favorable conditions in a comparatively short period of time have caused a great number of influential people to regard you as something of a symbol of Zionism. Now suddenly out of the blue you announce that you have resigned. Who did you tender your resignation to? Who were those who elected you to have now the right to accept your resignation? You were elected by the circumstances and the circumstances alone will dismiss you in God’s good time, when either complete success or complete failure will render your further work unnecessary. Until then you cannot leave your post without creating a most disastrous impression about the Zionists and Zionism in the minds of those with whom you have been in contact until now …

There is of course no need to add that from a personal point of view such an act would be moral suicide. That however is your own affair and you are perfectly aware of it.

Did this letter have a chastening effect? It is hard to imagine otherwise. Did Weizmann’s threats to resign chasten the majority of his colleagues? Undoubtedly they had. For whatever combination of reasons, he retracted his threat to resign next day and would not broach the subject again during our period.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!