Ninety-five years ago, on November 2 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote his famous letter to Lord Rothschild, expressing the support of the government for the “establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people”.
It was a major step towards the eventual founding of Israel.
The Balfour Declaration may have been delivered by patrician British diplomats in the imperial splendour of Whitehall, but in many ways it had been conceived 200 miles further north, amongst the second-generation Jewish immigrants of industrial Manchester.
It was from Manchester that Zionist statesman Chaim Weizmann and a band of ambitious young Jewish intellectuals and businessmen launched an upstart campaign which culminated in the declaration of 1917.
Manchester’s influence. Chaim Weizmann ended up in there by what he described as “an almost random choice of provincial city”.
'Zionist statesman Chaim Weizmann and a band of ambitious young Jewish intellectuals and businessmen launched an upstart campaign which culminated in the declaration of 1917'
After arriving from Switzerland, he took up a research post at Manchester University after failing to secure an academic position in London.
Erudite, sophisticated and already a veteran of Zionist politics on the continent, Weizmann initially found little to interest him.
In a letter written to the European Zionist leader Menachem Ussishkin shortly after his arrival, he described conditions in Manchester as “frightful, in fact beyond description.
"You are dealing with the dregs of Russian Jewry, a dull ignorant crowd that knows nothing of issues such as Zionism.”
“You cannot imagine,” he continued, “what it means for an intellectual to live in the English provinces and work with the local Jews. It’s hellish torture!”
Had things not improved, his unhappy wife and a longing for stimulating Jewish company may well have forced Weizmann back to the continent, his English chapter a mere historical footnote.
But improve they did, primarily as a result of a group of young men who became attached to Weizmann and provided him with intelligent company, admiration, enthusiasm for Zionism and much-needed funding.
The group was led by Harry Sacher, a fiercely intelligent journalist on the Manchester Guardian.
Sacher’s friend from Oxford, Leon Simon, provided further intellectual rigour and went on to become a senior civil servant.
Also at the group’s centre were Simon Marks and Israel Sieff. Though not renowned thinkers, Marks and Sieff were ambitious young men in the process of turning Marks & Spencer from a family business into a nationwide retail giant.
Weizmann described the pair, the “David and Jonathan” of British retail, as “young and energetic. They were practical and knew that work could not be done without a budget”.
These men, portrayed by Sacher as a “fellowship of friends brought together by a common cause and sharing a common approach”, gave themselves the rather grandiose title of the Manchester School of Zionism.
They also formed their own remarkably compact familial unit, with Israel Sieff and Harry Sacher both marrying Simon Marks’ sisters, Rebecca and Miriam. Marks in turn married Sieff’s sister Miriam.
The women were as committed to the Zionist cause as their husbands, and formed a strong relationship with Vera Weizmann, Chaim’s wife.
When the entire Manchester group visited Palestine as part of working party sent by the British government in the wake of the Balfour Declaration, it was the women’s dismay at the impoverished conditions there which inspired them to form the Women’s International Zionist Organisation (Wizo).
The Sieff home in Didsbury became a focal point for Manchester Zionist activities.
Almost all of the group were second-generation Jewish immigrants. They had turned away from the orthodoxy of the shtetl, and instead the main expression of their Jewish identity came through the excitement and campaigning zeal of the Zionist movement.
The formation of this group around Weizmann was a profound relief for him. “They were a great spiritual find,” he wrote in his biography, Trial and Error.
“Here were people with whom problems could be discussed, with whom I could check and verify my ideas and gauge how they would impress others…they were readier for action than I, who was often hesitant and overcautious.
"In short, they helped to make Manchester, the city I had come to as a stranger, and had considered a place of exile, a happy place for me.”
The formerly despondent Weizmann was uplifted, his Zionist activities rejuvenated. Away from the stultifying atmosphere and petty rivalries of London Jewish politics, Weizmann and his enthusiastic new allies built a strong platform from which they launched stunningly successful diplomatic campaign.
In 1914, the outbreak of the First World War opened up new avenues of opportunity for the Anglo-Zionists, as the Ottoman rulers of Palestine had now become enemies of the British.
Suddenly the idea of a Jewish client state in Palestine had become both attractive and feasible to British foreign policy analysts. It was at this time Weizmann met C.P. Scott at a garden party in Manchester.
Scott, a former Liberal politician and the editor of the Manchester Guardian, found Weizmann “extraordinarily interesting” and the two formed an instant rapport. His newspaper, became an increasingly staunch supporter of the Zionist cause, with Harry Sacher leading the charge.
Scott was also extraordinarily generous in wielding his considerable political influence on behalf of Weizmann and the Manchester Zionists.
In 1915, Scott brought Weizmann to meet David Lloyd George, then the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Lloyd George’s biblical upbringing and imperial inclinations made him susceptible to the Zionist cause. Exposure to the full force of Weizmann’s persuasive charm did the rest.
It was another Manchester friend, philosopher Samuel Alexander (the first Jewish fellow of an Oxford college), who arranged a fateful meeting between Weizmann and Arthur Balfour.
Balfour was blown away by Weizmann’s impassioned advocacy of the Zionist cause. Weizmann reported that Balfour was “moved to tears”. “It is not a dream,” the former prime minister declared at the end of the meeting, “it is a great cause and I understand it”.
The Russian chemist and the aristocratic British politician formed an unlikely friendship which would last until Balfour’s death in 1930.
Boosted by his new political connections and the adulation which followed his startling discovery of a new means of producing acetone (a significant boost for the British war effort), Weizmann’s campaign to secure British support for the Zionist cause was reaching its zenith.
In 1916, David Lloyd George became Prime Minister and Balfour was appointed as Foreign Secretary. Weizmann now had the support of the key decision-makers in the British government.
Sensing a potential opportunity, the Manchester Zionists also stepped up their campaign. Sacher, Sieff and Marks formed the British Palestine Committee along with their friend Herbert Sidebotham, another influential Manchester Guardian journalist.
Funded by Sieff and Marks, the committee published a journal, Palestine, which advocated a Jewish Palestine under British protection. Their prose was so vehement at times that Sir Mark Sykes asked Weizmann to rein in his supporters for fear of upsetting the diplomatic apple cart.
This Weizmann did, though not without much grumbling from Sieff and the hot-headed Sacher.
There were several such mishaps along the way, but for the Manchester Zionists, all of pieces of the puzzle had finally fallen in to place.
Geo-political expediency made a Zionist Palestine attractive to the British government (which was also making big promises to Arab leaders in the Middle East).
This along with the support of Weizmann allies Balfour and Lloyd-George got the campaign over the line, and on the November 2 1917 Balfour wrote his famous letter to Lord Rothschild.
For Weizmann, it was a personal and political triumph.
His British campaign, begun in the drawing rooms of Didsbury and Fallowfield and developed in the laboratories of Manchester University and the offices of the Manchester Guardian, had thrust right to very heart of the British establishment and won a famous victory.
There had been many others involved, but few doubted that it was Weizmann who had led the charge.
Although British policy on the Jewish state would waver considerably over the coming decades, the high point achieved in 1917 gave the concept a legitimacy which it never entirely lost.
Thirty-one years later, Israel was a reality.
In his memoirs, Israel Sieff sums up the audacity of the Manchester Zionists’ campaign, recalling how “Weizmann behaved as though he had a great Jewish state behind him.
"In fact all he had was his handful of Manchester friends, Scott, Sacher, Simon Marks and me”.