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A family that helped build a new nation

The full story of the Rothschilds' role in helping the establishment of Israel is not always told

    Lord Walter Rothschild (Getty)
    Lord Walter Rothschild (Getty)

    It is a particular honour for my family that the letter containing the Balfour Declaration was addressed to my great Uncle Walter, the second Lord Rothschild.

    In 1915 he had inherited the title from Nathaniel, his distinguished father, and with it the leadership of the family and British Jewry.

    The letter was delivered to his home at Piccadilly and from there taken to him at his estate at Tring. Walter’s great passion was zoology and his museum at Tring housed what was to become the finest private collection of natural history specimens ever made by one man.

    The decision to address the Declaration to him was seen as surprising by some. For example, Nahum Sokolow remarked that the main reason for it being sent to Walter, rather than the Zionist Committee, was that the Zionists “had no address while Walter had a very fine one at 148 Piccadilly”. The historian Cecil Roth described it as “incongruous”. But Walter had been deeply involved in the Zionist movement. He had been introduced to Chaim Weizmann and the cause through his formidable Hungarian sister-in-law Rozika, a convinced Zionist, who had married his younger brother Charles.

    Walter’s commitment to Zionism was fired by his very first meeting with Weizmann. He became convinced that the future of the Jews lay in Zionism and dedicated himself to the cause. After the Declaration Weizmann wrote to him: “May I offer you our heartiest thanks in making this possible — I am sure that when the history of this time will be written it will be justifiably said that the name of the greatest House in Jewry was associated with the granting of the Magna Carta of Jewish liberties….”

    Even if Walter’s connection to the Zionist movement was somewhat unconventional, from another side of my family Baron Edmond de Rothschild played a significant if very different role in the years prior to the Declaration.

    The Baron had been deeply involved in the resettling of Jews in Palestine following the dreadful pogroms of the 1880s in Russia. He was moved to support the early settlers by a number of factors, such as the increasing antisemitism and violence in the Pale of Settlement which made a refuge for Jews from pogroms and persecution imperative. But he was looking for more than a refuge. Above all he was inspired by the vision of the rebirth of the Jewish spirit in its ancient land. As he would later write to the early pioneers of Rishon LeZion: “ I did not come to your aid because of your poverty and suffering for to be sure there were many other similar cases of distress in the world. I did it because I saw in you the realisers of the renaissance of Israel and of that ideal so dear to us all, the sacred goal of the return of Israel to its ancestral homeland.”

    In the spirit of this vision, Edmond was inspired to support not only the physical and economic needs of the fledgling communities but also the intellectual and spiritual dimension of their activity. For example, he saw the development of The Hebrew University as “a great event in the modern history of Judaism” and actively supported the revival of the Hebrew language. Indeed, Eliezer ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, dedicated his famous Hebrew dictionary to him.

    For all of that, his relationship with the early settlers was complex.

    Edmond had originally calculated that it would take between one and three years before the early settlements would achieve economic independence. Clearly that was not to be the case. And the difference of outlook between the Labour Zionist pioneers, concerned with basic challenges of security, epidemics and subsistence, and the Baron’s more sophisticated ambitions, which included the manufacture not only of wine, but also, at various stages, of tobacco, silk and perfume to furnish the salons of Europe, were not without tensions — and often lively correspondence.

    Fortunately, the relationship survived the frustrations in the years that followed and contributed to an unimaginable transformation. In 1867 Mark Twain had described Palestine as “a hopeless, dreary and heartbroken land”. By the time Edmond made his last visit in 1925, it was altogether different. Speaking in the Great Synagogue of Tel Aviv he reminisced: “When I look back on the stretch of land where I began my work, I recall how Palestine appeared in those days: a rocky, barren land full of thorns. Today it seems to me I’m in a dream.”

    It is poignant that Edmond passed away on November 2nd, the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. His activity in Palestine, and then Israel, was continued by his son James and James’ wife Dorothy.

    James and Dorothy both came to play a role in the parallel story of the diplomacy that led to the Declaration. James had grown up in France but left to study at Cambridge, in part because of the antisemitism he saw revealed by the Dreyfus affair. In England, he married Dorothy Pinto, a 17-year-old girl from an Anglo-Sephardi family, who would herself would play an important part in the story of the Declaration.

    The story of how Chaim Weizmann, an immigrant chemist, came to England and through his charm and brilliance and passion — as well as his scientific contribution to the war effort — won over the British leadership is well known. Less well known is the story of how he gained the access that was crucial to this success.

    Weizmann, not surprisingly, wanted to meet with Baron Edmond, or at least his son James, to recruit their support. In the event, Edmond was in France while James was convalescing from his war injuries, so it fell to the teenage Dorothy to meet him. It is not clear who was more charmed by whom but a relationship developed — he wrote to her no less than 33 times between 1914 and 1916 — and through Dorothy and James, as well as the wider family, the door to a significant circle of the British establishment was opened.

    Their commitment to Palestine and then Israel was unswerving. James’ parting gift was to give the Knesset building to the State of Israel. Dorothy decided to continue his work through the foundation, Yad Hanadiv, and it was her idea to offer the magnificent Supreme Court building.

    This commitment to Israel of these two very different branches of the Rothschild family devolved to me through inheritance of the title and through Dorothy entrusting me with the chairmanship of the family foundation.

    Today the foundation continues to support Israel as a healthy vibrant democratic society, committed to Jewish values and equal opportunity for the benefit of all its inhabitants. In carrying out its work, it recognises the potential of all individuals, religious and secular, Jewish and Arab, men and women, to bring about change — whether in the school system or academia, whether in the work place or the environment, continuing a legacy that goes back to the Balfour Declaration and before.

    Today Yad Hanadiv employs some 40 people in Jerusalem and supports a wide range of good causes. In particular, over the last 15 years or so, we have been helping to build Israel’s new National Library in Jerusalem, for the People of the Book, to link Jewish communities throughout the world for the first time, thanks to the internet and digitisation revolution and to serve all faiths.

    As we celebrate the Balfour Declaration, we all surely recognise the remarkable human effort by ordinary and extraordinary individuals which led first to the Declaration and since then to a miraculous reality.

    My family and I are proud to have played a role in this story. My hope is that our commitment and involvement in this historic and inspiring mission will continue in the years ahead.

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