The Women Who Secured the Balfour DeclarationRoundup
tags: Jewish history, Israel, Zionism, Balfour Declaration, Rothschilds
Ms. Livingstone is a British journalist and historian. This essay is adapted from her new book The Women of Rothschild: The Untold Story of the World’s Most Famous Dynasty, which will be published on Oct. 25 by St. Martin’s Press.
On Nov. 2, 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour wrote a letter to Walter Rothschild, head of the English branch of the storied banking dynasty. Balfour wrote that “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
The Balfour Declaration was a key victory for the Zionist movement and an important step toward the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. The story of the declaration has often been told, but more than a century later, the role of the women of the Rothschild family has been largely forgotten. While Balfour’s letter was addressed to Walter Rothschild, it would probably never have been written if it wasn’t for the work of three people: Peggy, Marchioness of Crewe—whose mother was born a Rothschild—and two younger women who had married into the Rothschild family, Dorothy and Rózsika.
Chaim Weizmann, the future first president of Israel, began his campaign to enlist Dorothy “Dolly” Rothschild in the cause of Zionism in November 1914, with a letter: “Madame la Baronne, Please forgive these lines, and I hope you won’t consider me an intruder,” he began. Dolly, just 19 years old, had joined the famous banking dynasty only the year before, when she married 36-year-old James Rothschild, a descendant of its French branch who lived in London. James was one of the few Rothschilds who was sympathetic to Zionism, but he was currently serving in the French Army, leaving his young wife to manage his affairs in Britain.
She agreed to a meeting with Weizmann, in which the young bearded intellectual spoke passionately about the threat of anti-Semitism and his dream of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Historically, the English branch of the Rothschild family had been opposed to all forms of Zionism. The family had for generations encouraged the Anglicization of immigrant Jews by supporting religious reforms, civil rights campaigns and institutions such as the Jews’ Free School. The creation of a Jewish state threatened to undermine their achievements.
Such anxieties were reinforced by class-based condescension. Support for Zionism was particularly strong within working-class and middle-class immigrant Jewish communities, and grander Anglo-Jewish families like the Rothschilds often perceived the movement as being uncouth. The years leading up to the outbreak of World War I, however, had seen a small but significant shift in the opinions of some members of the Anglo-Jewish upper classes.
As their correspondence continued, Weizmann became more dramatic, telling Dolly tales of his own encounters with anti-Semitic violence. “We defended the Jewish quarter with revolvers in our hands,” he wrote of his experience during the Kishinev massacre, a vicious Russian pogrom in 1903 in which 49 Jews were killed and scores of women raped. While the pogrom at Kishinev was very real, Weizmann had not been present in the town during the massacre. His report was pure fiction, designed to shock a young woman into fighting for his cause.
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