Speaking ahead of the 67-word letter’s centenary, Jacob Rothschild describes the historic declaration which paved the way for Israel’s existence.
The current and fourth Lord Rothschild has described the Balfour Declaration that helped pave the way for the creation of Israel as a “miracle” and revealed new details about his cousin Dorothea’s crucial role.
Speaking ahead of the 67-word letter’s centenary, they are his first ever public comments on the show of support from then-foreign secretary Lord Balfour to the second Lord Rothschild, his eccentric uncle Walter, and were made in a rare TV interview with former Israeli ambassador Daniel Taub as part of the Balfour 100 project.
Jacob Rothschild, 80, head of the family’s banking dynasty, said the declaration of support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine went through five drafts before finally being penned on 2 November 1917, adding: “It was the greatest event in Jewish life for thousands of years, a miracle… It took 3,000 years to get to this.”
The way it was achieved was extraordinary, he said. “It was the most incredible piece of opportunism. You had an impoverished would-be scientist, Chaim Weizmann, who somehow gets to England, meets a few people, including members of my family, seduces them, he has such charm and conviction, he gets to Balfour, and unbelievably, he persuades Lord Balfour, and Lloyd George, the prime minister, and most of the ministers, that this idea of a national home for Jews should be allowed to take place. I mean it’s so, so unlikely.”
The letter “changed the course of history for the Middle East and the Jewish people,” said Taub, who interviewed Rothschild at Waddeston Manor in Buckinghamshire, a country pile bequeathed to the nation by the family in 1957, where the Declaration is kept.
It was written to Walter Rothschild, a naturalist and collector, who was first and foremost interested in ornithology (the study of birds), said Jacob, and a “deeply eccentric man who rode around Tring Park on giant tortoises and whose carriage was pulled by zebras.
Walter only became interested in Zionism in later life, but Rothschild said he had been “deeply committed to Israel since the 1960’s and have been there every year since”.
However, he said his family at the time was divided on the idea of Israel, noting that some members “didn’t think it was a good thing that this national home be established there”.
He also revealed for the first time the role of his cousin Dorothy de Rothschild, who acted as a critical go-between while still in her teens. Describing her as “devoted to Israel,” Rothschild said: “What she did, which was crucially important, was to connect Weizmann to the British establishment, and extraordinarily, she told Weizmann how to integrate, how to insert himself into British establishment life, which he learned very quickly.”
Her letters, which are stored at Waddeston, detail her later dealings with a range of Zionist leaders, and her advice on the organisation of the Zionist Conference, and Rothschild said she had a profound effect on him, introducing him to Israel and the family’s philanthropic foundation in 1962.
Origins in The First World War
Beginning in 1916, the British hoped that in exchange for their support of Zionism, “the Jews”would help to finance the growing expenses of the First World War, which was becoming increasingly burdensome. More importantly, policy-makers in the Foreign Office believed that Jews could be prevailed upon to persuade the United States to join the War. At this time, there were very strong pro-Zionist feelings by many of the political elite and establishment. Many of Britain’s leaders, including Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and Balfour himself, felt for the Jews and their history. These men were deeply religious Christian Zionists. They had grown up on the Bible; the Holy Land was their spiritual home. They believed that modern Zionism would fulfill a divine promise, and re-settle the Jews in the land of their ancient fathers.
See the original letter below: