Sokolow in France and Italy

MARK SYKES HAD GIVEN Britain’s Zionists a key to the Foreign Office door and perhaps much else besides; now they would turn it. Their aim was to familiarize important officials with the Zionist program and to press for the British protectorate in Palestine that they firmly believed would allow that program to flourish. They aimed as well to extract from the British government a statement of support that would constitute a binding form of official recognition. Shrewdly, delicately, implacably, they pressed forward, unaware that Palestine already was spoken for in the Sykes-Picot Agreement and perhaps in the McMahon-Hussein correspondence. As always for the past thirty months, slaughter along the main fronts of war provided a backdrop to all their efforts.

Weizmann saw Lloyd George and Balfour at a dinner hosted by the Astors on March 13. General Murray’s forces had recently taken El Arish; they stood poised on the Palestinian border, about to cross over. On the Mesopotamian side, General Sir Frederick Maude’s army had taken Baghdad that very day. The news from everywhere else (with the possible exception of America, which seemed to be on the verge of joining the war against Germany) was grim if not appalling, but Lloyd George chose to emphasize the positive. No sooner had he entered the Astors’ drawing room than he made for Weizmann, asking how he liked the developing situation in the Middle East. But serious discussion could not take place during a social occasion, so Weizmann carefully broached the possibility of a more formal meeting. He would have requested one, he said, except that he fully understood how heavy was the prime minister’s schedule. “You must take me1 by storm,” Lloyd George replied, “and if Davies [one of his private secretaries] says I’m engaged don’t be put off but insist on seeing me.” They went on in to dine, but the prime minister had to leave the table early.

Weizmann turned to Balfour. Still, it being a dinner party, they could discuss Zionism only “academically,” in terms of first principles. The foreign secretary must have agreed to a more formal meeting, for nine days later he received Weizmann at the Foreign Office. Zionism had come a long way from the days when the private secretary of an under secretary would only grudgingly deign to grant Nahum Sokolow ninety minutes of his valuable time.

When they did meet, Weizmann and the foreign secretary got down to brass tacks. “I have seen Balfour2 and for the first time I had a real business talk with him,” Weizmann wrote exultantly to Ahad Ha’am afterward. “I am delighted with the result.” As he had been unable to do at the Astor dinner, he hammered at the need for a British protectorate. “I think I succeeded in explaining that to him,” Weizmann wrote to C. P. Scott, “and he agreed with the view, but he suggested that there may be difficulties with France and Italy.” Balfour’s hesitation would have been due to the Sykes-Picot Agreement (now amended into the Tripartite Agreement) and to recent Italian demands to be included in it. Weizmann, ignorant of all this, thought Balfour essentially accepted his position. Better still, he thought the prime minister accepted it too: “Mr. Lloyd George took a view which was identical with” Weizmann’s own, Balfour told him, “namely that it is of great importance to Great Britain to protect Palestine.” The foreign secretary thought Weizmann and Lloyd George should discuss matters further. “‘You may tell the Prime3 Minister that I wanted you to see him,’” he advised Weizmann. The Zionist did so, indirectly, by quoting this remark in his letter to Scott, who could repeat it to Lloyd George and make the meeting possible.

To Joseph Cowen, Weizmann wrote, “Things are moving very satisfactorily,” as indeed they were. Scott prevailed upon the prime minister, and only a few days later Weizmann had his meeting with Lloyd George. It was a breakfast at 10 Downing Street.4Weizmann was not the only guest, but the others said little when Lloyd George, perhaps leaning over eggs, bacon, toast, and coffee, informed his company that the question of Palestine “was to him the one really interesting part of the war.” Music to the Zionist’s ears, the prime minister went on to reject the possibility of Anglo-French control once the war was won. He speculated about alternatives. What was Weizmann’s view of international control (the outcome foreseen in Sykes-Picot)? he asked. That “would be a shade worse [than Anglo-French] as it would mean not control but mere confusion and intrigue,” the Zionist warned. What about an Anglo-American condominium? asked Lloyd George. That would be acceptable, Weizmann replied, and the prime minister agreed that such an arrangement might work. “We are both thoroughly materialist peoples,” he said. Interestingly this idea of a British-American condominium gained some traction in Britain but not much in America; it will not figure prominently in our story again.

Meanwhile Sykes and Sokolow continued to confer. The English Catholic and the Russian Jew got along. Sokolow thought they did so in part because of Sykes’s religion: “Often he remarked5 to me that it was his Catholicism that enabled him to understand the tragedy of the Jewish question, since not so long since Catholics had to suffer much in England.” But Sykes must also have realized that in Sokolow he had found the instrument he had been seeking: an effective Zionist diplomat who would help him to revise the Tripartite Agreement and pry Palestine loose from France. This task had been manifestly beyond the powers of Moses Gaster. Sokolow, for his part, clearly understood that Sykes was Zionism’s enabler. Having found so valuable an ally, he would not let him go.

At the end of December 1916 the British War Cabinet had agreed to allow a detachment of French Muslim troops to accompany British forces when they finally entered into Palestine. The French government designated François Georges-Picot to serve as French high commissioner for the soon-to-be occupied territories of Syria and Palestine. Inevitably the British chose Mark Sykes to act on their behalf as Picot’s counterpart. Now, early in April 1917, with General Murray about to attack Gaza for the second time, the moment for the two diplomats to make the journey eastward approached. But first Picot suggested that Sokolow come to Paris. It would be useful for him, and for the French government he would be representing, to know more about Zionism. Sykes conveyed and endorsed Picot’s invitation; he may indeed have suggested it, believing it would be in Britain’s interest for France to become better acquainted with Zionist principles. Sokolow accepted Picot’s invitation, although Weizmann and others in the Zionist leadership, and even C. P. Scott, thought he would be better employed in England. Perhaps Sokolow understood more clearly than they that the connection with Sykes had paid another dividend, an open sesame to the Quai d’Orsay. Of course Picot would try to convince him that Jewish nationalists should look to France, not to Britain, for protection in Palestine. Sokolow could deal with that.

Sykes arranged for James Malcolm to accompany Sokolow to Paris. Conceivably he wanted a second pair of eyes there; possibly he thought Malcolm had contacts in the French capital that would be of use to the Zionist; quite likely he wanted to foster cooperation between Armenian and Jewish nationalists, two of the three groups he thought would form a friendly association under British direction in the former Ottoman Empire. Sokolow was unenthusiastic, but ever the diplomat, he wrote to Sykes: “I am extremely satisfied6 to be accompanied by Mr. Malcolm and your idea of an Arab-Armenian-Zionist Entente is excellent indeed.” Several weeks later, after he and the Armenian had discussed their prospective alliance at greater length, Sokolow wrote to Weizmann: “You are, of course, acquainted7 with Mr. M[alcolm]’s idea [derived from Sir Mark] of an entente between Armenians, Arabs and Jews. I regard the idea as quite fantastic. It is difficult to reach an understanding with the Arabs but we will have to try. There are no conflicts between Jews and Armenians because there are no common interests whatever.”

Sokolow and Malcolm left for Paris on the last day of March 1917. Weizmann and the others remained unenthusiastic. While Sokolow was gone they would write carping letters about his activities abroad to one another. All of them misjudged entirely. Sokolow’s journey would become part of the mythology of Zionist history, an essential step on the path to the Balfour Declaration.

Sykes did his best to prepare French officials for the Zionist’s arrival. “If the great force8 of Judaism feels that its aspirations are not only considered but in a fair way towards realization,” he exhorted Picot, not for the first time, “then there is hope of an ordered and developed Arabia and Middle East. On the other hand, if that force feels that its aspirations will be thwarted by circumstance and are doomed to remain only a painful longing, then I see little or no prospect for our own future hopes.” Satisfying Zionist aspirations, he said, would also “give a very strong impetus to the Entente cause in the USA,” where a decision to enter the war hung in the balance, and where he believed that Jews represented a powerful political and economic force. Thus did he continue to work the notion of an all-powerful, if subterranean, Jewish influence. He wanted Picot to conclude that if the Jews desired a British protectorate in Palestine, then given the war situation, it was in France’s interest to let them have one.

Picot did not draw that conclusion quite yet. When Sokolow arrived in Paris, Picot declared to him that neither an Anglo-French nor, certainly, an Anglo-American condominium would be acceptable to his countrymen. Of course he no longer favored international control either. No more than Mark Sykes did he wish to maintain the arrangements they had previously made for Palestine. Each diplomat, representing his respective government, was trying to undercut the Sykes-Picot Agreement at the other’s expense. “The French are determined9 to take the whole of Palestine,” Sokolow (who did not know of Sykes-Picot but understood very well what France intended) reported back to Weizmann in London. But clearly Picot did now believe that the Zionists were a force worth courting, for he also promised Sokolow in that first meeting in Paris that “after the invasion of Palestine, a Jewish administration would be set up in all Jewish Colonies and Communities, as a nucleus of a future administration.”

Picot spoke for the current French government but only for a slice of French opinion. French politics and attitudes toward Palestine and Zionism were no more monolithic than the British. A powerful group of French businessmen had interests in Syria and hoped for a compromise peace with Turkey that would protect their investments in Palestine; a French imperialist contingent still demanded Syria intégral, which meant Palestine too; many French Catholics reflexively opposed Zionist plans for Palestine. Indeed, the Catholic-Protestant split in France meant divided counsels on all its Middle Eastern policy. The Catholics, much more than the Protestants, were determined that their country play a major role in protecting the holy places. After all, in 1856 France had fought a war against Russia to maintain that role. Finally, French Jews themselves split over Zionism; the main French Jewish organization, the Alliance Israélite, was strongly anti-Zionist.

“This work is very difficult,” Sokolow wrote to Weizmann, “but [it is] not impossible.” As soon as he reached Paris, he met with the Zionists’ old ally, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, to whom he often went for advice on the French scene; he met also with the anti-Zionist French Jews of the Alliance Israélite, and with French officials, of whom Picot was only one. By the time Sir Mark arrived in Paris on April 5, on his way to Egypt, Sokolow had convinced the French Foreign Office to accept for study a statement of Zionist aims, their “desiderata in regard to facilities of colonization, communal autonomy, rights of language and establishment of a Jewish chartered company.” These rights went far beyond what Picot had just promised Sokolow. Sykes reported to the Foreign Office, however, that the Zionist thought the French were likely to endorse them. But the proof of the pudding would be in the eating.

On April 9, 1917, the French ate the pudding, and Zionism’s diplomat capped his career to date. That morning Sokolow left his room at the Hotel Meurice on the rue de Rivoli and walked around the corner to meet Sykes in his room at the Hotel Lotti on the rue de Castiglione. For several hours10 the two men prepared for the meeting, to take place later in the day, between Sokolow and the French foreign minister, Jules Cambon, Picot, and other high-ranking French officials. Sokolow intended to press the case laid out in the document he had supplied to the ministry earlier in the week. The Frenchmen would deliver their government’s verdict.

At the appointed hour Sokolow would have squared his shoulders, straightened his tie, left the hotel, crossed the Pont de la Concorde, and entered the French Foreign Ministry at the Quai d’Orsay. He intended to report back to Sykes at the hotel as soon as the meeting had finished, but that was to ignore the ebullient nature and personality of Sir Mark. “As I was crossing the Quai11 d’Orsay on my return from the Foreign Office I came across Sykes,” Sokolow later recalled. “He had not had the patience to wait. We walked on together and I gave him an outline of the proceedings. This did not satisfy him; he studied every detail; I had to give him full notes and he drew up a minute report. ‘That’s a good day’s work,’ he said with shining eyes.”

So it had been. At the meeting Sokolow had glided smoothly over the question of a British protectorate; the French did not raise the subject either; at this stage it would only have muddied the waters. For the rest of it, France would meet the Zionists more than halfway. “I was told,”12 Sokolow jubilantly reported to Weizmann, “they accept in principle the recognition of Jewish nationality in the capacity of National Home, local autonomy, etc. It is beyond my boldest expectations … we have achieved here no less—and maybe more—than in your country [England] where we have been working for nearly three years.” In his report to the British foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, Sykes recorded in more restrained language but with almost equal satisfaction: “Zionists’ aspirations13are recognized as legitimate by the French.” Moreover, although “naturally the moment14 is not ripe for such a proposal … the situation should be the more favorable to British Suzerainty [in Palestine] with a recognized Jewish voice in favor of it.”

Cold self-interest, if fuzzily conceived, explains the new French concern with Zionism. Sykes and Sokolow, among others, had persuaded the governors of France—or more likely had reinforced existing sloppy thinking among them—of the power of Jews. They had taught that Zionists, not advocates of Jewish assimilation, were the most effective representatives of Jewish power, and the French government now believed them. Cambon and the others would have weighed the strength of the imperialist camp within their country; the power of financiers with interests in Syria; the religious scruples of Catholics concerned about the holy places; and the prospective wrath of the Alliance Israélite. They decided finally that they had more to gain than to lose by supporting Zionist aspirations in Palestine. Of course they intended to be the principal power in the region, and they demanded a quid pro quo for their goodwill—Jewish support of the Allies in the war. At the meeting one French delegate urged Sokolow to rally the Jews of Russia, who were thought to have influence over that country’s pacifists and revolutionaries. Possibly someone else mentioned the need for Jewish support in America, which finally, on April 6, had entered the war against Germany. Sokolow did as requested, dispatching a telegram to the American Zionist leader Louis Brandeis, and to the Russian Zionists as well: “After favorable results in London and Paris, was received with goodwill by Ministry here. Have full confidence Allied victory will realize our Palestine Zionist aspirations.” Many years later Harry Sacher would observe, about “the belief in the power15 and the unity of Jewry,” that “to exploit it delicately and deftly belongs to the art of the Jewish diplomat.” Few were as delicate and deft as Nahum Sokolow.

As the April 9 meeting was winding down, someone among the French group suggested to Sokolow that he could do important work for the Allies in Italy too. Zionism’s diplomat readily agreed to travel there; he was hardly in a position to refuse and he was anxious to learn the Italian government’s attitude toward his movement. It must have occurred to him that where once he could scarcely get a toe inside the door of a European chancellery, now he was hard-pressed to stay outside.

Sykes preceded him, however, making a special trip before he headed east with Picot. Just as he had done in Paris, he would smooth Sokolow’s way. And this time he had more in mind than opening a door into the Foreign Ministry. The Eternal City also contains the Vatican, and Sykes realized that its goodwill, or at least the absence of its bad will, could be as important to Zionism as the goodwill of Italy’s temporal government.

Upon arriving in Rome,16 Sykes sought out the British representative at the Vatican. Through this man he would get to Vatican officials and prime them for meetings with Sokolow. Exuberant, cheerful, and knowledgeable, he simply charmed him. “Sir M. Sykes’ visit17 has been the best thing that has happened to me since I have been here,” the representative wrote. Sykes sought out too18 the British ambassador to Italy, but this gentleman proved somewhat less susceptible to Sykes’s charm. Reporting on their discussion, he complained that Sykes had “opened fire on questions19 which I have been guarding as closely as the riddle of the sphinx.” Nevertheless the ambassador, as much as Britain’s man in the Vatican, agreed to facilitate matters for Sokolow when the latter arrived in Rome.

But first the British representative to the Vatican brought Sykes to Monsignor Eugenio Pacelli, the pope’s assistant under secretary for foreign affairs. (Pacelli would become Pope Pius XII in 1939. His attitude toward Jews remains a matter of contention: He was not very helpful to Italian or foreign Jews during World War II, but his defenders argue that he did what he could.) Sykes tried to start Pacelli on the right path. “I … 20 prepared the way for Zionism,” he reported back to the Foreign Office, “by explaining what the purpose and ideals of the Zionists were.” Sykes suggested that Pacelli meet with Sokolow when the latter arrived. “Of course one could not expect the Vatican to be enthusiastic … but he was most interested and expressed a wish to see Sokolow.” Sykes being Sykes, he then managed a short interview with Pope Benedict XV as well. Again he was paving the way for Zionism.

The next day he wrote a letter for Sokolow and left it with the ambassador. When speaking with Catholic leaders, “I laid considerable stress21 on the intensity of Zionist feeling and the objects of Zionism,” he reported. He had emphasized Zionism’s main object: “to evolve a self-supporting Jewish community which should raise not only the racial self-respect of the Jewish people but should also be a proof to the non-Jewish peoples of the world of the capacity of Jews to produce a virtuous and simple agrarian population.” Then he added a stunner:

I mentioned that you were coming to Rome and I should strongly advise you to visit Monsignor Pacelli and if you see fit have an audience with His Holiness … The British representative at the Vatican can arrange this if you will kindly show him this letter.

It is worth pausing here to underline the sheer incongruity of what was about to take place. Picture Sokolow at the grand British embassy in Rome, a building that four years earlier he would probably have had difficulty even entering. Picture him picking up Sykes’s letter, reading it, and grasping its import. He had thought he was in Italy to ascertain the government’s view of Zionism and its understanding of Palestine’s future—project enough for any diplomat. “It never crossed my mind before that I should approach the Vatican,” he wrote to Weizmann a few weeks later. It was an amazing ascent. Not without misgivings, he called upon Britain’s Vatican representative as directed, and this man, possibly in concert with the British ambassador, arranged for him to meet first with Pacelli and then with Cardinal Gasparri, the papal secretary of state.

So Nahum Sokolow entered the Vatican. In his sessions with the two papal representatives, he outlined the Zionist program. He appears to have spent a good deal of time reassuring them about Jewish intentions regarding the Christian holy places. Both Catholics advised him that the Jews should make no claim upon the area in Palestine in which these were located. Gasparri, however, extended an olive branch: If the Jews did keep out of them, then the Vatican would wish them well in their attempt to build a Jewish state in the rest of the country. Sokolow quickly assured22 him that the Zionists aspired only to an autonomous home. He made a good impression. Gasparri told the British ambassador afterward that “he had been pleased”23 to meet Sokolow, and that the Zionist “had given a good account of his aims and objects coupled with assurances that no feelings of hostility were entertained towards the Church.”

“Even after approaching the Vatican,” Sokolow wrote to Weizmann, “I did not dream of being received by the Pope.” Someone, however,24 suggested that he request an audience, and two days after the meeting with Gasparri, word came that the pope would indeed see him. And so it came to pass that on May 6, 1917, the Jew from Wyszogrod met the pope in Rome. In symbolism it topped even the meeting with the French foreign minister in Paris.

“In spite of my usual25 calmness, this was rather an exciting, patriotic and emotional piece of ceremony,” Sokolow later confessed. He thought the interview had gone very well. “I am not inclined to any credulity or exaggeration,” he protested, but still for the pope to have granted so long and so friendly an audience not merely to a Jew but to a Zionist representative suggested to him that “we are not going to have any unsurmountable obstacles on the part of the Vatican.” He had been, Sokolow noted also, “the first Jew received during this Pontificate.”

Predictably, the pope had wanted from him reassurances about Jewish intentions regarding the holy places. These the Zionist gladly provided. Then he outlined his movement’s accomplishments. The pope responded favorably, saying that the return of the Jews to Palestine was a miraculous event. Sokolow outlined Zionist aspirations for the future. “Is there enough room in Palestine to carry out your plans?” asked the pope. “There is the possibility26 to reach our goal …,” Sokolow replied cautiously.

His Holiness:      

“But what then27 can we do for you?”


“We desire that Your Holiness accept the assurance of our loyalty and accord us your moral support. That is our aspiration.”

His Holiness:

“Yes, yes—I believe that we shall be good neighbors.”

Again we must picture Sokolow, this time exiting the Vatican and making his way through the Roman streets to the British embassy. Was he walking on air? How could he not have been? Upon arriving at his destination, he composed a telegram for Weizmann hinting at the excitement he must have felt.

Have been received by Pope in special audience which lasted three quarters of an hour. Pope attentively listened to my report … declared Jewish efforts of establishing national home in Palestine met sympathetically. He sees no obstacle whatever from the point of view of his religious interests concerning only Holy Places which he trusts will be properly safe guarded by special arrangement … The whole impression of honouring me with a long audience and tenor of conversation reveal most favourable attitude.

A clerk would have put these words into cipher and sent them to Military Intelligence in London, where another clerk deciphered them. Weizmann read them a day later. So far had the Zionist movement come that now it made routine use of such government facilities. And the hard-headed Weizmann, when he received Sokolow’s entirely unexpected message, must have experienced a certain frisson. He had been wrong to doubt Sokolow on the Continent: “Your telegram received28 heartily congratulate brilliant result.”

Six days later the Italian prime minister, Paolo Boselli, granted Sokolow an audience too. Boselli carefully informed him that although Italy could not take the initiative, neither would it oppose another power, more closely concerned with the future of Palestine, if such a power acted in a manner favorable to Zionism. “I am extremely satisfied,”29 Sokolow reported to Weizmann.

Nor was this the end of his remarkable tour. He had thought he would return directly to London from Rome, but the French government called for him to stop in Paris on his way. There the round of discussions resumed: with Cambon, the foreign secretary, and with Prime Minister Alexandre Ribot himself. Satisfied that Italy had no strong objections to the developing understanding with Zionism; intent upon unleashing Jewish power against the pacifists and Bolsheviks of Russia; and hoping still to win Zionism from exclusive reliance upon Great Britain, now the French leaders courted Zionism’s diplomat. Shrewdly Sokolow asked for something he had not dared request before: that they put their expressions of support into writing. On June 4, 1917, the French foreign minister, Jules Cambon, obliged:

You were good enough30 to present the project to which you are devoting your efforts, which has for its object the development of Jewish colonization in Palestine. You consider that circumstances permitting, and the independence of the Holy Places being safeguarded on the other hand, it would be a deed of justice and of reparation to assist, by the protection of the Allied Powers, in the renaissance of the Jewish nationality in that Land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago.

The French Government, which entered this present war to defend a people wrongly attacked, and which continues the struggle to assure the victory of right over might, can but feel sympathy for your cause, the triumph of which is bound up with that of the allies.

I am happy to give you herewith such assurance.

Note that this letter reverses Picot’s refusal in London to recognize the Jews as a distinct nationality. The French government had become the first great power to do so. Sokolow had achieved a Zionist benchmark. And more: The very existence of such a declaration by her primary wartime ally would make it easier for Britain to make one too. No wonder, then, that as soon as he returned to London, Sokolow made sure the British Foreign Office received a copy of Cambon’s letter.

Sokolow’s extraordinary passage in the spring of 1917 marks a watershed. Before it took place, the Zionists in Britain struggled for purchase; afterward they found their footing. They moved forward with a new sense of confidence and self-worth. But the world was still at war. Italy, France, and England would promise much to win it. What weight would the honeyed words of the pope, or the written words of the French foreign minister, or even the assurances of the British prime minister actually bear? Even while Sokolow was still abroad, even as the words were being spoken and written, Chaim Weizmann was discovering that they might not bear all that much.

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