top of page
< Back

Sir Mark Sykes: British diplomat and a convert to Zionism

Cecil Bloom

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Jewish Historical Studies, volume 43, 2011 Sir Mark Sykes: British diplomat and a convert to Zionism CECIL BLOOM Sir Mark Sykes is probably best known for being the joint author of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, an Anglo-French plan to deal with the Middle East after 1918. His life-span was only forty years - he died in February 1919 while attending the Paris Peace Conference - but he was involved in several key issues relating to Britain's Middle Eastern policy. He was, in fact, said to be the first in Britain to use the term 'Middle East'.1 His influence on British policy in that region was formidable, but what is not fully appreciated even in some Jewish circles is that he became a strong supporter of Zionism and was deeply involved in the diplomacy that led to the Balfour Declaration. Sykes has received mixed fortune from the many historians who overlook his support and sympathy for Zionism. Although the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography carries a long account of his life, and comments that he had been an 'enthusiastic convert to Zionism', his work with Zionist leaders and his individual actions on Zionist issues are ignored.2 Leonard Stein in his The Balfour Declaration, however, discusses in some detail Sykes's role in the Zionist and Middle East politics of the period, and Isaiah Freedman's The Question of Palestine igi4~igi8 gives him much credit for his Zionist work. The History of Zionism i6oo-igi8 written by Nahum Sokolow, one of the leading Zionists of his time, was published in 1919 a few months after Sykes's death, and includes a twenty-page tribute to Sykes in which he tells of their relationship that helped to make a success of Zionism. Sokolow gave much credit to Sykes for his work on behalf of Zionism, and he provided an impor? tant account of Sykes's activities that gave rise both to the Balfour Declaration and to matters post-Balfour. He even included a portrait of Sykes and con? cluded his appreciation with the words: 'He was a man who has won a mon? ument in the future Pantheon of the Jewish people and of whom legends will 1 R. Florence, Lawrence and Aaronsohn (London 2007) 193.1 would like to thank Amira Stern, the Director of Archives at the Jabotinsky Institute, Tel-Aviv, for the Jabotinsky-Sykes corre? spondence and Kate Butler of the Hull History Centre for the other Sykes papers and corre? spondence. 2 H. C. G. Matthew and B. Harrison (eds) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford 2004) LIU 557-560. i4i</page><page sequence="2">Cecil Bloom be told in Palestine, Arabia and Armenia'.3 Walter Lacquer's A History of Zionism also recognizes Sykes's strong support for Zionism. To him 'there was no more enthusiastic Zionist' and one 'no less patient with anti-Zionist arguments'.4 There is also much on the subject in Two Studies in Virtue written by Sykes's son Christopher, who has also written an essay of memoirs of his father in which he states that Zionism came very late in his father's short life, but that when it did, 'it came with a bang'.5 By the time that Lloyd George became Prime Minister at the end of 1916, there were many in Government who were supporters of Zionism, but Sykes's influence on the British policy that resulted in the Declaration of November 1917 was not inconsiderable. Chaim Weizmann called him 'one of our greatest finds'6 and Sir Arnold Wilson, who worked with him during the 1914-18 War, wrote that Sykes had 'an intense hatred of injustice and a thor? oughly English compassion for the underdog'. All the British were doing to better the lot of the Armenian, Jew and Sabaean minorities in the Ottoman Empire had his 'cordial approval'.7 Norman Bentwich, who was Attorney General in Palestine from 1922 to 1931, and his wife Helen have even referred to Sykes as 'a godfather of the Declaration',8 and one historian has gone as far as to suggest that the statement issued in Balfour's name could have been called the 'Sykes Declaration'.9 However, many works on Zionist history pay scant regard to his support for Zionism. Israel Cohen barely mentions him in either his Zionist Movement or his Short History of Zionism, and N. A. Rose, whose book The Gentile Zionists is devoted to a review of non-Jews who favoured Zionism, also makes only a very brief reference to him, as does Stuart Cohen's English Zionists and British Jews. Many non-Jewish writers, too, overlook his support for Zionism. Richard Meinertzhagen's Middle East Diary contains much on its pro-Zionist author's experiences in government service during the War, but again there is only slight mention of Sykes and his work in government. Winston Churchill wrote the introduction to Sir Shane Leslie's biography of Sykes and stated that he considered Sykes to be 'a unique product'.10 He 3 N. Sokolow, History of Zionism 1600-1918 (London, New York, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras 1919) 2:xvii-xxxvi. 4 Walter Lacquer, A History of Zionism (London 1972) 201. 5 C. Sykes, 'Memories of my Father, Sir Mark Sykes' in M. Mindlin and C. Bermant (eds) Explorations (London 1967) 148. 6 C. Weizmann, Trial and Error (London 1949) 229. 7 Sir Arnold T. Wilson, Loyalties: Mesopotamia 1914-1917 (London 1930) 152. 8 N. and H. Bentwich, Mandate Memories 1918-1948 (London 1965) 12. 9 M. Verete, 'The Balfour Declaration and its Makers' Middle Eastern Studies 6:1 (Jan. 1970) 66. For another work in which Sykes's contribution is mentioned, see the review of the book by Jonathan Schneer, among the 'Book Notes' in this volume. 10 S. Leslie, Mark Sykes: His Life and Letters (London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne 1923) v-viii. 142</page><page sequence="3">Sir Mark Sykes: British diplomat and a convert to Zionism refers to some of Sykes's efforts in the Middle East in developing the policy that Churchill believed split Arabs from Turks, but there is no mention of his support of and work for Zionism. Leslie himself writes little on Zionism in his biography. The Balfour Declaration is referred to only to report that Sykes 'was arranging the preliminaries' to it11 and Weizmann's name is not mentioned, but Professor Temperley, who edited one of the major works on the First World War, is among the few non-Jewish historians who has specif? ically referred to Sykes's Zionist sympathies. In A History of the Peace Conference he wrote that he was a 'convinced and ardent supporter of Zionist aspirations', and that with others he 'must be credited with the chief part in framing the policy of the Declaration.'12 Of Catholic parentage, Mark Sykes was born in 1879 of distinguished lineage, his mother being a granddaughter of the Duke of Portland and his father a member of an important family in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Through his mother's influence, Sykes was hostile to Jews in his youth. She hated Jews and Freemasons whom she believed wanted to destroy the old order in the civilized world, and she made fun of those who fawned on wealthy Jews.13 When he was twelve his father took him to Jerusalem and Damascus, and their Christian guide was said to have been responsible for giving him anti-Jewish prejudices.14 He was a student at Cambridge where he studied Arabic and while there visited Syria and other countries to study the peoples and to gain an understanding of their ways of life. Mentioned in dispatches while serving as a lieutenant in South Africa in 1899?1902, he was disgusted especially by 'Jews of the most repulsive type'. He wrote to a friend that he 'would exert the last farthing from the most jingo loyal Jew in the British Empire before I'd fine a traitorous gentile', and he believed that Jewish financiers were responsible for the war in that country.15 However, his views later changed, and while working in government during the First World War he became a strong supporter of Zionism and was involved deeply in the British Government's decision to favour a National Home for Jews in Palestine. He worked on the negotiations that led to the Balfour Declaration. Harold Nicolson, the diplomat and author, who was attached to Sykes in the Foreign Office in the autumn of 1917, claimed that without Sykes's persistent pressure on Lloyd George and Balfour, the Declaration might not have gone through.16 He said that the Declaration took weeks to draft, and that every word was scrutinized with the greatest thought and 11 Ibid. 271. 12 H. W. V. Temperley (ed.) A History of the Peace Conference (London, New York and Toronto 1924) 6:172. 13 R. Adelson, Mark Sykes: Portrait of an Amateur (London 1975) 26, 32. 14 Ibid. 37. 15 Ibid. 74. 16 Mindlin and Bermant (see n. 5) 149-50. 143</page><page sequence="4">Cecil Bloom foresight.17 Nicolson saw him as a man with 'endless knowledge and perse? verance, enthusiasm and faith that Arab nationalism and Zionism became two of the most successful of all war causes'.18 Blanche Dugdale, Balfour's niece and his biographer, made it clear that Sykes played an important part in securing support for her uncle's Declaration. 'He guided the negotiations that led to the declaration and he was anxious to get Arabs, Armenians and Jews to develop their own civilizations within their national boundaries'.19 Before his espousal of Zionism, Sykes spent many years studying the pol? itics of the Middle East. His honeymoon in 1903 took him to Palestine, and in the years 1905-7 he was an attache at the British Embassy in Constantinople. He travelled widely throughout Turkey and wrote a number of books on his travels. Then in 1911 he entered the House of Commons in a surprise win for the Conservative Party at a by-election in the Yorkshire constituency of Central Hull. His maiden speech in the House of Commons in November 1911 was primarily on the subject of Eastern affairs. He criti? cized the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 that carved up Persia, and he deplored the Government's failure to support the Turks in their war with Italy, adding that if war came to the West, the British must send troops to the East. This speech impressed the members of the House and the Prime Minister, Asquith, who spoke immediately after Sykes and complimented him with 'as promising and successful a maiden speech as almost any I have listened to in my long experience'. Sir Ronald Storrs, who became Military Governor of Jerusalem at the end of 1917, wrote: 'Mark Sykes was a multi talented man who could have made a reputation in at least a half-dozen careers. He was one of the few for whom the House of Commons fills, and he could hardly have failed to become an Under-Secretary, perhaps a Secretary of State. As a caricaturist and political cartoonist he could have imposed his own terms upon the evening Press ... The same vein of artistry would trans? form him into a first class music hall comedian.'20 Lord Vansittart, who spent much of his career at the Foreign Office, ending up as Permanent Under? secretary there, also held him in esteem. He believed that Sykes was gifted enough to make 'a lasting name in wide range of careers from Parliament to literature had he not died young'.21 Sykes clearly had an independent streak in his character. In a House of Commons speech in 1916, while working in government service, he criticized the government for having too large a Cabinet (it then had twenty-three members) which he considered should be reduced to four in number. (Within a year it was, in fact, reduced to five.) 1; Harold Nicolson, 'Marginal Comment' The Spectator 3 Jan. 1947, p. 11. 18 J. Lees-Milne, Harold Nicolson (London 1980) 117. 19 B. Dugdale, The Balfour Declaration (Jerusalem 1940) 7. 20 Sir Ronald Storrs, Orientations (London 1937) 228. 21 Lord Vansittart, The Mist Procession (London 1958) 68. 144</page><page sequence="5">Sir Mark Sykes: British diplomat and a convert to Zionism He also questioned the need for the presence of a War Committee within the Cabinet. On the outbreak of war he went to a number of countries - Russia and the Caucasus, Aden and elsewhere in the Middle East, and to France. Sykes was never an official minister in the British government, although he held a number of important diplomatic roles in government service, in which he seems either to have been given much freedom to carry out his activities with little supervision or, more likely, took it on himself to conduct affairs as he thought appropriate. He first became associated diplomatically with Middle Eastern affairs when, soon after the outbreak of war, Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, recruited him for work in his Ministry and he became Kitchener's representative at an inter-departmental meeting under the chairmanship of Maurice de Bunsen, whose brief was to develop postwar British policy vis-?-vis the Ottoman Empire. From early in his political career Sykes was recognized as a man who was well acquainted with Arab affairs. His fourth (and last) book, The Caliph's Last Heritage, published in 1915, was a history of Islam and the Ottoman Empire, in which he mocked the superficially progressive modern Turkey. Sykes was regarded as able to negotiate effectively on behalf of his government. Elie Kedourie's In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth goes into some detail about Sykes's activities in this regard. The de Bunsen Committee accepted Sykes's recommendation that Palestine should be incorporated into the British sphere of influence, Damascus should be the seat of the Ottoman Caliphate and that Arabia and the Muslim Holy Places should remain under independent Muslim rule. From that point on Sykes became an important figure in the development of British Middle Eastern policy. Soon after, he appeared before the War Committee where he made it clear that he believed that the part of Palestine south of Haifa should be retained for Great Britain.22 In July 1915 Kitchener sent Sykes to Egypt to try to implement the de Bunsen proposals. He spent six months there and one result was his proposal to establish an Islamic Bureau (later called the Arab Bureau) in Cairo to coor? dinate intelligence concerning Arabs and Islam.23 This Bureau had an important function during the War and a number of eminent people worked there, including T. E. Lawrence and his intelligence chief, General Gilbert Clayton, the man who set up the Bureau, and D. G. Hogarth, a distinguished Oxford scholar. Neither Clayton nor Hogarth thought much of Sykes, whom they thought intellectually shallow and hopelessly verbose, pretending to far more knowledge of Middle Eastern affairs than he actually possessed. On Sykes's death, Hogarth said that he had never worked at anything and that he 22 E. Kedourie, 'Sir Mark Sykes and Palestine 1915?16' Middle Eastern Studies 6:3 (Oct. 1970) 341. 23 Y. Sheffy, British Military Intelligence in the Palestine Campaign 1914-18 (London 1998) 128. i45</page><page sequence="6">Cecil Bloom remained a superficial amateur to the end.24 As for Lawrence, he believed that Sykes was a 'bundle of prejudices and intuitions'.25 Sykes for his part admired Lawrence, at one point calling him a great man who should be given a knighthood.26 Towards the end of 1915 the British Government decided it had become necessary to examine with France, and not in isolation, how the Allied Powers should plan the postwar control of the Ottoman Empire. An agree? ment was negotiated by both Governments that aimed primarily to define the British and French spheres of influence in the Middle East following the anticipated defeat of Turkey. Sykes was appointed the British negotiator and Francois Georges-Picot that of France. This led to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which was kept secret from all except the Russians because it was believed that disclosure at that point would compromise Anglo-French objectives. It became known to the Arabs, who were deeply offended by it, only when the Bolsheviks opened up Russian government archives soon after the Revolution. This Sykes-Picot Agreement, parts of which seemed to be at odds with Sykes's previously expressed views, would have resulted in a northern area under French protection and a southern one under British control. France would control much of Syria, including most of the Galilee with its fertile land, and British influence would mainly be in the Acre/Haifa region. The area around the Holy Places of Jerusalem was to be under inter? national administration. When Weizmann and his colleagues much later heard of the Agreement, they were appalled at its terms because it seemed to indicate that a future Palestine would be under joint French-British and not simply British control, which would have prevented the Zionists from making much progress on their objectives regarding the future of Palestine. The Sykes-Picot Agreement was sealed between April and May 1916, but in March Sykes went with Picot on a visit to Petrograd (St Petersburg) to negotiate the final stages of the Agreement. Prior to his journey he had a talk with Herbert Samuel that seems to have strengthened his developing inter? est in Zionism. Up to that time Sykes knew little of the subject. Samuel had written a paper in 1915 for the Cabinet in which he had recommended that Palestine should be annexed to the British Empire and that there should be active encouragement of Jewish colonization and cultural development.27 Sykes's growing interest in Zionism became evident while he was in Russia. Britain and France were, at this time, endeavouring to draw the United States into the war on their side, but were aware that, like its government, American Jewry was anxious to remain neutral, especially because of hostility 24 B. Westrate, The Arab Bureau (University Park, Penn., 1992) 153. 25 T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (London 1946) 57. 26 Letter to Clayton 22 July 1917, Sykes papers DDSY2/11/61. 27 L. Stein, The Balfour Declaration (London 1961) 229. 146</page><page sequence="7">Sir Mark Sykes: British diplomat and a convert to Zionism to Russia, the ally of the British and the French. A proposal then came from America that this attitude could change if the Allies issued a statement favouring Jewish rights in every country, together with a 'veiled' suggestion relating to the development of the Yishuv, the Jewish population, in Palestine. The Foreign Office then asked Lucien Wolf of the Conjoint Foreign Committee (the body representing the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Anglo-Jewish Association on international affairs of Jewish interest), an arch anti-Zionist, for his views on this proposal. Wolf conceded that such a public statement of a Zionist character would possibly gain support from American Jewry and from Jews elsewhere (although presumably not those in Germany and Austria) for the Allied cause.28 The Foreign Office followed this up by sending a telegramme to the British Embassy in Petrograd outlining this proposal. Sykes, the one-time supporter of the Arab cause but already influenced by Samuel's paper, replied to London that he believed that the Zionists were a key to the situation and that the plan had merit if the proper terms could be worked out.29 He came to the conclusion that a strong Jewish settlement in Palestine would ensure that Britain had a staunch presence there that would also minimize French influ? ence in the region. Sykes himself soon realized that the agreement negoti? ated with Picot was not in his country's interests and saw Zionist aims as being best achieved by an association with Britain.30 He then decided that he had to convince his government that Palestine should be within British control, and that a situation had to be created in which the worst features of the Sykes-Picot Agreement could be dropped without breaking faith and ensuring that Britain would be regarded as the obvious protector of what? ever kind of regime should be set up.31 The Agreement was in fact never brought into being and was criticized by many politicians. The British Ambassador in Paris expressed the view that Sykes had been 'tricked' by Picot.32 Lloyd George, who believed that the plan was a 'fatuous arrangement' from every point of view,33 wrote that it caused much disagreement and unpleasantness among the Allies and that it was a 'foolish document', blemished by the imperfect and unscientific manner in which the boundaries of the area were drawn.34 Lawrence also was critical of the Agreement. He reported to the British Cabinet that its 'geographical absurdities' would 'laugh it out of court' and that it was 28 Verete (see n. 9) 55-6. 29 Kedourie (see n. 22) 342-4. 30 Ibid. 340. 31 Sir Charles Webster, The Founder of the National Home (Rehovot 1955) 29. 32 H. M. Sacher, The Emergence of the Middle East 1914-24 (London 1970) 168. 33 D. Lloyd George, War Memoirs (London 1936) 2:1084. 34 D. Lloyd George, The Truth about the Peace Treaties (London 1938) II1022-6, 1144. 147</page><page sequence="8">Cecil Bloom 'unworkable'.35 Clayton in Cairo was also critical. He told Lawrence in September 1917 that it was 'as old and as out-of-date as the battle of Waterloo' and was never a workable instrument.36 The Arab historian George Antonius had a high regard for Sykes and could not understand why Sykes would think of 'associating his name with anything approaching stu? pidity or duplicity'. Sykes's traits included 'unmistakable genuineness and infectious enthusiasm for the causes he had at heart'; Antonius believed that Sykes was better acquainted with the Arab problem than any other diplo? mat, but he did not comment on Sykes's later support for Zionism.37 For his part, Lloyd George found it inexplicable that 'a man of Sir Mark Sykes's intelligence' should ever have signed the Agreement with Picot and believed Sykes was always ashamed of it, although he conceded that Sykes had only nominal personal responsibility for an Agreement of which he thoroughly disapproved.38 Government documents do show that on a number of occa? sions Sykes disclaimed responsibility for its promotion and that he was acting merely as an agent not as a principal and was bound by ministerial decisions. He once protested at a dispatch from the Foreign Office that described him as 'joint author' of the Sykes-Picot agreement. 'I. . . desire to point out that I cannot properly be described as joint author of the Anglo-French Agreement of 1916 .. .1 was responsible only for giving advice as far as con? cerned the Arab-speaking areas, under direct instructions from Lord Kitchener'.39 More than anyone, Sykes was aware of the French wish to be in control of Palestine to prevent both British control of the country and the growing strength of Zionism - its interest in having some British involve? ment allowed Sykes to find a way of gaining exclusive British influence there. There were many in government at that time who wanted Britain to gain pos? session of Palestine, but they could not conceive that the Zionists would enable them to meet their aims - Sykes was one of the few who did so.40 Yet, with all the denials made by Sykes, it is likely that in his own mind he recog? nized that he had not succeeded in gaining proper advantage for his own country. Christopher Sykes has written that Haham (the Sephardi Chief Rabbi) Moses Gaster was the man who taught his father Zionist principles.41 The two men had first met before the War through common interests in 35 D. Garnett (ed.) The Letters ofT. E. Lawrence (London and Toronto 1938) 269, 282. 36 piorence (see n. 1) 310. 37 G. Antonius, The Arab Awakening (Beirut 1969) 250. 38 Lloyd George (see n. 34) 1026. 39 National Archives, Kew (hereafter NA), FO 37l/3383fo479 40 D. Z. Gillon, 'The Antecedents of the Balfour Declaration' Middle Eastern Studies 5:2 (May 1969) 133-4 41 C. Sykes, Two Studies in Virtue (London 1953) 176. 148</page><page sequence="9">Sir Mark Sykes: British diplomat and a convert to Zionism Orientalism,42 but they formed a most cordial relationship after Sykes saw Samuel on his return from Russia. He then gave Samuel a plan for an Anglo French condominium for Palestine, with Britain guaranteeing a charter for the Zionists.43 On Samuel's suggestion he contacted Gaster, who changed Sykes's view of Jewry. He once confessed that Gaster 'opened my eyes as to what this [Zionist] movement meant'.44 Gaster rid him of his views of Jewry as rootless, unprincipled cosmopolitans - although once in Hull before the war he had said that the Zionist movement was the one European movement in Palestine that was based on idealism and not on profit.45 After that, he began to speak in favour of Jewry and of Zionism. Another personality virtually unknown in British history may have been responsible for Sykes's growing support for Zionism. Jacob Rosen has argued that Captain William Reginald Hall, the Director of Naval Intelligence during the war, influenced Sykes's thinking on this subject. He was appar? ently one of the first to question the need for the Sykes-Picot Agreement, believing that only the French gained advantage from it. Hall was in favour of there being a strong Jewish influence in the decision on Palestine's future.46 He considered Jews to have a strong interest, both material and political, in Palestine's future and he envisaged that Jewry worldwide would oppose any scheme that recognized Arab independence. He was also appre? hensive about a strong Arab influence in the southern section of the Near East.47 Sykes would certainly have been aware of Hall's representations. Sykes's visit to Russia impressed on him the strength of Zionism in that country and he even discussed with Sasonov, the Russian Foreign Minister, the possibility that Zionism could solve their Jewish problem.48 A meeting in October 1916 with Aaron Aaronsohn, the leader of the NILI espionage group in Palestine who supplied anti-Turkish intelligence data to the British, was another factor in his growing support for the Zionist cause. He admired Aaronsohn's 'forthright patriotism' and confidence in the success of Zionism. The latter's influence was an important factor in bringing Zionism into the strategy for the Middle East that he was developing, which was aimed at getting Palestine under British and not French control. (Aaronsohn later wrote in his diary that Sykes's death was a 'big loss'.)49 42 Mindlin and Bermant (see n. 5) 148. 43 Stein (see n. 27) 278. 44 Sokolow (see n. 3) 106. 45 Adelson (see n. 13) 208. 46 J. Rosen, 'Captain Reginald Hall and the Balfour Declaration' Middle Eastern Studies 24:1 (Jan. 1988) 565-67. 47 NA,FO 371/2767/938. 48 Sykes (see n. 41) 178. 49 C. Bloom, 'Aaron Aaronsohn: Forgotten Man of History?' Trans JHSE 40 (2005) l%2', A.Verrier (ed) Agents of Empire (London &amp; Washington 1995) 302. 149</page><page sequence="10">Cecil Bloom At this time, Sykes was nevertheless still apprehensive about the subject: he refused an invitation to become a named patron of an organization called the British Palestine Committee, set up by Manchester friends of Weizmann who wanted 'to promote the ideal of an Anglo-Jewish Palestine'. They believed there to be an absolute identity of interests between British policy and Jewish national aspirations.50 Soon, however, Sykes became enthusiastic about his government's declar? ing itself in favour of a national home for Jews in the Holy Land; he is cred? ited with guiding Weizmann and his colleagues into the correct channels for negotiation with the government, as well as advising them strategically on the issues involved. His involvement in foreign affairs took a leap when he became attached to the secretariat of the Committee of Imperial Defence in Whitehall, and his views became those generally accepted when the future of the Middle East was being considered. Sykes and another MP, Leopold Amery, became political secretaries in Lloyd George's War Cabinet early in 1917, both with the status of Under-Secretaries, and despite their relatively junior positions they had the authority of second-line ministers (although they did not speak publicly in the House of Commons on government matters). Both men were able to influence government policy beyond their basic assignments. Sykes's decisive role leading up to the Balfour Declaration was supported by Amery, whose views were similar to his own. Amery wrote that Sykes was an enthusiastic supporter of a Jewish National Home in Palestine and that he himself was persuaded to support the Zionist concept by Sykes, who 'practically took charge of all the negotiations that led up to the Balfour Declaration'. Amery also considered that the Zionist movement 'owed much at a crucial moment in its history to his infectious enthusiasm and to his indefatigable energy'.51 Sykes convinced Amery that a prosper? ous Jewish population in Palestine would be an invaluable asset to Britain in the defence of the Suez Canal, both against attacks from the north and as a station for future air routes to the East.52 Still an MP, Sykes was then appointed as an Assistant Secretary to the War Cabinet, with his principal duties being the preparation for ministers of intelligence summaries dealing with the problems of Islam. Despite these narrow terms he was able to influence government policy beyond this basic assignment. Throughout the negotiations that led to the declaration signed by Balfour, Sykes does not seem to have been directly much involved with Balfour: little correspondence seems to have passed between them, although Bentwich is on record as believing that Sykes had an 'intellectual affinity' with Balfour that made him an ideal link for the Zionists with the British 50 Adelson (see n. 13)213. 51 L. Amery, My Political Life 1914-1929 (London 1953) 2:115. 52 P. Goodman (ed.) Chaim Weizmann (London 1945) 11. i5o</page><page sequence="11">Sir Mark Sykes: British diplomat and a convert to Zionism Cabinet.53 It was Lloyd George who promoted Sykes to Assistant Secretary and delegated authority to him on a number of Middle East issues. Sykes appears to have taken most of his assignments from the Prime Minister and a remarkable trust developed between them. Their relationship may not always has been one of admiration - Sir Oswald Mosley, who viewed Sykes's death as 'a real national loss',54 wrote that Sykes together with other Conservative politicians 'detested' Lloyd George,55 but this seems to be at odds with the relationship that Lloyd George and Sykes clearly built up when Sykes entered government service. Interestingly, when Sykes first entered Parliament he supported those in the Conservative Party who wanted to drop Balfour as leader, so it is possible that there was some antag? onism between them. The decisive event in Sykes's involvement with Zionism came on 7 February 1917 when he had a key meeting with the Zionist leaders (held in Gaster's home) to discuss the situation and what the future held. He was the only non-Jew present at this meeting, which Weizmann referred to as 'the first full-dress conference leading to the Balfour Declaration', when he spoke at length on the difficulties that the Zionists would be facing.56 Curiously, Samuel made only a brief reference to Sykes in his autobiography: 'I remem? ber being present at a conference in February 1917 between him and the Zionist leaders'.57 Sykes was apparently unaware that the Zionists led by Weizmann had actually been trying to negotiate with government ministers from early in the war. It is also probable that the Foreign Office was unaware at the time of this meeting, at which Sykes told the Zionists that it was for them to press for British control of Palestine with no French involvement. He became the 'missing link' between the Foreign Office and the Zionists.58 At the meeting, however, Sykes was not at liberty to disclose the Sykes-Picot Agreement (Weizmann heard of it only from C. P. Scott two months later), but it is clear that he had by then become committed to using the Zionist cause in his country's interests, by supporting the concept of a Jewish national home in Palestine. Weizmann in his autobiography dealt in some detail with this meeting. He wrote that Sykes told the group that 'the idea of a Jewish Palestine had his full sympathy' and warned that France, whose policy he confessed he did not understand, would present difficulties to the Zionists. Sykes added that there was a rising Arab nationalist movement, but believed it would come to 53 Bentwich (see n. 8) 13. 54 Sir Oswald Mosley, My Life (London 1968) 87. 55 Ibid. 146. 56 Weizmann (see n. 6) 238-40. 57 Viscount Samuel, Memoirs (London 1945) 145. 58 Dugdale (see n. 19) 29. i5i</page><page sequence="12">Cecil Bloom terms with the Zionists, particularly if Jewish support was given to them in other matters.59 At one point Weizmann did have some concerns about Sykes's full commitment to Zionism, telling Scott that he thought it possible that Sykes merely considered Zionist plans as an appendage to a bigger scheme relating to Arab aspirations.60 Scott, for his part, distrusted the negotiations that the Weizmann group was having with Sykes because he believed that, as a Roman Catholic, Sykes would tend to give in to the French on the question of who would have most responsibility in Palestine.61 Lloyd George fully supported Zionist ambitions, and when he became Prime Minister was anxious to ditch the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Following further government discussions, Lloyd George sent Sykes to the Middle East in April 1917 to endeavour to secure the inclusion of Palestine into the British area. He was told of the importance of not prejudicing the Zionist movement and of the possibility of its development under British auspices. Lloyd George emphasized the importance of securing Palestine in the British area of influ? ence, and Sykes was also instructed not to enter into any political pledges with the Arabs especially with regard to Palestine.62 He followed this up by sug? gesting to the government that a chartered Jewish company in Palestine might satisfy Zionist aspirations.63 By this time the government was committed to support Zionist aspirations and Sykes himself was enthusiastic about his gov? ernment declaring itself in favour of a national home for Jews in the Holy Land. As a devoted Roman Catholic, Sykes in 1917 put the case for the Zionist movement to the Papal authorities in Rome. He was anxious to get the Vatican to understand the Zionist position and impressed on them that its main objective was to evolve a self-supporting Jewish community that would allow Jews to produce a 'virtuous and simple agrarian population'. He told the Pope's Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Monsignor Pacelli (who later became the controversial Pope Pius XII), that the Zionists saw no clash with Christians, and especially Roman Catholics, as far as the Holy Places were concerned.64 He was so determined to convince them of the Zionist case that he arranged for Sokolow to meet Pacelli, because it was a 'good thing to break the ice over Zionism, otherwise fear and hostility might have been evoked'.65 As a Christian he felt that in helping the Zionist adventure to succeed he would be doing something to make 'a great amend'.66 He once said that it was his Catholicism that enabled him to understand the tragedy of the 59 Weizmann (see n. 6) 238-40. 60 Ibid. 243. 61 Sykes (see n. 41) 204. 62 NA, Cab 24/9 G.T. 372. 63 Adelson (see n. 13) 206. 64 Letter to Nahum Sokolow 14 April 1917, Sykes papers DDSY2/12/7. 65 Letter to Ronald Graham 15 April 1917, Sykes papers DDSY2/12/7. 66 I. Friedman, The Question of Palestine 1914-1918 (London 1973) 290. 152</page><page sequence="13">Sir Mark Sykes: British diplomat and a convert to Zionism Jewish question, because Catholics themselves had suffered much in England.67 Sykes was contemptuous of Jewish opponents of Zionism, even suggesting that anti-Zionism meant being pro-German, and began to say many things in favour of Jews and of Zionism. He also recognized that Zionists could counteract what he called 'the extreme socialist Jews of the underworld' who regarded Karl Marx as the only prophet of Israel and who were anxious to destroy the current way of democratic life.68 Sykes returned to this theme, arguing that Zionism was the most effective way of counter? acting a Bolshevism that was being influenced by some Jewish thinking. In February 1918 he wrote what appears to be one of his somewhat rare letters to Balfour in which he told him that there were dangerous forces existing 'in the Ghettos and Jewish pauper or submerged colonies. The one thing which makes these centres quiescent and which devitalizes the subversive and anti institutional motor force is Zionism.'69 Leonard Stein in The Balfour Declaration shows how Sykes moved from a position in which he had little sympathy with Jews to becoming a committed supporter of Zionism and used his position in government service to ensure that Britain's interests were compatible with those of the Zionist leaders.70 As a strong believer in the merits of nationalism, Sykes was attracted to Zionism partly because it showed pride in agricultural settlements, in contrast with the traditional urban Jewish way of life. Sykes was anxious to ensure that Jewish interests in Palestine were safe? guarded, and at the same time to get agreement from the Arabs on British support for Zionism. Some two weeks before the publication of the Balfour Declaration he gave Lord Robert Cecil at the Foreign Office a summary of the political situation in the Middle East, emphasizing that it was desirable to pursue a policy in Palestine under which, while safeguarding the rights of the indigenous population, the 'wise and practical development of the Zionist movement' should not be overlooked.71 James Malcolm, a British Armenian who later became a member of the Armenian delegation at the Paris Peace Conference and whom Christopher Sykes believes also played a part in Sykes's conversion to Zionism, assisted him in getting Arab agreement to British support for the Zionists.72 Writing a quarter of a century later, Malcolm dis? closed that Sykes arranged for him to talk to an Arab delegation in London and the Arabs did consequently agree to support British plans on Zionism.73 67 Sokolow (see n. 3) xviii-xix. 68 Stein (seen. 27) 275. 69 NA,FO 800/210/129. 70 Stein (see n. 27) 233-9, 270-84. 71 Leslie (see n. 10) 274. 72 Sykes (seen. 41) 181-4. 73 Manchester Guardian 4 Dec. 1943, p. 4. 153</page><page sequence="14">Cecil Bloom Sykes was truly enthusiastic about his government declaring itself in favour of a national home for Jews in the Holy Land. One example of this enthusiasm was shown after the Cabinet had approved the final text of the declaration. He brought the document to Weizmann who was waiting outside the Cabinet room and exclaimed to him 'Dr Weizmann, it's a boy!'74 A further illustration of his attitude towards the Zionist cause is the fact that, when the Zionist Commission headed by Weizmann and set up by the Government was to leave for Palestine, Sykes suggested that Weizmann should have an audience with George V, which he arranged despite opposi? tion from some quarters.75 It was at this time that Sykes received an approach from Ze'ev Jabotinsky who was campaigning for a Jewish fighting force to support the British Army in Palestine. Writing some four days after Sykes's and the Zionist leaders' meeting at Gaster's home (did Jabotinsky know that this meeting had taken place?), he asked Sykes for his views on his plan for a Jewish fighting unit. 'Your attitude towards our national aspirations and your personal influence makes it of the greatest importance for me to learn of your opinion.' Sykes replied immediately that he did not think it appropriate at that time to press the matter, but he recommended that Jabotinsky keep the scheme alive 'for a more propitious time'. Jabotinsky wrote back to Sykes telling him that a small Jewish unit that was part of the 20th London Regiment was about to go to France, but he pleaded with Sykes that it should be diverted to fight on the Palestine front. He argued that the changing political situation in Russia was influencing London's East End aliens and that a recruiting campaign for a Jewish legion would 'meet with instant success in WhitechapeP.76 Sykes was not apparently unsympathetic to the project, but cautioned Jabotinsky because he feared the latter's plan would endanger the lives of Palestinian Jews, who might be massacred by the Turks just as the Armenians had similarity suffered.77 A week after the end of the War, Jabotinsky sent Sykes, who was then on Allenby's staff in the Middle East, a bitter letter referring to 'what was said this morning' and complaining that the efforts of the Jewish Battalions serving in Palestine, which had been mentioned in dispatches, were not being made public there. Italian, Indian and Australian forces were being left to defend Jews, but the Jewish units were kept away 'from all points of political importance'. He entreated Sykes to warn Allenby of the situation.78 It is not, however, clear why Jabotinsky made these comments, because the minutes of the meeting held earlier that day give no indication of 74 Weizmann (see n. 6) 262. 75 Ibid. 267-9. 76 Letters 11 February, 14 February and 25 March 1917, Jabotinsky Institute Archives. 77 Adelson (see n. 13)219. 78 Letter 18 Nov. 1918, Jabotinsky Institute Archives 154</page><page sequence="15">Sir Mark Sykes: British diplomat and a convert to Zionism controversy. It was then agreed that 'provided the Zionists ensured control of their people', the Government would 'give full scope to Zionist [sic] movement but at the same time safeguarding the economic and political interest of the non-Jewish population'.79 Sykes was concerned to ensure that the Balfour Declaration was accept? able to all in the region, as well as the Turkish response to it. Some two weeks after its issue, he sent a telegram to General Clayton, by then Allenby's polit? ical officer in Palestine, warning him that the Turks were believed to be attempting to create a 'false Arab national movement' so that they could issue a manifesto that would cause dissension in Jewish, Christian and Muslim ranks. He impressed on Clayton the need to get the Arabs to understand the vital necessity of gaining the goodwill of the Jewish community.80 At one point, Sykes was interested in getting together an alliance of Jews, Arabs and Armenians, with each group developing its own society. Following the issue of the Declaration, he spoke at a Jewish mass meeting in London saying: 'At this turning point in your history you thought not only of yourselves . . . but of your fellows in adversity, the Armenians and the Syrian Arabs ... I look to see the Arab civilization restored once more in Baghdad and Damascus, and I look to see the return of Israel with his majesty and his tolerance, hushing mockery, and dispelling doubts'.81 Sykes's Zionist work did not finish with the Declaration. He went back to Egypt to serve as Political Officer to Allenby. T. E. Lawrence wrote in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom how, after the fall of Jerusalem, Allenby planned to enter the city 'in the official manner which the catholic imagination of Mark Sykes had devised'.82 Sykes was also responsible for the drafting of Allenby's first proclamation that Jerusalem was under military law and would remain so as long as was necessary.83 At the end of the war Sykes again went to the Middle East, because he believed that only he would be able to ease the entry of Zionism into Palestine and smooth over French-Arab friction in Syria. He proposed 'to organize Anglo-French liaison on political and administra? tive efforts in Syria proper and in the area of the Allied operations exclusive of Palestine, to assist in the promotion of good relations between the Arabs and the French and to report on the possibilities of co-ordinating British Arab policy on the Palestine side with policy in Mesopotamia'.84 On a number of occasions Sykes spoke at Zionist meetings held in 79 i8Nov. ioi8,Sykes papers DDSY2/11/110. 80 Sykes to Sir Reginald Wingate in Cairo for onward transmission to General Clayton, 14 Nov. 1917, Sykes papers DDSY2/11/73. 81 Dugdale (see n. 19)29. 82 Lawrence (see n. 25) 462. 83 B. Dugdale, Arthur James Balfour: Vol. 2 1906-1930 (London 1936) 156. 84 Adelson (see n. 13) 277. i55</page><page sequence="16">Cecil Bloom England. He told one such meeting that it might be the destiny of the Jewish race to be the bridge between Asia and Europe so that Asian spirituality could be brought to Europe and European vitality to Asia. Palestine could be the centre of ideals radiating out to every country.85 At a crowded meeting of Zionists in Manchester around the same time, Sykes said that it was vital for the success of the Zionist plan that it should rest on a Jewish, Armenian and Arab entente: 'Approached in the right spirit Zionism could be the cause of a great reconciliation. Misused it would be the beginning of bitterer strife then ever the world had known.'86 Of this speech, Sokolow wrote that 'the audi? ence felt itself transported into another and better world. The poetry of the East diffused itself as a softening charm over the hard-cut lines of high polit? ical argument.'87 Sykes's death at such an early age was a tragedy because his influence in government circles could have been crucial in the difficult years that fol? lowed. William Ormsby-Gore, who later became Colonial Secretary, believed that had Sykes lived the history of the region would have been dif? ferent, because there was no one with such energy and power to keep con? tinuous watch over the whole area and to liaise with ministers, civil servants and soldiers.88 Bentwich commented that it was 'an unkind fate' that robbed the British delegation at the Peace Conference of the man who was its author? ity on questions relating to the peoples in the Middle East. He wrote that Sykes, who 'shared an enthusiasm for the nationalist aspirations of Jews and Arabs might have known how to conciliate the essential interests of the English [sic] and the French in Palestine and Syria and of the Arab and Jewish peoples'. Bentwich believed that Sykes could have prevented delays that were disastrous following the 1918 Armistice.89 It is worth recording that on his death the London Bureau of the Zionist Organization issued the following statement: It was Sir Mark Sykes's political imagination and his incomparable position of authority on questions relating to the Near East that made him into one of the collaborators in issuing Mr Balfour's famous declaration of November 2 1917 ... Since then he has devoted himself to the translation of the Declaration into practical politics, and scarcely a month ago he was actually in Palestine helping in laying the foundations for the new life of our people. The last task on which he was engaged since his return to Paris was to advocate the Zionist idea in all quarters interested in the future of Palestine.90 85 Leslie (see n. 10) 271-2. 86 Manchester Guardian 10 Dec. 1917, p. 4. 87 Sokolow (see n. 3) xxxi. 88 Leslie (see n. 10) 290. 89 N. Bentwich, England in Palestine (London 1932) 34-5. 90 The Times 18 Feb. 1919, p. 18. i56</page><page sequence="17">Sir Mark Sykes: British diplomat and a convert to Zionism Storrs believed that whatever justice Zionists, Arabs and Armenians received would be largely due to Sykes, and they must feel that they had lost a unique friend.91 On his death the Jewish Chronicle recorded that he had been assid? uous behind the scenes in the work he carried out and that he was 'one of the best friends that have come to the Jew in modern days'.92 The strongly pro Zionist Manchester Guardian noted that he was one of the first and staunchest friends of the Zionist cause and for a long time the principal official channel between the Zionist organization and the British Government.93 His obitu? ary in The Times referred little to his Zionist activities, except to describe what it termed 'probably the best speech in his life' made in Manchester at the crowded Zionist meeting that was eulogized by Sokolow. The obituary did, however, quote the statement made on his death by the London Bureau of the Zionist Organisation.94 Nevertheless, the Yorkshire Posfs long obitu? ary, while including this statement from the Zionist Organization, made no reference whatsoever to his work on Zionism.95 Postscript Sir Mark Sykes became newsworthy some eighty-nine years after his death in the outbreak of Spanish 'flu which swept throughout the world at the end of the War. In 2007 scientists asked for and obtained permission from his descendants for his body to be exhumed, in the hope that an examination of his remains would help them understand the cause of the then current bird 'flu epidemic. This took place in September 2008. Sykes had been buried in a lead-lined coffin and it was believed that, if well-preserved, his body would help them understand the disease.96 The epidemic of 2009 gave further reason for this action. Acknowledgements I would like to thank Amira Stern, the Director of Archives at the Jabotinsky Institute, Tel-Aviv, for the Jabotinsky/Sykes correspondence and Kate Butler of the Hull History Centre for the other Sykes correspondence. 91 Storrs (see n. 20) 379. 92 Jewish Chronicle 21 Feb. 1919, p. 6. 93 Manchester Guardian 18 Feb. 1919, p. 4. 94 The Times 18 Feb. 1919, p. 18. 95 Yorkshire Post 18 Feb. 1919, p. 6. 96 Ibid. 28 July 2009, 3. i57</page></plain_text>

bottom of page