Dorothy de Rothschild

Made philanthropy her life's work 1895 - 1988

How delighted my husband would have been to see you make your way in life so well. It must have taken courage and resolution

Dorothy de Rothschild

Zionist campaigner, social activist and philanthropist


Dorothy (Dolly) Mathilde de Rothschild learned about Zionism first hand from her father-in-law Baron Edmond de Rothschild (1845-1934). She soon became a skilful political facilitator who regularly filled in for her husband James when he went off to war or was convalescing from his war-related injuries.

Dorothy arranged meetings and forged important contacts for Chaim Weizmann and his circle, thus enabling them to press Britain to support a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

Years later, after the birth of Israel,  her discreet philanthropic generosity helped to develop the Jewish state’s civil society, build some of its most important institutional edifices, and unleash the human potential of a new generation of Israelis through a vast array of educational initiatives.

All the while, Dorothy maintained a profound commitment to the family’s civic responsibilities in British society, including overseeing the initial stages of the handover of the family’s 6,000-acre Waddesdon estate in Buckinghamshire to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Under the leadership of the current Lord Rothschild, the Rothschild Foundation underpins all of Waddesdon’s activities on behalf of the National Trust.

Dorothy's story

She was born Dorothy Pinto into an Anglo-Jewish London family on 7 March 1895. On 25 February 1913, just short of her 18th birthday, she married James, then age 35, at Waddesdon Manor. Thus, while still just a teenager she was to play a critical role in introducing Weizmann to the Rothschild family and the broader Jewish and general communities.

The family name Pinto is often traced to Sephardi Jews, descendants of the Jews expelled from Portugal during the Inquisition, some of whom moved to the Arab world. Dorothy’s family on her father’s side had roots in Egypt. Her maternal grandfather, Levi Cohen, was a founder of the Liberal Synagogue in London.

Even while James served as an MP, she became a local alderman and Justice of the Peace.

Baron Edmond de Rothschild

Dorothy’s father-in-law, Baron Edmond de Rothschild of France, began making philanthropic investments in Palestine in the late 1880s, having visited Jerusalem with his wife Baroness Adelheid in 1887. He helped establish some of the first settlements in Eretz Israel and went on to join forces with the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association (PICA). Indeed, in doing so, he massively bolstered PICA’s ongoing work.

Under Baron Edmond’s leadership, PICA’s many activities included the establishment of over 40 agricultural settlements and of key industries such as the flour mills in Haifa, the salt works in Atlit, and Haifa’s fertilizer and chemical plants. Likewise, cuttings from the Rothschild vineyards in France were used to help establish Carmel’s Rishon LeZion Wine Cellars — and thus laid the foundations for the country’s wine industry, which today comprises dozens of commercial firms producing world-class wine.

During the Great War (1914-1918), Dorothy’s husband James — French-born and Cambridge-educated — was mobilized into the French army, leaving the London-born Dorothy to replace him as the intermediary between her husband, his father, and the London-based Zionist leaders headed by Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow.

As a result of James’s war-related injuries and prolonged convalescence, Dorothy became Weizmann’s ‘resourceful collaborator’, according to historian Simon Schama. ‘Young as she was’, he writes in Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel, ‘she combined charm, intelligence and more than a hint of steely resolution in just the right mixture to coax commitment from the equivocal, enthusiasm from the lukewarm and sympathy from the indifferent.’

In Chaim Weizmann, The Making of a Statesman, biographer Jehuda Reinharz describes Dorothy as Weizmann’s ‘trusted collaborator’, crediting her with making the connection between Weizmann and the families of both Walter and Charles Rothschild. Or as Schama puts it: ‘Through tireless but prudent social diplomacy she had managed to open avenues of influence and persuasion at a time when they were badly needed.’

Very early on, writes Schama, Weizmann enlisted Dorothy ‘as a vital link between himself and the higher echelons of the Anglo-Jewish and British non-Jewish notability’. In this way, Dorothy was delivered into the maelstrom of Zionist politics.

Power couple

In addition to serving in the French army during the Great War (WWI), James A. ‘Jimmy’ Rothschild served as an officer in the Royal Canadian Dragoons and, later, as part of the British-sponsored Jewish Legion in Palestine.

Dorothy joined James in helping to press the British Government for a commitment to work towards establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine once it was wrested from the Ottoman Empire. The couple used their considerable contacts to expand entrée to British decision makers for Weizmann, Nahum Sokolow and their Zionist circle. These efforts were instrumental in bringing about the famous 2 November 1917 letter from Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour to Lord Walter Rothschild, head of the British branch of the family.

In 1920, James became a naturalized British citizen. From 1924, he nominally headed PICA and, on his father Edmond’s death in 1934, he formally assumed the entirety of the family’s responsibilities. From 1929-1945 he also served as a Liberal Member of Parliament.

In 1957, James felt that PICA’s task had been fulfilled. He declared that he was turning over all the remaining PICA lands to Israel’s national institutions and asked that the State and the people, supported by world Jewry, carry on with the work. He died that same year at age 78.

Dorothy made philanthropy ­her life’s work. In 1958, in reflection of her philanthropic giving, her resolute Zionism and her desire to honour the wishes of her late husband and his father, she founded Yad Hanadiv.

Her cousin, Lord Rothschild (Jacob) continues to uphold her precious philanthropic legacy.


A singular force

Following through on a pledge that James had made to Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Dorothy de Rothschild and her family funded the construction of Israel’s parliament — the Knesset — in Jerusalem. The cornerstone was laid in 1958. The building, dedicated in 1966, marked its 50th anniversary in the summer of 2016.

In part to fulfil James’ wishes, as well as to commemorate the approaching centenary of her father-in-law Edmond’s birth, Dorothy endowed and oversaw the construction of Israel’s new Supreme Court building, which serves as both a High Court of Appeals and High Court of Justice. The government granted the Court a site that is adjacent to the Knesset and Government quarter and Dorothy took an active interest in every aspect of the project. The building was designed by brother-and-sister architects Ram Karmi and Ada Karmi-Melamede.

The Supreme Court opened in 1992, four years after Dorothy’s death. In line with the philanthropic ethos of the Rothschild family which regards philanthropy as a privilege and responsibility rather than a form of public relations, Dorothy requested that publicity regarding the role of Yad Hanadiv in the project be kept to a minimum.

Currently, Lord Rothschild and Yad Hanadiv are supporting and actively involved in the renewal of the National Library of Israel, including the construction of a magnificent new home for the Library,  designed by the Swiss firm of Herzog & de Meuron on a plot of land facing the Knesset.

A driving force of Yad Hanadiv, Dorothy helped create a vast and enduring array of good works in Israel. These include practical programmes aimed at improving the lives of ordinary Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel; backing for the Jerusalem Foundation, founded by Mayor Teddy Kollek in 1966; and fellowships and academic awards for gifted scholars.

Under her stewardship, Yad Hanadiv helped established the Jerusalem Music Centre at Mishkenot Sha’ananim and the Institute for Advanced Studies at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. It has supported scientific work at the Technion and the Weizmann Institute of Science, established educational television in Israel (thus introducing television to the country), and created the Open University whose campus in Ra’anana is uncharacteristically named for Dorothy de Rothschild.

All this is in addition to her efforts on behalf of the rights of Jews in the Soviet Union during the communist era.


James and Dorothy had no children of their own yet they left a lasting legacy. In effect, they even became the surrogate parents to 30 German-Jewish boys (ages 6 to 14) to whom they gave refuge on the family’s Waddesdon estate for over five years. In 1939, on the eve of the Second World War, Dorothy arranged for the boys who were pupils at a Jewish school in Frankfurt to be granted asylum in Britain. Tragically, most of their families and classmates who remained behind in Europe were engulfed by Hitler’s war against the Jews.

When she was 88, some of the ‘old boys’ returned for an emotional reunion with their benefactress. ‘How delighted my husband would have been to see you make your way in life so well. It must have taken courage and resolution’, she said. ‘Although you are very much grown up you will always remain boys to me’, she told them, adding ‘It’s been such a very long time since you’ve been here with me.’

The boys went on to careers in business, the professions, and academia. One even returned to Britain as an Israeli diplomat.

Dorothy’s death in London on 10 December 1988, at age 93, brought to an end  75 years of prolific work on behalf of Zionism and humanism. She is buried at Willesden Jewish cemetery in the Rothschild family compound and close to Walter Rothschild to whom the Balfour Declaration was addressed

Dorothy bequeathed her estate as well as responsibility for Yad Hanadiv to her cousin Jacob, today Lord Rothschild, who, over the years had become actively involved in the Foundation’s philanthropic work. Alongside his successful career as an investment banker, Lord Rothschild has served as a dedicated steward and visionary Chair of Yad Hanadiv since 1989 — growing the Foundation’s assets and guiding its activity.

In addition to the Open University’s Dorothy de Rothschild Campus, Dorothy is memorialized by Shadmot Dvora (in the image of Dorothy), an agricultural moshav, or cooperative farm, in the Lower Galilee that was founded by German Jewish settlers in 1939 and named in her honour.

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