Lionel Walter Rothschild

Zionist, Naturalist, Philanthropist 1868 - 1937

Zionism has done nothing and would never do anything inconsistent with the status of the true British citizen… I am proud to be one, just as proud ‎as I am of being a Jew.

Lionel Walter Rothschild

The document that came to be known as the Balfour Declaration was addressed to Lionel Walter Rothschild and delivered by hand to his London home at 148 Piccadilly.
Born into the Rothschild banking family, Walter ‎took on the business and civic responsibilities necessitated by his position. He served as a Conservative member of the House of Commons and on the boards of Jewish communal institutions. His attachment to Zionism was heartfelt and of incalculable value to the movement; yet his greatest passion was reflected in his lifelong commitment to the natural sciences.


His attachment to Zionism was heartfelt and of incalculable value to the movement

Banking and Politics

Lionel Walter Rothschild was born in London on February 8, 1868, the eldest son of Nathaniel Mayer de Rothschild (1840-1915), who was the first Baron Rothschild and the first Jewish peer in England. His mother was Emma Louisa (1844–1935), daughter of Mayer Carl von Rothschild of Frankfurt.

Walter Rothschild was educated at home, then at Bonn University and later at Magdalene College, Cambridge (1887-1889), where he came under the influence of the renowned ornithologist Alfred Newton. Pressed by, and under the tutelage of Nathaniel Mayer de Rothschild, Walter left academia to learn the business—banking—that had made the Rothschild name renowned. Between 1889 and 1908 he worked at N. M. Rothschild & Sons in London. In tandem he served as a Member of Parliament with the Liberal-Unionists (from 1899 to 1910), a faction that had broken away from the Liberal Party in opposition to Irish Home Rule.

Natural science

By 1910 Walter had retired from parliament and banking to devote himself to the natural sciences. He wrote scores of well-received articles on biology, zoology, ornithology and entomology. An avid collector, he opened a public museum at Tring in Hertfordshire that housed his specimen collection—just as he had said he would when he was only seven years old.

Besides being a trustee of the British Museum, Rothschild was the de facto head of Britain’s Jewish community serving as a governor of the Board of Deputies, of the United Synagogue, of the Anglo Jewish Association, and of the Jews’ Free School.

When Nathaniel Mayer de Rothschild died in 1915, Walter succeeded his father to the peerage.



Britain’s first Lord Rothschild, Nathaniel Mayer, served on the 1902 Royal Commission on Alien Immigration. He met Theodor Herzl when the father of political Zionism came to London to testify before the Commission.

Nathaniel Mayer was concerned that Herzl’s testimony should not prejudice the Jews’ position in England or his own efforts to champion the immigration of East European Jewry. Herzl indeed took care not to do this and the two men got on well, though their collegiality did not convert the elder Rothschild to Zionism.

As Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann remarks in his memoirs: “The House of Rothschild, perhaps the most famous family in Jewish exilic history, was divided on the issue of Zionism.”

But Nathaniel Mayer did eventually have a change of heart about Zionism—not long before his death in March 1915, according to historian Jehuda Reinharz. His sons, Walter and Charles, were both Zionists.

Indeed, Walter even managed to relate his work in the natural sciences to his commitment to Zionism, as the scientist and historian Stephen Jay Gould ‎notes: “When Chaim Weizmann, the Zionist leader, left for Palestine to see if ‎he could facilitate the implementation of Balfour’s ‎declaration, Rothschild gave him another mission”—to find out what had happened ‎to two ostriches he had gifted to a Jaffa-based naturalist. ‎Needless to say, Weizmann carried out the mission.‎

‎”Exactly when and how” Walter Rothschild was “moved to take an active interest in ‎Zionism is uncertain,” writes Leonard Stein, chief historian of the Balfour ‎Declaration. It probably happened around November 1916 although Rothschild’s public ‎allegiance to the cause came—powerfully—‎on May 28, 1917 in a letter to The Times. ‎

Rothschild, furthermore, worked diligently with Weizmann to counter the influence of ‎the Jewish anti-Zionists both in and outside the British Cabinet. On February 7, ‎‎1917 he told his coterie of Zionist insiders—in the presence of Sir Mark Sykes, ‎the Middle East strategist and government emissary— that he was for a Jewish ‎state under the sponsorship of the British crown. ‎

In response to those anti-Zionists who worried that the ‎rights of British Jewry would be jeopardized if Zionism were ‎embraced abroad, Rothschild argued that a Jewish homeland in Palestine under British ‎protection was meant for those who “could not” or “did not” desire to be ‎citizens in the country where they lived.

“I can truly say that national Zionism ‎has done nothing, and would never do anything, inconsistent with the ‎status of the true British citizen of which I am proud to be one, just as proud ‎as I am of being a Jew,” Rothschild declared.‎

'Dear Lord Rothschild'‎

On June 19, 1917 Foreign Minister Arthur James Balfour met with Rothschild and ‎Weizmann. He asked them to draft a communiqué regarding Palestine for the Cabinet to consider, and that would be acceptable ‎from the Zionist viewpoint. A draft with the ‎imprimatur (by a 56-51 margin in favour) of the previously anti-Zionist Board of ‎Deputies—which by this point was under Rothschild’s leadership—was submitted on July 18. ‎‎”At last I am able to send you the formula you asked me for,” Rothschild wrote. “If His Majesty’s ‎Government will send me a message on the lines of this formula, if they and ‎you approve of it, I will hand it in to the Zionists’ federation and also ‎announce it at a meeting called for that purpose.”

One of the two Jewish ministers in Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s cabinet—the Liberal Party’s Edwin ‎Montagu, Secretary of State for India—made the anti-Zionist case when the ‎Cabinet discussed the draft in September 1917. As it happened, both the Prime Minister ‎ and Balfour were away from London during the deliberations. ‎

In the event the tide was with the Zionists, and under the helm of Lloyd George and Balfour ‎the cabinet’s ultimate approval came on October 31, 1917. The tidings were ‎delivered by messenger from Balfour to Rothschild, in his capacity as ‎president of the English Zionist Federation, and arrived at 148 Piccadilly on November 2. ‎In the legendary letter, which began “Dear Lord Rothschild,” the British ‎government declared its support for the establishment in Palestine of “a ‎national home for the Jewish people.” ‎

It would take about a week for the newspapers to report the story to the ‎wider world.‎


The evening of the Declaration, the news was cabled to Baron Edmond de Rothschild in Paris. Chaim Weizmann went to Ahad Ha’am’s home in Maida Vale. According to Shmuel Tolkowsky, an aide to both Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow. Weizmann was overjoyed and ’embraced me for a long time’. Numerous other leading Zionists Zionists, including Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Tolkowsky, and Eliezer Margolin (who had commanded a Jewish battalion of the British Army formed to fight the Turks in Palestine) had dinner at Weizmann’s place.
Before they sat down to eat the group danced in a circle Hassidic-style in Weizmann’s study.

On December 2, 1917 Rothschild chaired a meeting of thanksgiving at the Royal Opera House in central ‎London. Besides Zionist dignitaries led by Chaim ‎Weizmann, Herbert Samuel, Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz and Nahum Sokolow, the British government officials present included Under-Secretary of State for ‎Foreign Affairs Robert Cecil and Sir Mark Sykes.‎

After the World War, Rothschild continued to play an important supporting ‎role in the Zionist movement. One key task was to reach out for Arab support. On ‎December 21, 1918 Rothschild tendered a dinner for Emir Faisal of Arabia, who would ‎in January 1919 reach an agreement with Weizmann on Arab-Zionist ‎cooperation. Rothschild also sat on the advisory committee of the Hebrew ‎University of Jerusalem, the institution whose establishment was seen as a ‎crucial milestone in Zionist nation-building.‎

The Rothschild paradox

For all his involvement in communal and civic affairs, Walter Rothschild was ‎basically a nonpolitical man who was profoundly, and more contentedly, invested in the ‎natural sciences. ‎

He had grown up at Tring Park in Hertfordshire, just north of London, and from an early age dreamt of building a zoological museum to show off his collection of ‎insects, butterflies and other creatures.‎ But his childhood was perhaps less idyllic than one might imagine; out riding near his ‎home one day he was dragged off his horse and roughed up by apparently ‎anti-Semitic louts. The incident stayed with him. ‎

As a youngster Rothschild was delicate, introverted and had a speech impediment. As an adult, he was an imposing man of six foot three, eventually weighing 300 pounds. He never ‎married though as a young man he was purported to have had dalliances ‎with chorus girls and in later life kept mistresses—one of whom bore him a ‎daughter, and another who is said to have blackmailed him.‎

After a long illness, Lionel Walter Rothschild died on August 27, 1937 at the age of ‎‎69.‎


At that Royal Opera House mass meeting a month after the Balfour Declaration, ‎Rothschild struck a tone of gratitude and conciliation. The Declaration, he said, was ‎the most momentous occasion in the history of Judaism in 1,800 years. For the first time since the Roman dispersion of the Jewish people from Palestine in 70 AD, they ‎had received international recognition of their aspirations for a national ‎home. Now they had to take care to respect the rights and privileges of their ‎non-Jewish neighbours in Palestine and reconcile with those in the Jewish ‎community who did not, in the first instance, embrace the Zionist cause. ‎

He called on those gathered in the hall to adopt a resolution that “conveys to ‎His Majesty’s Government an expression of heartfelt gratitude” and to pledge ‎their own continuing support for the Zionist cause.‎

While Rothschild’s name is linked in perpetuity to British support for a Jewish national ‎home in Palestine, his contributions to scientific inquiry, his support for ‎taxonomy in biology, his establishment of scientific journals and his natural ‎history museum at Tring Park could hardly be less central to the achievements for which he would ‎have wanted to be remembered.  ‎

Despite the vicissitudes that have accompanied the ‎Jewish people on their journey these past 100 years, one constant has been ‎the Rothschild family’s civic-mindedness— manifested through extraordinary contributions that have enhanced Jewish life in Europe, made a lasting ‎imprint on the Israeli landscape, and boosted human capital by fostering a ‎democratic polity committed to equal opportunity for all Israel’s inhabitants. ‎At home the tapestry of Rothschild generosity is evident in the arts, the British ‎heritage, education and the environment. ‎

Continuity has been a cornerstone of the Rothschild ethos. Nathaniel Charles Jacob Rothschild holds the peerage today as the ‎centenary of the Balfour Declaration is commemorated. He was just 16 months old ‎when his great-uncle died. ‎

One hundred years ago, providence placed Walter Lionel Rothschild in partnership with a small group of other men and women including David Lloyd George, James Arthur ‎Balfour, Chaim Weizmann and Vera Weizmann. Together they made it possible for the Zionist ‎enterprise to achieve its chief goal of creating a Jewish homeland in ‎Palestine. Like all human endeavours the outcome of their efforts has been ‎imperfect. Yet this can in no way detract from the magnitude of their ‎accomplishment.

Learn more about Rothschild


The Rothschilds by Virginia Cowles

The House of Rothschild: Money’s Prophets 1798-1848 by Niall Ferguson

British Jewry since Emancipation by Geoffrey Alderman

Online ‎

Walter Rothschild and the Balfour Declaration

Lionel Walter (Walter) Rothschild (1868-1937) ‎

About the Natural History Museum at Tring