Nahum Sokolow

Leading Zionist Official and Diplomat 1859 - 1936

My deepest wish was always to contribute to the rebirth of my people.

Nahum Sokolow

When Nahum Sokolow approached the podium at Manhattan's Carnegie Hall in March 1913 to deliver a speech on behalf of Zionism, he most likely noticed that there was not an empty seat in the house. Thus it was only fitting that four years later, as the highest-ranking Zionist official on the scene in London, Sokolow would prove instrumental in paving the way for the Balfour Declaration whereby Britain committed itself to facilitating "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."


Proved instrumental in paving the way for the Balfour Declaration

Sokolow was a man of practical bent who embraced both political and cultural Zionism. The suffering Jews needed a home in Palestine—and that home would also be a global center for Jewish education, learning and literature; it would be a wellspring of idealism for Jews the world over. Sokolow wanted Palestine to be a place where the language of the Bible would be reborn, where Jewish civilization itself would be resurrected and Jewish creativity find expression. His dream, moreover, was that in the ancient, long-neglected home of their fathers Jews would develop a vibrant agricultural class.

The Weizmann-Sokolow partnership

Though nowadays Sokolow is probably less well known than fellow Zionist statesman Chaim Weizmann, the extent of their partnership should not be underrated. In 1917 Sokolow played a crucial role in the framing of the Zionist proposals—which eventually became the Balfour Declaration— for the consideration of the British War Cabinet.
As France and Britain wrangled over Middle East spheres of influence, Sokolow represented the Zionists in important discussions with British strategist and diplomat Sir Mark Sykes and with French diplomat Francois Georges-Picot. According to Leonard Stein, who remains the preeminent chronicler of the Balfour Declaration, Sokolow was charged with the “delicate task” of gauging French, Italian and Vatican support for Zionist aspirations.

In his memoirs Weizmann, who was not known for bandying compliments about, described Sokolow as a remarkable Zionist, a genius, extraordinarily versatile, cool under pressure, astonishingly prolific and hardworking; his only shortcoming being that he was somewhat disorganized and perhaps too conciliatory.

Child prodigy

Sokolow was born in Wyszogrod, Poland, in 1865. When he was a small child the family moved to nearby Plotzk. Sokolow hailed from an illustrious Jewish rabbinic family and was considered a child prodigy. He studied under several talmudists, was drawn to science and languages and could write in Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Polish and English; he even wrote an English primer for Yiddish speakers. He published his first book when he was 18.

Despite growing up in a Polish Jewish ghetto Sokolow had personal poise and an air of sophistication. These would serve him well as a Zionist diplomat.

Hebrew journalist

In 1876, Sokolow married Regina Segal while he was still a student and the couple lived with her parents in Makow. There he helped pioneer Hebrew-language journalism and broadened its readership. In 1880 the couple moved to Warsaw where Sokolow wrote a popular column for the Hebrew weekly (later daily, thanks to him) Ha-Zefirah, which was aimed at a broad readership that spanned Jewish sectarian differences. He had begun contributing to the newspaper in 1876.

In 1885 he became Ha-Zefirah’s editor and covered the First Zionist Congress in Basle (1897), coming away an ardent admirer of modern political Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl. He soon transformed Ha-Zefirah into a Zionist platform and translated Herzl’s utopian novel Altneuland (Old New Land) into Hebrew. He also worked to promote political Zionism among the Orthodox.

With Zionism taking up more and more of his time, Sokolow left Ha-Zefirah in 1906 to become secretary-general of the World Zionist Organization. (His former newspaper later folded.) He established Haolam as the Zionist movement’s own Hebrew weekly and in 1913 joined the Zionist executive.

Not everyone was immediately enamored with Sokolow, or with Zionism. In September 1913 the German-language writer Franz Kafka was in Vienna to attend an insurance convention and observed the 11th World Zionist Congress, which was taking place in the city at the same time. He listened to Sokolow and others speak and in 1915 turned the experience into his unfinished comic story “Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor.” Whether Kafka ever felt drawn to Zionism remains an open question: What is clear is that Sokolow and his fellow Zionists didn’t win him over in Vienna. “I sat in the Zionist Congress,” he told his fiancée Felice Bauer, “as if it were an event totally alien to me, and felt myself cramped and distracted by much that went on.”

Sokolow travelled broadly on behalf of the Zionist cause. On trips to the US he would meet with Zionist supporters such as Solomon Schechter of the Conservative movement, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and Henrietta Szold, founder of the Hadassah Women’s Zionist Organization. Once when he was in town (March 23, 1913) The New York Times took note of his presence by carrying a longish essay of his translated from the Yiddish.


Zionist diplomat

Over the years Sokolow raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Zionist settlement and reclamation in Palestine. He first visited the country in March 1914, when he met the philanthropist Baron Edmund de Rothschild, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew, and a long roster of other Zionist notables. He also learned about Hashomer, the Zionist self-defense group set-up in 1909, which by 1920 would meld into the Haganah.

At the end of 1914, with the Great War under way, Sokolow moved to London together with Yechiel Tschlenow, a physician and fellow Zionist executive member. The World War divided the Zionist organization both philosophically and geographically and Sokolow and Tschlenow were instructed to toe the movement’s line of neutrality. That, apparently, was Tschlenow’s inclination—though not necessarily Sokolow’s.

With Turkey’s entry into the war on November 5, 1914, the prospect that Zionist aspirations could be realized grew more real. The Ottoman Turkish Empire had captured Palestine from earlier Sunni Muslim conquerors around 1512. Now there was a good chance that Turkey’s Empire would crumble and the Allies would take the Holy Land.

Partnering with Weizmann

Sokolow teamed up with Chaim Weizmann, who headed a cluster of uncommonly talented British Zionist campaigners. These included civil servant and intellectual Leon Simon, solicitor Harry Sacher, future secretary of the World Zionist Organization Samuel Landsman, businessmen Simon Marks and Israel Sieff, Moses Gaster, Hakham (or rabbi) of the Spanish and Portuguese Congregation, and Liberal Party politician Joseph Cowe. Then there was Jewish Chronicle publisher L.J. Greenberg, journalist and engineer Leopold Kessler, lawyer Herbert Bentwich, historian Paul Goodman, the Rev. J.K. Goldbloom, principal of Redman’s Road Talmud Torah, and Israel Zangwill, the author and advocate of cultural Zionism
Meeting with Pope Benedict XV.

On May 10, 1917, with the war’s outcome uncertain, Sokolow travelled to the Vatican thereby becoming the first Jew to meet with Pope Benedict XV, who had been installed shortly after the outbreak of the conflict. The pope patently acknowledged that Sokolow had come as the representative of the Zionist movement. Benedict said he viewed it as providential that the Jews were now claiming back their land and described the Zionist plan laid out by Sokolow as a wonderful idea.

The pope asked what he could do for the Zionists. Replied Sokolow: “We count on the sympathy and moral support of Your Holiness.” The pope then spoke about the importance of safeguarding the holy places. The meeting concluded with the pope again asking, “What else could I do for you?” and Sokolow once more requesting moral support. The pope responded: “Si, si io credo che noi saremo buoni vicini” – “Oh yes, I do hope we shall be good neighbours.”

Crafting the Balfour Declaration

It was British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour who recommended that the Zionists sketch out a statement to be brought before the War Cabinet that harmonized their aspirations with a British role in a post-Ottoman Palestine. As the highest Zionist official empowered by the World Zionist Organization who was in London, Sokolow played an essential role in drafting a version of what would eventually become the Balfour Declaration—and in so doing ignored his original instructions about remaining neutral in the war between Germany and Britain.
It was Sokolow, apparently, who coined the politically ambiguous though emotionally expressive term “Jewish national home.”

In fact, Sokolow’s diplomacy had already helped set the stage for the Balfour Declaration. On June 4, 1917 he was the recipient of correspondence from French diplomat Jules Cambon which expressed France’s sympathy towards Zionism. The letter hailed the “renaissance of Jewish nationhood in that land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago.” In London, Cambon’s dispatch, given French-British rivalry, was seen as having eased the way for British Cabinet approval of the Balfour Declaration.

After the Balfour Declaration—addressed to Lord Walter Rothschild in his capacity as head of the British Jewish community and dated November 2, 1917—was made public, Sokolow first lobbied intensively to gain it wide international support and subsequently to ensure its implementation by Britain.  The First World War ended on November 11, 1918. On February 27, 1919 Sokolow appeared before the Paris Peace Conference at Versailles to help make the Zionist case. Later he would become the Jewish representative to the League of Nations, founded on June 28, 1919.

Sokolow continued to publish. In 1919 he brought out his History of Zionism, 1600-1918, which spotlighted non-Jewish support for Zionism. Implicitly he argued that the Balfour Declaration was but one more link in a venerable chain of Christian Zionism. Balfour himself wrote the introduction to the book.

Realizing the Balfour Declaration

Sokolow seemed to be in a perpetual state of motion. In 1920 he played a crucial role in launching Keren ha-Yesod, which was tasked with raising monies for Jewish settlement in Palestine. He was a founding member of the Hebrew writers’ union in Eretz Israel. As head of the British government- authorized Zionist Commission, which had been created to make recommendations on how Britain could best implement the Balfour Declaration, Sokolow was present for a March 29, 1921 speech by British Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill. The occasion was a palm tree-planting ceremony on Mount Scopus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In January 1922 Sokolow met with President Warren Harding at the White House in connection with the dreadful state of affairs facing East European Jewry.

Though he fell seriously ill in 1924, Sokolow was back in Palestine in spring 1925 and then again travelled continuously: to the United States, South Africa, Italy, Poland and— lastly—Lebanon for meetings with Arab leaders aimed at gaining their understanding for Zionism.

By 1929 Arab violence, including the massacre of nearly 70 Jews in Hebron, and British backtracking on Jewish immigration were creating tensions within the Zionist camp. The dilemma was whether the Zionists should press harder or trust that Britain would ultimately fulfill its Balfour Declaration commitments. While it is unclear whether he differed substantively with Weizmann’s unpopular pro-London line, this was nonetheless the context in which Sokolow replaced Weizmann for a while at the top of the Zionist hierarchy.

World Zionist Organization President

At the 17th Zionist Congress in Basle, held during July 1931, Weizmann was thwarted in his presidential reelection bid because of a bitter, combined challenge from Vladimir Jabotinsky’s Revisionist Party, the Orthodox Mizrachi Party and some General Zionists.  Sokolow, broadly respected by most factions, was elected in his place.

It was not the outcome that either Weizmann or Jabotinsky wanted. In any event, Jabotinsky led a walk-out after losing a motion to have the Congress go on record as demanding a reversal of the 1922 Partition of Palestine. Churchill had given 76 percent of the original Palestine Mandate land to Emir Abdullah and renamed the area Transjordan (today’s Kingdom of Jordan).
Ten years later the Zionists were fearful that Britain was now abandoning its Balfour Declaration commitments altogether. But on January 8, 1932 Colonial Secretary Philip Cunliffe-Lister wrote to Sokolow pledging that the British government would fulfill not only the letter but also the spirit of those solemn Balfour obligations “which it is their privilege to discharge.”

Darkness in Europe

Sokolow’s tenure as WZO president spanned the Great Depression, which in the US had begun on September 4, 1929, as well as the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany. Adolf Hitler became Chancellor on January 30, 1933.

The 18th Zionist Congress, held in Prague during August 1933, was in a quandary over how to deal with Germany’s harassment of its Jewish citizens. It was risky for the Congress to debate their maltreatment—the Nazis implied retaliation—but in Sokolow’s view it was still more dangerous to remain silent.
For him Germany was an example par excellence of the fact that assimilation had not solved the Jewish problem. “The Jews are no enemies of Germany. They are friends and admirers of its culture,” he noted.

Sokolow pleaded with Britain to open the doors of Palestine, which it had partially shuttered under Arab pressure: “Shall this people eternally tramp the world? Shall this people be robbed of its own land and be driven from country to country, living in perpetuum mobile?” he asked.
He went on: “The time for deeds has come. If it is impossible for the fugitives to return to the countries whence they fled or to be accepted by other countries then they must be led back to the land of their forefathers.”

At the same time, Sokolow opposed demands by Jabotinsky’s Revisionists for an all-out economic boycott of Germany. On August 25, 1933 the Zionist Congress not only rejected such an approach but created the Haavara program for the transfer of Jewish property from Nazi Germany to Palestine.

In those early days the Nazis wanted, first and foremost, to rid Germany of its Jews and were willing to facilitate emigration to Palestine in a scheme that allowed the transfer of Jews and their capital—in the form of German export goods. The arrangement undermined the boycott of German goods, eased the arrival of some 60,000 German Jews to Palestine and boosted Palestine’s economic development. This contentious Haavara scheme remained in place until the outbreak of World War II in September 1939.

Sokolow continued to travel throughout 1934, visiting South Africa and spending extensive periods of time in Palestine. He also worked to shore up international support for the Balfour Declaration. In January 1935 he obtained the backing of the Rumanian government for the establishment of a Jewish National Home in Palestine. He also lobbied this line with British Foreign Minister John Simon and Colonial Minister Cunliffe-Lister. In the coming months he would meet with French President Albert Francois Lebrun and mark the 85th birthday of Czechoslovak President Tomas Masaryk. And amidst all this Sokolow still managed to bring out a new book titled Hibbath Zion—The Love of Zion.

Closing days

In the face of Weizmann’s determination to return to the leadership, Sokolow opted not to seek reelection. In September 1935 the 19th World Zionist Congress, meeting in Lucerne, Switzerland, elected Weizmann president and Sokolow became honorary president of the World Zionist Organization. For the man who many considered to be the “roving ambassador of Zionism,” invitations to speak before Jewish and Zionist organizations worldwide continued to roll in.

However, Sokolow’s health gave out at last, and he died of an apparent heart attack in London on May 17, 1936 at the age of 76.

On the news of his death Zionist offices in New York, London and Buenos Aires closed. In Palestine the blue-and-white Zionist flag flew at half-mast; cinemas shut their doors. In Vienna Hebrew schools closed as a mark of respect. At London’s Willesden cemetery Britain’s Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz conducted the funeral service. With Jabotinsky standing nearby, Weizmann himself recited the Kaddish memorial prayer over Sokolow’s flag-draped coffin.


Sokolow’s blend of nationalism and progressivism was very much a product of his milieu. For all his level-headedness his outlook contained no small measure of idealism. He had hoped, for instance, that the League of Nations would one day be headquartered in Jerusalem.

Sokolow’s intellectual curiosity, linguistic facility and diplomatic skills were of the first order. His History of Zionism remains a key resource on the subject. And yet it is worth recalling that his earliest passion was—like that of Chaim Weizmann and Walter Rothschild—science.

Throughout his career Sokolow was a prolific writer in a variety of languages on a range of subjects. He contributed a unique, comfortable style to Hebrew newspaper writing; his journalistic legacy is recognized in the annual journalism prize in his name that is awarded by the Tel Aviv municipality, and in Beit Sokolow, the home of the Israel Journalists Association, which was dedicated in 1957.

In Israel streets and a kibbutz—Sde Nahum—are named in his memory. In 1956 Nahum Sokolow’s remains were reinterred on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem in the pantheon of other Zionists greats.

Learn more about Sokolow

Nahum Sokolow: Life and Legend by Florian Sokolow

Nachum Sokolow, Servant of his People by Simcha Kling


Naḥum Sokolow