Italy's Unheralded Role in Securing International Support for the Balfour Declaration, and Beyond

When, 100 years ago, the victors in World War I needed a push to get behind “the right of Jews to reconstitute in Palestine their National Home,” Italy was there.

Prominent Italian politician Sidney Sonnino in 1922. De Agostini Picture Library.

Prominent Italian politician Sidney Sonnino in 1922. De Agostini Picture Library.

Jan. 10 2019
About the author

Ofir Haivry, an Israeli historian and political theorist, is vice-president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem and the author of John Selden and the Western Political Tradition (Cambridge). He served as chairman of the Public Advisory Committee for Examining Israel’s Approach regarding Worldwide Communities with Affinity to the Jewish People, appointed by Israel’s ministry of Diaspora affairs.

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Paris peace conference that formally terminated World War I and led, among other things, to international recognition by the victorious allies of the national rights of the Jewish people.

Much has been written about these events and, where Zionist activity is concerned, about the prior runup to them that in Great Britain culminated in the November 1917 issuance of the Balfour Declaration. Significant credit for that triumph, as Martin Kramer has demonstrated in Mosaic, is due not only to the seminal figure of Chaim Weizmann but also, in particular, to the diplomatic genius of Nahum Sokolow, who played a key role in securing both French and Italian support for the British initiative.

But there is much more to be said about the Italian role, which too often has been relegated to a peripheral status in historical accounts of the period. In fact, Italy took an important part both before the issuance of the Balfour Declaration and afterward—especially at the Paris peace conference, where it crucially assisted Zionist efforts to secure from the victorious allies an actual, agreed-upon policy. Both earlier and later, several prominently placed Italian Jews were conspicuously involved, but the crucial role was filled by the Italian foreign minister Sidney Sonnino, the son of a converted Jewish father.


The 19th-century Risorgimento—i.e., the long process of Italian national unification that was finally completed in 1870-71—also saw the lifting of all former restrictions on Italian Jews. The astonishing result was that by the beginning of the 20th century, this small community, never amounting to more than 50,000 souls, had already attained a level of success and integration unequaled by any Jewish diaspora community before or since. As elsewhere, many leading Jewish figures were to be found in the worlds of business, art, and education. But the unusual feature of the Italian case was the number of senior military, diplomatic, and political figures; even a partial list of names and achievements would require a separate essay.

Suffice it to mention two prime ministers: Alessandro Fortis, a powerful figure in several government posts before becoming prime minister in 1905-1906, and Luigi Luzzatti, minister of the treasury and by far the preeminent figure in Italian economic policy between 1890 and 1920, and prime minister in 1910-1911. And then there was Sonnino, who in addition to his two brief stints as prime minister (in 1906 and 1909-1910), far more consequentially dominated Italian foreign policy throughout and after World War I in his capacity as foreign minister under three consecutive prime ministers.

An unusual figure in Catholic Italy, Sonnino was nominally an Anglican who, as his surname indicates, was descended from one of the most prominent Jewish families in Italy. In many ways he was a figure somewhat akin to Benjamin Disraeli in Britain: an intellectual and an outsider who became a leader of the political right in his country while also acknowledging and taking pride in his Jewish origins.


A bit of pre-history: shortly before his death in 1904, Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, visited Rome in a bid, unsuccessful, to gain the support of Pope Pius X. While there, he also met with Giacomo Malvano, secretary-general of Italy’s foreign ministry and thus its senior civil servant almost continuously between 1891 and 1907. Malvano was Jewish, and Herzl had hoped to enlist him in the Zionist cause; but at the time Malvano, too, proved resistant.

A decade later, however, Malvano, now serving as a member of the Italian senate’s commission for international treaties, had become a close political ally of Sonnino, and very probably supported the latter’s pro-Zionist position as the wartime scrambling of the international scene began to galvanize Zionist efforts to grasp at new opportunities. In Italy, those efforts were directed mainly by Angelo Sullam, the secretary of the Italian Zionist Federation.

As early as 1914, working together with the Russian Zionist Pinhas Ruthenberg, Sullam had made contact with Gaetano Mosca, also a Jew and then Italy’s undersecretary for the colonies. Together, the two proposed that Italy participate in the creation of Jewish army units to fight alongside the “Entente”—that is, the Allied powers of, at the time, Britain, France, and Russia—and thus gain for the Jews a place at the diplomatic table once the conflict came to an end. But Italy was then still formally allied to Germany and Austria-Hungary, and it initially decided to remain neutral in the war, so the Sullam-Ruthenberg effort went nowhere.

Still, the fact that Italian officials had not dismissed the initiative out of hand underscored a growing awareness of the Zionist cause in government circles, an awareness that became far more significant after Italy entered the war alongside the Entente powers in May 1915.


Something similar was happening in Britain. There, at the beginning of the great war, the “Jewish Question” had been far from the government’s agenda. Indeed, not until the end of 1916 did things change dramatically with the replacement of the anti-Zionist prime minister Herbert Asquith by David Lloyd George, long a Zionist sympathizer (and Herzl’s former legal counsel in Britain) as was his foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour. Both Lloyd George and Balfour also believed that the “Sykes-Picot” agreement, a British-French plan to divide the Ottoman empire after the war, had conceded too much of the Middle East to France, and they saw the Zionist project as, with British support, a lever to roll back some of those concessions.

Still, a formal commitment to establishing a Jewish political entity in the Land of Israel remained a bridge too far. For one problem, there was significant opposition to the idea among leading figures of the British Jewish community itself. (Not until May 1917 did Weizmann and Sokolow succeed in wresting control of British Jewish institutions from the anti-Zionist leadership.) Another, more important problem was the differing and sometimes conflicting views within the Entente, and especially between Britain and France, about the future of the Ottoman territories. For the Zionists, then, the crucial issue became getting any one of the great powers to confer some formal recognition on their efforts so as to kickstart the diplomatic process.

The breakthrough came during a trip by Sokolow to Rome. On May 6, 1917, he met with Pope Benedict XV and was pleasantly surprised to find him cautiously sympathetic with the Zionist project. But of course the pope was not an allied power, and wielded no clout whatsoever with Italy’s anti-clerical government, let alone with France or with England.

Nor did Sokolow fare better in a meeting a few days later with Prime Minister Paolo Boselli, who was non-committal. On May 21, however, he and Angelo Sereni, chairman of the Committee of Italian Jewish Communities, met with Sidney Sonnino, then the all-powerful Italian minister of foreign affairs.

It is unclear what exactly Sokolow and Sereni said at that meeting to win over their interlocutor, but afterward Sonnino had a formal letter issued to the effect that, while the foreign minister could not express himself definitely on the merits of a program concerning all of the allies in the war, “generally speaking” he was not opposed to the legitimate claims of the Jews to their ancestral land. This was the first-ever recognition of Jewish national claims by a European power—and precisely the opening the Zionists had long sought.

With the letter in his pocket, Sokolow traveled to Paris to meet with officials in the French government. He had previously had several inconclusive encounters with both Francois Picot (of Sykes-Picot fame) and Jules Cambon, head of the political section of the French foreign ministry. In the tradition of French diplomacy, both men had been sympathetic, vague, and misleading. But this time Sokolow had the Italian letter in hand as an incentive for the French to climb aboard the Zionist train lest they miss it altogether. On June 4, with the approval of Alexandre Ribot, the prime minister, Cambon issued a letter giving assurances of French sympathy with the Zionist cause.

The Italian and French letters were not to be made public. Instead, on his return to London Sokolow presented them to the British foreign office as evidence of the two allies’ willingness to go along with the British initiative being considered by Lord Balfour. On November 2, Balfour duly issued the famous public letter declaring the support of “His Majesty’s government” for a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The other allies followed through with their own, now-public versions of their commitment to the Zionist cause. First came the French and the Italians, the latter of whom assured Sokolow that their government would endeavor to facilitate the establishment in Palestine of un centro nazionale ebraico (a Jewish national center). They were joined later by the United States and even by Japan, which informed Weizmann in 1919 that it looked “with a sympathetic interest to the realization” of the Zionist aspirations for a national home in Palestine.

In addition to such declarations, a diplomatic skirmish began over the future character, and borders, of the as yet ill-defined Jewish national “home” or “center.” Once again the Italians were a key player. As early as February 1918, Gaetano Manzoni, the director of political affairs in the Italian foreign ministry, drafted an internal proposal to gain a foothold for Italian interests in Palestine by working with Italian Jewish Zionists. Endorsing the idea, Sonnino assigned to a colleague responsibility for “Palestine Affairs” and drafted Sullam to act as adviser. As a result, soon afterward, two Jews, the naval officer Angelo Levi-Bianchini and the military physician Giacomo Artom, were sent to study Palestine’s commercial, industrial, and agricultural potential and to join up there with Weizmann’s Zionist Commission, which had arrived in freshly conquered British Palestine in April.


The final act of this drama took place at the 1919 Paris peace conference. There, the general political arrangements and borders resulting from the war were hammered out (with details to be filled in, and some alterations introduced, by later conferences). On January 25, 1919 the conference approved the creation of a “League of Nations,” under whose auspices a system of “mandates” or trusteeships was to be established as a prelude to future self-rule in large parts of the former Ottoman empire.

The crucial issue for the Zionists now became what, if anything, would be their assigned role in the projected British mandate over the Land of Israel. On February 3, the Zionist Organization presented a document outlining the case for “the right of Jews to reconstitute in Palestine their National Home” through the promotion of Jewish immigration, settlement, and self-government. It also suggested boundaries.

Three weeks later, on February 27, Zionist representatives met with the delegations of the victorious allies to discuss the proposed document. The Zionists in attendance were Sokolow and Weizmann as well as Menaḥem Ussishkin, a member of the Zionist executive committee who impressed the delegates by addressing them in Hebrew. Others present included Lord Arthur Balfour and Lord Alfred Milner (for Britain), Stephen Pichon and André Tardieu (France), Robert Lansing and Henry White (U.S.), Makino Nobuaki (Japan), and Sonnino (Italy). Before the meeting convened, the Zionists were shocked to learn that the French delegation had also added Sylvain Lévi, a prominent French Jew and president of the educational organization Alliance Israélite Universelle, to the list of invited speakers.

At the meeting, the Zionists went first, presenting and justifying their proposals. Then Lévi stood, and their worst fears materialized: summoned by the French delegation with the obvious intent of undermining the Zionist case, he expressed deep and serious doubts as to the advisability or feasibility of the Zionist project. A rebuttal followed by Weizmann, who also answered questions from the other delegates.

In their own remarks, the British were most explicit and direct in their support for the Zionist view. The French, for their part, were skeptical overall and disparaging of the Zionist proposals, though they abstained from explicit rejection. The focus then moved to the remaining delegations. Robert Lansing, the U.S. secretary of state, asked the Zionists what was meant by the phrase “Jewish national home” in their document. Weizmann answered that it signified the expectation that eventually, by means of Jewish immigration and development, Palestine would become as Jewish as America was American and England, English.

According to his later notes, Weizmann suspected the Americans tended more toward his views than toward Lévi’s, but their attitude remained rather guarded. As for the Japanese delegate, he seemed indifferent to the proceedings altogether.

Then came Sonnino’s turn. Standing, he gave a resolute speech, making it abundantly clear that, like Balfour who had spoken for the British, he was “very pleased” with Weizmann’s rebuttal of Lévi’s objections—and that Italy decidedly backed the British position on the merits of the Zionist approach. This forthright intervention by the Italian foreign minister, alongside Italy’s complete alignment with the British view, arguably created the momentum necessary to break the impasse among the great powers, leaving the Zionists with the impression that, despite French efforts to fudge the issue, the allies as a whole remained committed to the Zionist reading of the Balfour Declaration.


That impression was confirmed in the following months as informal discussions suggested a consensus had been reached among the powers to establish a British mandate in Palestine aimed at implementing the Zionist goals. Although the sudden fall of the Italian government on June 23 ended Sonnino’s own active participation in the conference—he left Paris after signing the Versailles Treaty on June 28—his presence and involvement had been decisive. Little more than two weeks later, formal negotiations commenced between the British foreign office and the Zionist Organization.

In July 1922, after several more setbacks and quarrels (not least over the proposed borders of Mandate Palestine), the League of Nations resolved to confer on Britain the mandate for Palestine. Only four months later, Sonnino was dead, but he had lived long enough to see the achievement of the great goal for the sake of which, under his leadership, and at every point along the way, a decisive push, and more than once the decisive push, had come from the Italians.

More about: Balfour Declaration, History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism, Italy