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Sir Mark Sykes: a convert to Zion.

Sir Mark Sykes is probably best known in history for being the joint author of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, an Anglo-French plan intended to deal with the Middle East post-1918. His life span was only forty years--he died in February 1919 in Paris while present at the Peace Conference there--but in this time he was involved in some 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." His influence on British policy in that region was quite formidable even though his official positions in government service were not all that major, 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.

By the time that Lloyd George became British Prime Minister at the end of 1916, there were many in Government who were supporters of Zionism, but Sykes' influence on British policy that resulted in the Balfour Declaration of November 1917 was not inconsiderable. Chaim Weizmann called him "one of our greatest finds." (1) Leonard Stein devotes much space in his authoritative book The Balfour Declaration (2) to show how Sykes moved from a position in which he had little sympathy with Jews to becoming a committed supporter of Zionism and how he used his position in government service to try to ensure that Britain's interests were compatible with those of the Zionist leaders.

The important work History of Zionism 1600-1918 written by Nahum Sokolow, one of the leading Zionists of his time, was published in 1919 a few months after Sykes' death, and in it, Sokolow included a twenty-page tribute to Sykes in which he told of their relationship that helped to make a success of Zionism. Sokolow went into some detail about Sykes' activities that gave rise both to the Balfour Declaration and to matters post-Balfour. He even included a portrait of Sykes and concluded his appreciation with the words: "He was a man who has won a monument in the future Pantheon of the Jewish people and of whom legends will be told in Palestine, Arabia and Armenia." (3) Walter Lacquer's major work A History of Zionism also recognizes Sykes' strong support for Zionism. To him "there was no more enthusiastic Zionist" and one "no less patient with anti-Zionist arguments." But there are many books dealing with Zionist history that barely mention the contributions of Mark Sykes.

Of Catholic parentage, Sir Mark was born in 1879 of distinguished lineage with his mother being a grand-daughter of the Duke of Portland and his father a member of an important and influential family in the north of England. Through his mother's influence, Sykes was hostile to Jews in his youth. She hated Jews and Freemasons who she believed wanted to destroy the old order in the civilized world, and she made fun of those who fawned upon wealthy Jews.

When he was twelve, his father took him to Jerusalem and Damascus, and their Christian guide was said to be responsible for giving him anti-Jewish prejudices. He was a student at Cambridge University where he studied Arabic, and while there, he visited Syria and other countries to study the peoples of these lands and to gain an understanding of their ways of life.

While serving in the British Army in South Africa in 1899-1902, he was disgusted especially by "Jews of the most repulsive type," and he wrote to a friend that "[I] would exert the last farthing from the most jingo loyal Jew in the British Empire before I'd fine a traitorous gentile." He believed that Jewish financiers were responsible for the war in South Africa.

But his views later changed (some of his reasons for the change are given below), and while working in British Government service during the 1914-18 World War, he became a strong supporter of Zionism and was involved deeply in his Government's decision to favor a National Home for Jews in Palestine.

He worked on the negotiations that led to the Balfour Declaration, and Harold Nicolson, diplomat and author, who worked for Sykes at the time has claimed that without his persistant pressure on Lloyd George and Balfour, the Declaration might not have gone through. Sykes was a devoted Roman Catholic and in 1917 put the case for Zionism to the Papal authorities in Rome, telling them that he believed that the main object of Zionism was to evolve a self-supporting Jewish community that should raise their racial self-respect as well as prove to non-Jews that the Jews are capable of producing a virtuous and simple agrarian population.

As a Christian, he felt that in helping the Zionist adventure to succeed, he would be doing something to make "a great amend." He once said that it was his Catholicism that enabled him to understand the Jewish tragedy because Catholics themselves had suffered much in England. He was contemptuous of Jewish opponents of Zionism and even suggested that being anti-Zionist meant being pro-German (long before Hitler). He said many things in favor of Jews and of Zionism. Interestingly, 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.

Before his espousal of Zionism, Sykes spent many years studying the politics of the Middle East. His honeymoon in 1903 was spent in Palestine, and in the years 1905-1907, he was an attache at the British Embassy in Constantinople. He traveled widely throughout Turkey and wrote a number of books on his travels. And then in 1911, he became a member of the House of Commons when he won a Parliamentary seat on behalf of the Conservative Party. 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 British Government minister although he did have a number of important diplomatic roles in government service throughout the War. He seems either to have been given much freedom to carry out his activities with little supervision or, more likely, took it upon himself to conduct affairs as he thought appropriate. He first became associated diplomatically with Middle Eastern affairs when soon after the outbreak of war, he was recruited to work within a government committee whose brief was to develop British policy vis a vis the Ottoman Empire post-war. He soon made it clear that he believed that the part of Palestine south of Haifa should be retained for Great Britain.

Towards the end of 1915, the British Government decided to plan for how the Allied Powers should control the Ottoman Empire post-war. An agreement with France aimed primarily to define the British and French spheres of influence in the Middle East following the anticipated defeat of Turkey was negotiated. Sykes became his Government's negotiator and Francois Georges-Picot that of France, and this led to the Sykes-Picot Agreement. It was kept secret from all except the Russians because it was believed disclosure at that point would compromise Anglo-French objectives. It only became known to the Arabs when the Bolsheviks opened up Russian Government archives soon after the Revolution. This Sykes-Picot agreement would have prevented the Zionists from making much progress on their objectives regarding the future of Palestine because it 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, and British influence was mainly to be in the Acre/Haifa region. The area around the Holy Places of Jerusalem was to be under international administration.

This agreement contradicted Sykes' belief that Palestine south of Haifa should be under British control, but British Government documents do show that on a number of occasions Sykes disclaimed responsibility for the agreement that was made with the French. He said that he was acting merely as an agent, not as a principal, and was therefore bound by ministerial decisions.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement was sealed between April and May 1916, but beforehand, Sykes went on a visit to Petrograd in March 1916. Prior to his journey, he had a talk with Herbert Samuel that seems to have strengthened his developing interest in Zionism. Up to that time, Sykes knew little about it.

As a member of the British Government, Samuel had written a paper in 1915 in which he had recommended that Palestine should be annexed to the British Empire and that Jewish colonization and cultural development should be actively encouraged. Sykes then came to favor Britain having a firm foothold in Palestine and concluded that a Jewish settlement there would provide the answer. Sykes, himself, having recognized that the agreement he had negotiated with Picot was not in his country's interests, saw Zionist aims as being best achieved by an association with Britain.

He then decided that he had to convince his Government that Palestine should be within British control and a situation had to be created in which the worst features of the Sykes-Picot Agreement could be gotten rid of without breaking faith. Britain had to be regarded as the obvious protector of whatever kind of regime should be set up. The Agreement was never actually brought into being, and it was criticized by many politicians.

Lloyd George who believed the plan was a "fatuous arrangement" from every point of view has written that it caused much disagreement and unpleasantness among the Allies and that it was a "foolish document" and blemished because of the imperfect and unscientific manner in which the boundaries of the area were drawn. He found it inexplicable that Sykes should ever have signed the Agreement with Picot.

More than anyone, Sykes was aware of the French wish to be in control of Palestine to prevent the British from gaining control of the country. And the growing strength of Zionism, especially with its interest in having some British involvement, allowed him to find a way of gaining exclusive British influence in Palestine. There were many in Government at that time who wanted Britain to gain possession of Palestine, but they did not understand that the Zionists who wanted British support would enable them to meet their aims. Sykes was the only one who did so.

His visit to Russia impressed him on the strength of Zionism in that country, and he even discussed with the Russians the possibility that Zionism could solve their Jewish problem. On his return, he saw Samuel and gave him a plan for an Anglo-French condominium for Palestine with Britain guaranteeing a charter for the Zionists. On Samuel's suggestion, he contacted Haham (the Sephardic Chief Rabbi) Moses Gaster who had been one of Herzl's key supporters in Britain. The two men had first met before the war, but they now formed a most cordial relationship, and Gaster changed Sykes' view of Jewry. Sykes once confessed that Gaster "opened my eyes as to what this [Zionist] movement meant." Gaster rid him of his views of Jews whom he had regarded as rootless, unprincipled cosmopolitans, and he then began to say many things in favor of Jewry and of Zionism.

A meeting in October 1916 with Aaron Aaronsohn, the legendary leader of the NILI espionage group that supplied intelligence data to the British in Turkey, was another factor in his support for the Zionist cause. He admired Aaronsohn's "forthright patriotism" and confidence in the success of Zionism, and the latter's influence on him was an important factor in his growing support for Zionism. It resulted in Sykes bringing the Zionist issue into the strategy for the Middle East that he was developing that was aimed at getting Palestine under British and not French control. Aaronsohn, on his part, later wrote in his diary that Sykes' death was a "big loss."

Sykes became enthusiastic about his Government's declaring itself in favor of a national home for Jews in the Holy Land. He is credited with guiding Weizmann and his colleagues into the correct channels for negotiation with the Government as well as advising them strategically on the relevant issues.

His involvement in foreign affairs then took a leap when he became attached to the secretariat of the Committee of Imperial Defense in Whitehall, and his views became those generally accepted when the future political design of the Middle East was being considered.

A crucial event in Sykes' involvement with Zionism came in February 1917 when he was present at a key meeting of Zionist leaders that Weizmann has referred to as "the first full-dress conference leading to the Balfour Declaration." (4) This meeting was held to discuss the current situation at the time and to plan for the future.

Sykes was the only non-Jew present, and he spoke at length on the difficulties that the Zionists would be facing. He was apparently unaware that Weizmann and his colleagues had actually been trying to negotiate with Government Ministers from early in the war, and it is probable that the Foreign Office was unaware at that 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 a special link between the Foreign Office and the Zionists. At that meeting, however, Sykes was not at liberty to disclose the Sykes-Picot Agreement to them (Weizmann only heard of it from C.P.Scott, the influential editor of the Manchester Guardian, two months later), but it is clear that he had by now become committed to using the Zionist cause in his country's interests as well as supporting the concept of a Jewish national home in Palestine.

Weizmann in his autobiography refers in some detail to 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 terms with the Zionists, particularly if Jewish support was given to them in other matters.

Lloyd George fully supported Zionist ambitions, and when he became Prime Minister, he was anxious to ditch the Sykes-Picot Agreement. By this time, the Government was committed to Zionism. Following further Government discussions, Lloyd George in April 1917 sent Sykes to the Middle East to endeavour to secure the inclusion of Palestine into the British area.

He was told that it was important to try to get Palestine added to the British area of influence and to recognize the importance of not prejudicing the Zionist movement and the possibility of its development under British auspices. Sykes was also instructed not to enter into any political pledges to the Arabs, especially with regard to Palestine. He followed this up by suggesting to the Government that a chartered Jewish company in Palestine might satisfy Zionist aspirations.

Sykes was enthusiastic about his Government declaring itself in favor of a national home for Jews in the Holy Land, so much so that one writer has described him as an 'evangelist' of Zionism during the war. Leopold Amery who was also then deeply involved in British Government activities in the Middle East gives Sykes most of the credit for drawing up the Balfour Declaration. He wrote that Sykes' "imaginative and receptive mind had at once seized upon all the possibilities of the Zionist movement. He became an enthusiastic Zionist" and he added that the Zionist movement owed much to Sykes' infectious enthusiasm and indefatigable energy. (5)

As a strong believer in the merits of nationalism, Zionism appealed to Sykes who was attracted to the way it showed pride in agricultural settlements that contrasted with the traditional urban Jewish way of life. Sykes was so passionate about his Government declaring itself in favor of a national home for Jews in the Holy Land that after the British Cabinet had approved the final text of the Balfour Declaration, he brought the document to Chaim Weizmann who was waiting outside the Cabinet room. Sykes exclaimed to him, "Dr Weizmann, it's a boy!."

At one point, Sykes was interested in getting together an alliance of Jews, Arabs, and Armenians, but with each group developing its own society, and 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

Sykes told another such meeting that he saw something in Zionism even greater than a League of Nations. It might be the destiny of the Jewish race to be the bridge between Asia and Europe. Palestine could be the center of ideas radiating out to every country. A measure of his attitude towards the Zionist cause is illustrated by the fact that, when the Zionist Commission headed by Weizmann set up by the Government was to leave for Palestine, Sykes suggested that Weizmann should have an audience with King George V, and Sykes arranged this despite strong opposition from some quarters.

His Zionist work did not finish with the Balfour Declaration. At the end of the war, Sykes went to the Middle East because he believed that only he was 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 administrative efforts in Syria proper and in the area of the Allies' operations exclusive of Palestine." This effort was to assist in the promotion of good relations between the Arabs and the French and to report on the possibilities of coordinating British/Arab policy on Palestine with policy in Mesopotamia.

On a number of occasions, Sykes spoke at Zionist meetings held in England. Soon after the Balfour Declaration was announced, he told one 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 center of ideals radiating out to every country. It is worth recording that on his death, the London Bureau of the Zionist Organisation issued the following statement:
   It was Sir Mark Sykes' political imagination and his
   incomparable 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."

Sir Ronald Storrs, who became Military Governor of Jerusalem at the end of 1917, has said that whatever justice Zionists, Arabs, and Armenians will receive would be very largely due to Mark Sykes, and they must feel that they have lost a unique friend.

The death of Sir Mark Sykes at such an early age was a tragedy because his influence in British Government circles could have been crucial in the difficult years that followed. Had he lived, the history of the region might have been different because no one else possessed his energy and power to keep continuous watch over the whole area and to maintain liaison with Ministers, civil servants, and soldiers. Hardly anyone else in British governmental circles had his passion and love for the Zionist idea and his understanding of the Jewish need for national rebirth.


(1.) Weizmann, Chaim. Trial and Error. London 1949, p. 229.

(2.) Stein, Leonard. 1961. The Balfour Declaration. London 1961.

(3.) Sokolow, Nahum. History of Zionism 1600-1918 Vol 9. London, New York, Bombay, Calcutta & Madras 1919, pp. xvii-xxxvi.

(4.) Weizmann, Chaim. Op. Cit. P. 238

(5.) Amery, L.S. My Political Life Vol. 2. 1914-1929. London 1953, p. 115.

CECIL BLOOM lives in Leeds, England. He served some years ago as Technical Director of a multi-national Pharmaceutical Corporation and, after retirement, began a career as a freelance writer. His work has been published in the U.K., U.S., Israel, South Africa, and Australia. He has written frequently for Midstream. HIS last article on the writer and Zionist, Israel Zangwill, appeared in the Fall 2009 issue of Midstream.
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Title Annotation:Zionism
Author:Bloom, Cecil
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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