Who was Lord Jacob Rothschild? What was his connection to Israel and Zionism?

Who was Lord Jacob Rothschild? What was his connection to Israel and Zionism?
Rothschild is known to have visited Israel frequently, expressing deep personal connection to the country. His family were key to securing Balfour Declaration.
4 min read
27 February, 2024
Lord Rothschild attends a service of thanksgiving for Lady Mary Soames at Westminster Abbey on November 20, 2014 in London, England. [Getty]

Lord Jacob Rothschild, a towering figure in British finance and a staunch supporter of Israel, passed away at the age of 87, his family announced Monday.

Born into the Rothschild Jewish banking dynasty, Jacob Rothschild made his own mark on the world of finance. After his education at Eton College and Oxford University, he spent several years at the family bank, N M Rothschild & Sons. In 1980, he broke away to establish his own ventures, including J Rothschild Capital Management and playing a key role in companies such as RIT Capital Partners plc.

The late Lord Jacob Rothschild was also deeply involved in supporting Jewish communities throughout Europe through his leadership of The Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe. Additionally, he served as Honorary President of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

But his dedication to Jewish causes, Israel and its founding ideology of Zionism was also a cornerstone of his life's work.

On Tuesday, Israel's Prime Minister posted a message of grief, praising the late Rothschild.

"I send my deepest condolences to the Rothschild family over the passing of Lord Jacob Rothschild, a world-renowned philanthropist and a great supporter of the state of Israel," Netanyahu wrote.

"In the nineteenth century, Baron Rothschild made indispensable contributions to the foundation of the future Jewish state. In the twentieth and twenty-first century, Lord Jacob Rothschild continued this proud tradition. The people of Israel will remember him with eternal gratitude and appreciation," he added.

Was Jacob Rothschild a supporter of Israel?

As chairman of Yad Hanadiv, the Rothschild family foundation in Israel, he oversaw substantial contributions to Israeli institutions, including the Knesset, Supreme Court, and the National Library of Israel: The Israeli Parliament building was built and donated by the Rothschild family, the Supreme Court building of Israel was also a donation from the family; while Yad Hanadiv has been instrumental in the development of the National Library of Israel, which the late Jacob died before he could see inaugurated.

Lord Rothschild is known to have visited Israel frequently, expressing a deep personal connection to the country.

Israeli media published reports full of praise and mourning for the late Baron. 

Whilst dedicated to the development of Israel, the late Lord Rothschild appeared to strike a muted tone vis-a-vis Israel's occupation and colonization of Palestine, in which his predecessors played a prominent role through the Balfour Declaration in which imperial Britain pledged Palestine to the Zionist movement without regard for its native people (see below).

"We are strong supporters of Israel, but not politically, at the foundation,” said Rothschild to in 2014. “We have worked a lot to help bring about the integration of the Arab-Palestinian population," he claimed at the time.

However, the Rothschild dynasty played no small role in initiating the dispossession of the Palestinians. 

The Rothschilds and the Balfour Declaration

The Rothschild family's extensive support for Zionism dates back to Edmond de Rothschild. Edmond offered substantial financial aid to support Jewish migration to Ottoman Palestine, which later became Mandate Palestine under British imperial rule.

Edmond's son, James de Rothschild, and his wife Dorothy continued this legacy, maintaining a close relationship with Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann. Their connections within the British political sphere proved critical in facilitating the infamous 1917 Balfour Declaration, expressing support for establishing a Jewish national home in Palestine.

James carried on his father's philanthropic work by founding Yad Hanadiv after Edmond's burial in Israel in 1954. In a rare interview in 2017 marking the centenary of the Balfour Declaration, the late Lord Jacob Rothschild, described the declaration as "a miracle" and discussed previously unknown details about his cousin Dorothy's key role in the events.

He emphasized the role of Chaim Weizmann, an "impoverished would-be scientist" who captivated British figures, including members of the Rothschild family. Weizmann's persuasive charm ultimately convinced key figures like Lord Balfour and Prime Minister Lloyd George to support the idea of a Jewish national home in Palestine, ignoring the rights of its native population.

Lord Rothschild touched upon the complex family dynamics at the time. While his relative Walter Rothschild, an eccentric naturalist, became deeply committed to Zionism later in life, some within the family had reservations about establishing Israel. Jacob Rothschild himself expressed a strong connection to Israel, visiting every year since the 1960s. It was Jacob's great uncle Lord Walter who was given the Balfour Declaration.

Lord Jacob Rothschild is survived by his wife, Serena, four children, and numerous grandchildren. His daughter Hannah is set to inherit his role as chair of Yad Hanadiv, continuing the family tradition of commitment to Israel.

Beyond finance and politics, Lord Rothschild's legacy is deeply intertwined with his philanthropic endeavours. He served as Chairman of the National Gallery and spearheaded the Heritage Lottery Fund, transforming the landscape of heritage preservation in the UK.