By Cheryl Kempler
In September 1917—a century ago—the Balfour Declaration endorsing a Jewish state in Palestine was two months away. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was awarding a $100 prize to a college student composing the best essay on Zionism. In Milan, an organization of non-Jewish attorneys and judges initiated “Pro-Israele,” an organization dedicated to the protection of Jewish rights.
Readers of the densely packed B’nai B’rith News got all this and more. Reaching subscribers before the Balfour Declaration was signed, the September 1917 issue boasted contributions from prominent academics and clergy, even Sweden’s Chief Rabbi Marcus Ehrenpreis, who praised the British plan for Palestine, seemingly a foregone conclusion. Elsewhere, Brandeis’ prize was announced. “Letter from London,” the monthly column authored by Dr. Max Epstein, a member of the city’s First Lodge, announced that the British had formulated plans to create an all-Jewish regiment for Palestine, intended to encourage the enlistment of Russian Jewish immigrants living in England.
Epstein wrote about Neil James Archibald Primrose, the 35-year-old son of the Earl of Rosebery and a scion, on his mother’s side, of the Rothschild family, bankers to the rulers of Europe. A captain in the elite Royal Bucks Hussars, he was the first to request a transfer to the Palestine unit. “His sentiments have always been strongly Jewish,” Epstein wrote, and during his years in Parliament, to which he was elected in 1910, he “deemed it important to avow his Jewish origin and to express his pride in that fact.”
According to the British-Jewish magazine, The Maccabean, Primrose served as model for the hero of “The Zionists,” a popular novel of the time.
Epstein later reported that Primrose had been killed in November, as he led his squadron at Gezer, an area between Jerusalem and what is now Tel Aviv. Two days later, Prime Minister David Lloyd George honored his memory in the House of Commons, saying, “The House knew his bright and radiant spirit well…one of the most lovable of men. He could have…occupied positions of personal safety, [but] he deliberately chose the path of danger.”
Plaques to his memory can be seen today at Westminster Abbey and other locations throughout England.