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Zionism in the Age of the Dictators

Lenni Brenner

Zionism in the Age of the Dictators

14. The World Zionist Organisation and Italian Fascism, 1933-1937

In 1933 Mussolini was well regarded by conservatives. He was thought to be the only one to have the ear of his wild disciple in Berlin, and the Zionists hoped that he would advise Hitler that to antagonise the Jews unduly could only cause needless problems. They also believed that Mussolini might be prevailed upon to join London and Paris in guaranteeing Vienna against a Nazi take-over.

Nahum Sokolow, then President of the WZO, saw Mussolini on 16 February 1933. Sokolow was not a strong figure; he had only been elected in 1931 on Weizmann’s resignation after losing a vote of confidence on his policy of accommodation to the British, and he made no requests of Mussolini. However, Mussolini spoke of his “cordial sympathy” for the Jews. When the Nazis announced their anti-Jewish boycott for 1 April, Mussolini sent his ambassador to see Hitler on 31 March, urging him to call it off. At this meeting the Fuhrer heaped praise upon the Duce, but Adolf Hitler was the world’s greatest expert on the Jews and needed no lecture on how to deal with them. Was it his fault that the leading Marxists were Jews? And what excesses had he perpetrated on the Jews that his name should be so maligned abroad, he retorted. No, his admirers might thank him if he called off the boycott, but his many enemies would all take it as a sign of weakness. Hitler asked that the next time the ambassador saw Signor Mussolini:

Add this: That I do not know whether in two or three hundred years my name will be venerated in Germany for what I so ardently hope to be able to do for my people, but of one thing I am absolutely certain: that five or six hundred years from now, the name of Hitler will be glorified everywhere as the name of the man who once and for all rid the world of the plague of Judaism. [1]

The Italians, who were concerned about Germany’s designs on Austria, were on relatively good terms with the British as a result and gave London a report on the Hitler interview, but there is no reason to believe that Mussolini ever passed on these ominous words to the Zionists, nor is there evidence that the WZO ever presumed to request that the Italians pass them such information on Hitler’s intentions. The WZO’s interest lay in getting Mussolini to support them on Palestine, ally with the British on Austria, and lobby on behalf of German Jewry within the Nazis’ parameters. There was an old tradition in the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe of the shtadlin (the interceder), the rich Jew who would go to the resident Haman and bribe him to call off the mob. But Hitler was not the ordinary Jew-hating king, or even a Petliura, and no Jew was allowed in his presence. Although Zionism had to fight the traditional shtadlinim for power within the Jewish communities and made much of the timidity of these people, the WZO looked to Mussolini to be their proxy intercessor with Hitler. Getting Mussolini to whisper into Hitler’s ear was but the latest form of shtadlinut.

“My Third and Last Interview with Mussolini”

Though his prophesy to Mussolini’s ambassador was awesome, Hitler was acutely aware of his weakness in early 1933. The opposition to stepping up the persecution of the Jews, as witness both Mussolini’s intervention and the pleas of the German bourgeoisie, who were concerned for their export markets in the United States, compelled him to restrict the boycott to a one-day warning to the Jews. But Mussolini took this caution to mean that some form of modus vivendi was possible. He had tried to help the Jews; now he had to do likewise for Hitler. He asked Angelo Sacerdoti, the chief rabbi of Rome, to put him in contact with the heads of Jewry, suggesting that Hitler could scarcely be expected to stop his activities, if he did not have prior guarantees from world Jewry that they would call off their own demonstrations against him. Weizmann was already scheduled to visit Rome on 26 April 1933, and the rabbi suggested him as the logical contact; thus the third Weizmann-Mussolini meeting was quickly arranged.

Their discussion is shrouded in obscurity. Nahum Goldmann, Weizmann’s long-standing associate, has remarked that anything unpleasant “simply put his memory out of action”. [2] The record in Weizmann’s autobiography, Trial and Error, is inconsistent. He wrote of “My third and last interview with Mussolini”, and then discussed their fourth conference. [3] Was it ever possible to forget a meeting in Mussolini’s famous office? The reception at the Palazzo Venezia was meant to be memorable: a bell opened a window and an officer loudly announced that dottore Weizmann was there to see il Duce; a row of soldiers ushered him to the next floor, where he was again heralded; this was repeated four times. After a wait in a splendid Renaissance drawing-room, Weizmann was announced by a final footman and he stepped into the fabled chamber. It was huge, at least 40-50 paces long; at the far end of the almost empty hall was Mussolini, sitting alone, the only light coming from a lamp on his small desk.

Other Italian and Zionist documents reveal some of the content of their conversation. Mussolini made his proposition that the heads of Jewry should declare that they were willing to call off their demonstrations and negotiate with Hitler. He had his own anti-Semitic notion of Jewry as a collective body, and Weizmann had to explain that he had no control over the non-Zionists and anti-Zionists, nor even over his own movement which had compelled his own retirement from active office. He was now organising the immigration of German Jews into Palestine and would not take on further assignments; later, he said that he told Mussolini he did not negotiate with “wild beasts”. [4] The curtain over the meeting prevents us from hearing more of their dialogue, but 26 April was still prior to Sam Cohen’s deal with the Nazis in May; even if Weizmann had had knowledge of Cohen’s discussions in Berlin, he could hardly have raised this still vague project. But by 17 June, when he wrote to Mussolini asking for another meeting in July, Arlosoroff had returned home from his own parleys with the Nazis over the terms of the extended Ha’avara and it is reasonable to think that Weizmann wanted to discuss the proposed Fascist participation in the Political Secretary’s liquidation bank. Weizmann could now prove to the Italians that the WZO was willing to come to terms with Hitler, even if that organisation could not order all Jewry to stop demonstrating. Although there is no evidence that the April conversation resulted in Weizmann’s trying to get the pledge out of the world’s Jewish leaders, rabbi Sacerdoti did attempt to carry out Mussolini’s urgings. On 10 July he reported to the Duce that he had met five Jewish leaders, the chief rabbi of France, the President of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, Neville Laski, head of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and Norman Bentwich and Victor Jacobson of the WZO. They had all agreed to call off demonstrations, “if Hitler would restore the Jews” rights. [5]

“I shall be Able to Place at your Disposal a whole Team of Chemists”

Although Weizmann wanted a quicker meeting, his fourth conversation with Mussolini could not be arranged until 17 February 1934. Through the reports he gave at the time to the British and the report of Victor Jacobson of the Zionist Executive, in addition to Italian documents, the record of the fourth meeting is fairly complete. Mussolini asked if he had tried to deal with Hitler; Weizmann, who, through his friend Sam Cohen, had just asked to be invited to Berlin to discuss the liquidation bank proposal, told him, again, that he did not negotiate with wild beasts. [6] They changed the subject and went directly to the topic of Palestine; Mussolini supported Weizmann’s idea of partition and an independent Zionist mini-state with the proviso that it should be independent of Britain. Mussolini also told him that he would help the Zionists establish their new merchant marine, although it is doubtful if Weizmann knew anything about the Revisionists, planned school at Civitavecchia.

Weizmann was a politician and he knew he had to give as well as take. His own rather unreliable autobiography tells that Mussolini “talked freely of a Rome-Paris-London combination, which, he said, was the logical one for Italy. He spoke also of the chemical industry, and of the Italian need of pharmaceuticals, which we could produce in Palestine”. [7]

He wrote those words in 1947; after the war the President of the WZO could scarcely admit that he had offered to build a pharmaceutical industry in Fascist Italy, but the record is clear. Victor Jacobson, the WZO’s representative at the League of Nations, had accompanied Weizmann to Italy and sent a detailed report of the interview to the Zionist Executive. Weizmann told Mussolini:

I shall be able to place at your disposal a whole team of chemists of the highest scientific standing; expert, trustworthy and loyal men with only one desire – to help Italy and harm Germany. If necessary, we will also be able to find the necessary capital. [8]

The Italians appointed Nicola Paravano to meet Weizmann the next day. Marquis Theodoli, the Chairman of the League of Nations Mandate Commission, was present and his memoirs record that Weizmann and the Fascists reached complete agreement on the plan. In the end nothing came of the arrangement, and in his autobiography Weizmann blamed the British:

I repeated the substance of this conversation to my British friends in London but it had no consequences ... I do not know whether detaching Rome from Berlin would have prevented the outbreak of the war, but it certainly might have made a great difference to the war in the Mediterranean, might have saved many lives and shortened the agony by many months. [9]

Certainly the British were not interested in his scheme; furthermore, it is highly unlikely that he could have raised the capital to support his offer of direct economic collaboration with Fascism. He was always a diplomatic speculator; later he would make an equally fantastic offer of a $50 million Jewish loan to the Turks, if they, too, would ally with London. He worked on a principle that, if he could generate interest at one end of an alliance, something might happen at the other. It is doubtful if any of his pre-war diplomatic ploys, which were always tailored to suit the interest of the other side, but carefully designed to make Palestinian Zionism a central pivot of Britain’s Mediterranean defence, were accepted by his negotiating partners.

Goldmann’s Secret Diplomacy

Zionist diplomacy continued to lean on Mussolini to ward off future catastrophes, and Nahum Goldmann was next to visit the Palazzo Venezia on 13 November 1934. Goldmann cherished secret diplomacy, and he later vividly described the encounter in his Autobiography. He had three concerns: Hitler was about to take over the Saar, the Poles were about to rescind the minority-rights clauses in their constitution imposed at Versailles; and the Austrians were blatantly discriminating against Jews in their civil service. Since an Italian happened to be the chairman of the League of Nations Saar Commission, he had no difficulty in persuading Mussolini to agree to force the Germans to permit the Jews to take out all of their wealth with them in francs. He also persuaded him to agree that, if the Poles came to him, which, of course they did not, he would say “no, no, no” [10] The Austrian situation was that over which Mussolini had the most control, as the Christian Social government was dependent on the Italian Army at the Brenner Pass to protect it against a German invasion. Goldmann told Mussolini that American Jews were proposing public protests, but that he was discouraging this for the time being. Mussolini replied:

That was very wise of you. Those American Jews and gentiles are always ready to make protests and outcries and meddle in European affairs, which they don’t understand at all.

Goldmann continued:

I said that while I agreed this was not the moment for public protest against the Austrian government, we must nevertheless demand a change in its attitude to the Jews and here we counted strongly on him.

Mussolini responded:

Herr Schuschnigg will be here next week, sitting in the chair you’re sitting in now, and I’ll tell him I don’t want to see a Jewish problem created in Austria. [11]

Mussolini was in an anti-Nazi phase in late 1934. Perhaps the WZO could act as a bridge between him and the British; he no longer talked of a German-Jewish compromise. He told Goldmann:

You are much stronger than Herr Hitler. When there is no trace left of Hitler, the Jews will still be a great people. You and we ... The main thing is that the Jews must not be afraid of him. We shall all live to see his end. But you must create a Jewish state. I am a Zionist and I told Dr Weizmann so. You must have a real country, not that ridiculous National Home that the British have offered you. I will help you create a Jewish state [12]

The Fascist leader was gulling the Zionist in every respect. As early as June 1933 he had given up any hope of convincing Hitler to compromise with the Jews, and he told the Germans that they should persist, as any retreat would be dangerous: “certainly there had been much clumsiness and exaggeration at the beginning, but on no account must weakness be shown”. [13] He was also partly responsible for the discrimination in Austria, since he had told the Prime Minister to throw a “dash of anti-Semitism” into his politics as the way to keep the Christian Socials” following away from the Nazis. [14] Also, he certainly did not tell Goldmann that he had just started subsidising the Mufti. But Goldmann was the perfect foil for an intriguer like Mussolini. In 1969, after he had stepped down from twelve years as President of the WZO, he was to write in his Autobiography that:

foreign affairs are so lacking in elegance in a democratic age when governments depend upon the mood of the people. There is something undeniably right in the principle of secret diplomacy, even if it is hardly feasible today. [15]


“Jewry Remembers with Thanks the Loyalty of the Fascist Government”

With the Ethiopian war Mussolini sought to call in his marker with the WZO. In autumn 1935, the League of Nations was about to impose sanctions and the Italian Foreign Ministry hastily commissioned Dante Lattes, the Italian Zionist Federation’s representative in its dealings with the regime, and Angelo Orvieto, a prominent Zionist literary figure, to convince the European Jewish bourgeoisie to oppose an embargo. They had two arguments: sanctions would drive Mussolini to Hitler and, in addition, he was outspokenly in favour of an immediate Jewish state and a practical friend of the Zionist movement. They saw Weizmann and the leaders of official Anglo-Jewry, but to no avail. The Jewish leaders had to back Britain, if for no other reason than the fact that Italy was no match for Britain in the Levant. [16]

Rome sent a non-Zionist Fascist Jew, Corrado Tedeschi, a journalist, to Palestine to contact the broad Zionist right-wing. Arguing the same case, he added that the Zionists would improve their own position vis-à-vis Britain by taking a pro-Italian stand, as London would then be compelled to buy them off. He found little support outside Revisionist circles. Ittamar Ben-Avi, the famous “Zionist baby”, the first child in centuries whose earliest words were all in Hebrew, ran a pro-war piece in his sensationalist daily paper, Doar Ha’Yom, on 21 February 1936. [17] But from Italy’s practical point of view, Ben-Avi’s eager cooperation meant nothing. His paper had been a Revisionist organ, then he drifted away from them, and now had no personal following. Other rightists listened to Tedeschi’s appeal, but the Ethiopian campaign was so clearly another sign of the coming world conflict in which the two Fascist regimes seemed certain to ally that there was no chance of the non-Revisionist right supporting the Italian position.

Hitler always saw Mussolini in more realistic terms than any wing of the Zionist movement. They had all thought that the Austrian question would keep the two dictators apart, but Hitler understood that their common hatred of Marxism would eventually draw them together. The Ethiopian conquest gave Hitler a chance to show that he would stand by his fellow authoritarian, but it was the Spanish Civil War that finally convinced Mussolini that he had to ally with Hitler; the workers” takeover in Madrid and Barcelona in the wake of the military’s rising heralded a major left-wing victory, unless there was massive foreign assistance to Franco’s forces. Mussolini began to appreciate that he could neither afford to have Hitler lose the next war nor win it without his assistance. Zionism henceforward could no longer be of service to Fascism. If Italy lined up with Germany, the Jews would become Mussolini’s enemies regardless of anything he would say or do about a Jewish state. Nevertheless the Zionists sought to restore good relations. In March 1937, Goldmann’s Geneva office still chose publicly to:

emphasise that world Jewry as a whole, or through its various organisations, never opposed the Italian government. On the contrary, Jewry remembers with thanks the loyalty of the fascist Government. [18]

Goldmann came to Rome for one last discussion with Count Ciano, the Duce’s son-in-law and Foreign Minister, on 4 May 1937. Ciano assured him that Italy was neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Zionist, and proposed another visit by Weizmann. [19] But the comedy was over and Weizmann never bothered to come again.

“So? Is it Good for the Jews?”

No Zionist element, right or left, understood the Fascist phenomenon. From the first, they were indifferent to the struggle of the Italian people, including progressive Jews, against the blackshirts and Fascism’s larger implications for European democracy. Italy’s Zionists never resisted Fascism; they ended up praising it and undertook diplomatic negotiations on its behalf. The bulk of the Revisionists and a few other right-wingers became its enthusiastic adherents. The moderate bourgeois Zionist leaders – Weizmann, Sokolow and Goldmann – were uninterested in Fascism itself. As Jewish separatists they only asked one question, the cynical classic: “So? Is it good for the Jews?” which implies that something can be evil for the general world and yet be good for the Jews. Their only concern was that Rome could be either their friend or enemy at the League of Nations and Mussolini was allowed to become their friend and patron. Given his importance in their cosmos prior to the Nazi triumph, it was hardly surprising that they should have continued to court him blindly after 1933.


1. Daniel Carpi Weizmann’s Political Activity in Italy from 1923 to 1934, Zionism (Tel Aviv, 1975), p.239.

2. Nahum Goldmann, Autobiography, p.111.

3. Chaim Weizmann, Trial and Error, p.372.

4. Carpi, Weizmann’s Political Activity in Italy, p.217.

5. Meir Michaelis, Mussolini and the Jews, p.64.

6. Carpi, Weizmann’s Political Activity in Italy, p.217.

7. Weizmann, Trial and Error, p.372.

8. Carpi, Weizmann’s Political Activity in Italy, p.220.

9. Weizmann, Trial and Error, p.372.

10. Goldmann, Autobiography, p.161.

11. Ibid., p.159.

12. Ibid., p.160.

13. Michaelis, Mussolini and the Jews, p.72.

14. Ibid., p.67.

15. Goldmann, Autobiography, p.105.

16. Michaelis, Mussolini and the Jews, p.84, and Michael Ledeen, The Evolution of Italian Fascist Anti-Semitism, Jewish Social Studies (Winter 1976), p.13.

17. Michaelis, Mussolini and the Jews, pp.86-7.

18. Leon Harris, Mussolini in Hitler’s Footsteps, Jewish Life (September 1938), p.17.

19. Michaelis, Mussolini and the Jews, p.136.


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