Obituary: 1936-2024'It is a cardinal factor in Jewish life that we must give back'

Lord Jacob Rothschild, upheld family’s legacy to benefit UK, Israel, Jews worldwide

The Oxford-educated aristocrat took great pride in his philanthropy in Israel, in particular the new National Library, described himself as ‘deeply conscious of his Jewish roots’

Lord Jacob Rothschild arrives for a reception hosted by Britain's Prince Charles at Clarence House in London, July 26, 2012.  (AP Photo/Sang Tan)
Lord Jacob Rothschild arrives for a reception hosted by Britain's Prince Charles at Clarence House in London, July 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)

British-Jewish financier Lord Jacob Rothschild, the heir to the famed Rothschild banking dynasty whose death at the age of 87 was announced on Monday, left an indelible mark on Israel as chairman of Yad Hanadiv, the Rothschild family’s Israel-based philanthropic foundation. It provided funding for the construction of the Knesset, the Supreme Court, and most recently, the new National Library building completed last year.

Though the family’s donations dramatically altered Israel’s physical and cultural landscape, Jacob Rothschild and his predecessors were averse to publicity regarding Yad Hanadiv’s activities.

Under his leadership, the organization went beyond funding national landmarks and began to focus on education initiatives, environmental pursuits and advancing equal opportunity for Israel’s Arab minority.

Years at Oxford

The fourth Baron Rothschild was born in Cambridge, England, to Victor and Barbara Judith Rothschild in 1936. He was educated at Eton and later studied history at Christchurch College, Oxford, where he met the philosopher Isaiah Berlin who would mentor him during his undergraduate years and accompany him on his first trip to Israel in 1962.

Alongside Berlin, Rothschild traveled to Israel for the first time under the wing of his great-aunt Dorothy de Rothschild, the childless widow of James de Rothschild and ambitious chairwoman of Yad Hanadiv. The two dined together each week, and it was through his close relationship with Dorothy that Lord Rothschild became involved in Israeli philanthropy.

Rothschild developed his political consciousness while studying history at Oxford, which occasionally shone through in the rare interviews he gave to the media and through his funding of civil society in Israel.

In an interview to The Jerusalem Report four years after the economic crisis of 2008, he confessed that “the banking system as a whole has had a crippling effect in a number of areas throughout the world” and said he had “a lot of sympathy with people who protested about some of the excesses in the world of finance.”

File: Lord Jacob Rothschild (right) with then-prime minister Ehud Olmert, during a visit to Israel, March 12, 2008. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

During Rothschild’s undergraduate years in 1956, Berlin recalled having to dissuade a young Rothschild and his friend, now conservative commentator David Pryce-Jones, from traveling east to volunteer in the student-led Hungarian uprising against its Soviet-influenced government.

“I lectured them both on the fact that one must not take oneself so seriously, that undergraduates are undergraduates,” Berlin said. Rothschild remembered Berlin as “brilliantly clever, brilliantly charming, brilliantly nice.”

Rothschild recalled his time at Oxford fondly and admitted that he considered staying at the university and becoming a history professor, an idea that Berlin fully supported.

But he opted instead, under the pressure of his surname, to join the family bank as a minority shareholder. However, he split from the business in 1980 over a family dispute, embarking on his own ventures and founding J. Rothschild Assurance (now St. James’s Place plc), Britain’s largest financial advising company.

Sustaining the family tradition

Spanning eight generations, the Rothschild banking family traces its roots back to 18th century Frankfurt, from where different family members moved to cities across Europe to build out banking businesses.

The family’s long-running involvement with Zionism began with one man, Edmond de Rothschild, the namesake of Yad Hanadiv who earned the title “Hanadiv Hayadua” — the notable benefactor — for his hefty donations assisting Jewish migration to Ottoman, later Mandate, Palestine.

Edmond’s son James de Rothschild, alongside his wife Dorothy, maintained close relations with early Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann. By connecting Weizmann to their contacts in the British political elite, the couple proved instrumental in bringing about the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which declared support for a Jewish national home in Palestine.

The younger Rothschild also carried on Edmond’s philanthropic legacy, founding Yad Hanadiv upon his father’s state burial in Israel in 1954. (Edmond had died in 1934, but he and his wife were re-interred atop a hill near Zicron Yaakov in what is today called Ramat Hanadiv.)

In 1957, James de Rothschild bequeathed £1.25 million ($1.6 million) through the organization for the construction of Israel’s present-day Knesset building. However, he died shortly after, leaving his widow Dorothy to see the project to completion.

Dorothy Pinto Rothschild, right, at the opening of the Knesset building in 1966. (Public domain)

“She carried out her work as a labour of love, asking for nothing in return,” Jacob Rothschild told the Jewish Chronicle in 2019.

Dorothy didn’t stop after the Knesset’s opening, and in the early 1980s gifted the Israeli government funds to construct a building for the Supreme Court.

“It was Dorothy’s idea to build the Supreme Court but she passed away before it was done, so that fell on me to complete,” said Jacob Rothschild. “Today we have the great project of the National Library, which I have worked on for 20 years, and is now finally being built in Jerusalem.”

‘A library without borders’

Similar to his predecessors with their cherished projects, Rothschild never lived to set foot in the new library, but took great pride in the 20-year undertaking and expressed his hope that the building would house “a library without borders.”

“For 2,000 years our treasured books were scattered, with no geographic center of gravity,” he said in his remarks at the building’s groundbreaking ceremony in 2016. “Now at long last, these volumes, as well as those yet to be written, together with a wide range of other collected materials, are to have a permanent home and one where it should be — in the heart of Jerusalem. The Library will have the responsibility of nothing less than preserving and illuminating the history of Jewish civilization.”

Exterior view of one side of the new National Library of Israel, 2023. (Iwan Baan)

Former Yad Hanadiv CEO Ariel Weiss emphasized that Jacob Rothschild sustained the family tradition of “not seeking credit” during his chairmanship, noting that his name doesn’t appear on the institutions supported by the Rothschild family foundation.

“It is a cardinal factor in Jewish life that we must give back and I am deeply conscious of my Jewish roots,” said Jacob Rothschild.

“When he became chairman, it [Yad Hanadiv] was a small operation, in terms of trustees and staff,” Weiss told The Times of Israel. Rothschild, despite his modest front, greatly expanded the foundation’s scope, concentrating on the environment and Arab society.

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

With his passing, we bid farewell to a great man who carried the historic legacy of his family with pride and humility, working always for the wellbeing of Britain, Israel, and Jewish communities all over the world — President Isaac Herzog

Rothschild also threw his weight behind countless education initiatives in Israel, most notably funding the Open University of Israel, which provides distance learning for Israeli college students across the country.

“With his passing, we bid farewell to a great man who carried the historic legacy of his family with pride and humility, working always for the wellbeing of Britain, Israel, and Jewish communities all over the world,” wrote Israeli President Isaac Herzog on X, formerly Twitter.

National Library of Israel chairman Sallai Meridor also eulogized the late financier and commended his role in renewing the National Library.

“I am deeply saddened by his passing, and for his not being able to see the new Library building as it is today, filled with light, life, and meaning,” he said. “We are honored that this institution is a part of the Rothschild legacy, and will always be proud of Lord Rothschild’s kinship with the National Library of Israel.”

In 2018, the mogul stepped aside and allowed his daughter, the filmmaker Hannah Rothschild, to become chairwoman of Yad Hanadiv and play a more active role in its activities.

Rothschild leaves behind Hannah, along with his two other daughters Beth and Emily, and a son Nat, and eight grandchildren.

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