IN 1893 BARON Edmond de Rothschild left his yacht Atmah at Tantura Bay and began a royal progress through his settlements in Palestine. A cross between a grand seigneur of the ancien regime visiting his estates and a Napoleonic prefect inspecting his department, the impeccably dressed Baron Edmond, the baroness and his entourage were received by a mounted guard, freshly planted rows of cedar trees, neat lawns and public gardens, banquet tables laden with oranges and decorated with palms. And there were enthusiastic crowds, full synagogues, and thriving farmsteads. Since 1882, the baron had committed prodigious energy, skill, and capital to establishing settlements in Turkish Palestine and his entrepreneurship had lent a special stamp to the early foundation of the Jewish homeland. Indeed it can be argued that almost until his death in 1934 at the age of 89, Baron Edmond and the Jewish Colonization Association, which he chaired and financed, dominated Jewish settlement policy, albeit with increasing competition from Zionist groups after 1900.

Simon Schama, a lecturer in modern history at Oxford, traces the Rothschild contribution to the founding of modern Israel, combining meticulous research with evocative style. He reevaluates a fascinating personality that conventional wisdom has stereotyped either as the incarnation of international finance capitalism in its "imperialist stage" or as an eccentric feudal lord, who made the Jewish community in Palestine his "pet charity." Although Schama is very careful not to make an invidious comparison between Edmond's pragmatism and Zionist idealism, he nonetheless makes a strong case for the baron's approach -- a testing of the economic viability of Palestine for Jewish immigration, which would be "an indispensible condition of its survival," at least in the early years from 1882 to World War I. In these years the spiritual and even messianic strain in Zionism that inspired so many Eastern European Jews to seek asylum from the progroms of the last Tzars was moderated and channeled by a cool, rational, and even bureaucratic personality who faced the grim realities of a difficult if not hostile economic and political environment. Edmond de Rothschild did not agree with Theodor Herzl that mass Jewish immigration to Palestine could begin in 1900.

Schama's access to the Rothschild files of the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association (PICA) permits him to recapture a half-century of Baron Edmond's enterprise as it slowly developed from a private regie -- almost a family-estate administration -- to a modern holding company after 1924. Striking indeed is the French influence on Edmond's conduct of the enterprise, a reminder that even the Rothschilds were not so cosmopolitan as to be left untouched by their cultural milieu -- the world of Parisian notables. Consider Edmond's emphasis on tight, centralized administration from Paris; the voluminous, detailed reports from his staff in the field; the selection of agents and managers, engineers and horticulturalists from the grandes ecoles and French colonial service; his near obsession with technical virtuosity and quality produced at the expense of market analysis and cost accounting. His was an enterprise cloaked in the secrecy of the French family firm and colored by the starchy formality of a French prefecture. Yet Edmond's agents were not undifferentiated machines, and once in the field, they contributed their own cachet to the settlement program. Schama is especially evocative in his description of these agents who emerge as half viceroys and half buccaneers: Elie Scheid, a Jewish General Faidherbe, complete with horse, canteen, musket, and retinue; Chaim Kalvarisky, flamboyant and resourceful intermediary with Turkish pasha and Arab sheikh; Pinhas Rutenberg, ex-member of the Social Revolutionary Party in Russia in 1905, who attempted to purchase the principal public utility company in Palestine from the British in 1920.With resident managers like these, no wonder the enterprise continued to function even when Edmond began to relax his tight grip after 1900.

Baron Edmond had his own vision of what the future Jewish pied a terre in Palestine would be like. The new immigrants would disprove traditional Jewish occupational stereotypes and become self-reliant peasant farmers, owning 25 acres of land, tending vineyards of Bordeaux cuttings, raising silkworms, citrus fruits, almonds, and flowers for perfume, while reading their Moliere as well as the Talmud in the new schools. They were to follow minutely the technical instructions of a staff of professional engineers and horticulturalists, as well as the administrative rules on settlement boundaries, regarding the employment of Arab labor, water usage, religious practices (the sabbatical year caused major problems) and even marriage. The settlers were not always compliant and malleable, and in fact more than one local agent was run out of town during these years. Rothschild's concern for a viable agriculture was closely tied to his notion of the self-reliant peasant, not an ignoble vision by any means, but one that a Jewish tailor from Cracow or a shoemaker from Odessa might not accept readily. It was with some consternation that Baron Edmond received a report on the settlement at Zikhron Ya'aqov in 1898. Half of the population of 1,000 were employes and tradesmen engaged in what may euphemistically be called "ancillary services" -- cafes, taverns, boarding houses, some more "bawdy" than "boarding." Not that the new Jewish settlements in Palestine resembled contemporary mining towns in the Wild West. But Baron Edmond was as much concerned with inculcating the puritan virtues of hard work, thrift, and asceticism in his colonies as he was with finding a market for their wine, jam, silk and perfume.

Still, whatever the rigidities in Edmond's values and approach, they were not impervious to modification in practice, and the restraints and controls his policies imposed on the settlements, however irritating at times, at least had the virtues of direction and planning -- something settlement policymakers today might ponder. In any event, time and the lessons of hard experience modified the Rothschild enterprise. Between 1900 and World War I the baron's more ambitious projects for cash crops (high-quality wine, silk, perfume) were abandoned for vin ordinaire, citrus fruits, and a greater appreciation of Arab staples -- barley, maize, lentils, sorghum, sesame -- ameliorated with western European techniques from irrigation to advanced rotations. Time also permitted the new infrastructure of education and public health to produce its benefits. The economic and cultural base on which Baron Edmond placed so much hope for the future was slowly but surely put in place.

Then came the major political change after World War I, the expulsion of the Turks, the League Mandate, and in 1922, the Balfour Declaration. Perhaps even more decisive was the acceleration of immigration in the '20s and especially in the '30s as the Naxi persecutions took their fearful toll. Palestine was fast becoming, if not an industrial country, at least an increasingly urban one, and the new Jewish national agencies began to assume a much more active financial role in the founding of new settlements. By 1931 the Rothschild settlements numbered 30 of a total of 124. In the next seven years they were responsible for only eight of 72 new settlements, a clear indication that their dominant role had ended. By 1935 only 14 percent of Jews earned their living exclusively from agriculture. Baron Edmond's peasant utopia was also receding.

The baron died in 1934, but the Palestine Jewish Colonization Association continued until 1957 under the chairmanship of Edmond's son, James, who, like his father, was no mere figurehead. However, the new role of PICA was quite different. In an urban setting, it became more of an investment bank than an administration, though its paternal, bureaucratic function continued in the rural areas. The former competition with the Zionist conception of settlement was now overlaid with the diverse elements of European socialism, agrarian populism, and a younger generation of "pioneers". In the eyes of these newcomers at least, the Rothschild enterprise seemed elitist, overly bureaucratic, and tied to a western European view of private property that did not automatically confer "ownership" to those who worked the land. Legal disputes increased and PICA often found itself evicting kibbutz occupants for squatting, an activity never popular in a "frontier land" undergoing rapid immigration and settlement.

The growing strength of religious Zionism also challenged PICA in a more fundamental way. Temperamentally, Baron Edmond was not comfortable with messianic forms of nationalism, and his personal antipathy to Herzl did not endear him to the later Zionist leadership. But in addition to Edmond's personal distaste for vocal demonstration of self-righteousness was what he saw as a challenge to his own 'gradualist' approach to settlement in Palestine -- 'gradualist' now in the '30s, not only in order to adjust population to resources, but even more to avoid a violent reaction from the Arabs. Edmond and James fully endorsed Chaim Weizmann's efforts to negotiate with Feisal in 1919. After the violent anti-Jewish riots in 1936 launched by Arab nationalists, a compromise by moderates from both sides became increasingly difficult to achieve.

Schama refuses to cast aspersions on Zionist idealism or even to pass judgment, as he puts it, "on the wisdom or propriety of sustaining the Jewish community, virtually irrespective of cost." But this carefully executed book also makes clear that it would be unfair to underestimate Edmond de Rothschild's commitment to founding a Jewish homeland, despite his disagreement with Zionists on the means to achieve it. Edmond's means and ultimate goal are clearly reflected in his objection to flying the Israeli flag at the Paris Exhibition in 1931: "We can win Palestine by our labour, not by raising flags. There will be time enough for flags when we have our commonwealth in Palestine. Just now, when we are a small minority in the country, we can not afford such gestures. You Zionists always begin from the roof instead of the foundations. That is the difference between us."