World War I placed the Jewish people in a tremendous dilemma: its sons were on both fronts and fighting one another, while demonstrating patriotism to their countries. The World Zionist Organization was also having to deal with an extremely difficult and complicated situation, for its center in Berlin was considered pro-German while its branches in other countries supported, at least partially, the other side. Thus it was decided at the beginning of the war to establish a Zionist liaison office in Copenhagen, the capital of neutral Denmark.
In addition to this, the tiny Jewish settlement in Palestine, the apple of the eye of the World Zionist Organization, was facing a threat to its existence. It was part of the Ottoman Empire, which in 1914 tried to ally itself with the Triple Entente between Germany, Austria-Hungary, the enemies of the Triple Alliance – England, France and Russia. Upon receiving a negative response, the Empire found itself obliged to join the Triple Alliance. Most residents of the Yishuv were Entente citizens (the majority from Russia) and the Turks demanded that they become Ottomans or leave the country. Thousands rushed to leave; others were deported. The situation in Palestine deteriorated rapidly. If not for the Jews of the United States, who came to their rescue by sending money and food by means of American warships (after the government in Washington agreed to provide assistance), the situation might have been far far worse.
At the beginning of the war, most of the Jews in Palestine and many Jews from around the world (including the United States) supported Turkey and Germany. Only a few supported and acted in favor of the involvement of the Jewish-Zionists, the enemies of Turkey, in the Entente. The supporters of the alliance between England and France were in a minority.
They included Chaim Weizmann in London and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who acted to establish a Jewish Legion in the framework of the British army, Pinhas Rutenberg, who traveled to the United States for the same cause, Baron Rothschild in Paris and Joseph Trumpeldor, who together with Jabotinsky established the first auxiliary unit within the British army, which came to be known as the Zion Mule Corps. The other Zionist leaders disapproved of this activity and considered it a threat both to Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel and to the Jewish people as a whole.
Extensive activity took place in England for three years in order to try to persuade this important super power to support Zionist aspirations. Some Zionist leaders participated in this activity, headed by Dr. Weizmann, who took an increasingly major role, the two branches of the Rothschild family (from England and France), and a number of prominent British, non-Jewish personalities. Weizmann, who contributed his skills as a chemist to the British war effort, established strong ties with the minister of munitions, David Lloyd George, and renewed old ties with Lord (Arthur James) Balfour. In 1916, a new government was formed in London, with Lloyd George as prime minister and Lord Balfour as foreign secretary. This contributed significantly to the efforts of the Zionists to advance Zionist aspirations. Weizmann received a good deal of help from the Anglo-Jewish politician Herbert Samuel, as well as Charles P. Scott, the influential editor of the “Manchester Guardian”.
On November 2, 1917, the British government conveyed a declaration of sympathy with Jewish-Zionist aspirations. This was approved after many discussions and objections by various groups – among them the head of assimilated British Jewry – and published on this date in the form of the Balfour Declaration (after its author, Lord Balfour). Great Britain, at that time a super power, promised the Jewish people aid in building a Jewish national home in Palestine. In a fantastic historical coincidence, the government approved the declaration on October 31, 1917, the exact same day that the great British attack in southern Palestine (which led to the conquest of this area and of Jerusalem within six weeks) took place.
In 1917, the British approved the establishment of two new Jewish battalions within the British army that would fight on the Palestine front: the first battalion was founded in England at the initiative of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the second was founded a short time later in the United States by David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, among others. The three leaders were themselves recruited to these battalions. In 1918, a third battalion was established in Eretz Israel.
The Jewish Yishuv suffered greatly during World War I. Its numbers diminished by more than a third – from 85,000 to 56,000 – due to people leaving Palestine, deportations, and economic strife and disease. The conquest of Palestine by the British was a lifesaver and the publication of the Balfour Declaration, together with the advance of the British forces in conquering Jerusalem, was welcomed as part of the coming of the Messiah; granted the people of Israel after the great suffering they had undergone during the war.
The Balfour Declaration was undoubtedly the greatest Jewish-Zionist achievement during World War I. its attainment brought matters full circle: Herzl fought unsuccessfully for a charter, and Weizmann, his successor and youngest rival (one of the greatest supporters of synthetic Zionism, which combined political and practical Zionism) succeeded in finishing the task. Herzl gambled on Turkey and failed; Weizmann gambled on England, which at that time was considered madness, and succeeded.
In September 1918, the British army completed its conquest of Palestine, and 400 years of Turkish rule came to an end.