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. A British military regime replaced it, and the assumption of the Jewish-Zionists was that within a short time the promises made in the Balfour Declaration would be fulfilled. The existence of thousands of Jewish soldiers in the country in the framework of the Jewish Legion was considered a contributing factor to the imminent Jewish uprising. These were days of elation for the Jewish people whose usually bleak future was beginning to look promising.
World war I breaks out and the Jewish world is torn between the two sides: the Triple Alliance (Russia, England and France), the Triple Entente (Germany and Austria-Hungary, later joined by Turkey). The United States is neutral. Jews fight each other.
Because of the war, the Turks suspend their shipping connections with Europe and declare a moratorium - rejecting payments and commitments. This results in a crisis and profound distress in the Jewish Yishuv.
The Turkish government cancels capitulation measures, according to which foreign nationals are subject only to their consuls and not to the governments of the country in which they live. Thousands of Jews in Palestine with foreign citizenship worry about their fate.
The American warship "North Carolina" brings $50,000 from the Jews of the United States to the Jewish Yishuv in Eretz Israel. This is the beginning of Jewish-American aid to the Yishuv.
Turkey enters the war on the side of the Triple Alliance. Palestine, as part of Turkey, is now a participant in the war. The Turks order all foreign nationals in Palestine to take out Turkish citizenship or leave.
Thus begins a mass exodus of Jews from Palestine.
In a discussion with the British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey, the Anglo-Jewish politician Herbert Samuel raises, for the first time, the possibility that Turkey will collapse following the war. The super powers, he says, will find it difficult to turn Palestine into one of their own territories, so perhaps it is worthwhile "fulfilling the ancient ambitions of the Jewish people and re-establishing a Jewish state." Grey responds sympathetically.
A meeting of the Actions Committee (Va'ad HaPoel HaZioni) in Copenhagen, after the World Zionist Organization decides to open a Zionist liaison office in neutral Denmark, while leaving its principle institutions in Germany. Sokolow and Chlenov, two Zionist leaders, are dispatched to the United States and arrive, eventually, in England. Zionist activity in most of the European countries-on both fronts - is paralyzed.
The first meeting between Weizmann and Samuel takes place in London; the first step on the long road to the Balfour Declaration.
Weizmann, a medium-ranking Zionist leader, begins to pave his way to the leadership.
The Jewish Yishuv in Palestine is being persecuted. The Turks arrest suspects, confiscate equipment and supplies, and place prohibitions on the use of Zionist symbols and stamps. Increasing numbers of Jews leave Palestine. American warships help evacuate those wishing to leave to Egypt, which is in British hands.
Baron Edmond de Rothschild meets in Paris with Dr. Chaim Weizmann. He tells him, surprisingly, that now that Turkey has entered the war, the cautious activity in Eretz Israel must stop and that Jews must work openly and demand the establishment of a Jewish state.
January - March
The Turks arrest a number of young leaders and community activists in Palestine. Among them are Tanya Shohat, Yehoshua Hankin, David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. Some of them are deported to Turkey for the entire duration of the war, and others - the Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi - to Egypt, from where they travel to the United States.
Ze'ev Jabotinsky (who arrived from Russia) and Joseph Trumpeldor (who left Palestine because of Turkish persecution) join forces in Alexandria, Egypt to form a Jewish Legion, which will fight with the British in the struggle to liberate Palestine from the Turks. The British refuse to give their consent but agree to the establishment of an auxiliary unit, a mule corps, which comes to be known as the Zion Mule Corps.
The Mule Corps swears allegiance to the British army. Jabotinsky is not prepared to serve in the corps because its duties only involve transportation, and demands the establishment of a fighting legion. Trumpeldor is recruited to the regiment, firstly as deputy commanding officer with the rank of captain and later as deputy battalion commander. In mid-April, the battalion is sent to the Gallipoli front.
Jabotinsky leaves for Europe in order to establish a Jewish fighting force. He meets with Pinhas Rutenberg, a Russian-Jewish engineer and a leading revolutionary in his country, in Brindesi, Italy. The two agree to work together to bring about the establishment of a Jewish Legion. Rutenberg leaves for the United States in order to advance matters.
The beginning of the NILI underground movement (its name is chosen later), whose founders are Aaron Aaronsohn and Avshalom Feinberg, together with a small number of settlement members. These young people, in despair over the Turkish government, decide to make contact with the British and help them conquer Palestine from the Turks.
The Actions Committee (Va'ad HaPoel HaZioni) convenes in Copenhagen. It violently rejects Jabotinsky's plan to establish a Jewish Legion. Jabotinsky is warned that if he doesn't cease his activities he will "bury the Zionist enterprise forever." The Actions Committee resolves that "The Jewish Legion project stands in deep contradiction to the principles of Zionist activity... no Zionist will participate or support this activity." Jabotinsky refuses to heed them and despite objections by the majority of Zionist leaders, moves to London where he continues to work towards the establishment of a regiment.
American warships arrive in Palestine throughout the year, bringing money and food sent by American Jews. This aid saves the Jewish Yishuv from starvation and disease. Upon their return, the warships take with them thousands of Jews who are leaving Palestine because of persecution and the ban on foreign nationals of enemy countries remaining in Palestine.
Britain and France sign the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which divides the Middle East between them. It is named after its two signers, senior officials in the foreign ministries of their countries: Sir Mark Sykes from Britain and Francois-Georges Picot from France. According to the agreement, Palestine is to be under the governments of a number of super powers: the Haifa Bay area - in British hands; the majority of the Galilee - in French hands; south of the Judah region and all of the Negev - in the hands of an Arab country backed by Britain; and the rest of Palestine, including Jerusalem, Jaffa, Tiberias and Nazareth - under international control. The agreement raises deep concern in the hearts of the Zionist leaders who wish to establish a Jewish state/national home in Palestine.
At the end of the Gallipoli campaign, the British disband the Zion Mule Corps. One hundred and twenty of its members are transferred to England, where they become the basis of the Jewish Legion, which Jabotinsky is in the process of establishing.
Aaron Aaronsohn, head of the NILI spy organization, leaves Palestine and travels to Europe. He arrives in Egypt some months later, where he manages spy operations. Operations in Palestine are headed by his sister, Sarah Aaronsohn, Avshalom Feinberg and Joseph Lishansky.
The Turkish governor in Palestine, Ahmed Jamal Pasha, expels Dr. Arthur Ruppin, head of the Palestine Office (the Zionist representation in Jaffa), from Palestine. It ignores the fact that Ruppin is a German citizen and that Germany is a principle ally of the Turks in the war.
Kfar Bar-Giora, the first wartime settlement, is established in the Galilee by members of HaShomer. It is headed by Israel Giladi. After Giladi's death in 1918, the kibbutz is named Kfar Giladi in his honor. Throughout the summer and autumn of 1916, the British army advances from Egypt in northern Sinai and crosses over into southern Palestine.
On December 21 it conquers EI-Arish.
In the first months of the year, the British army advances northward and by the end of March arrives in the Gaza region.
The first British assault on Gaza takes place, ending in defeat for the British.
The assault provides Jamal Pasha with an excuse to order the wholesale evacuation of the Jews of Jaffa (including the neighborhood of Tel Aviv). He commands them to leave their homes and go north, for fear of a British attack. Ten thousand Jews leave within a few days. Most of the Arab residents escape into the surrounding villages and fields. The leaders of the Yishuv send urgent telegrams summoning the leaders of German and American Jewry and call on them to intervene in order to prevent additional expulsions and perhaps even mass killings (as with the Armenians).
Weizmann (in London) and Sokolow (in Paris) work feverishly to enlist support for the idea of a Jewish national homeland in Eretz Israel. Weizmann believes that prime minister Lloyd George and foreign secretary Balfour sympathize with the idea. Sokolow, who is being helped by Baron Edmond de Rothschild in Paris, is favorably impressed with the position of the French government. Intensive activity in the United States to gain the support of President Wilson is also underway. The Zionist leader Louis Dembitz Brandeis is especially active now that Wilson has appointed him to the Supreme Court - the first Jew to be appointed to that office. The Zionists increase their efforts to persuade Britain's allies to agree to transfer control over Palestine to Britain once the Turks are defeated.
The second British assault on Gaza brings tremendous force to bear on the city, but again the British are repulsed.
Sokolow is granted an audience with Pope Benedict XV at the Vatican where he asks for moral support for the aspirations of the Zionists in Eretz Israel. The Pope responds: "Yes, yes. I imagine we will be good neighbors."
A sympathetic declaration from the French government for Zionist aspirations is made by the secretary general of the foreign ministry, Jules Cambon, to Nahum Sokolow: "lf conditions will allow and the independence of the holy places be preserved, it would be a deed of justice and reparation to assist, by the protection of the Allied Powers, in the renaissance of the Jewish nationality in that Land from which the people of Israel were exiled so many centuries ago."
General Edmund Allenby is appointed commander of the British forces in Palestine. He replaces General Archibald Murray.
End of June - July 22
Weizmann leaves on a secret mission to Spain on behalf of the British government in order to meet Henry Morganthau, the former American ambassador to Turkey. The latter is heading East in order to implement a plan he has conceived to "remove Turkey from the war," as it opposes both British and Zionist interests. He succeeds in his mission, confirming, unquestionably, the special status of Weizmann in London.
In the summer months, Zionist activity in London, aimed at achieving a formal, sympathetic declaration in favor of Zionism from the British government, increases. The British army is about to conquer Palestine. The Zionists present a proposal, which is conveyed to Lord Balfour by Lord Rothschild on July 18. Jabotinsky continues his efforts to establish a Jewish Legion.
In London, the British government consents to the formation of the 38th Battalion of Royal Fusiliers. Ze'ev Jabotinsky is among the first recruits.
The activities of the NILI organization, which had gained momentum from the beginning of the year (the transfer of information to the British in Egypt, the sending of emissaries and the receipt of money which was transferred to Yishuv leaders), come to an end on this date following the Turkish incursion into Zichron Ya'akov. The attack results in the arrest and torture of suspected NILI members and threats of violence against the Jewish Yishuv. NILI leader Sarah Aaronsohn is arrested by the Turkish military authorities and tortured for three days. To escape further torture, she commits suicide. Joseph Lishansky flees but is chased and caught by the Turks on October 20. There is much concern in the Yishuv with regard to a Turkish reprisal.
After prolonged discussions and indecision throughout the month of October, the final version of the Balfour Declaration is consolidated. The indecisive parties were really only trying to placate the Arab supporters and the anti-Zionist circles within British Jewry.
The British launch a large-scale attack in the Negev. It is a diversionary action against Gaza; the main battle is for Beersheva, which falls in one day. On the exact same day, the British government approves the final version of the Balfour Declaration.
The British government publishes the Balfour Declaration, signed by its foreign secretary, Lord James Arthur Balfour. The Declaration - addressed to Lord Lionel Rothschild who is asked to bring it to the attention of the "Zionist Federation" - includes an expression of support for the founding of a "national home" for the Jews in Palestine. There is great joy throughout the Jewish world, on both fronts.
Throughout the first half of the month, the British army advances rapidly northwards, conquering Gaza in southern Palestine, Jaffa and Tel Aviv, Lod, Ramle and the surrounding area. The next step is to take possession of Jerusalem.
An additional Jewish regiment, the 39th Battalion of Royal Fusiliers, is established in the United States, which is to participate in the battles for Palestine with the British army. Among its organizers and first recruits are David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-left.
On the eve of Chanukah, the British army enters Jerusalem. It meets no resistance as the Turks have secretly left the city.
The formal date of the conquest of Jerusalem. General Allenby enters the city victoriously. Upon reaching Jaffa Gate, he dismounts from his horse and enters the Holy City on foot. Four hundred years of Turkish rule have come to an end.
In Damascus, the Turks hang the two NILI members they are holding - Na'aman Belkind and Joseph Lishansky.
Yishuv representatives from the territory conquered by the British assemble for a founding meeting of what will later be called the Elected Assembly (Asefat haNivharim).
The 38th Battalion of the Jewish Legion arrives in England from Egypt. It trains for battle on the front line in Palestine.
A Zionist Commission arrives in Palestine, consisting of senior Zionist representatives, which has received British approval to operate in Palestine. At its head is Chaim Weizmann.
Weizmann meets with Emir Feisal in south Transjordan - one of the heads of the Arab Rebellion against the Turks and a British ally - to discuss cooperation between the Jewish and Arab national movements.
The 38th Battalion positions itself on the front line in the area of Samaria.
The British approve the establishment of an additional battalion - the 40th Battalion of Royal Fusiliers - in the framework of the Jewish Legion, a regiment of the British army. Volunteers are to be recruited from Palestine.
A cornerstone laying ceremony is held for the Hebrew University at Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, with the participation of Dr. Chaim Weizmann and General Allenby.
A delegation of doctors and nurses from the Hadassah Organization of America arrives in Eretz Israel together with large amounts of medical equipment. It has come to help Yishuv members who need medical attention as a result of World War I. In late August, the 39th Battalion, that was recruited in the United States, arrives in Egypt en route to Palestine.
The great British attack to rout the Turkish army from Palestine and neighboring countries begins. Within 11 days the entire area is conquered - between south Samaria and Damascus, as well as Transjordan. Soldiers of the 38th and 39th Battalions of the Jewish Legion participate in the battles.
The Habima Theater is established in Moscow, and begins to operate in Palestine from 1931. In 1958 it is awarded the status of "national theater."
Turkey surrenders. The war in the Middle East comes to an end.
World War I ends on the European front. Germany and Austria-Hungary surrender.