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Brandeis' Journal of Zionist Thought
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Volume 0, Number 0

Zionism Before Balfour

Weizmann, World War I, and the Awakening of Zionism

By Ben Mernick


Despite the agitated nature of Europe during the era, the First World War marked a time of significant progress for the Zionist movement. Zionism was the quintessential early twentieth century nationalist movement, a unified ethnic minority's plea for a homeland in which its uniqueness could flourish. Inquiry into the War's effects on Zionism will elucidate the far-reaching nature of World War I and will give insight into the extent of its totality. Furthermore, Zionist aspirations were taken into account by the battling empires, showing the interactive relationship between the War and contemporaneous Zionism. The Zionist movement endured a formative leap during these years, the culmination of which was the release of the Balfour Declaration on November 2, 1917. The seventh volume of The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann, which covers the war years until the release of the declaration, will provide a lens through which to investigate how the First World War and Zionism impacted one another.

Chaim Weizmann was a major figure in the Zionist movement during the war era. After the publication of his autobiography Trial and Error, Dr. Weizmann asked his close colleague Meyer W. Weisgal to begin the arduous process of compiling forty years of Weizmann's written correspondence. In his request to Weisgal, Weizmann wrote:

These letters and documents are scattered all over the world and in many hands ... I should very much like to see them collected in one place and prepared for proper editing and publication.a

In 1950, two years before this luminary's death, the Weizmann Archives were established in Rehovot. Over the next three and a half decades, myriad scholars performed preparatory work, as well as primary and secondary research, culminating in the publication of the 23-volume set that composed The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann. The seventh volume of this work, which covers the period from August 1914 through November 1917, provides important insight into Zionism as it relates to the larger European political context within this specific time frame.

Throughout the World War I era, Weizmann displayed cognizance of the activities of the Ottoman Empire and thought they would have a great effect on the progress of the Zionist project. In a letter just two months after the Great War broke out, Weizmann displayed his concern that the events of the War would threaten the possibility for a Jewish homeland, writing, "And so it has happened. Turkey has also gone to war and our poor beloved Palestine and all that has been created there by years of strenuous work is now in danger."b

Furthermore, in one of his earliest comments on the progress of the War, Weizmann seemed to think that Turkish participation in the War could actually put the lives of Jewish settlers in danger. In a letter to Charles P. Scott, Weizmann demonstrated the validity of these worries when paraphrasing Herbert Samuel's claim that "He has given the thing a great deal of thought and consideration and he feels the responsibility lying on him as a British Cabinet member and as a Jew."c This threat remained serious in Weizmann's view, but he concentrated on it less as some time of relative stability continued in the region. When writing on June 11, 1917, Weizmann expressed a different sort of anxiety with regard to the Turks. He espoused that it would be detrimental to Zionist goals for Palestine to remain Turkish: "It came to my notice yesterday that ... there is still a danger that these negotiations may be carried out on the basis of an integral Turkey."d When comparing the prospect of a Jewish protectorate in Ottoman—as opposed to British—Palestine, Weizmann viewed Ottoman stability as counterproductive for Zionist aspirations. In spite of the intense debate about this issue in Zionist circles, Weizmann maintained his strong opposition to any Ottoman participation in the administration of a Jewish protectorate and made this opinion exceedingly clear, arguing, "The Turks would use every possible means to destroy the Zionists ... [I]f Palestine were to remain in the hands of its present masters, then our work would be practically condemned to death."e He therefore concluded: "The time is not now ripe to open channels of communication with Turkish leaders."f

Additionally, Weizmann commented on larger societal trends and their immediate and general effects for the Zionist movement. On November 22, 1914, Weizmann wrote to Dorothy de Rothschild:

In looking upon the world now, one can see that everything which was boastfully called by high sounding names—religion, ethics, civilization, right, justice—is trodden down and the only argument which appeals to Europe at present is a 42cm gun. ... [At] the same time, the only people who really [are] justice incarnate are the Jews, who have got no political axes to grind, who don't dream of a mighty empire, who really and sincerely hate war and bloodshed. This is what made us into an eternal nation; this is why we are misunderstood by everybody. We are the only real true Christians left at present, but we must not be crucified again!g

Even at this early date, Weizmann was aware of the culture of violence that was slowly taking over Europe's subconscious, and realized that the cultural differences of Jews would place them as prey.

Also, Weizmann saw the wave of patriotism that came with the war. He stated that English Jews "instead of proving that they are 100 [percent] English, ... behave as though they were 105 [percent] English."h This rash shift from ethnic or ideological minority identification to an outpouring of patriotism for the home country alarmed Weizmann. He saw the trend as a danger to his movement, because it presented the possibility that the group for which Zionism provided protection could melt away into a larger "European mass."

It is clear that Weizmann realized that the furtherance of Zionist aspirations hinged on embracing the socio-political phenomena of the new century. One significant social trend that Weizmann was early in pointing out was the change in wartime journalism. He said of his friend who had recently moved back to Europe, "I really don't know what Oettinger[1] would be doing now in Paris and what would be his special function. After all, he is not very suitable for general propaganda work in the French press."i This demonstrated Weizmann's realization that the indoctrinatory press work in a warring Europe was drastically different from that which had preceded the outbreak of the Great War. This change seemed so bold that Weizmann imagined it difficult for someone who had formerly done journalistic work to begin working with the propaganda reporting of the war era.

Weizmann used this new journalistic mode to Zionism's advantage by exploiting the government's use of propaganda. In the last months before the publication of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, Weizmann expressed that it would be "good public relations" for the English to issue the pledge by stating, "[A] declaration  [is] needed immediately for consolidating Jewish public opinion here, particularly Russian, presumably also American."j He also justified his request for a pro-Zionist pledge by arguing "The declaration framed by his Majesty's government will ... display anew the magnanimity of the British Empire."k In these cases, it seems that Weizmann exploited British support of a Jewish Palestine in order to increase England's public approval in efforts to bring his Zionist goals to fruition.

Weizmann often wrote about the allegiances of the Zionists. Not only did he favor a victory for the Allies, but he wrote that particularly England's participation in the Zionist cause was necesasry. Weizmann's letters during the war years contain countless comments praising England. She is labeled as morally superior ("England in the first place the most humane of the countries"l), as most sensitive to her minorities ("England ... champions the cause of small nationalities"m), and simply as most promising strategically for the Zionist cause ("As you know, we consider a British protectorate would be best for us. This will save us from Arab domination"n).

During the war years, Weizmann dealt heavily with the seemingly eternal tensions betweens Zionists of differing backgrounds. Alongside heavy praise for the English, Weizmann maintained that his Zionist movement should be inclusive of Zionists from all backgrounds:

We expect German Zionists to do their duty to Germany, just as we expect the English to do their duty to England and even the Russian Jews to do their duty to Russia. No honest and sane man would, therefore, cast aspersions on the Zionist movement because German and Austrian Jews take part in it. I am horrified to think that almost a million of Galician Jews may fall under Russian jurisdiction and come into bondage.o

Despite the above nod to Zionists with Central allegiances, Weizmann continued to qualify, "On the other hand we sincerely wish a victory for the Allies."p It is clear that he was trying to strike a balance between Jewish unity and heavy support of the Allies.

Similarly, Weizmann had no qualms about condemning Germany in severe terms: "American Jews are considered in this country as pro-German in their sympathies, and therefore their support at present would do harm;"q "The central offices of the Zionist movement are in the enemy's country;"r and "The Headquarters of our government have been in Berlin, not because our movement is in any way connected with Germany, as some Jewish and non-Jewish anti-Semites would like to suggest."s Here, Weizmann tried to maintain a sharp balance by showing the British government that the Zionists were totally behind them, while at the same time not alienating potential Jewish support for the Zionist cause. Maintaining this equilibrium proved to be one of the fundamental difficulties in building the Jewish State.

One of the most common results which Weizmann related to the war—especially within its first year—was its short-term logistical consequences for the daily progression of the Zionist enterprise. Weizmann was amazed how significant the war was to the European public. He observed: "The day passes in reading the newspapers and you meet one thing only, only the war; on everything not connected with the war general paralysis has set in."t He also wrote, "When I was in Paris a month ago one couldn't speak to anyone about anything but the war."u

It wasn't only Europe's war-obsessed consciousness that Weizmann found disruptive to the Jewish nationalistic cause; it was also the concrete interruptions resulting from the War. In 1914, he wrote, "We are at the beginning of an academic session, and owing to the war our staff is rather depleted and an additional amount of work has fallen to my lot."v Furthermore, Weizmann articulated ways in which the war had a harsh effect on important diplomatic meetings: "I intended to go to Paris, perhaps to Rome immediately [if] things become easier here ... when the allies have succeeded to drive out the Germans from France and Belgium."w Weizmann was aware of the toll practical disturbances due to the war took on the Zionist endeavor.

Moreover, Weizmann related that Zionists were sidetracked by wartime logistical demands of a more dire nature. He spoke of the need to adapt his and his colleagues agendas: "A good many of the projects, which ... we had been attempting even under the difficult circumstances, under which we worked in Palestine before the war, would flourish as soon as civilized conditions were established in Palestine."x Weizmann even looked upon one of these wartime interruptions to his daily routine in a more comedic light: "He has been very busy with the ‘vodka' problem."y

Another area on which Weizmann concentrated was the status of wartime fighters. He reflected on the Great War and the Zionist movement when speaking about Jews who themselves participated in the battle. In early 1915, Dr. Weizmann seemed especially concerned about the condition of Zionists who were warring. He was very uplifted by the devotion of those Jewish soldiers who, even under the horrid conditions of trench warfare, kept their connection to the Zionist movement: "Zionists in the trenches receive weekly circulars; send regularly their contributions; [and] many Zionist officers who died in action left in their will considerable sums, in many cases, all their possessions, to the National Fund."z Based on feelings of appreciation for these soldiers' sacrifice, Weizmann even made the claim that their status could be remedied by the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He wrote, "For the spiritual tragedy exemplified by the position of the Jews in the Polish trenches—there is a solution,"aa namely the Jewish State.

One of the most significant issues concerning Zionists on the battlefield was the argument over the Jewish Regiment. When responding to an inflammatory accusation that he was unsupportive of the Jewish Regiment, Weizmann emphatically stated that "I don't represent anybody, that the Zionists are against the Jewish Regiment and that I personally although being in favour of such a regiment am certainly against compelling anybody to join it."ab Eventually, once the War Committee had discarded the notion of a separate regiment for Jewish soldiers, Weizmann seemed at ease when writing, "The question of the Jewish regiment has been knocked on the head."ac

Obviously, the war years changed the Zionist movement. Some of the effects that the War had on Weizmann's project may indeed have been positive. For instance, as soon as the War broke, it became unambiguous who the enemies of the Zionist movement were. Weizmann almost immediately realized that a British protectorate would be the most practical means by which Jews could re-colonize Palestine. In fact, had the War not been fought, it may have been much less likely that the British would have gained control of Palestine. Furthermore, the societal effects brought on by the First World War, such as the use of propaganda, were in many ways helpful tools for European Zionists. However, Dr. Weizmann did not assume that the war just meant changes in the schedule, tactics, or strategies that would be employed by Zionists; he fully comprehended the serious change that the war represented.

It would be irresponsible to generalize about the nature of Zionism—or the nature of the Great War—based on the writings of one Zionist leader in Europe over a three-year period. Nevertheless, Chaim Weizmann's correspondences during this time were of extreme importance, and certainly help illuminate a seminal period of Zionist progress. Though the beginning of modern Zionism as a globally recognized movement is often dated to the November 1917 Balfour Declaration, a closer look at Chaim Weizmann's journal during the World War I era suggests that the War helped to transform Zionism into the movement as we know it today.

[1] Akiva Yaakov Oettinger, adviser on Zionist agricultural colonization, had been compelled to leave Palestine soon after the outbreak of war (Weizmann, 312).


Works Cited

Reinharz, Jehuda. Chaim Weizmann: The Making of a Statesman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Stevenson, David. Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy. New York: Basic Books, 2004.

Weizmann, Chaim. The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann. London, Oxford.

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Chalav U'Dvash: Brandeis' Journal of Zionist Thought (Print ISSN 1559-1069, Online ISSN 1559-1077) is an independent forum for discussion relating to Israel, Zionism, and the Jewish People and is a recognized club by the Brandeis Student Union. We publish a journal twice per semester, and copies are available free-of-charge to Brandeis students. Contact us to request copies.

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