13. First World War (1914-18)

Zionism moves from visionary ideal to practical possibility

Before the First World War, the World Zionist Organisation (WZO) had presumed the maintenance of Ottoman Turkish sovereignty over the land of Palestine. Most Zionists, even in England, had only hoped for sympathy and diplomatic support from the British government. With the outbreak of the War, the administrative centre and leadership of the WZO were cut off. Into the vacuum stepped Weizmann, who began to campaign vocally for a switch in Zionist policy and to argue for identifying Zionism with the Allied cause. Since Turkey sided with Germany in the War, Weizmann’s unauthorised strategy was one of high risk, exposing the Jewish community in Palestine to great potential danger. Nor was it certain that the Allies would accept his self-appointed leadership of the movement, despite the contacts he had built up over the years.

Weizmann was fortunate, however. Firstly, he made an important scientific discovery in 1915 of an alternative method of producing acetone, a solvent needed for the production of explosives, and which the Allies possessed in scarce supply. Secondly, this was shortly followed by a change in the administration and policy of the British government, with Lloyd George taking over from Asquith in December 1916. By 1917, the French army had mutinied leaving the British to carry the Western Front, while the Russian Revolution threatened to paralyse the support of the Russians. With war weariness creeping in, Lloyd George, along with many other leaders of his day, believed that the Allies desperately needed the alleged influence and financial support of world Jewry.

Weizmann took full advantage of the situation, and after some complex negotiations the government issued what came to be known as the Balfour Declaration in November 1917, promising "a national homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine" under certain conditions. This was Weizmann’s most obvious personal achievement and had the effect of emphatically confirming his leadership of the world Zionist movement. The groundwork for this triumph of Weizmann’s policy was nevertheless achieved, according to Harry Sacher, "in the Manchester Period and by the Manchester men" - and Manchester Jewry celebrated the Declaration enthusiastically.

Balfour Declaration, 2 Nov 1917
Report of Jewish Chronicle, 9 Nov 1917

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IMAGE AND DOCUMENT CREDITS: Weizmann (J Reinharz, The Making of a Zionist Leader), Balfour (Frank Adam), Balfour Declaration (HM Blumberg, Weizmann; his Life and Times) Full reference: Sources.