The Zionist Movement and Its Relation with the Parties to the Conflict (in the 1st World War)11 min read

The Zionist Movement and its Relation with the Parties to the Conflict (in the 1st World War)

Dr Jaafar Hadi Hassan

During the years leading to the first world-war, the Zionist Movement was not a monolithic organization, in fact it was of different strands that were distinctive in their views, such as cultural, religious, practical, political and other. Each one of them had its own leader or leaders, and the loyalties of the Jewish communities around the world at that time, were also divided between the warring parties. These loyalties were influenced by a number of factors, including regional location, or treatment of the Jews by the state, where they took residency. Many Jews including those in the United States and Palestine supported Turkey, and were anti- Russia, whereas the supporters of the Allies (mainly England, France and Russia) were said to be in the minority. This situation created acute and complicated problems for the Movement.

One of the early problems the movement faced, was that the seat of the Zionist executive at the break of the hostilities was in the capital of one of the major warring powers, Berlin, and, because of that, it was considered pro-German, while the branches in other countries supported at least partially, the Allies. The critics of the pro-German Zionists argued that such close cooperation with German political warfare would jeopardise millions of eastern European Jews particularly since the activities of the committee, remained no secret; these activities later served as justification for the anti-Jewish measures taken by the Russian government 1914- 1915.[1]

It is true that the Zionist German federation supported Germany in the war, and announced that it expected all its young members to volunteer for military service stating that Germany was fighting for “truth, law freedom and world civilisation against darkest tyranny and bloodiest cruelty as represented by tsarist disposition”. Some of them called the war alongside Germany, “holy” stating that “we know that our interest is exclusively on the side of Germany”; they also said that Germany was “strong” and would “liberate the oppressed” [2]


In addition there was the community of the Jewish settlers in Palestine, which was part of the Ottoman Empire. Most of these Jews were European citizens and the Turkish government demanded that they become Ottoman citizens or leave the country. Above all, there was the issue of the postwar settlements. Because of problems such as these, it was decided soon after the start of the war, to establish a Zionist liaison office in a neutral country. When this proposal was put for discussion, an argument erupted among the members; some preferred the United States which was neutral at that time, but others suggested otherwise. In the end they settled for Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark. Some of the leaders of the movement were displeased about this decision and decided to disconnect their relations with the Bureau. One such prominent and highly influential figure was Chaim Wiezmann who, soon after the Bureau was opened, cut himself off the European Zionists.. Weizmann – who was very active in preparing the ground for the Balfour declaration and developing the chemical acetone, leading to the production of 30,000 tonnes used by the British in  the war – states in his book ‘Trial and Error’ that he wrote to the Bureau asking that no mail be sent to him. When he was invited to attend the first important war time meeting of the Actions Committee, he refused to attend and wrote to his friend Dr Shamarya Lvin – who was described as the most effective propagandist of the movement  – ‘I shall not go to the conference and I cannot do this either as a Jew or as British subject’; furthermore, to Lewis Brandeis , head of  the American Zionist branch he wrote ‘Taking into account the present political situation , I cannot help thinking that the conference at Copenhagen would prove absolutely useless for our movement, and  acutely  harmful for the future.[3] Weizmann gives the reason for  his actions by saying ‘In breaking with Copenhagen Bureau, I wanted to make sure of clean record, for though I was violently anti –Russia , I was just anti-German and pro-British”. As a result Weizmann kept his talk with British statesmen very much to himself. Frequently he did not inform even close friends, let alone the Copenhagen bureau or Berlin. Each side, was in the dark in 1917 about the achievements and failures of the other.[4]

Interestingly Weizmann complained bitterly about his colleagues, who, he says, they looked upon him as a crank and Anglo-maniac, and he further states that this attitude continued among certain groups, even after the war. He adds that he was also accused by some Zionists of being ready to sell the movement and this was for him hard to bear.[5]

The Zionists in America on the other hand, were critical of the British Branch for their involvement with the British government on behalf of the movement. In a strongly worded letter, sent to the Zionist leaders in England, Dr Judah Magnes – secretary of the American Zionist Federation, who later became president of the Hebrew University – and Dr Shamarya Levin, wrote that the activities of the Zionist leaders in England were responsible for the persecution of the Jews in Palestine and that they should stop these activities immediately (Ibid p.216). According to them not only did these actions harm the Jews in Palestine, who, after all, were under Ottoman rule, but they believed that they also go against the neutrality of the Zionist movement which was one of the principles agreed upon by the movement in Copenhagen.

In contrast to the Zionists in America, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, famous for being a strong supporter of the Zionist activities – pouring money for its projects for decades – and so called father of the Yishub (Jewish emigrants in Palestine), urged the leaders of the movement in 1914, following Turkeys entry into the war, to stop being cautious in their Zionist activities in ‘Eretz Israel’ (Palestine) and work openly to demand the establishment of a Jewish State.

However, the Zionists in Palestine had a different stance to this. They endeavoured to seek settlement within the Ottoman Empire, and appease the government. According to D. Vital in his book, Zionism, The Crucial Phase, Zionists in Palestine harboured a powerful tendency to seek accommodation with the Turks, in the hope, that their contributions are recognised by the Ottoman Empire and their requirements met. This instinctive tendency for accommodation was tested when the Italian-Turkish war broke out, and the Zionist leadership were torn between avoiding involvement and what seemed an opportunity to demonstrate loyalty to the Turks. Whilst discussions took place to form a legion to fight with the Ottomans, this did not get off the ground. A more serious proposal to form a medical detachment, to serve the wounded under the auspices of the Red  Crescent, was also not enacted due to financial constraints. In the end the Zionists in Palestine did no more than express their sympathy.[6]

As for the Russian Zionist Jews, they were against the Allies and in support of the Germans according to Ronald Graham of the foreign Office in Britain. This is stated very clearly in a letter sent by him to Belfour in 25 October 1917. The letter states that information from every quarter shows the very important role which Jews are now playing in the Russian political situation. At the present moment these Jews are certainly against the Allies and for the Germans, but almost every Jew in Russia is Zionist, and if they can be made to realize that the success of the Zionist aspiration depends on the support of the Allies and the expulsion of the Turks from Palestine, we shall enlist a most powerful element in our favour.[7]

Another good example of the different loyalties of the Zionist groups, is the plan for the formation of the Jewish battalion which, became to be known later as Zionist Mule Corps. This idea originated mainly with Vladimir Jabotinsky (founder of revisionist Zionism and Bitar movement) and few of his Zionist colleagues. This group thought that one way of making sure, that Jews would be taken seriously at peace table, was to organize a Jewish military unit to fight on the side of the Allies.[8]

But as soon as the plan was known to the other Zionists, it faced very strong opposition not only from ordinary Zionists in Britain (with rare exception) who even attacked Jabotnisky physically, but also from the official Zionist bodies, which were committed to neutrality. The Copenhagen Bureau denounced the plan with strong words, and violently rejected Jabotinsky proposition. Not only did the movement forbid all the Zionists to take an active part in it, but it also warned Jabotinsky that ‘if he does not cease his activities, he will bury the Zionist enterprise for ever’ (The Jewish Agency for Israel website).[9]

The Actions Committee of the organization also resolved that the Jewish battalion project stands in deep contradiction to the principle of the Zionist activities. In fact some members of the Committee called the project a ‘criminal offence’.[10] Jabotinsky refused to heed the committee’s statements and replied to them by saying that they were thoroughly mistaken, and added they had come to neutral Denmark from blind Germany and sick Russia; he adds that he had no doubt at all that Germany was incapable of winning the war and that Turkey would end by being smashed to pieces. He suggested a compromised proposal to the committee which was refused.[11] Despite objections by the majority of the Zionist leaders, he moved to London where he continued to work towards the establishment of a battalion. The corps was formed and fought at Gallipoli, and at the end of it the British disbanded it and many of its members were moved to England becoming the nucleus of a newly formed Jewish Legion with Jabotinsky as the main figure. This legion later participated alongside the British army, fighting in Palestine.

It is important to note that after the war, and in particular the Balfour
Declaration, differences amongst the Zionist regional parties remained; essentially, two divergent concepts emerged that were different in ideology and approach. On one hand, the American Zionists led by Brandeis who were critical of the political Leadership in London, believed with the Belfour Declaration, the main political tasks of the movement had been accomplished, and that from now on energies had to be devoted to the building of Palestine. They advocated complete focus on Palestine with respect to funding and efforts demanding that “contributions should be devoted only to projects in that country”; they were “not in favour of diaspora nationalism and refused to pay for Zionist activities outside Palestine”. On the other hand British and European Zionists led by Weizmann were critical of the American Zionist approach claiming they lacked a “Jewish heart” and stating that Brandeis’ policy was “Zionism without Zion”. In contrast to Brandeis, Weizmann and the Europeans made the argument that Palestine could not be colonised in the same way as America, and that international efforts for Zionist causes everywhere should be supported.[12]

In summary, the above examples show, that the Zionist movement at the time of the conflict (and beyond) was not unified in its position in relation to the warring parties, rather, there were contrasting, and contradicting stances taken by the members, in different regions. This paper is not aimed at providing an exhaustive review of these varied views and their implications, but is designed to highlight some of the key stands taken by prominent and leading figures of the movement. Finally, despite the spectrum of different allegiances and loyalties among the members of the movement which we referred to, they were all striving and manipulating to reach a key mutual objective, which was the establishment of a Jewish state. The achievement of the infamous Balfour Declaration was the basis of establishing this state but, unfortunately, this same declaration has been the cause of great calamity for the Palestinian People, who continue to suffer from its repercussions until today.

[1] Walter Laqueur, The History of Zionism,p.174

[2] Ibid, p172

[3] P.211

[4] Walter Laqueur,op.cit p.178

[5] Trail and Error,pp. 211-212

[6] pp. 83-84

[7] Ibid p.289

[8] Encyclopeadia Judaiaca, Zionism

[9] The Jewish Agency for Israel Website

[10] David Vital, Zionism, The Crucial Phase,p.149 and The Jewish Agency for Israel Website

[11] David Vital, op. cit,p.149

[12] Walter Laqueur,op. cit.,pp. 458-459



Encyclopeadia Judiaca (1972), Zionism

The Jewish Agency for Israel(website)

Laqueur,Walter (2003), The History of Zionism (European Jewish puplication Society

Vital,David,(1987) Zionism, The Crucial Phase,(Clarendon Press.Oxford)

Weizmann,Chaim,( 1949),Trail and Error,(Hamish Hamilton, London)