AJC eBook: Israel’s Triple Anniversary - Page 6

4 The outbreak of World War I in 1914 created a new reality for the Zionist cause. When hostilities began, the movement declared itself neutral. The land of ancient Israel, popularly referred to as Palestine, was part of the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany and the Habsburg Empire—collectively called the Central Powers. The opposing international coalition, the Entente, was led by France, Great Britain, and Russia. Early in the war British Prime Minister Lloyd George and some of his colleagues gave thought to the likelihood of the breakup and dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire should the Entente achieve victory. Securing control over Palestine, they understood, could accomplish two British goals: establish a presence to the immediate east of Suez to help protect the British-run canal, and set up a Jewish homeland there under British sponsorship, in a sense fulfilling the biblical prophecy of Jewish return that was so much a part of British Protestant culture. However, not only did other influential government figures disagree, but Britain’s partner France also had designs on the region. For the moment, the matter lay dormant. In early 1917, Dr. Chaim Weizmann, a leading Russian Zionist and naturalized British subject, who, as a chemist, had aided the war effort by developing a new technique for extracting acetone (a substance used in explosives), built upon his contacts with senior officials to initiate talks about a British-Zionist alliance. The course of the war and a perhaps exaggerated estimate of Jewish political power aided Weizmann’s efforts. The conflict appeared deadlocked, and an increasingly desperate Great Britain sought American intervention on its side to turn the tide, and, in the wake of the February revolution in Russia, hoped to keep that ally in the war so that Germany would not be able to shift its armies from the Eastern Front to the West. Espousing the Zionist cause, the thinking went, would please the Jewish communities of the two countries and help tilt their governments’ policies in a pro-British direction. Indeed, some in the government feared that Germany might preempt them and issue its own declaration of support for Zionism. The fateful decision was made to attach the British cause to Zionism.