34. The British Are Coming

The Zionist movement seized the opportunity presented by World War One — the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the advancement of the British Empire into the Middle East — to ally themselves with the West in the hopes of securing the promise of a territorial homeland in Palestine. They succeeded. But the British also made promises to the Arabs, and thus began a thirty-year struggle.


World War One was raging and the British were trying to defeat Germany in Europe and the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. The British wanted to capture Palestine, which was under the Ottomans and the key strategic territory from which Britain could control the rest of the Middle East. It was essential, then, for the British to recruit the support of the local populations — about 600,000 Arabs, and a bit less than 100,000 Jews, to rebel against the Ottomans. 

The British were particularly disposed to seek the support of the Jews. For one thing, Britain had a longstanding fascination with all things ancient and biblical in Palestine. For the Philo-Semites of Britain — Christians who profess their love for the Jews — there was a religious justification for the return of the Jewish People to their ancient homeland (and the anti-Semites were happy to have somewhere to send the Jews away to). At the same time, being seen to support the Zionist movement would, the British hoped, positively influence the Jews in both the United States and Russia to pressure their governments to also support the British; and make the Jews of Germany think twice about supporting the German war effort.

Chaim Weizmann, the key Zionist leader after the death of Herzl in 1904, was the indispensable diplomat between the Jews of Palestine and the British. Intellectual and charismatic, he was also an important player in the British war effort, having developed crucial military technology the British needed. This gave him access to Britain’s senior military and political leaders, including the Prime Minister and, most importantly, the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Arthur Balfour.

To secure Jewish support, and to reward them for their loyalty to Britain, the British issued the Balfour Declaration in November, 1917. It was a 68-word letter from Lord Balfour expressing the British Empire’s support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and a pledge to help facilitate it. It tied British government policy to the aims of the Zionist movement.

The problem was that the British also made a secret promise (in 1915) to the Arabs to support the creation of an independent Arab empire in the Middle East, including Palestine, if they started a revolt against the Ottomans. And in 1916 they made yet another secret deal with the French, called the Sykes-Picot Agreement, to divide up the Middle East into British and French spheres of influence. It was a betrayal of the promise made to the Arabs, seen as an imperialist-colonialist agreement that robbed the Arabs of their Middle Eastern empire. And it set up competing claims on the territory of Palestine.


Chaim Weizmann defined the foundation of Zionism as “the yearning of the Jewish people for its homeland, for a national centre and a national life.”

Weizmann invented the mass production of acetone, the crucial element needed in the production of cordite, which was the main ingredient for the explosives used by the British military to wage World War One.

Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the French would get Syria and Lebanon, the British Palestine and Iraq, and Jerusalem would be specially zoned as an international city.



Chaim Weizmann: successor to Theodore Herzl and one of most eminent Zionist leaders. Originally from Belarus, he was a trained chemist and became the movement’s most prolific diplomat between Palestine and Britain, securing much of Zionism’s support within the British government. He was an advocate for democracy, cultural literary, and the creation of the Jewish National Fund.

Lord Arthur Balfour: Foreign Secretary of Great Britain from 1916-1919, he issued the Balfour Declaration supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.


In November, 1917, the British government issued the Balfour Declaration, a short, 68-word letter expressing the British Empire’s support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It is one of the foundational documents of modern Israel, and one of the great achievements of Theodore Herzl’s Political Zionism. It represents both the first international recognition of Zionism, but also the beginning of an irreconcilable clash with the Arabs over land, as the British made more promises than it could keep.

The British had a long standing interest in the Holy Land from both a religious and geopolitical viewpoint. The violent anti-Semitism that plagued much of Europe was largely absent from Britain, Jews having made much progress in political emancipation, economic prosperity, and assimilation as English citizens. British leaders often exhibited Philo-Semitism, or “love of the Jews” that caused them to look favorably on Zionism. Still, anti-Semitism was still present in the upper levels of society.

Chaim Weizmann developed the Synthetic branch of the Zionist tree. His take on Zionism was to try to blend all the branches together, and to pursue the aims of Political and Cultural Zionism all at the same time. He was invested in the political creation of the state, inspired by the idea of the Jewish homeland becoming the spiritual center of Judaism, and supportive of the efforts to establish agricultural communities in Palestine.