World War I
The migration of Jews to Palestine from Europe and Russia continued in the earliest years of the 20th century, and the Jewish population of the Holy land continued to grow both in the cities and in rural areas.
Similarly, the Zionist movement continued its growth and development despite the death of Herzl in 1904. The growth of the population was not matched by progress toward the goal of a Jewish state, and Ottoman control of the area remained the primary obstacle to Jewish self-government.
By World War I (1914) there were some 85,000 Jews in Palestine, both longtime residents, and recent immigrants. At that time, there were some 600,000 Arabs in Palestine. The war provided an opportunity for substantial political maneuvering by the great powers seeking enhanced positions in the region as well as by indigenous peoples and leaders.
During the war, Palestine was an area of particular focus. Both the Zionist movement and its supporters on the one hand and the Arab populations of the region under the leadership of Sherif Hussein ibn Ali, the emir of Mecca, on the other hand sought eventual control over Palestine.
As part of wartime maneuvering, the British and French, initially with their Russian ally and later without it, developed schemes for the division of the territories of the defeated Ottoman Empire after the war’s end. In the Sykes-Picot Agreement, Britain sought a sphere of influence in those parts of the empire that became Palestine and Iraq, while the French focused on the more northern territories that became Syria and Lebanon.
In their victory over the Ottomans, the British sought assistance from various groups in the region and beyond. A basic strategy was to encourage an Arab revolt against the Ottomans thereby forcing the empire to divert attention and forces from the war in Europe to the conflict in the Middle East. The British concluded that this would facilitate the Allied war effort against its adversaries.
In exchange for Arab assistance, the British pledged support for Sherif Hussein ibn Ali and his plans for an Arab kingdom under his leadership. In an exchange of correspondence between Hussein and the British high commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, between July 14, 1915, and March 1916, Hussein claimed Palestine as part of that territory.
Although the British excluded that area from Hussein’s proposed domain, McMahon’s remarks left this pledge somewhat ambiguous during the hostilities to ensure Arab support against the Ottomans. Indeed, the ambiguities continued in the various negotiations for the postwar settlement.
It was not until 1922, in the so-called Churchill Memorandum (also known as the Churchill White Paper), that the British government clarified that the pledge by McMahon to Hussein excluded the area west of the Jordan River (in other words, the area that later became Israel, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank).
World War I also provided opportunities for the Zionist movement to make progress toward its objectives. Material aid to the Allied cause was provided by Jewish fighters, with the notable contribution of Dr. Chaim Weizmann in aiding the British war effort.
A Russian Jewish immigrant to Great Britain and a leader of the World Zionist Organization who gained access to the highest levels of the British government, Weizmann helped secure the issuance of the Balfour Declaration by the British government in November 1917.
The declaration’s core point was that “His Majesty’s Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people . . .” This declaration was seen as expressing support for the Zionist position and laying the basis for a Jewish state in Palestine.
But it was a short and somewhat ambiguous document: The declaration suggested that the British government would view such an event “with favor”; furthermore, it spoke not of a state but of “a national home.” There was no timetable, no clear articulation of the end result, and no description of the area in question beyond noting “in Palestine.” The ambiguity allowed for numerous and various interpretations.
The British found advantages to a Jewish presence in Palestine. Some believed it was economically, politically, and strategically desirable; others saw the Jews in the Holy land as having religious significance, with the Jews rightfully in Zion. The combination of British political and strategic calculations and Zionist efforts led to the British government’s decision.
The Balfour Declaration dramatically altered the Zionist movement’s efforts to create a Jewish state in Palestine. It pledged British support for the primary Zionist objective and thereby generated widespread international recognition of the objective and additional support for the goal. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson personally endorsed the declaration and the U.S. Congress, in 1922, unanimously approved a joint resolution supporting the Balfour Declaration.