WWI and the Jews

How the Great War affected a great number of Jews around the world.

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While the loyalty of Jewish individuals was torn between the opposing camps, Jewish international associations, including the World Zionist Organization, declared themselves neutral. But in view of the nature of the czarist regime and the large proportion of Polish and Russian Jews, the sympathy of most Jewish leaders lay with Germany and the Austro­-Hungarian Empire. The German Foreign Office was aware of this, and during the first years of the war tried to exploit this to further German interests. GermanJews all over the world founded the "Committee for the East" which disseminated pro‑German propaganda among the Jews in Poland. Zionists in Germany conducted negotiations with the Foreign Office concerning cooperation over Palestine, and in 1915 the Jewish philosopher, Hermann Cohen, went to the United States to ask the Jews to try to persuade the American government to enter the war on Germany's side. These efforts undoubtedly spurred the British government to make advances to the pro‑English minority within the Zionist Organization, which contributed to the publication of the Balfour Declaration in November 1917.

Despite this first diplomatic victory for political Zionism, by the end of the war the majority of Jews found themselves confronting hatred and trouble. In Germany, the Jews were identified with the republican regime imposed on the country by the victors. Vanquished and humiliated, many Germans consoled themselves with the "stab in the back" myth, counting the Jews among the chief traitors. As the perennial scapegoat, the Jews were also blamed by many for the Bolshevik coup d'etat of October 1917; approximately 100,000 Jews were killed in the anti‑Bolshevik campaigns conducted by Ukrainians, Poles, and Russians.

The war's great upheavals changed the demographic map of the Jewish people. During the war, intercontinental migration dwindled, but there were large movements of refugees within Europe. Once the war was over, hundreds of thousands of Jews began leaving Europe again.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University