Early Zionist Interest In Lebanon
A Chapter from "My Enemy's Enemy"

by Laura Zittrain Eisenberg


     Encouraged by the nebulous border in the Galilee region, early Zionist strategists considered Lebanon, especially the southern portion, an arena for potential Zionist settlement. Chaim Weizmann toured Lebanon in 1907. Initially unimpressed, he nonetheless perceived "colossal" potential there and decided to reserve judgement until he completed his trip (1). Two-and-a-half weeks later, he was back in Haifa, anxiously seeking support for several small industries he wanted to establish in Sidon, specifically a soap-boiling plant, a lemon-processing factory, a distillation plant, and an olive oil factory. By cooperating with Atid Enterprises, newly found by Russian Jews, Weizmann estimated that the Zionists could create in Sidon a single olive oil company to control the entire oil industry of the country. He concluded his enthusiastic proposal with the observation that "Saida [Sidon] is a good place in every respect. The raw material is available, there is a harbor, it is favorably situated, capable of development, and has a Jewish population" (2).

Property for sale around Sidon also attracted the attention of other Zionists. The Hibbat Zion (Lover of Zion) movement was a network of Jewish nationalist clubs that emerged in the Russian Pale in the 1870s. The Odessa branch maintained an office in Beirut charged with purchasing land in Eretz Yisrael for Zionist immigrants from Russia. In 1908, this group became particularly excited about a farm for sale in the Sidon/Nabatye region, which they considered the northwest border of Eretz Yisrael.

The leaders of the Beirut Hibbat Zion office glowingly described the property as a precious jewel with enormous agricultural, political, and strategic potential. They believed that this property would give the Zionists a firm foothold in that part of Eretz Yisrael which fell within Lebanon and a starting point from which to create a chain of Jewish settlements, linking it with that part of Eretz Yisrael which lay to the south. They identified the owner as a wealthy Christian from Beirut with considerable land holdings in southern Lebanon, also available for purchase. Enthused one Hibbat Zion agent [wrote]:

Every man has his fateful hour and now is the fateful hour to seize the land…It would be a sin on our part if we miss it. We must gather every resource in our power to effect this purchase… We will not cast from our hand this treasure, this wonderful gem, which could be for us a key to a strong position in the heights of Lebanon so dear to us.(3)

The Ottomans passed laws in 1907 and 1908 making it difficult for Jews, even those who were Ottoman subjects, to buy land in Judea and the Galilee. Hibbat Zion leader Menachem Ussishkin argued that this made land purchase in Lebanon all the more important, especially since this farm apparently lay within the limits of the autonomous Lebanese province, making Ottoman interference in Zionist programs less likely (4). No steps were ever taken toward purchasing the farm, probably due to the meager resources of the organizations involved and their preference for property more in the heart of Eretz Yisrael; but the proposal did serve to raise the issue of the geographical vagueness of Zionist activity.

The Jews of Sidon did not dispute Ussishkin´s description of Sidon as the first colony in Eretz Yisrael. The Jewish community there received aid from the Zionist Commission in Jerusalem commensurate with that received by Jewish communities in the Holy Land, and Sidon´s Jews voted in the election for the first Jewish Elected Assembly in Eretz Yisrael. When the community fell on hard times and lost its Hebrew school, its leaders dispatched a passionate letter in which they identified themselves as "the residents of Sidon, which is in Eretz Yisrael," and concluded their plea for assistance from Jerusalem by asking why they should receive less than "the rest of the Jewish communities of Eretz Yisrael"(5). Others used biblical sources to establish southern Lebanon as part of Eretz Yisrael, or "biblical Palestine." These scriptural geographers deduced that the Hebrew tribe of Naphtali had dwelt along the Litani river, and that the tribe of Asher had settled in the area of Sidon (6). Sidon´s claim to be within the divine boundaries of Eretz Yisrael notwithstanding, mainstream Zionist interest in southern Lebanon, based solely on security and economic imperatives, stopped at the Litani river.

The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, by which the British and French divided the Levant into zones, constituted the first serious attempt at demarcating a Palestine-Lebanon border. As World War I drew to a close, the two allied powers created Occupied Enemy Territorial Administrations (OETAs) for themselves on the eastern Mediterranean coast based on Sykes-Picot, but with several significant modifications. British OETA South was in essence "Palestine" (although no such formal entity yet existed), while Lebanon became French OETA North. Some Jewish settlements ended up in the French sphere of influence, as did the entire Litani river. As a military boundary, the line between the two areas was not necessarily permanent, so technically, the question of the Palestine-Lebanon border remained open. Worried lest the military line become permanent, the Zionists launched a campaign to ensure the inclusion of the Litani´s vital water resources in Palestine.

The Zionists appealed to the British, who had seemingly committed themselves to the creation of a vital Jewish homeland in Palestine with the Balfour Declaration. They contended that vitality in the north depended on sufficient water resources and a defensible border and that the 1918 line of demarcation deprived Palestine of both. Zionists suggested that if God and man had been less than precise about where the border should be, mother nature offered the Litani river as a natural frontier. Aaron Aaronsohn, a Palestinian Jew and internationally respected agronomist, surveyed the northern reaches of Palestine and concluded that the Litani river was essential for the irrigation and cultivation of the Galilee. The independent engineering firm of Fox and Partners, commissioned by the Zionist Organization to survey the economic potential of Palestine, confirmed his analysis. Its report reiterated that the northern frontier of Palestine must include the Litani, adding that while "the Litani will in the future be of great benefit to Palestine, it is of no value to the territory to the north"(7). This permitted the Zionists to argue that giving the river to Palestine was only natural and would not deprive Lebanon of any resource(8). In the proposals submitted to the Peace conference, however, the Zionist Organization was careful to note that with proper management, the waters in question could "be made to serve in the development of the Lebanon as well as of Palestine"(9). David Ben-Gurion expressed the same concern for the water resources of a future Jewish state and similarly concluded that its northern border should run along the Litani(10).

Zionists claims foundered on the rocks of British-French rivalry. The French, who only grudgingly authorized modifications to the Sykes-Picot agreement, refused to cede southern Lebanon to the British primarily because they did not want to give in on anything else but also because their Maronite clients expressed an interest in an enlarged Lebanon. The British declined to force a showdown over the issue because the existing boundary did serve British aims, if not those of the Zionists. Palestine´s economic viability was not terribly important to the British. They valued Palestine as a buffer thwarting French access to the Suez Canal. The security argument also fell on deaf ears since Palestine itself was the security belt guarding Suez, and a few miles north or south within the Galilee region was inconsequential to the defense of the canal.

The British also refused simply to let the French have their way, however. Arguing the Zionist the Zionist position, Aaronsohn wrote that although the "historic and religious associations with Palestine centre round Jerusalem and Judea, …for its hopes of a great secular future Palestine must depend mainly on the country north"(11). But when the border issue arose at the Paris Peace Conference, British prime minister David Lloyd George adopted the biblical slogan "from Dan to Beersheba" as his boundary policy. Frederic Hof notes the irony in that while "the Zionists were writing thoughtful boundary proposals based on security and economic considerations for what they hoped would someday be a Jewish State, … British Protestant statesmen were thumping tables in favor of "Dan to Beersheba""(12). Lloyd George´s biblical diplomacy ultimately lost the Litani for Palestine. According to his biblical atlas, the Sykes-Picot line had been too generous to Palestine in the northwest, at Lebanon´s expense. The ministers agreed that it was only fair to compensate by leaving the Litani totally in Lebanon. Subsequent minor adjustments, codified in 1923, brought the northernmost Jewish settlements into Palestine but made no allowance for Zionist access to Galilee water resources now permanently in Lebanon. Zionist planners were bitterly disappointed.


In 1926, a most unlikely source, the French high commissioner in Lebanon, Henri de Jouvenel, next raised the possibility of extensive Zionist settlement in the French-mandated Levant. By his own admission "jealous" of the benefits that Zionist activity brought to British mandated Palestine, Jouvenel hoped to put Zionist capital, manpower, and expertise to work in the underdeveloped regions of Lebanon and Syria. Jouvenel noted enviously that while the French had to assist the Maronites in their endeavors, the Zionists supported themselves….

Jouvenel first revealed his plan for Jewish colonization in the French Levant to Weizmann and Kisch when they visited Beirut in April of 1926…. Jouvenel envisioned Zionist settlements in northern Syria beginning at the Euphrates around Aleppo and moving south through Homs toward Damascus. He also suggested that the Zionists resurrect the ancient city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. Kisch recorded his excitement at hearing such a proposal come "spontaneously" from the French high commissioner. Weizmann asked about Zionist settlement in French-controlled territory in the south, along the Lebanese border with Palestine, which had the "advantage of greater proximity to our present centres of colonization, and historically, apart from this convenience, would have a greater appeal to the deep sentiments of the Jewish people"(13). Jouvenel adamantly opposed any Zionist activity in southern Lebanon for fear of Jewish irredentism and a new battle over the Palestine-Lebanon boundary. If Zionists established settlements around Sidon and Tyre, worried Jouvenel, they would surely begin agitating for the inclusion of that region in the Jewish national home. He repeated his arguments in favor of Jewish colonization in the north and Weizmann agreed to consider the proposal(14).

Jouvenel raised the possibility of Jewish settlement in French-mandated territory in a letter to the Foreign Ministry in Paris. Interestingly, he represented the idea as Weizmann´s and claimed to have listened without expressing an opinion. He then repeated his arguments in favor of the proposal and advised his colleagues to encourage Weizmann if he came to discuss the matter(15).


Debate about the issue at the Jewish Agency Executive meetings of 24 June and 15 July 1926 proved that once again, Weizmann was out of step with mainstream Zionist thinking(16). His Zionists colleagues permitted him to negotiate and counterpropose away; but when he presented them with his ideas for Zionist colonization in Lebanon and Syria, he found little support. The rest of the Zionist leadership believed that activity within Palestine took first priority and showed no interest in diverting attention and funds to far-flung Zionist outposts in the Syrian desert or along the Turkish border. The French archives document Weizmann´s continued interest in Jouvenel´s plan well into 1927, however, and a sustained lobbying campaign in 1930 by him and Victor Jacobson, then head of the Zionist office in Paris, in favor of Zionist colonization in French-mandated Lebanon(17).


Responding to a query about Jewish settlement in southern Lebanon in 1930, French foreign minister Aristide Briand replied that he did not oppose Jewish immigration to those areas as long as the Jews understood that they would not be members of any Jewish state, but rather, French, Syrian, or Lebanese citizens(18). This was certainly not what the Zionist movement envisioned as far as the recreation of a national Jewish presence in its ancient middle Eastern homeland; and for the time being, the topic of Jewish immigration to the French Levant was dropped.

Because early Zionist interests in acquiring Lebanese territory were practical and not imbued with religious imperatives or underpinned by emotional attachments to the land, irredentist tendencies toward Lebanon remained mild. Despite the French rebuff of professor Brawer (sent by the Jewish national Fund to enter Lebanon to complete research for a map including those parts of "historic Palestine" which lay within the area of the French mandate(19)) the Jewish National Fund, in 1937, published a map depicting all of Palestine and part of Lebanon and Syria with he biblical verse "This is the Land which ye shall inherit," which aroused disapproval in the Political Department. Wrote Bernard Joseph:

Biblical quotations are no doubt spiritually refreshing but they may create untold difficulties when used without regard to political exigencies of the time. This one will no doubt want considerable explaining away if it falls into the hands of the Syrian and Lebanese political leaders. I propose drawing the attention of the Executive to the map with a view to prohibiting its distribution (20).

Although disappointed at losing a critical natural resource for the Jewish homeland, Zionist thinkers did not dwell on establishing a physical presence in Lebanon. If they could not possess the Litani, perhaps they could find a Lebanese partner with whom to exploit the river´s resources for the mutual development of northern Palestine and Lebanon.


1. Weizmann to Vera Weizmann, 8 September 1907, in LCW, vol. 5, letter 54.
2. Weizmann to Johann Kremenetzky, 26 Septemebr 1907, in LCW, vol. 5, letter 60. Nothing came of these projects.
3. B. Shlichover to the Odessa Committee, 20 Nisan 5668 [21 April 1908], CZA, A24/51/II (Heb.). See also Joseph Katz, "Tokhniyot Tziyoniyot Lerekhishat Karka´ot Balevanon Batchilat Hamaya Ha´esrim" [Zionist plans for purchasing properties in Lebanon in the early twentieth century], Cathedra 35 (Aprail 1985): 53-57.
4. M. Ussishkin to David Wolfson, 4 Iyar 5668 [5 May 1908], CZA, Z2/647 (Heb.).
5. Petition from the Jewish Community of Sidon, [ca. 1919?], Archive for Jewish Educationin Israel and the Diaspora (ED), file 1138 (Heb.). See also Pinchas Na´aman, "The Jewish Community of Sidon on the Threshold of Its Demise," al-Hamishmar, 23 May 1948, ED, file 1630 (Heb.); David Sitton, Kehilot Yehudai Sefarad Vehamizrach Ba´olam Beyameinu [Jewish communities of Spain and the East in the world in our days] (Jerusalem: Ahva Cooperative, 1974), p. 59; and Norman A. Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), pp.197-98.
6. Deuteronomy 1:7, 3:25, 11:24; Joshua 1:4; "The Northern Boundary of Biblical Palestine," 1 January 1920, CZA, Z4/16024; Kaufmann, Biblical Account.
7. Fox report quoted by Chaim Weizmann to David Llyod George, 7 January 1920, in LCW, vol. 9, letter 252.
8. Zionist Organization to David Llyod George, 29 December 1919, and Chaim Weizmann to David Llyod George, 7 January 1920, in LCW, vol. 9, letters 251 and 252; [Aaron Aaronsohn?], "A Memorandum on the Boundaries of Palestine" and "The Boundaries of Palestine," 1919, CZA, Z4/16024; Lewis Namier to Louis Brandeis, 3 October 1919, CZA, Z4/16024.
9. "Statement of the Zionist Organization Regarding Palestine," 3 February 1919, in LCW, vol. 9, app. 2, pp. 392, 397.
10. Shabatai Teveth, Ben-Gurion and the Palestinian Arabs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 34.
11. [Aaronsohn?], "A Memorandum on the Boundaries of Palesine," 1919, CZA, Z4/16024.
12. Frederic Hof, Galilee Divided: The Israel-Lebanon Frontier, 1916-1984 (Boulder: Westview, 1985), pp. 7-8. For a detailed account of the Franco-British negotiations over the Palestine-Lebanon border and an analysis of the political, security, and economic implications of the placement of the border, see chaps. 1-5. See also Howard M. Sachar, A History of Israel (New York: Knopf, 1981), pp. 116-17.
13. Kisch, "Visit to Syria," 18 April 1926, Diary Notes, CZA, S25/9022; Weizmann to Philippe Berthelot, 2 August 1926, in LCW, vol. 13, letter 71.
14. Jouvenel to Briand, 27 April 1926, WA; Kisch, "Visit to Syria," 18 April 1926, Diary Notes, CZA, S25/9022; Weizmann to Philippe Berthelot, 2 August 1926, in LCW, vol. 13, letter 71; Barnet Litvinoff, ed., The Essential Chaim Weizmann (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1982), pp. 226-27; Chaim Arlosoroff, Yoman Yerushalayim [Jerusalem diary] (Tel Avive: Mifleget Poale Eretz Yisrael, 1941), p. 111.
15. Jouvenel to Briand, 27 April 1926, WA; Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Jouvenel, 4 May 1926, and Jouvenel to Ministry, 6 may 1926, AE, LE 18-40/PAL 29 (Fr.).
16. JAE meeting, 24 June 1926 and 15 July 1926, CZA, Z4/302/13.
17. Reports of Weizmann´s and Jacobson´s visits to Philippe Berthelot and M. Canet, 2 and 4 May 1927, AE, LE 18-40/PAL 29 (Fr.); d´Aumale (French consul general in Jerusalem) to Henri Ponsot (high commissioner in Beirut), 12 February 1930; Foreign Ministry to berthelot, 12 March 1930; Foreign Ministry to St. Quentin, 3 April 1930; Ponsot to Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 5 June 1930; and Report of Leon Blum´s visit to Berthelot, 21 November 1930, all in AE, LE 18-40/PAL 69 (Fr.). See also "Syria and Zionism," 30 May 1930, LE 18-40/PAL 64 (Fr.). Contrary to the documentary evidence, Weizmann suggests in his autobiography that he never took Jouvenel´s proposal seriously.
18. Bollack to Weizmann, 23 May 1930, WA.
19. Jewish National Fund to French Consulate in Jerusalem, 9 December 1929; Jerusalem Consulate to French High Commission in Beirut, 11 December 1929; d´Aumale to Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 20 December 1929; and Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Ministry of Finances, 6 January 1930, all in AD, MAN/808 (Fr.).
20. Dr. Joseph´s Office Diary, 24 September 1937, CZA, S25/1511.


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