Weizmann, Chaim

(1874–1952)
   Zionist leader and first president of Israel. Between the two World Wars, the Zionist Movement was dominated by the personality of Dr Chaim Weizmann. A Russian-born research chemist, he moved with assurance in the political and intellectual world of the West, while remaining rooted in the Jewish life of his Pale of Settlement origins. His home town was Motol, in White Russia, a poor and isolated shtetl of two hundred Jewish and five hundred Russian peasant families. His father Ozer earned a living in the lumber trade. Chaim went to high school in the town of Pinsk, twenty-five miles away. In 1892 he attended the Darmstadt Polytechnic for a year, then continued his scientific studies at the Berlin Institute of Technology. The Young Zionist
   Though most of the Russian-Jewish students felt an affinity with the revolutionary movement in their country, Weizmann belonged to a small group of Chovevei Zion (‘Lovers of Zion’), much influenced by the Hebrew essayist AHAD HA-AM.
   He moved to Geneva where he completed his doctorate, and was appointed a lecturer in chemistry. It was here that he met his future wife, Vera, a medical student. The financial pressure on him was eased by his selling a synthetic dye process to a German firm. He was able then to devote more time to Zionist work. Weizmann missed the First Zionist Congress but attended the congresses from the second one in 1898. He was a leader of the opposition group of younger Russian Zionists, the Democratic Fraction. While admiring HERZL, they were critical of what they felt to be a patronizing outlook and of his emphasis on diplomatic activity. Weizmann afterwards wrote in his autobiography, Trial and Error, that what Herzl wanted was: ‘to get the rich Jews to give the Sultan money to allow the poor Jews to go to Palestine… To me Zionism was something organic, which had to grow like a plant, had to be watched, watered and nursed if it was to reach maturity. I did not believe that things could be done in a hurry.’ It was Weizmann who was to produce a synthesis between the political Zionism of Herzl and the cultural Zionism of Ahad Ha-Am, and ‘practical’ Zionist work. His outlook was strengthened by a tour of Zionist groups in Russia just after the 1903 pogroms.
   In the same year he attended the Sixth Zionist Congress in Basle, that was plunged into painful conflict. Weizmann and those Russian Jews who felt like him were critical of Herzl’s meeting with Von Plehve, the czarist interior minister, in St Petersburg. They also fought against the Uganda Project, the offer made by the British government of a possible Jewish settlement area in East Africa. Weizmann’s father and brother were also delegates and supported Herzl on this question, illustrating the confusion in the Zionist ranks that divided even families and friends.
   Manchester
   In 1904, Weizmann was thirty years old and had reached a dead end. He felt he had to settle down, marry and devote more time to his neglected career as a scientist. The death of Herzl and the split over the Uganda Project had in any case left the Zionist movement at a low ebb. He decided to make a fresh start in England, and found a minor teaching post at Manchester University, eked out by work in the research laboratory of a Jewish firm. At first it was a difficult struggle, that eased as he learned more English and found a circle of friends, among whom were Simon MARKS, Israel SIEFF and Harry SACHER. He got married and Vera found a job as a doctor in the local health service. Weizmann started to become known in his own field and also returned to active Zionist work. He attended the meetings and congresses in Europe, and in 1907 went to Palestine for the first time. He was dismayed by the backwardness and neglect of the country, and by the fact that at least half of the Jewish inhabitants were dependent on outside charity. At the same time he was also heartened by the signs of new growth and spirit the Zionist settlers were bringing in with them.
   The Balfour Declaration
   After the outbreak of World War I, Weizmann gained a valuable friend and recruit in C.P.Scott, the famous editor of the Manchester Guardian. In November 1914 he wrote to Scott: ‘Should Palestine fall within the sphere of interest and should Britain encourage a Jewish settlement there…we could have in twenty to thirty years a million Jews there, perhaps more; they would develop the country, bring back civilization to it, and form a very effective guard for the Suez Canal.’ A few weeks later, Scott took him to breakfast with two Cabinet ministers. One was David LLOYD GEORGE, the eloquent Welsh leader who was then chancellor of the exchequer. The other was Herbert SAMUEL, in charge of local government. Though a Jew, he was not known to have any interest in the Zionist movement. To Weizmann’s complete surprise, Samuel remarked quietly that he was preparing a memorandum on the subject of a Jewish state in Palestine, to lay before the prime minister, Mr Asquith. The two ministers urged Weizmann to see the prime minister, and also Arthur BALFOUR, the first lord of the Admiralty.
   He did see Mr Asquith some time later and was received courteously, but that was all. The prime minister was sceptical about a Jewish Palestine and did not take Samuel’s memorandum seriously. With Balfour it was a different story. He had been prime minister at the time that the colonial secretary, Joseph CHAMBERLAIN, had made the Uganda offer to Herzl in 1903. When Weizmann first met him in Manchester in 1906, he asked why some of the Zionists had been so hotly opposed to accepting that offer. Weizmann afterwards noted the conversation in his autobiography: ‘Then suddenly I said, “Mr Balfour, supposing I were to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it ?” He sat up, looked at me, and answered, “But Dr Weizmann, we have London.” “That is true,” I said, “But we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh.” He leaned back, continued to stare at me, and asked, “Are there many Jews who think like you?” I answered, “I believe I speak the mind of millions of Jews whom you will never see and who cannot speak for themselves, but with whom I could pave the streets of the country I come from.” To this he said, “If that is so, you will one day be a force.” Shortly before I withdrew, Balfour said, “It is curious. The Jews I meet are quite different.” I answered, “Mr Balfour, you meet the wrong kind of Jews”.’
   When Weizmann called on him at the beginning of 1915, Balfour remembered quite well that first talk several years earlier. As Weizmann came into the room, he said right away, ‘You know, I was thinking of that conversation of ours, and I believe that when the guns stop firing you may get your Jerusalem’. In the long talks that followed, Balfour showed growing sympathy for the Zionist aim. Soon after the beginning of the war, the British munitions industry was faced with a shortage of acetone, a chemical substance needed for producing the cordite explosive in artillery shells. Before the war, Dr Weizmann had worked out a process for producing acetone by fermenting starch. He was now interviewed by the navy’s experts, and brought in to Winston CHURCHILL, who had succeeded Balfour as first lord of the Admiralty. Churchill said bluntly, ‘Well, Dr Weizmann, we need thirty thousand tons of acetone. Can you make it?’ Weizmann was promised a free hand, and all the help he needed. This vital task was to absorb his energy and talents for the next two years. It was pioneering work, and the practical problems were staggering. A gin distillery was converted into a pilot plant; later, a number of breweries scattered around Britain were taken over. Teams of young scientists had to be trained. The most serious problem was to find the raw material for the starch. Shiploads of maize (corn) were imported from the United States and used for this purpose, till the Food Ministry protested. Weizmann partly got round the problem by using horse-chestnuts, that grow all over England. Production plants were also set up in Canada, in India and later in Indiana, USA. In 1916, Weizmann moved his home to London.
   In the Weizmann home a growing number of influential Englishmen came under the spell of his personality. He had a lean, clever face with a little, pointed beard, a balding head, brown eyes that would shine with conviction or crinkle with humour, a lucid and penetrating mind, and a charm that put all manner of men at their ease, from leading statesmen to poor Jewish immigrants. His supreme gift was his capacity to win friends and influence people. When the going was rough, he was sustained by an ironic Jewish humour that made him remark, ‘You don’t need to be meshuggah to be a Zionist - but it helps!’ His position in the Zionist leadership was a curious one. He was not a member of the Zionist Executive, but one of its leaders, Nahum SOKOLOW, came to London and worked with him. Weizmann also kept in touch with the American Zionists through Judge Louis BRANDEIS.
   As minister of munitions, Lloyd George had been in touch with Dr Weizmann’s scientific work. When Lloyd George offered Weizmann a suitable honour, he replied that he wanted nothing for himself, only British support for Jewish aspirations in Palestine.
   In 1916, Lloyd George replaced Asquith as prime minister, and Balfour became foreign secretary. Other leading members of the small War Cabinet were also well- disposed to the Zionist aim, such as Lord Milner and General Jan SMUTS from South Africa. The time seemed opportune for a political statement on Palestine. Sir Mark SYKES, the chief secretary to the Cabinet and a Near East expert, gave Dr Weizmann and his group valuable help. Early in 1917, they discussed with Sykes a draft statement whereby, at the end of the war, Palestine would be recognized as the National Home of the Jewish people, under British protection. There was reason to believe that Britain’s allies would support the idea. Brandeis reported that President WILSON was sympathetic. In Russia there had been a revolution; the czar was overthrown, and the liberal Kerensky government was in power. (Later that year it would be swept away by the Bolsheviks.) Only France was reserved, as she had her own ambitions in the Syria-Palestine region. The British government was inclined to go ahead. The obstruction came, paradoxically, on the Jewish front. A small group of wealthy and established English Jews regarded Zionism as a threat to their own position and as raising doubt about their loyalty to England. To be a Jew, they insisted, meant belonging only to a certain faith and not to a nation. They launched a public fight against Weizmann’s efforts. To make matters worse, their view was shared by Edward MONTAGU, a Jew who had recently been appointed to the Cabinet as the secretary of state for India. From within the government he vehemently opposed the draft declaration. The Cabinet was surprised and perplexed at being caught in this Jewish crossfire. The declaration was held up for several months, and then adopted only after it had been watered down to appease its Jewish opponents. Instead of promising that Palestine would be the Jewish National Home, the text referred only to a National Home in Palestine. This ambiguous language was to lead to much dispute in later years. Finally, on 2 November 1917, the War Cabinet approved the historic Balfour Declaration. It was enclosed in a letter signed by Balfour, as foreign secretary, and addressed (at Weizmann’s own suggestion) to Lord ROTHSCHILD, the leading Jew in England. The declaration read: ‘His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people, and will use its best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of the existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.’ Sir Mark Sykes rushed out of the Cabinet meeting and exclaimed to Dr Weizmann, waiting anxiously outside, ‘It’s a boy!’ Weizmann commented to himself that this was not quite the boy he had expected. He telephoned the news to his wife, and went to see his mentor, Ahad HaAm, who was then also living in London.
   The declaration was hailed as a turning point in Zionist and Jewish history. With ALLENBY’S successful campaign in Palestine, it came closer to reality.
   After the War
   Early in 1919, Weizmann headed a Zionist commission to Palestine. He found the country ravaged by war. Business was at a standstill. The Jewish community was shrunken in numbers and starving; the Turkish rulers had treated them harshly during the war years, and many thousands had fled or been driven into exile. They expected Weizmann to change everything overnight. With a few exceptions, the military officers with whom he had to deal were unco-opera-tive. The army had little time or sympathy for the Zionists foisted on them by the politicians at home. Weizmann found himself in a position that was to become familiar, between the Jews impatient to move forward, and a British administration hanging back.
   Weizmann understood from the beginning that much would depend on an understanding with the Arab world. He asked General Allenby to arrange for him to meet Emir FEISAL, leader of the Arab revolt, in which T.E.LAWRENCE took part. The meeting was held in Feisal’s desert encampment near Amman in Transjordan. Through an interpreter the talk lasted two hours. These two remarkable men liked and understood each other at once. Weizmann answered a great many questions about the Zionist programme. The emir said that the destiny of the two peoples was linked in the Middle East, and their representatives should work together at the coming peace conference. A photograph of the meeting shows a curious resemblance between them - both with lean features, moustaches and short black beards, framed in keffiyehs (the Arab headdress).
   In July 1918, Weizmann carried out a symbolic act that had a deep meaning for him. With the Turkish guns still rumbling in the north of the country, he laid the foundation stone on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem of the future Hebrew University, in the presence of General Allenby. The university had been Weizmann’s dream from his early days in the Movement.
   At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 Weizmann appeared with a delegation to present the Zionist case. Emir Feisal was there as the chief spokesman for the Arab world and contact was renewed between him and Weizmann. On 3 January 1919 an agreement of co-operation was signed by them, in which Feisal approved the carrying out of the Balfour Declaration in Palestine, provided his own demand for an Arab state was granted. Britain was given the League of Nations mandate for Palestine, and in 1920 a civilian administration was set up with Sir Herbert Samuel as high commissioner. At a Zionist Conference called in London, Weizmann was elected president of the World Zionist Organization.
   The following year, he crossed the Atlantic on his first visit to the United States, with several of his Zionist colleagues. He was moved by the dense and excited Jewish crowds that greeted their arrival in New York. He launched the Keren Hayesod (Palestine Foundation Fund) and toured the Jewish communities from coast to coast, declaring: ‘Here I am, without police, without an army, without a navy, trying to build up a country which has been waste two thousand years, with a people which has been wasted two thousand years, at a time when one-half of that people, perhaps the best half, has been broken up by a terrible war.’
   Weizmann travelled endlessly during the post-war years, and his wife and two boys, Benjamin and Michael, saw little of him. As president of the Movement, he had to divide his time between settlement work in Palestine, political activity in London, and fund-raising in the United States and Europe. Zionist revenues were chronically inadequate. After years of patient negotiation, he established a Jewish Agency in 1929, a partnership with the World Zionist Organization and with representatives of American ‘non-Zionist’ bodies willing to help with immigration and settlement in Palestine without subscribing to the national aims of Zionism.
   Simmering Arab emotions in Palestine were fanned by extremist leaders and burst into bloody anti-Jewish riots in 1929. A commission of enquiry, headed by Sir John Hope Simpson, reported that ‘there was no room to swing a cat’ in Palestine; more Jews coming would displace the local Arabs. A White Paper issued by the colonial secretary, Lord PASSFIELD, indicated that further immigration and land purchase by Jews would be stopped. Weizmann publicly resigned as president of the Zionist Organization as a mark of protest. For the next six months he led a bitter fight against the White Paper. The government position was then modified in an official letter to Weizmann from the prime minister Ramsay MACDONALD.
   At the next Zionist Congress in 1931, Weizmann’s leadership came under attack for what was regarded as overreliance on British goodwill, and the slow tempo of the practical work in the yishuv. After a vote of no confidence was carried, he resigned and was succeeded by his close colleague and friend Nahum Sokolow.
   The Troubled Triangle
   Weizmann returned to scientific work, and opened a modest laboratory in London. At the same time, he kept in touch with Zionist and Jewish affairs. He accepted the position of president of the English Zionist Federation; salvaged the Jewish Colonial Trust (the Zionist bank) from bankruptcy; and continued to help with fund-raising.
   His most moving task at this time was as chairman of the Central Bureau for German Jews, that helped refugees from HITLER to resettle elsewhere. Weizmann’s friends from the Manchester days, the Sieff family, established under his direction the Daniel Sieff Research Institute in Rehovot, Palestine. (It later developed into the Weizmann Institute of Science.) A distinguished British visitor to the institute asked him what he was working on in his laboratory. ‘Making absorptive capacity’, he answered.
   In 1935, Weizmann was re-elected president of the Zionist Organization, after four years out of office. This was a time of rapid growth for the yishuv. Over a hundred thousand immigrants came into the country in two years. The economy expanded to keep pace with the influx. But in 1936 the country was plunged into an Arab rebellion. When some order had been restored, a Royal Commission was appointed, under the chairmanship of Lord Peel. Weizmann was the main Jewish witness to appear before the commission. His opening statement, lasting over two hours, made a profound impression. In quiet and dignified tones he surveyed for the commission the history, aims and achievements of the Zionist movement and the Balfour Declaration. He spoke of six million Jews in Europe ‘for whom the world is divided into places where they cannot live and places where they may not enter’.
   The commission found that the mandate had become unworkable, and recommended the partition of the country into Jewish and Arab states, with the Jerusalem area to remain under British mandate. Weizmann was in favour of accepting the partition proposal, however unsatisfactory it was. He felt that only statehood could allow the Zionist task to continue, and Nazi refugees to be saved. He also hoped that the Arabs would accept and live in peace with a small Jewish state, comprising one-fifth of the area of Western Palestine. At the Twentieth Zionist Congress in Zurich, in 1937, there was a week’s tense debate over the Peel Report. But the British government abandoned the proposal. It was the period of appeasement, and the retreat from the policy of the Balfour Declaration led rapidly to the White Paper of 1939, which advocated an Arab state with a Jewish minority. In August 1939, the Twenty-first Zionist Congress convened in Geneva in an atmosphere of gloom. The congress ended and the delegates took painful leave of each other. Many of them, and especially those from Poland, were doomed men whom Weizmann would never see again. One week later, on I September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and World War II had begun.
   The Road to Independence
   Dr Weizmann offered his scientific services to the government and was appointed chemical adviser to the Ministry of Supply. Early in 1942 he was invited by President Roosevelt to go to the United States and work on the production of synthetic rubber, which he did for fifteen months. From the outset of the war, the Zionist leadership pressed for a Jewish fighting formation under its own flag, as part of the Allied forces. In September 1940, Weizmann wrote to Churchill demanding ‘our elementary right to bear arms’ and undertaking that the yishuv would raise a fighting force of fifty thousand men. Churchill was inclined to agree, but officials in Whitehall were fearful of Arab reactions. It was only in 1944 that the Jewish Brigade came into being, and took part in the liberation of Europe.
   The war brought personal tragedy to Dr and Mrs Weizmann. Benjamin, their elder son, served with an artillery battery in the south of England and was invalided out with shellshock. The younger boy, Michael, became an Air Force officer and was posted as missing when his plane disappeared on a sortie over the North Atlantic.
   The war in Europe ended in May 1945. In the general elections in July the Churchill government fell from power, and was succeeded by a Labour government under Clement Attlee as prime minister.
   In August, the post-war Zionist Conference took place in London, presided over by Weizmann. It was dominated by two emotions: grief for the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis, and hope for a new and positive British policy in Palestine. These hopes soon gave way to bitter disillusionment. The new foreign secretary, Ernest BEVIN, was not prepared to scrap the White Paper, nor to lift the restrictions on Jewish immigration. In Palestine acts of terror and violence increased. The country was practically under military rule, with eighty thousand British troops in it, and the coastline guarded by the Royal Navy to prevent shiploads of refugees from the Displaced Persons camps getting through the blockade.
   In December 1946, the first post-war Zionist Congress met in Basle in an angry mood. The congress majority, headed by David BEN-GURION, the leader of the Palestine Jews, and Rabbi Abba Hillel SILVER of Cleveland, the leader of the American Zionists, were against Weizmann’s counsels of moderation. They rejected the British invitation to a Palestine conference in London, and called for outright resistance to British policy.
   Once again Weizmann had to resign the presidency. The partnership with Britain, to which he had devoted himself since the Balfour Declaration, was nearing its end. He himself was already seventy-two and ailing. In any case, he was by nature and training a man of peace and persuasion. The armed struggle that lay ahead was to be led by Ben-Gurion, a man of action twelve years younger than Weizmann.
   At the beginning of 1947, Britain decided to bring the Palestine problem before the United Nations, the successor to the defunct League of Nations. Another partition plan was recommended. In the debates in the autumn, Weizmann was one of the Zionist spokesmen to address the General Assembly Committee dealing with the issue. His eyesight was failing, so that the notes for his address had to be printed in large type on cards. His shoulders were bowed and his face deeply lined, as if he carried upon himself all the saga of Jewish suffering. Yet his immense prestige and grave eloquence held the delegates, many of them hearing the Zionist story for the first time.
   At one stage it appeared that the Negev, the arid southern part of the country, would be excluded from the future Jewish state. Dr Weizmann went to Washington to see President TRUMAN. He told the president how the Jews were reclaiming the desert, how there were fields and orchards where not a blade of grass had grown before, and about the importance of the Gulf of Akaba as a southern sea route. Mr Truman was convinced, and personally telephoned new instructions to the American delegation at the United Nations. The Negev was included in the area allotted to the Jewish state.
   The President
   On 14 May 1948, the State of Israel was proclaimed. Weizmann was still in New York. Two days later Ben-Gurion cabled him that the Provisional Council of Government invited him to be the first president of Israel. This honour was a fitting crown to his lifetime of struggle for Jewish nationhood. But the president was largely a figurehead, with real power vested in the prime minister and his Cabinet, as under the British system of government. Before Weizmann left for Israel to be inaugurated, he was invited by President Truman to Washington, DC as his official guest. For the first time in history, Pennsylvania Avenue was bedecked with the blue and white flag of Israel, side by side with the Stars and Stripes.
   As president, Weizmann continued to reside at his home in Rehovot, carrying out his official duties and following the scientific work at the Weizmann Institute. He was already a legendary figure for his own nation and for the Jews of the Diaspora. In November 1952, he died at the age of seventy-eight, and was buried in the grounds of the institute. The boy from Motol in the Russian Pale of Settlement had travelled a long way before coming to rest in the peaceful memorial garden in Israel.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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