Chaim Weizmann, Builder of Israel
by Laurence Krane
When we think about the beginning of Zionism, we generally associate Theordore Herzl as the main impetus of Zionism. Yet Chaim Weitzmann was in many ways more important than Herzl. One of the chief differences between these two great figures in modern Jewish history was observed by Abba Eban who said that Herzl came from the outside, but Weitzman came from the inside.
What he meant was that Herzl was a completely assimilated Jew with no connection to anything Jewish until he was shocked by the overt anti-Semitism he viewed as a newspaper correspondent covering the famous Dryfus trial in France. It was basically on his own that he conceived of the idea of a Jewish state to save the Jews from anti-Semitism. He believed in using the political systems to bring about this goal by rousing the Jews to support this goal and to convince the governments of the world of its worthiness. Herzl was ignorant of the existing Zionist groups when he began his idea of Zionism.
Chaim Wietzman was basically the opposite. He came from a traditional Jewish family steeped in Jewish observance. He understood the Jewish psyche, he was one of them and remained true to his upbringing. He worked always within the framework of the existing Jewish groups.
Chaim Weitzmann was born in 1874 in a small town called Motol in western Russia near the Polish border. His father Ezer was a merchant, and like the rest of the Yiddish speaking Jews of that area, they were orthodox in their observance of the Jewish law. This was a period of the renaissance of the Jewish culture with many new ideas in religion, politics, life style and science that changed the manner in which people lived.
Young Chaim began his formal Jewish education at the tender age of three as so many of his landsmen (contemporaries). He went to a cheder, the local form of Jewish orthodox schooling that taught the rudiments of Hebrew, Prayer, Bible and Talmud. He showed much promise and was sent to the realshuele in Pinsk where he excelled in science. His science master introduced him to chemistry and young Chaim excelled in it to the extent that he was able to become a tutor for other boys, thus supporting himself at an early age.
It would have been normal for Weitzmann to have entered a university in Russia except that the pogroms of 1881 were followed by the assassination of Alexander II. This gave way to intensification of anti-Jewish feelings in Russia. Chaim Weitzmann decided to go to Germany. Here he enrolled in the Polytechnic and supplemented his income by tutoring. It was at this time that Germany was the center of intellectual thought and here he met the future Zionistic leadership.
Weitzmann was not unfamiliar with Zionism and the various different Jewish ideas and concepts that were being spoken and experienced. Some Jews felt that the savior of the Jews would come through political reform such as communism or socialism. Others argued that assimilation would answer the problem of anti-Semitism and ease the economic hardships of the Jew. Still others maintained that immigration to Palestine, as Israel was called then, and by building up settlements in the Land would save the Jews from economic privation and exploitation.
At this point, Chain Weitzmann made the friendship of Asher Ginsberg, better known under the pen name as Ahad Ha'am. This friendship was one which continued through out Weitzmann's life. Ahad Ha'am influenced him in the direction of practical Zionism. The principle idea being a new revitalization of the Jewish values for which the Jew had lived and died for, the highest ideas of justice firmly established together with settlements in Israel and based on authentic Jewish culture. It was at this time the small fiery pamphlet written by Herzl burst upon the already active Zionist scene suggesting the establishment of a Jewish state through political action. This new concept in Zionism was met by acclaim and disdain by various Jewish factions giving fertile ground for intensive Jewish intellectual argument.
In 1899 Weitzmann received his doctorate in Chemistry and sold an important patent to the German firm of Bayer. This gave him some financial independence and he became an assistant professor in Geneva. He divided his life between chemistry and Zionism maintaining his connection to his Jewish intellectual and Zionist friends that he met earlier. He accepted Herzl as the unqualified leader of Zionism, but doubted the wisdom of establishing a Jewish state from "above" by political recognition. He distrusted any political short cut that omitted the need for a mass movement from below. He insisted on the need for the growth of a widespread consciousness among the Jewish masses and creating an agricultural and industrial base in the Land itself. Unless this was done, the granting of constitutions of establishment of a political entity would remain an empty shell. He agreed that political action was necessary, however, without a viable and vibrant settlement together with its culture and institution, political gains could not be maintained.
Weitzmann said "the central idea of Zionism existed before Herzl and before our own time, and it remains incontestable. It is the historic striving to return to Palestine. Everything else is only a means to an end. Our aim in not only to provide bread for the hungry, but also to create new values on the foundation of our national past."
When Herzl died in 1904, Weitzmann and his friends were setting up a non political bank to finance settlement in Palestine and an institute of higher education. It was two years later, in 1906 that he married Vera Chatzman, a medical student whom he had met some five years earlier. He was denied advancement in Geneva and when a post at the University of Manchester fell vacant, he applied for it, and was accepted. Living in England greatly attracted Weitzmann, he and his wife moved there. This became a new phase in his life, where he took in the values of the English and became an active "anglophile" in the Zionist cause.
In a speech given in 1907, Weitzman stated: "The governments of the world will pay attention to us only as they will become convinced that we are capable of conquering Palestine through persistent practical work."
"Political Zionism means: to make the Jewish question an international one. It means going to the nations and saying to the: 'We need your help to achieve our aim; but we ourselves are doing all in our power to strengthen our position in the land, because we regard Palestine as our homeland.' We must explain Zionism to the governments in such a manner that they shall understand it as the Jews understand it."
Weitzmann visited Palestine several years later and became more convinced of the importance of practical working Palestine as opposed to purely political diplomatic pressure upon the governments of Europe. During the period of 1910-1915, no government seemed very interested in the idea of Zionism. The change was to come upon the outbreak of World War I.
When hostilities broke out, the Zionist executive was located in Berlin. The Turks who cruelly ruled Palestine had entered the war on the German side. Nachum Sokolov of the Zionist executive and Vladimir Jabotinsky who wished to establish a Jewish legion to fight on the Allied side came to London. Jabotinsky was an old friend of Weitzmann, they had shared a flat for a short period in London.
At this time, Weizmann offered his discoveries in the field of fermentation to the British scientific authorities. He obtained no response until 1916 when the prospects of war seemed dark for the Western allies. Weizmann's work was brought to the attention of the British Government. He was asked by Winston Churchill then First Lord of theAdmiralty if he could provide a process that would yield acetone, a solvent needed for producing naval munitions. He successfully accomplished this task. His scientific achievement brought Weizmann to the notice of British government circles.
This fame and the singular force of his personality, and his ability to charm and impress eminent Englishmen helped him to advance him to the foremost place in the rof Zionists in England. The rise of the British as the leading partner in the war alliance automatically lifted the relatively obscure Zionists of that country to a leading position, and Weizmann dominated them all by his political and diplomatic gifts and natural capacity for leadership.
At this time, Weitzmann met G. P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, a very influential newspaper. This chance meeting with Scott proved a turning point. Scott was impressed with Weitzmann and became a convert to the cause of Zionism. Scott brought the Zionism ideas to the attention of Herbert Samuel (who became actively interested in Zionism) and Lloyd George who were influential in the British Government. With the Turks allied with the Germans, the British were looking for some way to relieve the Turks of the rule of Palestine after the war. A. J. Balfour, who had been Prime Minister early, but at this time was out of the government was also interested in the idea. Balfour had met Weitzmann some ten years earlier and was very impressed with Weitzmann.
When the then current British government resigned, Lloyd George became the Premier and Balfour became the Foreign Secretary. There were rumors that the Germans were preparing to offer the Zionists a state in Palestine to enlist the Jewish populations in support of the Kaiser. Although there were many Jews and Gentiles opposed to the concept of a Jewish state in Palestine, still, Weitzmann labored on behalf of creating the Zionist protectorate. Finally, Balfour issued the now famous statement declaring that "His Majesty's Government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people."
This act was universally recognized as a personal triumph of Weitzmann. He became the unchallenged leader of Zionism. Both the Jews and Gentiles alike recognized him as the spokesman for the Jews and Jewish State. He accepted the power and prestige of his new position. He did not rise to his pre-eminent position through an act of democratic selection. He was not even a member of the Zionist executive. Nevertheless, his position, largely owing to his personal qualities had become unassailable. He had clearly become the greatest figure in the public life of the Jews since the death of Herzl.
The Jews of Palestine who suffered indignities and persecution at the hands of the Turks were nervous and bewildered. On British advice, Weizmann made his way to the other side of the Jordan to meet the Emir Feisal, one of the leaders of the Arabs, to whom the British had made promises of Arab independence. The Emir met him with gifts in the desert and assured him of his sympathy, expressing the wish that the Jews and Arabs should cooperate in the development of Palestine. The West did not keep the pledges given to him and he was driven from the throne of Syria. He later became the King of Iraq, but regarded the original agreement rendered void by the treachery of the West.
In 1918, before the end of hostilities, Weizmann laid the foundation stone of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. There was no state, none the less, Weizmann realized that the University was a necessity to further the concept of a self reliant settlement. The fate of the University became one of his chief concerns and sources of pride. Later he began work on the famed Wiezmann Institute which is located in Rechovot.
A country is acquired in the pain of a struggle against all obstacles. This sort of suffering we have not ben permitted to experience in the various lands of our dispersion. In Palestine, we know the pain of drying the swamps, laying the roads, putting up tents and fighting the natural elements. That is why, in relation to us, the world conceives Palestine as something different from New York or Warsaw. And that is what is meant by the homeland of a people. (1931)
Weizmann laid the foundation for the Jewish immigaration and settlement in Palestine. His constant emphasis on the importance of the pioneers (chalutzim) came from the belief that a community that is planned for by an elite of experts can not dynamically grow. He believed that the government cannot be arranged from above, personal factors were too important to stifle. He was not tolerant of other Zionist leaders such as American Justice Louis Brandeis who believed in the organized economic action to determine the form of the new settlement.
Weizmann possessed a insight into the nature and value of intellectual and artistic creation and an instinctive understanding of what makes societies and nations. Moreover, despite his understanding and admiration for the West, he remained a native member of the Eastern European Jewish community, a Jew among Jews, who understood the Jewish masses. In his own person he thought, felt, and suffered as they did. He knew out of his own experience what enhanced and what cramped their lives; this alone gave him an incomparable advantage as a popular leader.
In 1921 he became President of the World Zionist Organization. In this year, a decision made at the Cairo Conference, whereby Trans-Jordan was removed from the original territory of Palestine and the subsequent White Paper issued a year later which curtailed Jewish immigration. Jabotinsky and his revisionists wanted to make a violent assault on the mandate government. Weizmann placed his faith in the British and remained faithful to this idea for the next twenty years.
On his left, there were those in the Zionist camp that desired a greater degree of socialism in the Jewish settlement. Weizmann was not a socialist. He saw the building up of Jewish Palestine as a collective effort carried out principally by agricultural and industrial workers in an egalitarian society.
As for the Arabs he was perhaps over optimistic about the possibility of peaceful and harmonious relations. He insisted that they must not be exploited. He underestimated the countervailing force of Arab nationalism.
His anglophile feelings blinded him to the British colonial officials' discrimination against the Jews. Weizmann made the British connection the basis of his entire policy. Yet successive British governments inclined to consider the Zionist adventure a piece of romantic folly which was costing the British Government dearly in terms of Arab goodwill.
In 1930, The British issued a White Paper which deplored the Arab riots which had massacred many Jews, but traced their cause to the natural reaction of the Arabs because of the danger of Jewish immigration. Therefore, the paper called for its curtailment and a tightened supervision of Jewish activities.
The White Paper was regarded by Jews and their Gentile friends every where as an act of injustice. It was a severe blow to Jewish hopes. It compromised Weizmann's entire position and he felt obliged to resign from the Presidency of the Agency. He remained out of office until 1935, yet remained active raising funds for the Zionist organization.
With Hitler's rise in Germany causing refugees to seek asylum where it could be found, Weizmann realized that the Mandatory experiment was set on a self-defeating course. In 1936, widespread Arab riots broke out, not only against the Jews, but also against the mandatory government. A commission under Lord Peel was sent out to investigate and make fresh recommendations about the future of Palestine. Weizmann appeared before it in Jerusalem. The Commission's report advocated partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab self-governing entities. Weizmann tentatively accepted this plan, which aroused a storm in the Jewish world. How could a country exist in a absurdly small area which was too difficult of defend? The Zionist Congress, after passionate debates, accepted it. The Arabs rejected it outright.
With the prospect of a war with Germany looming, the British seeking to secure its Middle Eastern base finally decided to yield to Arab demands. This was followed by the St. James's Palace Conference in which the Jews were pressed by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halkfax and the Colonial Secretary, Mr. Malcolm Macdonald, to give up their dream of either a majority or an autonomous establishment, let alone astate in Palestine.
Another White Paper was issued which imposed severe restrictions upon the transfer of land to Jews, and made all prospects of Jewish immigration after five years dependent on Arab goodwill, which was clearly not likely to occur. No one doubted that the British Government had executed a complete about face. It intended to liquidate the Zionist dream for good.
Weizmann rejected with dignity and force the death sentence pronounced on the Zionist movement and accused the British of turning Palestine into a death trap for the Jews. He prepared to fight against the British.
In September 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, Great Britain and France declared war upon Germany. Zionist hope was now centered upon neutral America where the openly pro-Arab policy of the English was condemned by large sections of public opinion as part of the faulty policy of appeasement which gave birth to World War II. Weizmann beat on governmental doors in vain to secure admission into Palestine for Jews trapped in the still unconquered countries of Eastern Europe, realizing that the end would be extermination. He virtually called the British the accomplices of Hitler.
When the Germans invaded the Lowlands and France in 1940, Weizmann approached Winston Churchill, who had been an ardent supporter of the Zionists, to allow the formation of a Jewish league. This was authorized in 1944 when Churchill gained power.
As the Western Powers succeeded in their war efforts, Weizmann traveled to keep alive the Zionists' idea of statehood. The old idea of partition came up in the British Government. The Arab ruler remained adamant in opposition.. King Ibn Saud warned President Roosevelt that he would forcibly resist a pro-Zionist solution. There were American Jews who feared that a Jewish state might affect their own status.
In 1942, in New York, the now famous Biltmore Resolution was passed demanding for the first time the creation of a Jewish commonwealth in the whole of Palestine. This became part of the official program of the movement. Opposition in Palestine and America by the left wing groups called for a bi-national state of Jews and Arabs.
In the meantime the growth during the war of underground Jewish resistance groups determined on the violent resistance to British policy grew. Weizmann busily engage in discussions with British statesmen about the future of Palestine.
In 1945, British Minister of State in the Middle East, Lord Moyne, was assassinated in Cairo by members of the Stern group. Weizmann found that the British attitude had as a result stiffened against the Zionist demands. The British set itself to suppress rebellion in Palestine. President Roosevelt remained ambiguous until his death in 1945.
After World War II, Major Attlee came into power and Ernest Bevin became Foreign Secretary and pledged himself to solve the Palestine problem. His antagonism to Zionist demands increase steadily. Weizmann found little in common with the British who now believed the entire Zionist scheme was an error.
Meanwhile, the new American President, Harry Truman, was pressing for permission for at least one hundred thousand survivors from the Nazi concentration camps to enter Palestine. Bevin was becoming progressively more irritated by Jewish pressure especially in the USA. Illegal immigration of Jews into Palestine began to assume large proportions.
In 1947, the British invited the Jewish Agency to a conference on the Palestinian problem but was rejected by the Ben Gurion and the Palestinian representatives who regarded the entire policy based on cooperation with England as discredited and hopeless. They saw Weizmann as ineffective and an outdated statesman.
The British Foreign Secretary decided to refer the entire issue to the United Nations. To the painful surprise of the British Government, the UN Commission recommended partition: the setting up of an independent Jewish state in part of Palestine as the only way out of a hopeless deadlock.
Although Weizmann's health was failing, he was growing blind, suffered from a chronic infection of the lung and a bad heart, yet he established his headquarters in New York and in effect headed the Jewish delegation in the great United Nations debate in the autumn of 1947 which would decide the fate of Palestine.
In November, two thirds of the representatives of the United Nations voted in favor of the Jewish state. This decision had a great deal to do with the relationship between Weizmann and President Truman, who had great sympathy and respect for Weizmann. The State Department wished to detach the Southern Negev from the prospective Jewish territory. Through Truman's personal intervention at the request of Weizmann, the Negev became an integral part of Israel providing a indispensable connection between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.
When the British, who did not give their approval to the UN decision, dragged their feet in leaving Israel, Weizmann sent messages to Ben Gurion pressing for the creation of the State. One of the first decisions that Ben Gurion made was to offer the office of the President to Weizmann. It was a position of high symbolic significance. Weizmann accepted it and flew the new Israeli flag proudly from his hotel in New York.
Chaim Weizmann died on November 9, 1952 after giving most of his love and life to the country that became his home. His life was not a perfect life free of mistakes, he made his share of mistakes, in over relying on the British and assuming that the Arabs would be delighted to join in the new Jewish Commonwealth. However, he knew what had to be done and continued in the proper direction, never giving up the dream of an independent homeland for the Jews. In his contribution to the advancement of the Jewish cause, we salute him.
from the October 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine