Chaim Weizmann was born in Russia in 1874, in Motol, now Belarus, but then in the “Pale of Settlement”, that area of Russia to which the Jews had been confined since the time of Catherine the Great. From an early age he became interested in chemistry and managed to study in Berlin and then Freiburg in Switzerland. He met his future wife Vera Chatzman in Switzerland. He was the whole time seeking for ways to realise the Zionist dream. Theodor Herzl’s death was a huge blow to him and he left for England in 1904 where he became a biochemistry lecturer at the University of Manchester and soon became a leader among British Zionists. In fact he told his wife that the two passions of his life were Zionism and chemistry. Passions that endured to the end of his life.
Weizmann first met Balfour on 9th January 1906 and was very excited by this first encounter. Forty years later he recalled their conversation when Balfour voiced the proposal that the Jews be offered Uganda as homeland:
‘Mr Balfour, suppose I was to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?”
“But Dr Weizmann, we have London”, said Balfour.
“True, but we had Jerusalem,” replied Weizmann, who knew that most Anglo-Jewish grandees scorned Zionism, “when London was a marsh”. …
“Are there many Jews who think like you?”
“I speak the mind of millions of Jews.”
It was the spiritual side of Zionism that appealed to Balfour. But it would be a further eight years before the two men met again. It was a frustrating time for Weizmann who travelled the country trying to promote unity in the Zionist cause. There was much opposition from the conservative Rabbinate who thought that to bring the Jews back to the Promised Land was a blasphemous anticipation of the biblical millennium. In 1907 he first visited Palestine which he considered “a dolorous country on the whole, and Jerusalem in particular he thought was a “miserable ghetto, derelict and without dignity.”
In 1914 Weizmann met Baron Edmond de Rothschild. The latter was not a Zionist but a great philanthropist and saw the value of Weizmann’s lifelong dream of a Hebrew University in Palestine.
In the next few years Weizmann would meet with influential people – like Herbert Samuel and C.P.Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian – and become aware of the opposition of others, like Edwin Montagu, a Jewish member of the Cabinet, who favoured assimilationist policies. Montagu led the opposition in the Cabinet to the Balfour Declaration: his view was that he had spent his life as a British citizen and did not want to return to a “Jewish Ghetto”. But just before the Cabinet came to a final decision, he had to leave the country to take up a post as Secretary of State for India.
Events become increasingly complex as two contradictory processes got underway. The first, the discussions which Sir Mark Sykes had with the French ambassador, François Georges-Picot, negotiated the Sykes-Picot and Tri-partite agreements, in January 1916, dividing up the Ottoman Empire between Britain and France. (Sykes later converted to Zionism and played a crucial role in promoting its leaders). The second process was the correspondence between Sir Henry McMahon, High Commissioner in Cairo, and Sharif Hussein of Mecca, (father of Abdullah, Feisal – see biography on this website). McMahon was to attempt to incite an Arab rebellion against the Ottoman Empire, thus contributing to the war effort. Although in fact the terms of this agreement were opaque, it forms the basis of the criticism that Britain had promised Palestine to the Arabs. And it would not be published until 1939.
Although the Zionists were ignorant of both of these agreements until much later, their aspirations for Palestine were well-known to members of the British government – to Herbert Samuel, Edward Grey and Arthur Balfour, for example. Events moved forward when Sykes’ enthusiasm for Zionism grew – as did the involvement of American Jews. A legend has grown up because of what Lloyd George wrote in his autobiography, that the Balfour declaration was a reward for Weizmann’s work in biochemistry for the Admiralty. His most important discovery was the production of acetone on a large scale by bacterial fermentation: even though Weizmann was underpaid and his work never achieved the acclaim it deserved – or the chair in Manchester he hoped for – it at least brought him into contact with Lloyd George. Industrial scale production of acetone would begin in six British distilleries requisitioned for the purpose in early 1916. The effort produced 30,000 tonnes of acetone during the war, although a national collection of horse-chestnuts was required when supplies of maize were inadequate for the quantity of starch needed for fermentation!
But the suggestion that Palestine was his reward was a figment of Lloyd George’s imagination. As Weizmann commented:
I almost wish it had been as simple as that, and that I had never known the heartbreak, the drudgery which preceded the Declaration. But history does not deal in Aladdin’s lamps.
By the time Lloyd George became Prime Minister he no longer had any doubts about Palestine. The end of 1916 and beginning of 1917 saw a sea change in attitudes, with a convergence of interest between British interest and Zionist opportunity: the change of government, the Russian Revolution, the United States entered the war, and Britain invaded Palestine – these were all key factors. Balfour had now moved from the Admiralty to the Foreign Office.
In 1917 Weizmann became president of the British Zionist Federation and the de-facto leader of World Zionism. Nahum Sokolow was his chief collaborator. At the suggestion of Mark Sykes with whom he worked closely, Sokolow travelled to France and Italy during the spring of 1917 and gained support from those countries for Zionist objectives. He was intimately involved from the Zionist side with the discussions that produced the Balfour declaration.
A founder of so-called Synthetic Zionism, Weizmann supported grass-roots colonization efforts as well as high-level diplomatic activity. He was generally associated with the centrist General Zionists and later sided with neither Labour Zionism on the left nor Revisionist Zionism on the right. In 1917, he expressed his view of Zionism in the following words:
We have [the Jewish people] never based the Zionist movement on Jewish suffering in Russia or in any other land. These sufferings have never been the mainspring of Zionism. The foundation of Zionism was, and continues to be to this day, the yearning of the Jewish people for its homeland, for a national center and a national life.
After a meeting on the 19th June, when Weizmann told Balfour firmly that the time had come for the Zionists to be given some definite encouragement, Balfour asked him to put together a proposal which he, Balfour, could put before the cabinet. Thus began Weizmann’s final effort to obtain the milestone Balfour Declaration. There were still many obstacles – in particular the lack of unity among Jewish groups, especially the opposition of significant figures like Claude Montefiori and Lucien Wolf, and the efforts of Vladimir Jabotinsky – eventually unsuccessful – a Russian Jew and a friend of Weizmann, to set up a Jewish battalion to fight in Palestine. The drafting team – which included Mark Sykes and two officials – Leopold Amery and Harold Nicolson – sent a draft on the 18th July, but it was not considered until September 3rd. There was much opposition – especially a passionate and poignant plea from Edwin Montagu. The attitude of the American President, Wilson, was also crucial and a “favourable” letter from him was read out at the Cabinet meeting of October 4th, plus a sympathetic letter which Sokolow had obtained from the French government in June. (This French agreement is often omitted from official memory).
Balfour gave British Jewry a last chance to express their opinions and Weizmann engaged in furious activity, attempting to get hundreds of synagogues and Jewish groups to support the initiative. The Chief Rabbi contributed his spiritual authority. Despite the intervention of Lord Curzon, the continued opposition of Montagu , the Declaration was passed on November 2nd and Balfour sent the historic letter to Lord Rothschild. The Letter stated in part that the British government “views with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people … “. At no point had the situation of the Arab people been considered: nor had they been acknowledged as rightful owners of the land.
What happened has become the stuff of legend: Sykes rushed out to an antechamber, where Weizmann was waiting:
“Dr Weizmann, it’s a boy!” “Well,” wrote Weizmann afterward, “I did not like the boy at first. He was not the one I had expected. But I knew this was a great event. I telephoned my wife, and went to see Aha Ha’am.”
This was the most significant achievement of Weizmann’s life. As Felix Frankfurter wrote to Louis Brandeis in1919:
He is one of the significant figures in English public life. He has a sway over English public men and over English permanent official who will continue to govern England when Lloyd George and Balfour will be no more- such as no Jew in England or the continent has or can easily acquire.
Though not his last achievement, history would judge the Balfour Declaration one the greatest obstacles to securing peace in Palestine – especially after events in 1948. For the rest of Weizmann’s long life, he played a leading role in World Zionism, in the developing state of Israel as its first President, and in the foundation of the Hebrew University of his dreams, to this day a highly respected Weizmann Institute of Science at Rekovot.
After the war, on 3 January 1919, Weizmann and Prince Faisal signed the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement attempting to establish favourable relations between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East. At the end of the month, the Paris Peace Conference decided that the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire should be wholly separated and the newly conceived mandate-system applied to them. Shortly thereafter, both men made their statements to the conference.
After 1920, Weizmann assumed leadership in the World Zionist movement, serving twice (1920–31, 1935–46) as President of the World Zionist Organization. In 1921, he went along with Albert Einstein for a fund-raising event to establish the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and support the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. At this time, brewing differences over competing European and American visions of Zionism, and its funding of development versus political activities, caused Weizmann to clash with Louis Brandeis.(During the war years, Brandeis had headed the precursor of the Zionist Organization of America, led in fund-raising for Jews in Europe (and Palestine). Although Weizmann retained Zionist leadership, this clash led to the departure from the movement of Brandeis and other prominent leaders. By 1929, there were about 18,000 members left in the ZOA – a massive decline from the high of 200,000 reached during the Brandeis years.
In 1936 Weizmann addressed the Peel Commission,( set up by Stanley Baldwin), whose job it was to consider the working of the British Mandate of Palestine. The Commission published a report that, for the first time, recommended the partition of Palestine, but the proposal was declared unworkable and formally rejected by the government. Both Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion – first Prime Minister of the new state of Israel – accepted the partition and its logic. This was the first official delineation and declaration of a Zionist vision opting for a new, artificial state with a majority of Jewish population, alongside a state with an Arab majority. The Arab leaders, headed by Haj Amin al-Husseini, rejected the plan.
Weizmann’s efforts to integrate Jews from Palestine in the Second World War against Germany resulted in the creation of the Jewish Brigade, which fought mainly in the Italian front. After the war Weizmann grew embittered by the rise of violence in Palestine and by the terrorist tendencies amongst followers of the Revisionist fraction. His influence within the Zionist movement decreased, yet he remained overwhelmingly influential outside of Palestine (Eretz Israel). In his Presidential Statement at the last Zionist Congress that he attended (Basle, 9 December 1946) he unequivocally said:
Masada, for all its heroism, was a disaster in our history; It is not our purpose or our right to plunge to destruction in order to bequeath a legend of martyrdom to posterity; Zionism was to mark the end of our glorious deaths and the beginning of a new path leading to life.
Increasingly burdened with ill-health- (half-blind with glaucoma) – and exhausted, Weizmann tried to retreat to Rehovot and his beloved Institute. Yet he was still required in 1947 to go to New York to save the plan of partition of Israel-Palestine at United Nations. He told President Truman that it was either “statehood or extermination” for his people and the President gave a specific commitment. In April 1948 Britain announced that the Mandate would end on the 15th May.
His final achievement…
Weizmann became the first President of Israel in 1948. But the final irony, writes Donald Lewis, was that he did not realize that the office was to be mainly honorific. During the last years of his life he was a virtual prisoner at Rehovot, unable to influence events:
the mantle had already passed to Joshua. But on the long journey no man had played a greater part.
Weizmann with Albert Einstein, 1921
1. Montefiori, p. 410. Also Lewis, p.63. See biography of Balfour on this website.
2. Weizmann is considered to be the father of industrial fermentation. He used the bacterium Clostridium acetobutylicum (the Weizmann organism) to produce acetone. Acetone was used in the manufacture of cordite explosive propellants critical to the Allied war effort (see Royal Navy Cordite Factory, Holton Heath). Weizmann transferred the rights to the manufacture of acetone to the Commercial Solvents Corporation in exchange for royalties.