Chaim Weizmann

(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Although a world-class chemist and scientific researcher, Weizmann’s greatest contributions and achievements must be regarded as his leadership of the World Zionist Organization for twelve years and his central role in helping to forge the new State of Israel. He was the first president of that new nation from 1949 through 1952.

Early Life

Chaim Azriel Weizmann was born in the small Russian (later Polish) village of Motol, near Pinsk, to a Jewish family that lived amid impoverished circumstances. Motol was situated in the Pale of Settlement, a region along Russia’s western frontier and the only place in the country where Jews could reside legally. Even there, however, they existed under the constant threat of persecution and periodic massacres known as pogroms. Life was hard for everyone living within the Pale. Yet Chaim’s large family, though of meager means, fared better than many other Russian Jews. Chaim was the third of fifteen children born to his parents, Ozer and Rachel Weizmann. Ozer supported the family as a timber merchant, a somewhat seasonal business that gradually improved over time.

The Weizmann children grew up in an enlightened atmosphere that encouraged learning but that also promoted reverence for tradition. Their home was filled with books written in the Yiddish, Hebrew, and Russian languages. Zionist periodicals also found their way into the house and influenced young Chaim. Ozer Weizmann was determined that his children should learn as much as they could about the world outside the Pale of Settlement. In an unprecedented step for a family living in a village like Motol, the elder Weizmann sent two sons, Chaim and an elder brother, twenty-five miles from home to study at the secondary school in Pinsk. There Weizmann’s aptitude for science was fostered, and he decided on a career in chemistry.

At that time Pinsk was a center of Zionist beliefs and the home for an early Zionist group. Young Weizmann increasingly became involved with the movement and absorbed its beliefs. Upon his graduation from the Pinsk Gymnasium in 1891, he thought of himself as a committed Zionist.

After graduation, Weizmann left Russia for Germany and then Switzerland to continue his education, since his own country enforced university quotas restricting the admissions of Jewish students. After an unhappy and financially stressful year (1892) at the Darmstadt Polytechnic Institute, Weizmann returned home for a brief period only to set out again for the German capital, Berlin, where he was to attend the prestigious Charlottenberg Polytechnic Institute in 1893. In Berlin, Weizmann’s Zionism matured as he joined with a group of intellectuals from the Russo-Jewish Academic Society, an organization he later regarded as the cradle of the modern Zionist movement. In 1896, he came under the influence of Asher Ginzberg, better known as Ahad Ha‘am, a Hebrew essayist and an early Zionist theoretician. Weizmann adopted the approach of Ha‘am, who advocated a slow and careful Jewish settlement process, making Palestine first a spiritual and cultural center for world Judaism, and who also stressed the importance of reaching an agreement with the Arabs of Palestine.

Because a favorite professor joined the staff of the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, Weizmann went there to study in 1897. After three more years of hard work, he obtained a Ph.D. magna cum laude (1900) and shortly thereafter was appointed Privatdozent (lecturer) in organic chemistry at the University of Geneva. The adult pattern of Weizmann’s life was now established. He would blend a love of science with a passion for Zionism and end up directing the course of an entire race of people.

Life’s Work

For a half century, beginning in 1900, Weizmann devoted his life to considering the needs and aspirations of his people, deciding how the Jewish world should support Zionism and directing the desire for Jewish national rebirth. By the time of his graduation, he was becoming a well-known member of the World Zionist Organization. It had been created in 1897 by the First Zionist Congress, which Theodor Herzl had convened to bring about the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine. Weizmann first served as a delegate to the Second Zionist Congress held in 1898 in Basel, Switzerland, while he was finishing his doctorate. At that time he was elected to the Congress Steering Committee (responsible for finances) and immediately began to make formal progress in the leadership of the movement. In 1900, Herzl convened the Fourth Zionist Congress in London, and Weizmann made his first visit to England.

By 1901, Weizmann, at age twenty-seven, found himself at odds with Herzl’s ideas and efforts, which he considered too visionary, so he formed the first opposition group in the Zionist movement. This group greatly influenced Zionist affairs for a time and provided the vehicle through which Weizmann rose to prominence. Between 1904 and 1914, Weizmann devoted more time to his scientific career and personal life, though he remained an active Zionist. The death of Herzl in 1904 left the Zionist movement in a state of shock, and Weizmann, Herzl’s as-yet-unrecognized heir, wanted time to think and to make a fresh start somewhere. So he set out for Great Britain, taking an academic position at the University of Manchester, where he also became the leader of the Manchester group of Zionists, which he headed for fifteen years. In 1905, in Manchester, he met Arthur Balfour (then Great Britain’s prime minister) and convinced him that Palestine was the proper national homeland for Jews. Their meeting established a working relationship that eventually resulted in the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

In 1906, Weizmann married Vera Chatzman whom he had first met in Geneva six years before, when she was a medical student and he a doctoral candidate in chemistry. Two sons were born to them, and, though the marriage would be marked by many work-related separations, they shared a love that bridged these gaps.

In 1907, Weizmann took an important step toward assuming Herzl’s mantle of leadership. At the Eighth Zionist Congress, he delivered a major speech on what he termed synthetic Zionism. He...

(The entire section is 2577 words.)