On this day: Chaim Weizmann elected

May 16 1948: Israel’s first president

By Jennifer Lipman, May 16, 2011

Two days after David Ben Gurion declared Israel's independence and the surrounding Arab armies attacked, the fledgling state voted in its first president. He would not be officially sworn in until the following February

Chaim Weizmann, the first person to hold the office, served for four years. Born in a Russian shtetl in 1874, he was an impressive student who at 18 gained a place studying biochemistry at the prestigious Berlin Polytechnic.

In Germany, the young Weizmann developed an interest in the idea of Zionism as the spiritual centre for the Jews. As his academic career progressed – in 1901 he began working at the university in Geneva and three years later he began working at Manchester University – so too did his adherence to Zionist ideology.

By the time of the Balfour Declaration in 1917 Weizmann, known for his charm and eloquence, had strong contacts with members of the British government and had became a strong voice for the Zionist cause.

Weizmann lead the Zionist delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference of 1919 and the following year became president of the Zionist Organization. He went on to serve a number of key roles in Zionist movements, meeting challenges at almost every juncture.

As war loomed in Europe, he made his home in British Mandate Palestine in Rehovot, where the Weizmann Institute of Science now stands. In the years leading up to independence, Weizmann intervened time and again on behalf of the Zionist movement, not least in encouraging the United States to recognise the state. In May 1948, he was the natural choice of statesman for the new state.

What the JC said: Dr Chaim Weizmann has informed the National Council of Israel that he accepts the offer of the Presidency of the State. In his message to the Council, President Weizmann said that he was prod of the great honour…The election of Dr Weizmann as President was moved by Dr Felix Rosenblueth, and seconded by Mr David Ben Gurion, the Prime Minister, who declared that his election was "a moral necessity for our people"

See more from the JC archives here.

Last updated: 9:14am, May 16 2011