Alan Aziz

Remembering Chaim Weizmann, the brilliant first president of Israel

The renowned polymath and father of the state was a legendary figure in the three different fields in which he left his mark

November 03, 2022 14:02

This week marks 70 years since Israel’s first president, most eminent scientist and trailblazing politician died.

Born in 1874 in Russia to a large yet humble household, Chaim Weizmann and his 14 siblings wanted for everything — except an education.

Indeed, such was the importance of learning in the Weizmann family that despite their stark poverty all but one of the children became scientists, doctors, dentists, engineers and teachers.

Chaim was a scientist, moving around the world to whichever country would allow him to climb the professional ladder. Denied further education in Russia because of the strict quotas applied to Jews wanting to enrol in university, he left to study and then teach chemistry in Germany and Switzerland.

He eventually settled in England in 1904 with his wife Vera and two sons, before taking up an appointment at the University of Manchester and being elected to the General Zionist Council. With Theodor Herzl’s death that same year, Weizmann was more than ready to pick up the baton for the Zionist cause — despite having clashed with Herzl.

While Herzl focused on external diplomacy, Weizmann wanted only a country that thrived on developing social, cultural and educational institutions. Weizmann was well aware that one could not occur without the other, and he would later embrace the need for external diplomacy to fulfil his dream of state-building.

For Weizmann, Judaism was more than just a religion; it was humanity itself. In 1907 he visited Israel to see if industry could be developed but he was met with a slew of hardworking Jewish immigrants trying to cultivate the land while draining swamps and fighting malaria. This visit strengthened his conviction that political lobbying and settlement were integral to the establishment of the State of Israel — a combined approach that would later be known as “synthetic Zionism”.

This was how Weizmann combined his two most passionate beliefs into a Jewish homeland founded on science and education. It was not enough to just set up a Jewish state, only a Jewish state that would, ultimately, benefit the entire world: “I trust and feel sure in my heart that science will bring to this land both peace and a renewal of its youth, creating here the springs of a new spiritual and material life.”

Having been refused an education because of his religion, he grasped Herzl’s vision of Haifa as “a great park … with an overhead electrical train … a city of magnificent homes and public institutions all made possible by applied science, engineering and technology”. He pushed the need for a Jewish technological university. This became the Technion — Israel Institute of Science and Technology, Israel’s oldest and Nobel Prize-winning university (it has won four out of Israel’s five academic Nobel prizes) and the powerhouse behind most of Israel’s high-tech society and status as the “Start-Up Nation”.

During the First World War, Weizmann assisted the British munitions industry by devising a process to extract a vital ingredient for explosives. This action — culminating in the deep relationships that were subsequently established with leaders such as David Lloyd George, Herbert Samuel and Winston Churchill — helped the Zionist political negotiations he was simultaneously conducting with the British government.

He was acclaimed as a chemist but his political career was just as groundbreaking. At just 11, he wrote to his Hebrew teacher in Russia begging for what he believed in most: that the Jewish people must return to Zion. He may not have realised it then, but this cause would be his raison d’etre for years to come.

His role in the State of Israel can never be overstated. Gaining prominence as a Zionist politician, he played a crucial role in securing the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Unsurprisingly, he was made head of the World Zionist Organisation and Jewish Agency not long after, travelling tirelessly around the globe to preach Zionist ideology and to raise money, which he did, alongside Albert Einstein.

As befits a scientist, he pursued his goals systematically, carefully fulfilling his aims and objectives, step by step. By 1922, the idea of a Jewish homeland was given international legitimacy by the League of Nations, but by 1931, due to clashes with Zionist extremists and British policy changes unfavourable to the Zionist cause, he lost a vote of no confidence and was not re-elected.

As was becoming his signature move, he used this time to further Israel as a nucleus for science and education, setting up the Daniel Sieff Research Institute in Rehovot (later to become the Weizmann Institute) in 1934 and becoming its president — a continuation of his 1925 statement that “we must create a high culture, based on Jewish morality, and make it a centre of human culture” — before returning to office in 1935.

He was also vital in establishing advanced enterprises such as the phosphates plant at the Dead Sea and the hydroelectric power plant at Naharayim. In 1949, the year after Israel’s Independence, he was elected President of Israel, a role he remained in until his death in 1952, aged 78.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion probably summed Weizmann up best on the day of his passing in an address to the Knesset: “I will not attempt to describe fully the achievements and the personality of the Chosen One of the Nation, to whom there has not been an equal since Herzl … for Weizmann carried two crowns on his head — a crown of Statemanship and a crown of Learning. He was at once the first of our Nation and among the greatest in science.”

The president, the politician or the scientist? Chaim Weizmann fulfilled all three with aplomb. It is fitting that he is chiefly remembered as Israel’s first president and — along with Herzl and David Ben-Gurion — as one of the three people who made a State for the Jewish people happen.

Yet without his emphasis on creating a country of value and worth and helping set up the Technion — its initial 17 students now numbering some 17,000 — Israel would not be the hive of incredible minds and life-changing advancements we have today.

November 03, 2022 14:02

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive