Life & Culture

Chaim Wiezmann: ‘I am now convinced that without him there would be no state of Israel’

The brilliant chemist used acetone to advance Zionism in the same way Herzl used journalism, says the co-author of a magisterial new biography of the leader


Forceful personality: Chaim Weizmann circa 1925

For a people in large measure defined by history, with a culture that reveres great leaders, the relative obscurity of Chaim Weizmann is a mystery. Ask the average Jew on the Clapham (perhaps that should be Borehamwood) omnibus who should take the most credit for the founding of Israel and they’ll likely say Herzl or Ben-Gurion. Weizmann rarely gets a look in. And although he is a somewhat less marginal figure here in England – he was, after all, a British citizen and lived in Manchester for 30 years, where he went by the name of Charles Weizmann – in Israel and elsewhere he is rarely remembered other than as a name attached to buildings.

That’s one reason why the magisterial new biography of Weizmann – all 908 pages of it – by Jehuda Reinharz and Motti Golani is such an important book. Even if Weizmann was already widely acknowledged as the single most important person in the founding of Israel, its publication would still be a defining moment in the country’s historiography, since nothing previously written about him comes close in its sweep and understanding. But, as Reinharz told me when we spoke, the book has ended up serving a clear purpose: “I am now convinced that without Weizmann there would be no state of Israel.”

When I speak to Reinharz, the backdrop is his book-lined study in Brookline, Massachusetts. Now the professor of modern Jewish history at Brandeis and its president Emeritus, he was president for 16 years and is one of the most renowned Jewish historians – in both senses of the phrase. But although he has written 31 books, you get the sense that this biography is special for him. For one thing, he has been working on it in one form or another since 1973, when his friend Walter Laqueur, the brilliant historian and essayist, asked him to collaborate on the official biography. Laqueur then moved onto another project within months, leaving Reinharz to it. He “dabbled” in it for years after, publishing two volumes of Weizmann’s life taking the story to 1922, before putting it aside. Then around ten years ago he joined forces with Israeli historian Golani on a full biography.

Weizmann’s non-stop story makes for a riveting biography. In 1914 he was a reader in chemistry at Manchester University. “This guy – not even a professor – says to himself that if someone would pay for his railway trips from Manchester to London and back, he could convince the greatest empire in the world that Zionism should be a viable, important aspect of British diplomacy. And if you think that by the end of the First World War, when Britain was the greatest empire in history –six times the size of the Roman Empire, 15 countries under its control – he says that if he could just meet the prime minister and the minister for the colonies, he could convince them that Zionism was an important task of Great Britain.”

And he did. As Reinharz puts it: “That’s the great mystery of the book. How was this one person able to do this?” Reinharz seems understandably in awe of Weizmann, because there is no easy explanation as to how he was able to change the course of history and turn Zionism from a dream into a practical proposition, through little more than the force of his personality.

Weizmann was a brilliant chemist who invented the process of industrial fermentation, which produced acetone, n-butanol and ethanol, the former of which was vital to the manufacture of explosive propellants in the First World War. His chemistry genius effectively subsidised his political life as he became a very wealthy man, affording him both the time and the financial capacity to travel the world pursuing his Zionist dream, and opening vital doors to him. As Reinharz puts it: “He used acetone to advance Zionism in the same way Herzl used journalism. Acetone meant that he gained entrance to the highest level in British society. He worked for the Admiralty and as an adviser to the British government.” In a sense, therefore, one could say that Israel owes its existence to acetone.

Weizmann was not so much gregarious as dependent on the company of others. “He needed people the way most of us need air,” says Reinharz – and, correspondingly, Weizmann was able to befriend almost everyone he needed to know. He met and was on good terms with every US president from Wilson to Truman as well as French, German and – of course – British prime ministers. “He was a statesman without a state,” as Reinharz puts it. “Ben-Gurion couldn’t even get through the front door of the State Department.”

His biggest achievement was the Balfour Declaration. Not just the fact of it – although without Weizmann’s persuasive friendship with Balfour it simply would not have happened – but rather how it was perceived: “It was not a declaration. It was a letter to Lord Rothschild. It was a similar kind of letter that the British wrote to lots of people – to the Armenians, to the Kurds, to the Arabs. Lots of countries wrote these kind of letters – Germany did, even Japan. Weizmann took that letter and made it a declaration. He made it so that for 30 years this letter was something that obligated Britain to the Zionist cause. He made the British believe that this was an obligation, that they could not, in an honourable fashion, abrogate. And the British bought it! They really did believe it was an obligation.”

All of which begs the question: given Weizmann’s central – indeed pivotal – role in the creation of Israel, why is he not lauded in the same way now as Herzl or Ben-Gurion? Reinharz offers two reasons. First, he was a loner, with a penchant for kicking people out of his circle if they stepped out of line. That meant that there was no Weizmann party when Israel was established, and so “when he died, there was no one to continue the legacy”. But more than that, he was on bad terms with Ben-Gurion. “He mistreated Ben-Gurion. They came from a totally different background. Weizmann was very British. He saw himself as British. He dressed like a Brit, he was accepted as British. He was an unusual figure within these circles. Ben-Gurion paid him back. If you look at the Declaration of Independence, there is a space left for Weizmann, who was in Switzerland at the time, to sign. But when he came to Palestine to do so, Ben-Gurion wouldn’t let him. So Weizmann’s signature is not on the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel, even though without him there would be no state.”

That absence is symbolic of how Weizmann’s role has been seen – or not seen – since his death in 1952. But with this new biography, hopefully there will, at last, be a recognition of this fascinating, huge and key figure’s place at the heart of the story of Israel.

Chaim Weizmann: A Biography is out now (Brandeis University Press, £32)

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