by Michael Cohen
Born to Ezer & Rachel=Leah in Motol in the Pale (now Belarus), one of 15 children, from an early age he was conscious of Jewish persecution and the need for a Jewish homeland. His early education was at the local cheder and when 11 he attended a scientific gymnasium in Pinsk which shaped his twin lifetime passions for Zionism and Chemistry. Being barred from Russian higher education he went first to the Darmstadt Polytechnic in Germany and later Berlin and obtain his doctorate in Freiburg, Switzerland in 1899.
Disappointed to miss the first Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897 (because of a travel issue) he attended 20 subsequent meeting missing only the 1933 Congress. He was a respected associate of Herzl although separated by political views (Weizmann was a lifelong socialist) at the 1903 Congress there was a serious schism since Herzl was enthusiastic about the British proposal for a Jewish “enclave” in Uganda whilst Weizmann was determined to establish a Jewish State in Palestine. Deciding to investigate the Uganda question Weizmann resolved to come to England and in 1904 he was recruited as a demonstrator at the Victoria University of Manchester (later to become UMIST). He was already an important figure in the world Zionist establishment and Manchester soon became the centre of Zionist activity in England.
Call it fate or coincidence, Weizmann’s local MP was Alfred Balfour and in 1906 they met and Weizmann was able to convince Balfour that Palestine was the only choice for a Jewish homeland. He had established close friendships in the area with the Sieff and Marks families and Harry Sacher a journalist on the Manchester Guardian which gave him access to the editor CP Scott.
At the 10th Zionist Congress of 1911 Weizmann was finally admitted into the inner circle of policy making and he began his life-long ambition – the creation of a Jewish University. He was adamant it should be a world-class institution and Ehrlich; a Nobel prize winner gave Weizmann much support in this venture as did Albert Einstein.
At the outbreak of war in 1914 Weizmann met with Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Herbert Samuel (the first professing Jew to be a member of the Government) through the offices of CP Scott to win approval for a Jewish National Home coupled with another Jewish cause – the formation of a Jewish Fighting Force, based on the original idea of Valdimir Jabotinsky (and Pinchas Ruttenberg), to fight the Turks who were allies of Germany.
His scientific research had made him the foremost authority on Industrial fermentation and in 1915 he was appointed Director of British Admiralty’s laboratories. He used his knowledge of fermentation to harness the bacterium Clostridium (acetobutylicum) to synthesise Acetone an essential ingredient in the manufacture of cordite, the explosives propellant which replaced gunpowder.
In 1917 Weizmann wrote to the Foreign Office outlining the extent of worldwide support for the Zionist cause not only in the USA but in Germany and Austria based on newspaper articles, cumulating in October when the US President Wilson publicly supported the principle of Palestine as a National Home for the Jewish People. At the same time the Cabinet met to discuss this issue with Weizmann waiting in the corridor and Mark Sykes (who together with Leopold Amery) had penned the original declaration addressed to Lord Rothschild, rushed out to tell him “it’s a boy”. Thus, was born the famous Balfour Declaration.
Following Allenby entry into Jerusalem in December 1917 and supported by 3 battalions of the Jewish Brigade the Turkish army was removed from the Middle East in 9 months. Weizmann, invited by H.M. Government to lead a Zionist commission in March 1918 was presented to King George V before departure. During his 5 months stay he met with the Hashemite Emir Feisal, arranged by General Allenby who later communicated to Balfour that both parties were in agreement about “sincere cooperation”, he also laid the cornerstones of the Hebrew University. Weizmann returned from Palestine in October 1918 and was hailed by the thousands of Jews who met him at Victoria Station and millions of Jews around the world as the spokesman for the reborn nation. In 1919 during the Peace Conference Weizmann signed an accord with Emir Feisal penned by Col. T.E. Lawrence “to encourage and facilitate the immigration of Jews into Palestine and the close collaboration between the Arab states and the Jews of Palestine”. Although recognised as the world leader of the Zionist cause he was only confirm as President of the WZO in 1921.
The 1920’s saw the emergence of Arab nationalism fuelled by el Hussseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem with Jews being massacred in Jaffa, Hebron, Jerusalem etc. and the appointment of anti-Zionist Lord Passfield (Sidney Webb) as Colonial Secretary who reversed the principles of the Balfour declaration. Weizmann rose to the occasion marshalling powerful and influential figures in politics and public opinion. Including Stanley Baldwin, General Smuts, Lord Reading, Lord Melchett, Lloyd George etc. which led to a debate in the H of P resulting in a reverse of the Passfield action and an indication that the British public were not prepared to reverse British Policy in the face of intimidation and violence.
Having resigned from leadership of the WZO in 1931 as a protest against the policies of the Ramsey MacDonald Government towards the Jews and Palestine, the emergence of the NAZI party in Germany and the anti-Semitism it spewed saw an appeal to Weizmann to return to the leadership of the organisation. He then set about attempting to rescue Jews from Germany, organising meetings, writing letters, and rallying support. In fact, in 1933 Lloyd George states about Weizmann “… I have met a great many interesting people but I don’t know anyone whom I have greater respect than Chaim Weizmann. He is the greatest man the Jews have thrown up in the past 1000 years”.
At the WZO congress of 1935 Weizmann was concerned that the British Government was again reversing it attitude towards the Balfour declaration This was confirmed in 1939 following a round-table conference at St. James’s which conceded that an Arab state would be established in Palestine and Jewish immigration would be severely limited and in May of that year the “White Paper” was published, thus, annulling the Balfour Declaration.
During the 1939-45 war Weizmann returned to the laboratory looking to synthesis rubber whilst at the same time attempting to persuade the Government to create a “Jewish Desert Unit “to fight the Germans. When the USA entered the war in 1941 Weizmann was seconded to the USA to help them synthesis rubber and develop high octant aviation fuel. He returned to the UK in 1943 and in 1944 Churchill agreed to the formation of a Jewish Brigade. In 1944, he was again in Palestine and as a 70th birthday present the Daniel Sieff Research Institute was renames the Weizmann Institute of Science.
In 1945 with the war over and Churchill out of office, Ernest Bevin was appointed Foreign Secretary and he refused to withdraw the infamous White Paper of 1939. At the 1946 WZO congress, a tired, weary, sick 72-year-old man who had carried the weight of Jewish aspiration for almost 50 years was heckled from the floor and congress rejected his proposals for restraint. Although out of office in 1947 he was still summoned by the UN Special Committee on Palestine to give evidence on the future fate of Palestine. In his capacity as Jewry’s elder statesman he toured the Western world to gather support for a Jewish state and on 29th November 1947 the General Assembly approved the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. That night he attended a rally in New York and he was carried into the hall on the shoulders of supporters as they sang the “Hatikvah”.
On 13th May 1948 a telegram signed by David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, David Remez and Eliezer Kaplan declaring the establishment of the State of Israel and sent to Weizmann concluded “we look forward to the day when we shall greet you at the head of State, established in peace”.
At his 75th birthday celebration in London General Smuts compared Chaim Weizmann to the great Jewish leaders, Moses and David – scientist, great Zionist, indomitable leader who, after his people had all but been wiped-out in the greatest purge in history, assembled the remnants, led them back to the homeland in the face of the heaviest opposition and welded them once more into a sovereign State amongst nations”.
He died on 9th November 1952 aged 78 and is buried in the grounds of the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot where is wife Vera is also buried.