“It must be difficult to be the chosen one of the chosen people.”
Albert Einstein in a letter to Chaim Weizmann, October 1923
Short life history: Chaim Weizmann
* November 27, 1874 in Motol, near Pinsk (Republic of Belarus), † November 9, 1952 in Rechovot, Israel
Chaim Weizmann, whose name is inseparably connected with the foundation of the state of Israel, was born as the third of fifteen children of the Jewish couple Oizer and Rachel Weizmann in Motol, near Pinsk (Republic of Belarus) on November 27, 1874. His father was a timber dealer. Aged four he visited the traditional “cheder”, a Jewish elementary school for boys aged four plus. As 11-year-old he changed to grammar school in Pinsk, where he graduated in 1892. In the years at grammar school his talent for science, here especially for chemistry, was already visible. As Russian universities only permitted a limited number of Jews for studying, he went to Germany to begin his chemistry studies in Darmstadt at the Polytechnical Institute in the same year. After some terms he changed to the Royal Technical College in Berlin, continued his studies and began working on his dissertation. In Berlin he joined a circle of Zionist intellectuals, who were especially thrilled by the appearance of the author and politician Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) as well as of his vision of a Jewish state. Herzl was considered founder of political Zionism, the aims of which he had written down in his publication „Der Judenstaat (The Concept of Israel)“ in 1896. During the first Zionist world congress in Basle in 1897 – Weizmann did not participate – Herzl was elected first president of the Zionist World Organization (WZO).
Weizmann continued his studies at the university of the Swiss city of Freiburg in 1897. In this time his belief in the ideas of Zionism intensified. He received a doctor’s degree in chemistry at the University of Freiburg summa cum laude in 1899. He was delegate at the second Zionist congress in that year. Weizmann became professor for biochemistry at the University of Geneva in 1901. The first patents were granted for his scientific work. He became a famous personality in the Zionist movement. As he no longer agreed with everything that occurred under Herzl’s leadership, he supported the foundation of the “Demokratische Fraktion” within the Zionist Organization. The Hebrew culture was especially close to his heart. Thus he already demanded the foundation of a Hebrew University as spiritual center of Zionism in this time. However, more and more often he asked himself: chemistry or Zionism?
Weizmann followed a call to the University of Manchester in 1904. He married Vera Khatzmann in England in 1906. With her he had two sons, Benjamin and Michael. Through his work in the Zionist movement he had the opportunity to persuade the British Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour (1848-1930) of the idea of Zionism. Weizmann became British citizen and supported the British warfare as chemist during World War I. He succeeded in developing a new synthesis for acetone effected by enzymes. Due to his engagement and his political influence during the years of war he significantly participated in the establishment of the Balfour declaration dated November 2, 1917, in which the British government assured the Zionist movement its support. In a letter of the British foreign minister A. J. Balfour to the Zionist leader Lord Rothschild (1868-1937), the foundation of a „national homestead“ for the Jews in Palestine was promised. Due to his successful work, Weizmann became chairman of the Zionist Commission in 1918 and was sent to Palestine by the British government. Hoping for Jewish-Arabian cooperation, he met with the leader of the Arabian nationalists, Emir Faisal I (1883-1933). However, due to the further development in Palestine these hopes were very quickly torn apart. One of the climaxes of this journey was the laying of the cornerstone for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, whose co-founder he was. However, the university was only opened on April 1, 1925. As leader of the Zionist delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, Weizmann forced the British mandate over Palestine at the League of Nations in 1919. Together with Emir Faisal I he signed the Faisal-Weizmann Agreement. He quit British civil service in the same year. At the London Zionist Conference he was elected president of the Zionist World Organization (WZO) in 1920, an office, which he in fact already held. He held this office until 1931. Four years later he was re-elected. This time his term of office lasted until 1946.
Chaim Weizmann and Albert Einstein met for the first time in 1921. Together they traveled to the US in April to collect money for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Kurt Blumenfeld (1884-1963), one of the leading German-Jewish Zionists, who had prepared Einstein for the journey, said to Weizmann shortly before the journey: „Einstein is, as you know, no Zionist and I also ask you not to make any attempt to move him to join our organization.“ Also later Einstein never became a member of a Zionist organization.
With dislike Weizmann accepted the Churchill-White Paper concerning the geopolitical agreement in the Middle East in 1922. In this paper the British responsibility towards a national Jewish homestead in Palestine was newly determined. The British government did not wish that Palestine „becomes as Jewish like England is English“. The White Paper confirmed among other things the right of the Jews for immigration; however, under the condition that immigration should not exceed the economic potential of the country. Weizmann was elected head of the Jewish Agency in 1929, an institution, which represented the interests of the Jews living in Palestine towards the British mandate power.
Coming from London, Weizmann visited Albert Einstein together with Lola Hahn-Warburg, the daughter of the Hamburg banker Max Warburg, in his summer house in Caputh on Wednesday, October 7, 1931. Also the lawyer Charles Rosenbloom and his mother Celia from Pittsburgh, USA, visited Einstein on this day.
Weizmann spoke at an event of the Berlin Zionist Organization for Germany, in the sold-out Bachsaal in Lützowstraße in Berlin about the topic „Jewish question and Zionism“ some days later, on Saturday, October 10.
In the following years Weizmann again dedicated himself more and more to his scientific work. After the Arabian rebellions in Palestine, Great Britain published the Passfield White Paper in 1930. In this paper Passfield (1859-1947) demanded the foundation of a legal body and supported the results of the Hope Simpson Report about the availability and cultivation of soil. What concerned the controversial question of immigration, the White Paper argued against a generous policy towards the Zionists. The Zionist movement subsequently organized a campaign against the White Paper. The British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937) promised Chaim Weizmann in a letter published in February 1931 to rescind the White Paper in principal. This letter made Weizmann take up his office as president of the Zionist organization again, which he had put down shortly before. He was not re-elected in the next elections for president in 1931. In the following time he travelled among other countries to the US and to South America to collect money for the Zionist matter. He also very intensively dedicated himself to the salvation of Jewish refugees from Germany. He tried to accommodate the saved Jewish scientists in Sieff Institute in Rechovot (Israel), founded by friends in 1934. At an extraordinary meeting of the Executive Committee of the Hebrew University he demanded the examination of the education and research possibilities for Jewish scientists in 1933. He was re-elected president of WZO in 1935 and kept this office until 1946.
Despite his pleas, the MacDonald White Paper, which almost completely took back the promises given in the Balfour Declaration of 1917, was published in May 1939. The White Paper determined British policy in Palestine until 1947.
At the 21st Zionist congress in Geneva all hope for a national Jewish homestead seemed lost. In his closing speech Weizmann said: „It is getting dark around us. […] if we, as I hope, are spared, and our work can be continued, who knows, maybe there will be a new light shining on us out of the dark. […]“
After World War II had begun, Weizmann assured the British government the support of the Jewish citizens of Palestine as well as the Jews on the whole. During the war he researched among other things on highly compressed gasoline and on the area of artificial rubber. Together with David Ben Gurion (1886-1973) he began to promote a Jewish state in Palestine during the war in the US. Last but not least this promotion led to a quick approval of the state of Israel by the US. After the end of the war he suffered from a health breakdown. He was not re-elected president of WZO on the 22nd Zionist congress in 1946. Nevertheless he remained one of its most important speakers. The Palestine question was transferred to the United Nations in 1947 and under the impression of the holocaust it was decided to split the land up. Subsequently the British announced their plan to give up the Palestine mandate. Weizmann spoke in front of the Komitee für Palästina (Committee for Palestine) of the United Nations for the Jewish national matter in October 1947.
He discussed the importance of the establishment of the Jewish state with the American president Harry Truman (1884-1972) in March 1948. His efforts undoubtedly led to a quicker approval of the state of Israel by the US. He was appointed president of the “Provisorischen Staatsrates” (Provisional Privy Council) already some weeks later on May 17. The following event took place on February 16, 1949: Chaim Weizmann was elected first president of the state of Israel by the “Verfassungsgebende Versammlung” (Constituent Assembly). David Ben Gurion became prime minister and defence minister. In November the Sieff Institute in Rechovot, which was founded in 1934, was renamed into The Weizmann Institute of Science, a private university for theoretical and applied sciences.
Cardiac Weizmann was re-elected for a second period of office in 1951. Chaim Weizmann died almost one year later in Rechovot on November 9, 1952. He was buried in the garden of his house, which today is part of the Weizmann Institute. He left his wife Vera and his older son Benjamin. Michael, his younger son, had died in World War II. After Weizmann’s death, David Ben Gurion proposed Albert Einstein as new president, however, he rejected to follow Weizmann. The Israeli politician Jitzchak Ben Zwi (1884-1963) was elected second president of the state of Israel.