January 27, 1905
Weizmann, newly arrived in England, introduced by Charles Dreyfus to Conservative Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour
January 9, 1906
Weizmann holds conversation with Balfour on Zionism
Chaim Weizmann makes first visit to Palestine Arrives in Jaffa. He returned to England on 10 October 1907
Nahum Sokolow arrives in England as member of Zionist Executive. He and Weizmann form strong partnership
September 16, 1914
Weizmann writes telling Ahad Ha'am that Manchester “Guardian” editor C.P. Scott is willing to champion Zionism
November 22, 1914
“Guardian” editor C.P. Scott writes to Weizmann: "There are so few people who have the courage of an ideal and at the same time the insight and energy which make it possible"
November 29, 1914
C.P. Scott to Weizmann: I saw Lloyd George on Friday and spoke about the Palestine question. It was not new to him, as he had been reading the “New Statesman” and talking to Herbert Samuel
December 10, 1914
Chaim Weizmann meets Herbert Samuel in London
December 11, 1914
Chaim Weizmann meets Arthur Balfour who is now a member of the War Council
December 14, 1914
Weizmann writes to Ahad Ha'am about the interview with Balfour, who admired Weizmann's assertiveness on Zionism
December 28, 1914
Chaim Weizmann meets Baron Edmond de Rothschild in Paris
December 31, 1914
Zionist leaders Nahum Sokolow and Jehiel Tschlenow in London join forces with Weizmann
January 11, 1915
Herbert Samuel to Chaim Weizmann: "Mr. Lloyd George… would be very glad if you would breakfast with him next Friday"
January 15, 1915
Weizmann and Samuel breakfast with Lloyd George
Weizmann meets Balfour in March.
March 21, 1915
Weizmann writes to Samuel about C.P. Scott's view that "events are shaping in favour of a British Palestine"
Lloyd George interviews Weizmann for position in Ministry of Munitions; he is tasked with developing economical way to produce acetone
December 1, 1915
Weizmann writes to C.P. Scott saying his position in munitions ministry becoming untenable and his experiments mishandled
Weizmann at Mrs. Waldorf Astor's luncheon; sees Balfour
August 17, 1916
Weizmann meets British Jewish figure Lucian Wolf at the home of James de Rothschild; accepts he will not win Wolf over to the Zionist cause
January 28, 1917
Weizmann meets Sykes accompanied by “Jewish Chronicle” editor Leopold Greenberg and James Malcolm, who is campaigning on behalf of the Armenians
January 28, 1917
Weizmann meets Mark Sykes for the first time
February 7, 1917
Meeting with Sykes at home of Moses Gaster; attending are Zionist leaders Herbert Samuel, Weizmann, Sokolow, Lord Rothschild, James de Rothschild, Joseph Cowen, Harry Sacher and Herbert Bentwich
February 10, 1917
Sykes, Sokolow and Weizmann meet at Sykes’s residence to review the situation.
February 10, 1917
Weizmann and Sokolow discuss the latter's meeting with Picot
February 11, 1917
Weizmann elected president of the English Zionist Federation. James de Rothschild pledges 500 pounds.
February 11, 1917
C.P. Scott writes to Weizmann that Foreign Office is pessimistic about French willingness to renounce claims to Palestine
March 13, 1917
Chaim Weizmann breakfasts with C.P. Scott; asks for help in getting to see Lloyd George
March 20, 1917
Weizmann to C.P. Scott: "The Zionist negotiations with Sir Mark Sykes are entering upon their final stages…"
March 22, 1917
Weizmann has serious practical talk with Balfour, now Foreign Minister, on Zionism and a possible French or American role in Palestine
April 3, 1917
Lloyd George tells Weizmann and C.P. Scott that the British Army's advance into Palestine was the one really interesting part of the war
April 4, 1917
Sykes to Weizmann: Be ready to leave London for Egypt as soon as Gaza Strip is captured from Turks
April 4, 1917
Weizmann writes to Sokolow that Lloyd George is "emphatic on the point of British Palestine"
April 8, 1917
Weizmann writes Brandeis updates him on meetings with Balfour and Lloyd George asks he lobby US to support Zionism
April 19, 1917
Sokolow writes Weizmann about meeting with French. "I was told they accept in principle the recognition of Jewish nationality in terms of a national home, local autonomy..."
April 20, 1917
Armenian lobbyist James Malcolm writes to Weizmann
April 23, 1917
Weizmann sends a memorandum to Philip Henry Kerr, a member of Lloyd George's secretariat.
April 25, 1917
Lord Robert Cecil, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, tells Weizmann he would like to see world Jewry speak out for British control in Palestine
In June 1917, Balfour asks Weizmann to submit a draft of a British government declaration on Palestine that would be satisfactory to the Zionists.
June 19, 1917
In a meeting with Chaim Weizmann and Lord Rothschild, Balfour promises a formal declaration of support for the Zionist venture.
September 21, 1917
Weizmann meets with Gen. Jan Smuts, War Cabinet member, who supported the Zionist cause
September 24, 1917
Brandeis cables London that President Wilson is sympathetic to the Zionist project
November 2, 1917
Balfour Declaration issued: Britain promises a national home for the Jews in Palestine
November 2, 1917
At an impromptu dinner party at the Weizmann residence Chaim Weizmann, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, and Tolkowsky do a Hassidic dance around the table in Weizmann's study.
April 1, 1918
Zionist Commission, led by Chaim Weizmann, arrives in Palestine
April 11, 1918
Weizmann meets two Muslim leaders in Jerusalem, Ismail Bey al-Husseini and Kamel Bey al-Husseini.
May 24, 1918
Weizmann meets General Edmund Allenby and presents him with a Torah scroll.
June 4, 1918
Chaim Weizmann meets Feisal in Aqaba
June 12, 1918
Weizmann returns to Cairo to meet Lawrence of Arabia
July 24, 1918
Chaim Weizmann and General Allenby participate in cornerstone-laying ceremony at Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem
November 2, 1918
Zionists around the world celebrate first anniversary of Balfour Declaration
January 3, 1919
Weizmann meets Feisal in London prior to Paris Peace Conference
January 17, 1919
Newspapers report Weizmann meeting Woodrow Wilson on sidelines of the year-long Paris Peace Conference
August 1919 – Weizmann and Brandeis meet in London. Discuss and disagree about structure and operation of Jewish Agency
December 11, 1919
Weizmann meets Faisal in London
April 2, 1921
Albert Einstein visits US with Chaim Weizmann on a fundraising tour for Hebrew University
September 1, 1921
Weizmann becomes new President of the WZO at the 12th Zionist Congress (the first since World War I) which meets in Carlsbad, Czechoslovakia
Jabotinsky resigns from Executive to protest Weizmann's soft line vis-a-vis British refusal to formalize Zionist national council in Palestine
In 1924, Weizmann opposes urban development in Palestine, apparently referring to places such as ultra-Orthodox B'nei Brak, founded in May
January 17, 1927
Chaim Weizmann and US Jewish non-Zionist leader Louis Marshall of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) meet about strengthening ties between Diaspora and Zionists
March 19, 1930
Arthur James Balfour dies in Woking. Weizmann is among the last to see him
November 15, 1938
Weizmann sees Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain asks that 10,000 Jewish children be allowed to enter Palestine PM says no
December 11, 1939
Weizmann meets First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill in London
Chaim Weizmann in US for war effort March 1941
In November, Weizmann appeals to British to create Jewish fighting force
November 4, 1944
Weizmann meets Churchill, who says he supports creation of Jewish state
May 16, 1948
Chaim Weizmann elected Chairman of the Provisional State Council of Israel. David Ben-Gurion is prime minister
February 17, 1949
Weizmann elected president
Difficult things take a long time, the impossible takes a little longer.
Through his relentless political lobbying, statesmanship and personal magnetism, Chaim Weizmann is credited with bringing about the Balfour Declaration. He became the first President of the State of Israel.
When our adversaries say today: 'You have no right to come to Palestine; you are intruders,' our reply is: Our construction work of the last 50 years is the expression of what the Jewish people feels and thinks about Palestine… Every Jew has a right to return to his home, and neither British police nor Arab terrorists will be able to bar the way….
He became convinced that Britain was key to Zionist aspirations
Weizmann was born on November 27, 1874 in western Russia, in a shtetl called Motol outside Pinsk in what is today Belarus. He was the third of 15 children (three of whom died in infancy) born to parents Oizer and Rachel. The family, whose economic circumstances fluctuated, was observant and Weizmann received a traditional religious education in cheder before going on to high school. By age 11 he had begun to think of himself as a Zionist.
Weizmann maintained that contemporary Zionism preceded Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, and that the persecution of the Jews in Europe was not its true catalyst. Zionism’s true roots, he believed, were ancient, embedded in “the yearning of the Jewish people for its homeland, for a national centre and a national life.”
In 1892 Weizmann left the confines of the Russian Empire, where a quota or “numerus clausus” limited how many Jews could obtain a place in the higher education system. He attended college in Germany.
“I was in my second year in Berlin,” he wrote later, when he was living in England, “when in 1896 Theodor Herzl published his tract, now a classic of Zionism, Der Judenstaat – The Jewish State.” By then Weizmann was already active in Zionist affairs and had come under the influence of Ahad Ha’Am (1856-1927). So while the Zionist idea was hardly new to him, Herzl’s personality, drive and charisma were a draw. Weizmann was struck by the fact that Herzl, an acculturated journalist from a Viennese milieu so different from his own earthy Russian Jewish one, cared so much about the Jewish future. “The very fact that this Westerner came to us unencumbered by our own preconceptions had its appeal.”
Weizmann missed the First Zionist Congress of 1897 but attended the Second Congress in 1898. Meanwhile, he earned a doctorate in chemistry from Fribourg University in Switzerland.
As an ideological movement Zionism had its factions. Herzl wanted to focus on diplomacy—on building a legal, diplomatic and political basis for the Jewish return to Palestine. Weizmann was part of Ahad Ha’Am’s “cultural Zionist” camp, which wanted to concentrate energies on making Palestine the spiritual, cultural and educational capital of Jewish civilization. Thus in Ha’Am’s view the focus needed to be on institution-building—for example, by creating a Hebrew university in Jerusalem.
The ruthless, periodically murderous, persecution of Russian Jews led in 1903 to the floating of a British government proposal to provide Eastern European Jews with a safe haven in Africa—in today’s Kenya, then British Uganda. With Palestine firmly under Turkish Ottoman control, it was a stopgap measure. Herzl was willing to present the proposal as an interim solution to the Zionist Congress. Weizmann was vehement in his opposition, and in doing so established a reputation as a young man willing to stand up even to Herzl.
On July 3, 1904, Herzl died at the age of 44, leaving the movement devastated.
In the same year Weizmann left Geneva, where he had been living, to settle in Britain and make a new start. “My flight to England, in 1904, was a deliberate and desperate step… I was in danger of being eaten up by Zionism, with no benefit either to my scientific career or to Zionism.”
The 27-year-old Weizmann had first crossed paths with 17-year-old Vera Khatzman in the late autumn of 1900 at the Jewish Club in Geneva. Breaking away from her domineering parents in Rostov, Russia, she was in Geneva to study medicine. Vera attended a chemistry tutorial for Russian students that Chaim —at the time engaged to another woman, Sophia Getzova—was giving at the club. His Jewish background was deeply rooted; she had very little attachment to her Jewish culture. Nonetheless, the two were drawn to one another. Vera became part of Chaim’s Zionist circle and they eventually became a couple. When Weizmann took up a post at Manchester University in 1905, Vera remained in Geneva to complete her studies.
My flight to England, in 1904, was a deliberate and desperate step… I was in danger of being eaten up by Zionism, with no benefit either to my scientific career or to Zionism.
Fateful meeting with Balfour
On January 24, 1905 Weizmann wrote to Vera: “Tonight I am going to a meeting at which Balfour, the Prime Minister, will speak. Perhaps I shall succeed in having a word with him—though I doubt it.”
Later, he reported to Vera on the Manchester gathering, where a mutual friend, Charles Dreyfus, made the historic Balfour-Weizmann introduction:
“I went yesterday to Balfour’s meeting and talked to him about Zionism: not for long, only five minutes, but he promised me that when I was in London he would give me a chance to talk to him at greater length and in more detail.”
Vera graduated from medical school and the couple married in a modest ceremony outside Danzig, Germany, in 1906.
Their son Benjamin was born in 1907. Vera, who already spoke four languages, now had to learn English. In due course she was appointed a Manchester public health physician and worked with the city’s poorer population.
I went yesterday to Balfour's meeting and talked to him about Zionism: not for long, only five minutes, but he promised me that when I was in London he would give me a chance to talk to him at greater length and in more detail.
Newspaper editor C.P. Scott
It was thanks to Vera that Weizmann met Charles Prestwich Scott, the 67-year-old editor of the Manchester Guardian. Towards the end of 1913, Vera wrote: “Chaim and I were invited to another afternoon [tea] ritual, this time in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Eckhard. She was the chairman of the clinic for mothers in which I served as medical officer… Chaim and I went to this tea without an inkling that it would mark a momentous turning point in Chaim’s political career and, indeed, in the fortunes of the Zionist movement.”
Scott’s support for the Zionist cause was instrumental in bringing about the Balfour Declaration because of the editor’s close relationship with Lloyd George. As Vera recalled in her memoir, Scott invited Weizmann to a breakfast in London with Lloyd George, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, in December 1914.
It was there that Weizmann also met Herbert Samuel, who was Jewish, and discovered that unlike some in the British Jewish establishment he had a positive attitude towards Zionism. Samuel was a member of the Cabinet and early on in World War I he had presented Prime Minister Herbert Asquith (1852-1928) with a memorandum arguing that Britain should establish a Jewish state in Palestine once the Ottomans were ousted.
For her part, in 1916 Vera began to keep a diary recording events in what amounted to her own political salon. Besides being integral to her husband’s efforts to promote the Zionist enterprise, she was a co-founder of the Women’s Zionist Organization.
Weizmann, meanwhile, had been elected to the decision-making General Zionist Council and, by and by, become an Anglophile. Indeed, early on in his Zionist career he became convinced that Britain was key to Zionist aspirations.
Meeting Balfour again
A further turning point presented itself in 1906, when Weizmann had a second chance meeting in Manchester with Prime Minister Balfour, who was on an election campaign. They got to talking about why Zionists had rejected a safe haven in Africa and Weizmann offered some perspective: “Jerusalem was the capital of our country when London was a marsh.” There was no substitute for Palestine—not even temporarily. That was when Balfour became intrigued by the Zionist idea.
Weizmann joined up with a group of the best and brightest London and Mancunian Zionists, among them Leonard Stein, who would go on to write the definitive book about the Balfour Declaration, and lawyers Harry Sacher and Herbert Bentwich.
Weizmann's approach to Zionism
In 1907, Weizmann told the Eighth Zionist Congress at The Hague that there needed to be a synthesis between practical resettlement efforts in Palestine, the kind he and his mentor Ahad Ha’Am advocated, and the diplomatic overtures to world powers that Herzl had been known for. “The governments of the world will pay attention to us only as they become convinced that we are capable of conquering Palestine through persistent practical work,” he said.
Weizmann visits Palestine
From the Eighth Congress, Weizmann made his way to Palestine for the first time.
“A dolorous country it was on the whole, one of the most neglected corners of the miserably neglected Turkish Empire,” he would recall.
On the Arab question, this was his assessment in 1913: “It is our task… to explain to the Arabs that there is enough room in Palestine for us as well as for them.”
In 1920 he wrote: “We must be on the best terms with the Arabs of Palestine, because that is the condition of a healthy society of our own and good relations with the Arab world outside Palestine.”
Writing in 1923, he was adamant that the Jews were not coming to Palestine as conquerors or to dominate anybody, but as builders. They would build a common homeland in which Arabs would be integral. At the same time he did not flinch from making explicit the inalienable right of the Jewish people to return.
The First World War
When World War I erupted in August 1914, Weizmann, now 40, was established in his academic career, but his formal status in the Zionist movement had lapsed. This did not stop him from seizing the initiative when the opportunity presented itself.
As head of the British Admiralty Laboratories from 1917 to 1919, he was engaged in scientific work for the war effort, inventing a process to produce the synthetic acetone needed for explosives. In this role he hobnobbed with the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, and with Lloyd George.
When the Liberal Prime Minister H. H. Asquith resigned in 1916, his fellow Liberal, Lloyd George—who had served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and then, briefly, as Minister of Munitions—took over. Balfour was appointed Foreign Secretary.
By now, Weizmann was firmly established as Zionism’s preeminent lobbyist and statesman in England even though, organizationally, Nahum Sokolow (1859-1936), who had been assigned by the movement to its London bureau, was his senior. The two closely collaborated in pressing for Britain to embrace the Zionist cause.
Zionism's main opponents
The main opposition to their efforts came from the “assimilationist” camp—British Jewish opponents of Zionism who basically comprised the entire Jewish leadership, which was centered in the Conjoint Committee and the Board of Deputies of British Jews.
The pro-Zionist camp included Chief Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hertz (1872-1946), the head of the Sephardi community Haham Rabbi Dr. Moses Gaster (1856-1939) and, crucially, the philanthropist Lord Lionel Walter Rothschild (1868–1937).
The Zionists met in London on February 17, 1917 to plan strategy, which amounted to advocating that Britain take possession of Palestine after the war and for the British government to commit to facilitating a Jewish homeland.
After intense behind-the-scenes lobbying for and against, on November 2, 1917 Lloyd George’s war cabinet agreed on a policy which was relayed by Foreign Minister Balfour to Lord Rothschild for transmittal to the Zionist movement:
“His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object….”
Weizmann and Emir Feisal
Weizmann, now the undisputed leader of the Zionist cause outside Palestine, chaired the Zionist Commission for Palestine. During his 1918 tour of Palestine as Commission chair, he met with Emir Feisal, the son of Hussein of Mecca, in the Gulf of Aqaba or Eilat in June 1918 (World War I would not be over until November 11).
Feisal was prepared to make an alliance with the Zionists so long as the British delivered on their promise to turn Syria and Iraq over to the Arabs.
Weizmann writes: “This first meeting in the desert laid the foundation of a lifelong friendship. I met the Emir several times afterwards in Europe and our negotiations crystallized into an agreement, drawn up by Colonel Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and signed by the Emir and myself….”
Balfour Declaration adopted by the international community
Weizmann led the Zionist delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in Versailles, which commenced in January 1919 although it concluded only in January 1920.
Notably, on March 3, 1919 Feisal wrote to Felix Frankfurter, a member of the American Zionist delegation to the Paris talks: “We feel that the Arabs and Jews are cousins in race, suffering similar oppressions at the hands of powers stronger than themselves and by a happy coincidence have been able to take the first step towards the attainment of their national ideals together.”
The 1917 Balfour Declaration was officially adopted by the international community, first at the April 1920 San Remo Conference, which incorporated the Declaration, and then by the League of Nations when it granted Britain the Palestine Mandate on July 24, 1922.
Many years later Weizmann lamented in his memoirs how regrettable it was that the Emir had not been able to “unite the Arab world” but had been “forced out of Syria and given the throne of Iraq. Then followed the rise of Ibn Saud, and the practical annihilation of the Hashemite family.”
We feel that the Arabs and Jews are cousins in race, suffering similar oppressions at the hands of powers stronger than themselves and by a happy coincidence have been able to take the first step towards the attainment of their national ideals together.
Institution and state building
Weizmann’s singular focus continued to be on nation-building. Speaking in Jerusalem on January 30, 1921 he said: “A state cannot be created by decree but by the forces of a people and in the course of generations; even if all the governments of the world gave us a country it would only be a gift of words. But if the Jewish people will go and build Palestine, the Jewish State will become a reality… a fact.”
One thing that distressed Weizmann deeply was that practically from the outset those British officials implementing the Mandate on the ground, and later those making policy in London did not adhere to the spirit of the Balfour Declaration.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Weizmann busied himself with building the infrastructure that would be needed for statehood. This included the opening of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem on April 1, 1925, with the guest of honour, Lord Balfour, declaring: “This occasion marks a great epoch in the history of the people who have made this little land of Palestine the seed ground of great religions, and who will look back to this day which we are celebrating as one of the great milestones in their future career.”
Five years later, on March 9, 1930, “Chaim Weizmann was the last visitor outside the family to see the dying statesman—it was a silent farewell, with Balfour too weak and the great Zionist too overcome to speak,” writes historian R.J.Q. Adams in his biography Balfour: The Last Grandee.
Alongside the process of nation-building, there were plenty of intramural struggles—ideological and personal—within the world Zionist movement and its many factions. Weizmann quarreled with Louis Brandeis over how the movement should be organized and financially supervised and an unhappy Brandeis quit the US movement. There were also disputes with Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the charismatic head of the Revisionist Party within Zionism and an old friend of Weizmann’s, over how the Jewish Agency (Palestinian Jewry’s quasi-governmental body) was to be structured.
British backtrack on Balfour
The Zionists became taken up with how to respond to British officials on the ground in Palestine who were perceived as diluting the spirit of the Balfour Declaration.
In the face of increasing Arab violence against the Jews of Palestine, especially in the years 1920, 1921 and 1929, stung by Britain’s refusal to implement the Mandate wholeheartedly and worn down by rows within the Zionist camp, Weizmann—identified as being too close to the British—was not elected head of the 1931 World Zionist Congress.
By 1935, however, the indispensible Weizmann was again piloting the movement.
In 1936, with a full-blown revolt by the Palestinian Arabs against the British under way, Weizmann spoke plainly and from the heart as he testified before a British Royal Commission of Inquiry headed by Lord Peel:
“We are a stiff-necked people and a people of long memory. We never forget. Whether it is our misfortune or whether it is our good fortune, we have never forgotten Palestine, and this steadfastness, which has preserved the Jew through the ages and through a career which is almost one long chain of inhuman suffering, is primarily due to some physiological or pathological attachment to Palestine.
“We have never forgotten it; we have never given it up. We have survived our Babylonian and Roman conquerors. The Roman Empire, which digested half of the civilized world, did not digest small Judea.
“And whenever they [Jews] once got a chance, the slightest chance, there they returned, there they created their literature, their villages, towns and communities. And if the Commission would take the trouble to study the post-Roman period of the Jews, and the life of the Jews in Palestine, they would find that there was not a single century in the nineteen centuries which have passed since the destruction of Palestine as a Jewish political entity, there was not a single century in which the Jews did not attempt to come back….
“When our adversaries say today: ‘You have no right to come to Palestine; you are intruders,’ our reply is: Our construction work of the last 50 years is the expression of what the Jewish people feels and thinks about Palestine… Every Jew has a right to return to his home, and neither British police nor Arab terrorists will be able to bar the way….”
Balfour unravels in favour of partition
But in 1937 Peel’s commission determined that Arab opposition had made the Mandate unworkable and recommended the partition of western Palestine, the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Previous to this, in 1922, the British had lopped off eastern Palestine—76 percent of the original Mandate—to create Transjordan for the Emir Abdullah.
And still the Zionists continued to build. In the 1930s Weizmann raised funds to create the Daniel Sieff Institute in Rehovot, today the Weizmann Institute of Science.
In 1937 Weizmann reluctantly advocated accepting Peel’s plan for the partition of Palestine and what would have amounted to a truncated Jewish homeland. The Palestinian Arab leadership, however, rejected the creation of a Jewish state within any boundaries.
Hitler and the Nazis
Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) came to power in January 1933. He initially wanted to force the Jews of Germany out of the country, but immigration quotas and outright barriers limited where European Jews could go. Under intense Palestinian Arab pressure the British closed the doors of Palestine ever more tightly.
Germany’s September 1939 invasion of Poland ignited World War II, and millions of Polish Jews fell under Hitler’s control.
On August 23, 1939, Hitler’s Nazi German and Stalin’s Communist Russia signed a non-aggression pact. Land would be traded, thereby putting even more Jews under Nazi jurisdiction.
On that same day, the Twenty-First Zionist Congress was meeting in Geneva in neutral Switzerland. A photograph of the Zionist Congress dais, snapped just after the news of the Hitler-Stalin pact broke, shows Weizmann and his colleague David Ben-Gurion.
In The Saga of Israel and Zionism (1986) Conor Cruise O’Brien picks up the photograph’s story:
“The copy before me shows twelve heads fully—four, including Weizmann, have a hand over their face or their head. Ben-Gurion, beside Weizmann, has his head bowed over his hands, which are crossed on his chest. They do not look like people who have just heard a piece of political news. They look like people who have heard a death sentence pronounced on members of their family.”
World War II years
Weizmann spent most of World War II (1939-1945) outside Palestine. Despite his good relationship with Churchill, including occasional wartime meetings, the British government kept Weizmann and the Zionists at arm’s length. Offers of scientific and military cooperation were mostly rebuffed.
As Hitler’s war against the Jews built up steam, the British authorities kept Palestine closed to Jewish asylum seekers. In February 1942 Weizmann in London personally protested Britain’s policy after 750 Jewish refugees from Romania aboard The Struma drowned at sea off Turkey, having been denied entry to Palestine.
Weizmann had travelled to the US in 1940 to call, along with Jabotinsky, for the creation of a Jewish Army to fight the Nazis and to raise funds, via the United Jewish Appeal, for the Zionist enterprise— specifically immigrant absorption, land purchases and the Hebrew University.
The US did not enter the war until December 7, 1941.
In March 1943 Weizmann addressed a protest rally of 20,000 at New York’s Madison Square Garden to denounce the ongoing Nazi atrocities against Europe’s Jews. Another 75,000 demonstrators were turned away, the JTA news service reported.
Nazi Germany, in its Arabic-language broadcasts, called Weizmann an “international criminal Jew” and “head of international Jewish gangs,” according to the JTA.
Weizmann’s pleas to the Jews and Arabs in Palestine to put aside their differences and unite against the Nazis were met with derision. “The Arabs will not be deceived by such Jewish English tricks and the Arabs will not allow a mean Jew to speak on their behalf,” German broadcasters taunted.
Indeed, in 1941 the leader of the Palestinian Arabs, Haj Amin al-Husseini, fled to Germany, where he parlayed with Hitler and other Nazi leaders. In addition to conducting Arabic-language propaganda broadcasts, he also helped to recruit Bosnian Muslim volunteers for the Nazi-SS forces.
For his Zionist critics, Weizmann had been permanently tarnished by his close identification with Britain. Perhaps unfairly, he was seen as too tolerant of the British backsliding on Balfour.
Like David Ben-Gurion, Weizmann denounced as immoral and counterproductive Jewish militant violence against British forces in Palestine by the Lehi or Stern Gang while the war was being waged. Jabotinsky’s Irgun did not in the main target British forces during the war. Under Ben-Gurion’s leadership the Haganah, the biggest Zionist underground force, allied with the British during the war.
Post-World War II frustration
By the time the Second World War officially ended on September 2, 1945 Weizmann was over 70 years old. The wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill was out of power, having been defeated by Clement Attlee’s Labour Party. And British policy towards Zionism remained solidly antagonistic. Holocaust survivors were blocked from entering Palestine; tens of thousands were housed in Displaced Persons camps in Germany.
Weizmann lobbied the Labour government to return to the spirit of the Balfour Declaration, to no avail. At the same time he continued to denounce armed opposition to Britain in Palestine by the Irgun and Stern Gang.
“No one understands better than I the state of mind out of which the recent events have come. Nevertheless, I deplore and disapprove of them, and urge that for the sake of our cause they should not recur. We have loyal friends on both sides of the ocean who firmly believe in the justice of our cause, and share our faith in the power of reason and justice. The overwhelming moral force of our cause must ultimately triumph.”
In June 1946, with no letup in Jewish terror against British targets, Weizmann criticized Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, whose policies he said promoted instability in Palestine. This did not mean, he emphasized, that he approved of Jewish violence. He decried the July 1946 bombing of the British military headquarters at the King David Hotel by the Irgun as an “unspeakable outrage.”
On the streets of Palestine Weizmann was received with appreciation. And yet, fairly or not, by 1946 his popularity had become ever more tainted by the harsh British policies towards Zionism. The Twenty-Second Zionist Congress in Basel removed him as its leader; he was not deemed the right one to lead the struggle against British policy.
Though he now held no official position in the Zionist hierarchy, Weizmann continued to meet with world leaders, including US President Harry S Truman, and he served as the chief Zionist spokesman before the United Nations.
His eyesight failing and his health frail, Weizmann made the Zionist case for the partition of Palestine into two states—one Arab and one Jewish—before the international community. His efforts were crowned with success when the UN General Assembly voted on November 29, 1947 for partition.
“The time will come,” he said in January 1948, “when Arabs and Jews will meet on common economic and cultural grounds.”
The time will come when Arabs and Jews will meet on common economic and cultural grounds.
War of Independence
The Palestinian Arabs and the greater Arab world rejected the General Assembly partition decision and mobilized to strangle the newborn Jewish state in its infancy. Britain’s pullout from Palestine was set for Friday, May 14, 1948.
That same day, Zionist leaders in Tel Aviv, led by Ben-Gurion, declared Israel’s independence. Weizmann was still in New York on Zionist business. The US granted Israel de facto recognition that very day. The Soviet Union was the first country to recognise Israel de jure on May 17, 1948.
Elected President of Israel
On May 16, 1948, with the country under military attack on all fronts, the provisional government elected Chaim Weizmann to the largely ceremonial position of state president. He sent word: “I dedicate myself to the service of the land and people in whose cause I have been privileged to labor these many years.”
Weizmann’s first order of business was to see US President Harry S Truman in a meeting facilitated by Edward Jacobson, Truman’s former business partner and friend, that took place on May 25. Weizmann appealed—unsuccessfully—for an end to the American arms embargo.
Chaim and Vera Weizmann were honoured with new Israeli passports—numbers one and two—issued by the Jewish state’s Foreign Ministry. That summer, Weizmann gave up his British passport.
His health continued to deteriorate; glaucoma had temporarily robbed him of his vision and he flew to Switzerland for special surgery.
On February 18, 1949, he was officially sworn in as Israel’s first president.
The New York Times, which did not support the Zionist idea, nonetheless editorialized: “Few men of our time have dreamed a dream so long and lived to see it fulfilled” as Weizmann had.
In May 1949 Israel’s first president was back in New York to address 250,000 supporters of the Jewish state at an outdoor meeting to mark the country’s first anniversary.
In August 1949, Weizmann was in Switzerland for medical treatment when Theodor Herzl’s remains were brought from Vienna to be reinterred on Mount Herzl. His message was read by Knesset Speaker Joseph Sprinzak: “Fortunate is the generation which has been privileged to implement the dream of its leader.”
August 1949 was also the date when most of the Arab states that had invaded Israel signed on to a UN-sponsored Armistice Agreement.
On November 2, another dream was realized: The Daniel Sieff Institute, which Weizmann founded, was renamed the Weizmann Institute of Science, with Weizmann declaring: “We live in a pioneering land. We are pioneers in settling desolate areas, in agriculture and in industry. Here in Rehovot we are involved in a pioneering act of a special kind: Pioneering in science.”
Weizmann’s health continued to deteriorate and he was limited—both physically and politically— in what he could do as president. Still, there were government coalition crises to resolve and diplomatic credentials to receive. He commuted the death sentences of Arabs charged with killing Jews. He received leaders of the country’s Arab community on the third anniversary of Israel’s creation. And on July 20, 1951, he was briefed on the assassination of King Abdullah of Jordan by a Palestinian Arab on the Temple Mount (the Armistice Agreement had left Jordan in control of east Jerusalem and the West Bank).
On November 20, 1951, Weizmann was reelected president. Unable to travel to Jerusalem due to ill health, he was sworn in at home in Rehovot. In December 1951, Knesset Speaker Sprinzak was named acting president. Weizmann’s condition had improved enough by June 1952 for him to receive Helen Keller, who was visiting Israel.
But the end was near. Chaim Weizmann died at home in Rehovot on November 9, 1952, just short of his 78th birthday. “The announcer on the Voice of Israel, who informed the people of the State of their loss, burst into tears in the midst of the announcement. When he was able, he concluded the official statement in a heavily choked voice,” the JTA reported.
The Zionist leader was buried in the garden of his estate in Rehovot and Israel went into mourning with public activities cancelled on that Sunday night. On Monday schools were closed, many businesses did not open and the Israeli Cabinet met in special session. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion described Weizmann as carrying two crowns on his head—a crown of statesmanship and a crown of learning.
At the end of the traditional seven-day mourning period, the Knesset met to eulogize Weizmann and hear Ben-Gurion declare that Weizmann had provided the Zionist cause with both vision and a practical appreciation of what needed to be done on the ground in Palestine.
Weizmann was survived by his wife Vera, who lived until September 24, 1966, and his son Benjamin. His other son, Michael, had been killed in action in 1942 while serving in the British Royal Air Force.
Learn more about Chaim Weizmann
The Impossible Takes Longer by Vera Weizmann
Trial and Error by Chaim Weizmann
Chaim Weizmann: A Biography by Norman Rose
Chaim Weizmann: The Making of a Zionist Leader (Vol.1) by Jehuda Reinharz
Chaim Weizmann: The Making of a Statesman (Vol. 2) Jehuda Reinharz
Vera Weizmann – Jewish Women’s Archive
The Spielberg Jewish Film Archive – The Vision of Chaim Weizmann