A Few Thoughts About Chaim Weizmann (through Judah Reinharz)

Not long ago, I read the two volumes of Chaim Weizmann’s autobiography.  I enjoyed his recounting of his early years in a small town in Poland, how he came to be educated, his moving to England after becoming a chemist, and how he combined his profession with his advocacy of the Zionist cause, using his connections with high government officials to bring about the Balfour Declaration (which in 1917 established British support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine), to lead the Jewish Agency and eventually to become the first president (although largely a figurehead) of the new State of Israel.  The books were beautifully written.  Quite a guy, I thought to myself. (I reviewed this book on January 20, 2012)

Judah Reinharz, Israeli born scholar and former president of Brandeis University, has written two volumes of a projected three volume biography of Weizmann.  He is working on the third.

He spoke recently at American University as a last of a series of speakers on modern Jewish figures.  I was not surprised when he said that Weizmann’s autobioraphy was beautifully written and fascinating.  I was surprised when he went on today that, of course, Weizmann had a ghost writer, and much of the books were fictional.  I wanted to ask him for some examples of fiction in the volumes; the evening closed before I had a chance to.

A few thoughts I took in from the lecture:

Weizmann received his training in chemistry in Germany, but took a job at the University of Manchester in England, not a top rated institution and Weizmann’s position was not a top rated position.  But he was clearly a good chemical researcher and an Anglophile, and among other things, he developed a way to create acetone (essential for the creation of smokeless guns, which could help stealth in military activities and was very important during World War I) from bacteria when the other sources of acetone were hard to locate, especially in wartime.  This made him important to the British war effort (he had already become a British subject) and he was named the head of the British Admiralty Laboratory, which gave him access to the highest of British officialdom.  It was on this basis that he was able to meet with Balfour and persuade him to issue what became known as the Balfour Declaration and became a basis for the British mandate over Palestine, created by the League of Nations.

Also helpful was what was apparently his ability to persuade anybody of anything.  He was extremely charismatic in this way. This is the main reason that Churchill, as the years went by, was hesitant to meet with Weizmann.  He did not want to be subject to Weizmann’s harangues, he said, and he knew that he could not ignore his persuasive powers.

In 1921, for example, Weizmann had been on his first American trip, raising money for the Zionist cause, when riots occurred in Palestine and he became very concerned.  He apparently caught the first boat available to England, and upon landing called Balfour and said he wanted to get a meeting immediately with Balfour, Lloyd George and Churchill.  The goal was to ensure that Jewish emigration to Palestine would not be adversely affected and would be supported by the British (which it then was, as set forth in Churchill’s White Paper of 1922); during the meeting, Weizmann wanted one more thing. He wanted to be able to run guns to Palestine (undoubtedly not legal) without interference from the British.  This seemed like an impossible request.  Churchill (then in charge of the colonies) agreed.

Weizmann worked for Jewish-Arab comity in the development of the Middle East.  According to Reinharz, he never appreciated the strength and depth of Arab resistance.  He was also understandably very upset at the replacement of the 1922 White Paper by a more restrictive document in 1930, when Lord Passfield (Sidney Webb), not Churchill, was Colonial Secretary.  Mounting a campaign against the Passfield White Paper, he convinced the government effectively (by letter of clarification from Prime Minister MacDonald) to withdraw it.  (Of course, there was no such luck with the infamous 1939 White Paper which, in order to appease Arab feeling in war time – and it was not successful in doing so – Jewish immigration into Palestine was virtually halted.)

By the mid-1930s, Weizmann had become very wealthy.  He held a number of patents, not only for the bacteria based acetone, but for a chemical used in automobile lacquers, and apparently owned a number of manufacturing plants (here I rely on Reinharz only; I don’t recall seeing reference to this before, but a short description of Weizmann’s chemistry successes can be found in the article “Moulder of Molecules: Maker of a Nation at http://www.chemistry.org.il/booklet/12/pdf/weizmann/pdf.).  In 1936, although he maintained a house in England (Reinharz said this was mainly because his wife wanted to remain English), he also built a house in Rehovot, which he also occupied until his death. Although he was so active in worldwide Zionist affairs (heading first the British and then the international Zionist organization and creating the Jewish Agency), his influence over domestic affairs in Palestine was always limited.  He and Ben Gurion were competitors, and Ben Gurion clearly had the upper hand in creating the strategies and providing the leadership in Palestine.

One last thought:  Did you know that George Bernard Shaw (not known for pro-Semitic feelings) wrote a very short play (never meant to be performed?) called “Arthur and the Acetone”. The three roles are Arthur Balfour, an Attache, and Chaim Weizmann.  You can find the text at http://www.wikilivres.ca/wiki/Arthur_and_the_Acetone.


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