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In Weizmann’s Image

Speaking at the Weizmann dialogues (from left) Elkan Levy, Rachel Weizmann, Howard Epstein and Barry Shaw Photo: Glenis Bertfield

On the eve of the 70th anniversary of the birth of the Jewish State that Chaim Weizmann helped to create, one word should come to mind: dayeinu. Here's why.

What Manner of Man?

Everyone who came into Weizmann's orbit was seduced by his personality: his fellow students in Pinsk, Darmstadt, Berlin, and Fribourg; his teachers; the leading lights of Zionism in fin-de-siècle Berlin; the Zionist philosopher, Ahad Ha'am; his colleagues in bio-chemistry; Harry Sacher, brilliant international lawyer and Manchester Guardian journalist; Charles Prestwich Scott (liberal politician and owner/editor of the Manchester Guardian); Arthur Balfour, Winston Churchill, David Lloyd George and many other key politicians of the First World War; Sir Mark Sykes (of Sykes-Picot Agreement fame) and several other top civil servants; the Rothschilds; Simon Marks and Israel Sieff of Marks & Spencer; General Allenby; Emir Feisal, the Arab king with whom Weizmann signed the first peace treaty with the Arabs (long before there was an Israeli state); and many others.

The Balfour Declaration

Only epithets such as "breath-taking" or "unique" or "essential" can convey the range of the man who strove to obtain the Balfour Declaration. He was a driving-force of concentrated intensity, with limitless energy and a selfless devotion to an end that would enrich (and save) others on a scale rarely equalled in history.

When the emerging Declaration not so much fell from Weizmann's grasp in the last weeks leading up to November 2, 1917, as was ripped away by Edwin Montagu, an assimilationist Jew, Weizmann doubled down with his team in London . He loosed off a barrage of transatlantic cables to Judge Louis Brandeis and to the office of US President Woodrow Wilson, whose support proved crucial.

Weizmann was involved at every level: lobbying members of the British War Cabinet, drafting the document itself, even as it went through several iterations, breakfasting with the British Prime Minister and reeling in the Americans. As we know, in the end, the Balfour Declaration was his. Although addressed to Lord Rothschild, it was into the hands of Weizmann that Sir Marks Sykes delivered it outside the Imperial War Cabinet, still in session, the ink not quite dry. Dayeinu?

The Negev

What, after the Balfour Declaration, could our hero's three further political achievements have been? In 1915, he had single-handedly prevented Britain and the Empire from losing the Great War, by generating sufficient acetone to make enough cordite to manufacture vast amounts of ammunition. The Balfour Declaration was the indirect result. Thirty years later, Weizmann, losing his sight, in failing health and in a state of exhaustion, was called on again to work his magic with another political generation and on a different continent.

If only Weizmann could have wrought the Declaration from the British, it is no less true that only he could have reversed the US State Department's meddling with the Partition Plan in the days before the vital vote at the UN in November 1947. Weizmann was smuggled into the White House to see President Harry Truman, explained why the Negev was essential to the viability of the incipient state and, within the hour, the American delegation at the UN had jumped to Truman's telephoned instruction to put it back within the borders of what would be Israel. Dayeinu?


The following January (1948), Weizmann was in London, preparing to return home to Rechovot. Health still failing, he was called upon to work his magic with Truman again. The British would soon be gone, so to save the Jews from a million murderous Arabs and five threatening Arab armies from as far away as Iraq, the US State Department wished to abandon the Partition (the Two State "Solution") voted in by the UN. Trusteeship was about to be re-imposed.

Weizmann, indefatigable even when totally enervated, travelled again to the United States to await the call from Truman; but the President had no intention of spending another moment on Palestine.

Fate, in the form of Eddie Jacobson, Truman's erstwhile business-partner, went to the White House to change Truman's mind about seeing Weizmann. For the second time in four months, Weizmann was smuggled into the White House and, again, he changed the course of events to the Zionists' advantage. Truman agreed conclusively to abandon Trusteeship and support Partition.

Finally, two days before Israel's independence was declared, Weizmann, still working assiduously for his goals, secured Truman's agreement to ensure that the United States be the first to recognize the State of Israel. Eleven minutes after the British Mandate expired at midnight on the night of May 14/15, 1948, Ben Gurion having announced independence in Tel Aviv only hours before, Truman's telegram of recognition arrived in Tel Aviv. (It was only the day before that the name had been decided upon, and that was the day after Weizmann had berated Ben Gurion's dithering Provisional Council with the words: "What are they waiting for, the idiots? It's now or never.")

The Indispensable One

If Ben Gurion, giant as he was, had fallen by the way-side, another would have taken his place. If any lesser figures in the Yishuv, or in the negotiating/diplomatic team in New York, had met an untimely end, an effective substitute would have been found. Even Herzl--who had no grounding in Zionism and whose pamphlet, Der Jüdenstaat, led to the 20th century Zionist movement--was arguably not the one and only: perhaps Weizmann himself, had there been no Herzl, would have kick-started the increasingly moribund Zionist movement that Herzl aroused when he burst upon the scene in 1897.

What was different about Weizmann, however, compared to every other Zionist, was his indispensability. He and only he could have procured the Declaration; likewise, only he could have recovered the Negev, maintained the course of Partition and wrought the vital first, American, recognition. So, now Dayeinu? 

 The Educational Achievements

No. For that would exclude Weizmann's unique contributions to three of the most august seats of advanced education and research in Israel: the Haifa Technion (it was Weizmann who insisted that Hebrew be its language), the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (which he founded in 1918), and, of course, the Weizmann Institute at Rechovot (his 1933 creation). These institutions inculcated the desire in Israel to do the impossible and do it repeatedly.

Weizmann won over Truman in 1947 to reinstate the Negev partly by telling him how brackish water in the Negev was even then being made suitable for agricultural use at the Weizmann Institute. Such is the modern Israeli industry of desalination of the Mediterranean that we no longer need rain. The direct line from Weizmann is plain to see.


In Chaim Weizmann may be seen the World's First 20th Century, not to say 21st Century, Man. If we know anything about success and survival in the modern world, we know the importance of networking, science and technology. If you want to see them combined to perfection, look at the life of Dr Chaim Weizmann.

As for Israel, all the other Zionists were tailors. Only Weizmann provided the cloth.


© Howard Epstein March 2018

Howard Epstein's book: Israel at 70: In Weizmann's Image is available from Amazon and on Kindle.

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