Chaim Weizmann is remembered in Jewish history as Israel’s first president, but this was only the apex of a varied trajectory that included groundbreaking scientific discoveries, humanitarianism, and a whirlwind political movement.
As the New York Times wrote in his 1952 obituary, “Chaim Weizmann’s life was sufficiently full of adventure, romance, accomplishment and fulfillment to have been lived by a dozen men.”
Weizmann is a product of humble beginnings. Born in 1874 near Pinsk, Belarus (which, at the time, was part of the Russian empire), he was one of 15 children from a modest Jewish family. He was among the nine children that the family could afford to send to school all the way through university, where Weizmann excelled in math and the sciences. He went on to study chemistry in both Germany and Switzerland, and taught at the University of Manchester in England, where he became a naturalized British subject in 1910.
As a scientist, Weizmann was known for his work developing synthetic acetone during World War I, when the British desperately needed it. “As head of the British Admiralty Laboratories from 1917 to 1919… he isolated certain organisms found in cereals and horse chestnuts and within a month had created synthetic acetone for British explosives,” the New York Times wrote.
Through his scientific accomplishments and support to the British war effort, Weizmann was able to form contacts within the British government, with whom he worked while advocating for Zionism.
Weizmann’s devotion to Zionism was spurred by fellow Zionists of the time, including Ahad Ha’am and Theodor Herzl. “He felt that Judaism implied not merely religion but peoplehood,” according to the Weizmann Institute of Science, which Weizmann co-founded in 1934.
Weizmann thought that the Jewish language, culture, and common historical memory “entitled [them] to return to their historical land and live there in safety.”
In 1907, Weizmann visited British Mandate Palestine to see if industry and development could realistically be brought to the land. He met Jewish immigrants there who, in an attempt to cultivate the land, were draining swamps and fighting off the malaria that came along with it. This visit cemented his commitment to establishing a Jewish national homeland.
In a way, Weizmann drove the Zionist movement to fruition. As the New York Times penned, “Theodor Herzl was the founder of the modern Zionist movement; Dr. Weizmann gave it practical direction.”
While teaching chemistry at the University of Manchester, Weizmann led the “Manchester Group” of British Zionists. At this time, the Zionist movement had been considering the British government’s offer to re-settle Jews in Uganda, British East Africa. But in 1906, while the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour was campaigning in Manchester, Weizmann convinced him that Palestine should become the Jews’ state instead.
This was the first step in helping garner support for The Balfour Declaration of 1917, in which Great Britain promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine. The declaration, a pivotal document in Zionist history, served as a beacon of light for Zionist aspirations, when the darkest days of World War II and various changes in British policy seemed to threaten the establishment of a Jewish state.
Weizmann also understood that the indigenous Arab Palestinian population would need to be considered. In 1919, he met with Emir Faisal, the leader of the Arab national movement, who sympathized with the Zionist cause as he felt it mirrored the Arabs’ own nationalist aspirations in many ways.
The two signed an agreement of cooperation, the Faisal-Weizmann agreement, which stipulated cooperation between the two national movements as long as the Arabs were to gain independence from the British. But the French and British secretly signed the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, which divided the Middle East into spheres of influence after World War I. This became a contentious point between Zionist and Arab relations, as Faisal didn’t see fit to hold up to his side of the agreement since the Arabs hadn’t gained independence from the British.
Decades later, however, when the geopolitical situation had evolved, Weizmann felt that the agreement should still hold. In 1947, he wrote to the General Assembly of the United Nations:
“A postscript was also included in this treaty. This postscript relates to a reservation by King Feisal that he would carry out all the promises in this treaty if and when he would obtain his demands, namely, independence for the Arab countries. I submit that these requirements of King Feisal have at present been realized. The Arab countries are all independent, and therefore the condition on which depended the fulfillment of this treaty, has come into effect. Therefore, this treaty, to all intents and purposes, should today be a valid document.”
Weizmann’s approach to Zionism was not supported by all Zionists. At age 27, he criticized Herzl, Zionism’s founding father, as “too visionary.” In 1900, he became leader of the Democratic Zionist faction, which according to the Times, “opposed both the political Zionists, who wanted political guarantees for the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine, and the practical Zionists, who wanted to settle Jewish colonies in the Holy Land without regard to political guarantees.”
Weizmann, as a moderator, helped the two quarreling parties reconcile their differences.
As a world-renowned scientist, he was also devoted to establishing science and industry in the nascent Jewish state. For example, he helped develop a phosphates plant at the Dead Sea and the hydroelectric power plant at Naharayim. In 1921, when he was elected president of the World Zionist Organization, he undertook a fundraising campaign with Albert Einstein to raise money for the Zionist cause and scientific innovation, which included establishing the Technion Institute in Haifa. And in 1925, he inaugurated the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“We must create a high culture, based on Jewish morality, and make it a center of human culture,” Weizmann said.
Later, Weizmann clashed with Louis Brandeis over competing European and American approaches to Zionism—notably over whether funding should be geared toward development or political activities, with Weizmann supporting the former. In 1931, Weizmann’s assertion that Zionism should shoot for what was possible rather than what was desirable led to the Zionist Organization ostracizing him by refusing to renew his leadership position in 1931.
But Weizmann carried on. He realized that the Nazis’ rise to power, in a country that was considered one of the most civilized of its time, would help mobilize support for Zionism, which up to this point, had been met with lukewarm recognition among Gentiles.
He also dedicated himself to saving European Jewry from the impending Holocaust. Convinced that the Jewish people must stand by the United Kingdom in its fight against the Axis powers, he promoted the formation of the Jewish Brigade. His two sons served in the British Army, one of whom he lost to the war. In 1942, about to depart for a meeting with then US President Franklin Roosevelt, Weizmann learned that his pilot son Michael’s plane had been shot down.
After the war, Weizmann continued his dedication to the establishment of the Jewish state, but he believed that only peace and neighborly relations would ensure the long-term security of the state that would become Israel. Therefore he supported the partition of British Mandate Palestine into two states: one Arab, the other Jewish.
“We do not build our national home at the expense of another nation. We wish to build Palestine with you, together,” he told the Arab population of the land, according to the Weizmann Institute for Science.
He continued to work for the acceptance of the UN resolution that partitioned Palestine into two states. Its approval by the U.N. General Assembly in November 1947 spurred the first Arab-Israeli war in 1948. The Zionists won the war, and Israel was established. Thirty-seven council members of the provisional government then elected Weizmann as president, which he accepted at his suite at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where he was staying at the time.
In his first act as president, he visited then US President Harry Truman to ask for funds to build the new country as well as to put an end to the U.S. arms embargo to Israel. According to the Times, “An export-import loan of $100,000,000 was authorized several months later, but no action was taken on the arms embargo.”
In 1949, he gave up his British citizenship and officially became a citizen of Israel. “Just as some people live by the sword, we will live by science,” he proclaimed to his newly minted fellow citizens.
Weizmann was afflicted by respiratory illness that curtailed his activities during his second term as president. Still, he remained dedicated to leading his country. From his sickbed in Rehovoth, he issued a message on the fourth anniversary the establishment of Israel, on April 29, 1952. Addressed “to all citizens of Israel and to all members of the House of Israel,” it said: “On this solemn day I would say this to all my brethren: the future of Israel rests on three foundations—brotherly love, constructive effort and peace near and far.”
Weizmann died from respiratory inflammation some six months later, on November 9, 1952.
Rachael Levy is a freelance writer who recently graduated from The American University of Paris with a degree in international and comparative politics. You can follow her on Twitter at @rachael_levy.