The Scientist Who Rose From Russia’s Ghettos to Israeli President
Dr. Charles Weizmann’s life parallels the Jewish people’s journey from victims to historical actors at home in their homeland.
Dr. Charles Weizmann of Manchester, England, bearer of 110 patents, born in 1874 as Chaim ben Ozer deep in Russia’s 472,590 square-mile Jewish ghetto, is remembered today as Chaim Weizmann, Israel’s first president.
The Weizmann name game helps explain Zionism, and the modern Jewish revolution, as Israel celebrates its 70th anniversary. His move from ghetto Jew to scientist-statesman parallels the Jewish people’s journey, from too-often passive victims to historical actors at home in their homeland, as all liberal nationalists wish to be.
Chaim ben—son of—Ozer endured the terrors of Russian anti-Semitism. But he also appreciated Jews’ resulting cultural autonomy. This precocious child quickly recognized two ways out: the Enlightenment’s path of mastering science as “Charles Weizmann,” and Zionism’s path of restoring Jewish dignity as “Chaim,” his Hebrew name.
Chaim ben Ozer had to be crazy smart to be the first kid ever sent at eleven, from his “shtetl,” Motol, to study science in the big city, Pinsk. After studying in Germany, he earned his Ph.D. in organic chemistry in Switzerland—escaping Russia’s restrictions on Jews’ creativity, identity, and freedom. By 1901, this 27-year-old was an assistant lecturer at the University of Geneva. Three years later, the University of Manchester Chemistry Department appointed him Senior Lecturer, where he lived for three decades.
Dr. Charles Weizmann cultivated a genteel, utterly predictable, British persona, countering the ghetto’s chaotic crudities. Weizmann climbed so high because his applied biochemistry contributions were so crucial. The father of industrial fermentation, he broke down bacteria to mass-produce natural substances that proved useful industrially—and militarily.
When the Great War began in 1914, the British needed the volatile organic solvent, acetone, to make cordite for gunpowder. The minerals to make acetone usually came from Germany. Now, the artificial processes to defeat Germany came from Weizmann—contributed mostly for free.
Even as he learned to fit in, Weizmann remembered the Jews left behind. Back in 1885, that eleven-year-old whiz kid had embraced Zionism—a decade before the modern movement’s founder, Theodor Herzl. Writing to a teacher, young Chaim endorsed the only way to “rescue our exiled, oppressed brethren who … have no place where to put up their tents…. Let us carry our banner,” he wrote, “TO ZION AND RETURN TO OUR FIRST MOTHER UPON WHOSE KNEES WE WERE BORN.” Young Weizmann grasped the essential Zionist idea recognizing Jews as a people—not just adherents to a religion—with rights to establish a state in their homeland, Israel.
In pre-state days, Weizmann acknowledged Zionism’s marginality—and seeming futility. “To be a Zionist, it is not perhaps absolutely necessary to be slightly mad,” he admitted, “but it helps.”
Still, he knew a Jewish state would redeem his people—it wasn’t just anti-anti-Semitism. The Jewish people have “never based the Zionist movement on Jewish suffering,” he would insist. “The foundation of Zionism was, and continues to be to this day, the yearning of the Jewish people for its homeland, for a national centre, and a national life”—for normalcy!
Weizmann’s Zionism put him on the right side of the great twentieth-century debate pitting liberal nationalism against totalitarian Communism. One of 16 children—11 survived into adulthood—he and eight other siblings went Zionist, moved to Palestine, and thrived. Chaim’s brother Shmuel, who embraced Communist universalism, was executed in 1939, in Josef Stalin’s Great Purge. His sister Maria was imprisoned thanks to Stalin’s paranoid, anti-Semitic Doctor’s Plot.
Taking this family argument to the world stage, when studying in Geneva, Charles Weizmann debated the merits of nationalism versus universalism, with some exiled Russian Communists, including Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin.
Rooted in Jewish history, enamored by British wit, Weizmann championed Zionism brilliantly. When his local member of Parliament, Lord Arthur Balfour, wondered why the Jews wouldn’t establish a national homeland in Uganda instead of Palestine, Weizmann asked: “Mr. Balfour, suppose I was to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?” Balfour replied: “But Dr. Weizmann, we have London.” Weizmann responded: “True, but we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh.”
Similarly, when another aristocrat sniffed “Why do you Jews insist on Palestine when there are so many undeveloped countries you could settle in more conveniently?” Zionism’s Quipmaster General snapped: “That is like my asking you why you drove twenty miles to visit your mother last Sunday when there are so many old ladies living on your street.”
Legend has it that Chaim Weizmann parlayed his successes as “Charles” to make Jewish history. In 1917, when Balfour, now Foreign Secretary, asked his super-scientist friend how to honor his contribution to the British war effort, Weizmann supposedly replied: “There is only one thing I want: a national home for my people.” Then, the story goes, “Duly impressed, Lord Balfour issued the famous Balfour Declaration of 1917 committing the British government to the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
“I almost wish it had been as simple as that,” Weizmann scoffed, “and that I had never known the heartbreak, the drudgery which preceded the Declaration. But history does not deal in Aladdin’s lamps.”
Whether through horse-trading or lobbying, had Chaim Weizmann just been the guy who got Great Britain to validate Zionism just before assuming control of Palestine, that would have been enough. But from 1917 through 1948, Weizmann was the world’s most prominent Zionist, frequently leading the World Zionist Organization. Weizmann remain connected with the Jewish masses from whom he came even while charming the statesmen and grandees with whom he dined.
A “Synthetic Zionist,” Weizmann tried reconciling various factions—except when he feuded furiously, particularly with Louis Brandeis. Weizmann dismissed the Supreme Court justice’s “Yankee Doodle Judaism,” his too-passive Americanized Zionism. Focus on “the genuine growth of Jewish life” in Palestine, Weizmann demanded.
Weizmann also feuded with right-wing “Revisionist” Zionists. Weizmann respected Arab claims to the land, in this confusing case of what he called “two rights” -- not right versus wrong.
As the Germans started mass-murdering Jews in the 1930s, and the British banned Jewish immigrants to Palestine, Weizmann agonized. “There are now two sorts of countries in the world,” he told the Peel Commission seeking a compromise between Jews and Arabs in Palestine in 1936, “those that want to expel the Jews and those that don’t want to admit them.”
A year later, endorsing the Peel Commission’s recommendation to partition Palestine, he begged his beloved British to open Palestine’s gates to Jews menaced by Nazis. “You shall not play fast and loose with the Jewish people,” he proclaimed at the 20th Zionist Congress, weeping. “Say to us frankly that the National Home is closed, and we shall know where we stand. But this trifling with a nation bleeding from a thousand wounds must not be done by the British whose Empire is built on moral principles—that mighty Empire must not commit this sin against the People of the Book.”
After composing himself, Weizmann addressed “the Arab people,” saying: “We know that the Mufti [of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini] and [another Nazi collaborator Fawzi al-] Kawkaji are not the Arab nation.” Weizmann “stretched out our hand” with “one condition…. we have the right to build our home in the Land of Israel, harming no one, helping all.”
The 1940s’ first turned tragic—for his people and his family. One son, flying for the RAF, was shot down. Michael’s body was never recovered—nor did his father. The eldest son Benjamin suffered from “shell shock.” As tensions between the British and the Jews whose destiny they controlled grew, Weizmann’s credibility with both faded.
Weizmann sidelined was still an epoch-making statesman. He—and his extraordinary pediatrician wife Vera—were now living in Israel, helping invent “start up nation”—and a state where you could be Chaim the scientist and the statesman, the humanist and the Jew, all at once, without the name games. Trusting science, technology and education as Israel’s national building blocks, Weizmann helped found the Technion, Hebrew University, and, in 1934, what is today the Weizmann Institute of Science, which recently ranked sixth in the Nature Index of Innovation.
In May, 1948, Israel’s leaders debated for twelve hours whether to declare a state as the British left, with seven Arab armies threatening to invade. Weizmann wondered: “What are they waiting for, the idiots?”
Seventy years ago, Weizmann became Israel’s first president. Becoming head of State made sense because he embodied the righteousness of the Zionist cause, transcending political quibbles weighing down prime ministers.
Churchill praised this “Old Testament Prophet,” eulogizing Weizmann when he died in 1952, as the Moses who “led his people into their promised land,” a “man of vision and genius, whose lasting memorial will be the vigor and the prosperity of the State of Israel.” Isaiah Berlin, calling Weizmann, the “author” of the Zionist revolution, deemed him, “the first totally free Jew of the modern world.”
Acknowledging the unlikely journey he and the Zionist movement had traveled, Chaim Weizmann the prophetic statesman and Charles Weizmann the pragmatic scientist both resonated in the line he used that sums up his life—and Israel’s first 70 years—“Miracles do happen, but one has to work very hard for them.”
Norman Rose, Chaim Weizmann: A Biography, 2016.
Chaim Weizmann, Trial and Error: The Autobiography of Chaim Weizmann, 1966.