As Israel becomes increasingly important in world affairs, Jews and non-Jews alike increasingly want to understand the origins of the Israeli state and of the Zionist movement. This is volume one of the first scholarly biography of Chaim Weizmann. It provides a thoroughly researched account of how a Russian Jew from the Pale of Settlement came to be, by age 40 (when World War I began and this volume of the biography ends), a leading Zionist and the possessor of the patent for a crucial process in manufacturing explosives.
Weizmann did not exactly trade his patent for the Balfour Declaration, which in 1918 promised British help toward making Palestine “a national home for the Jewish people.” Immediately after World War I erupted, Weizmann gave his patent to the British government gratis. By that time he had lived in England for 10 years and been a British subject for four years. In 1916, when Lloyd George became prime minister, Weizmann was appointed director of naval laboratories. But Weizmann did wring every advantage he could for Zionism from his crucial role as a munitions chemist. Not only the Balfour Declaration but the eventual creation of Israel probably owes more to Weizmann than has been acknowledged.
Jehuda Reinharz does not paint an especially flattering portrait of the young Weizmann, though, showing repeatedly how Weizmann allowed his relations with Theodore Herzl, Menahem Ussishkin, and other leading Zionist leaders to be governed by sheer opportunism and transparent obsequiousness. Still, most readers will admire Weizmann’s tenacious perseverance during his formative years. Weizmann was far from stable in his emotional life, yet he was able to restrain his impulses and keep a cool head. In political dealings he was always patient but also always watchful, ready to exploit any opening. Even before opposing Herzl’s proposal in 1903 for a Jewish state in Africa, Weizmann led a faction opposed to Herzl’s elitist way of operating—a “Democratic Faction” through which Weizmann, Martin Buber, and a few others tried to control Herzl’s secret negotiations with the Ottoman Sultan. The “Democratic Faction” faded to control Herzl, but it did set a precedent for the creation of factions and subfactions within the World Zionist Organization—some of which almost drove Weizmann to distraction during his own tenure as president of the WZO (1920-1931 and 1935-1946).
Professor Reinharz offers a complete and balanced representation of all aspects of his subject’s life, even when treating such delicate matters as Weizmann’s treatment of his first fiancee, Sophia Getzova, with whom he had intimate relations on the understanding they would be married but whom he abruptly dropped when the more beautiful Vera Khatzman crossed his path. This incident, like others, is presented starkly and yet without judgmental commentary. Many readers will probably empathize with Weizmann and Vera, for their long courtship (conducted largely by mail) is treated with restrained sensitivity. Reinharz resists the temptation of psychohistory throughout.
The author’s primary focus remains political, however. Only his mastery of Zionist history makes possible a biography so fully documented, so fully to the point. Master of a lucid prose, Reinharz relates the story of Zionism’s struggling adolescence before World War I in a style both engaging and thoroughly readable. Readers will finish the book looking forward to the volumes yet to come.
[Chaim Weizmann: The Making of a Zionist Leader, by Jehuda Reinharz (New York: Oxford University Press) $29.95]