For one short moment this Monday it seemed as if the clock had been turned back a few decades. In the VIP room at the Weizmann House, situated on the green campus of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, two elegantly dressed elderly women spoke to each other in hushed tones. Both were past their eighties. A guest standing in a corner heard them mention "Vera's letter" - referring to the spouse of Chaim Weizmann, Israel's first president. One of the women, Reuma Weizman, is the widow of Israel's seventh president, Ezer Weizman, who was Chaim Weizmann's nephew. The other, Michal Brener, is Weizmann's niece. Her mother, the legendary Haifa piano teacher Gita Dunya Weizmann, was his sister.
They were there as representatives of the family at the official memorial ceremony in honor of Chaim Weizmann, held on the 60th anniversary of his death. Weizmann also has closer relatives - a grandson and two grand-grandchildren - but they live in the UK and did not come to the ceremony.
"Weizmann was not fully present as a father. He was somewhat alienated from his children. It's a classic story of a public figure who missed out on his family life," said Edly Dollar, chairman of Yad Chaim Weizmann, the organization dedicated to the preservation of Weizmann's heritage, when asked why Weizmann's relatives were absent.
But why focus on family gossip? It is also unnecessary to mention the fact that the official memorial service honoring the state's first president was not attended by its current president ("he apologized profusely, but he's in Russia," explained officials at the Weizmann Institute ). Nor could the prime minister free up his schedule. The state was respectfully represented by Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom, Knesset Deputy Speaker Lia Shemtov, and Supreme Court Judge Uri Shoham.
King of the collective
"Between the two world wars, Weizmann was king of the Jewish people," says Dollar. "It's astounding. He took the Zionist movement, which represented a rather tiny minority, and made it into the definitive representative of Jewry in the international arena."
The degree to which the figure and memory of Weizmann have faded from Israeli public memory is thus quite striking. The immediate suspect is the first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, who "positioned himself as the greatest Zionist leader, rising to power while struggling against Weizmann and thereafter seeking to minimize Weizmann's impact," says Dollar. But there were other greater reasons. "Weizmann was a leader without a party, which is why you'll never see his portrait at any major election event alongside those of Jabotinsky, Begin, or Ben-Gurion," explains Dollar. The third reason has to do with a trait that earned Weizmann many opponents: He was seen as being pro-British, a leader who "considers the Gentiles."
Did the fact that Weizmann was a rich bourgeois who lived in a magnificent villa - the "Presidential Palace" - with a private pool on a 12-acre estate, contribute to the decline of his public standing? Prof. Moti Golan, a senior historian at Haifa University, currently working on a new biography of Weizmann, thinks not. "Weizmann was indeed rich, but he was a self-made man, making his money from his work as a scientist," he explains. "True, he walked around in the fields wearing a silk suit. He never considered becoming a laborer. He might have muddied his shiny shoes once on his way from his Rolls Royce to a social gathering. But at least he was who he was and did not try to be someone else. The national collective needed a king, and that is what Weizmann symbolized."
Golani, who in recent years has read every single piece of paper having to do with Weizmann, in archives in Israel and worldwide (including all of the documents diligently and professionally preserved by the Weizmann Archive ), is unequivocal in his praise for his subject. "I dare say, bluntly though responsibly, that if it weren't for Chaim Weizmann we would remember Herzl as a mediocre journalist, as a so-so playwright, and as just another wannabe politician," he said, "while Ben-Gurion would have been a nobody. They were both great men, but they had no significance without Weizmann. He was the one who took Herzl's vision, then shared by a small group, and made it into something real, something tangible. Something that Ben-Gurion could take and work with."
Dr. Chaim Weizmann, born in 1874 in White Russia, has a long list of achievements to his name. Suffice it to mention his success in bringing the British Empire to issue the Balfour Declaration on the eve of the British Army's conquest of Palestine. The 1917 declaration marked a change of fortune in the history of the Jewish people, by recognizing its right to establish a national home in Palestine.
But his achievements go beyond politics and statesmanship. He also made scientific breakthroughs, emphasizing that the Jewish state's economic future depends on its ability to realize its scientific-technological potential - decades before Israel's transformation into a start-up world power. Weizmann himself gained renown for producing acetone from corn using a microbe named after him. This important discovery was of major significance in the British war effort in World War I, since it allowed for the cheap production of smokeless gun powder. In addition, he was one of the founders of the Hebrew University, the Jewish Agency, and the Jewish Brigade.
But above all else, Weizmann was a politician. "He knew how to take personal politics to unseen heights," says Golani. "He was a magnetic conversationalist. In fact he was the true inventor of Facebook: he had a network of friends spanning Europe, the Middle East, the Far East, and America." Apparently it was these qualities that enabled him to occasionally invite the entire British leadership to lunch, and to berate its members for not living up to their promises.
"Weizmann understood the wonders of politics. He was seen at all the parties. He knew what was happening in the lives of all the ladies at all the social events," says Golani.
Yet what made the politician into a great leader, he says, was Weizmann's ability to understand reality, "to ride the waves of history, directing it according to his goals, and drift among the air currents."
What about his personal life? Family, love?
"Weizmann's passion was part of his strength. He was passionate, not only about politics. He was desperate for company, women, and love," says Golani. "He fell in love serially, but was always respectful of the women he met. He never treated any of them as an object. Actually he was like a bee that flutters from one flower to another, but knows how to choose its flowers well and how to respect them."
His love for his wife Vera was great, but his lifestyle and public positions made their life difficult. "This family, as a family unit, failed," adds Golani. "That's certain. That was the terrible price he paid for being who he was."
Asked how Weizmann would see Israel today, 60 years after his death, Dollar had a ready and detailed answer. "He was realistic; he knew how to read historical situations. He wouldn't react to our situation with euphoria or despondency. Rather, he would think that there are very impressive aspects and very disturbing ones. He would take the positive qualities and move forward from there. Weizmann, who was an elitist, believed that this was the great responsibility of any leadership, no matter which party it represented. He would have said: 'We have very positive potential, let's fly with it, and do what must be done.'"
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now