This Founding Father of the Jewish State Was a Serial Cheater Who Hated Israel

The most comprehensive study ever conducted on Chaim Weizmann casts a new light on Israel’s first president

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Chaim Weizmann.
Chaim Weizmann.Credit: David Eldan . GPO
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In the winter of 1926-27, Chaim Weizmann fell in love. Vera, his wife and the mother of his children, was sufficiently far away for him to allow himself to woo another woman unabashedly. And not just any woman, but the star of Habima Theater, Hanna Rovina. Weizmann, who would go on to become Israel’s first president, was captivated by the first lady of the Hebrew theater, 14 years younger than he, after attending a performance in New York by Habima of “The Dybbuk,” in which she played the lead. (It was only the following year that the Hebrew-language company, which had been founded in the Russian Empire in 1912, moved to Tel Aviv.)

Shortly afterward, he sent to her hotel a box of citrus fruit from Palestine – gifts he had brought with him across the ocean for close friends and others whom he wished to impress. In the note that he attached, he suggested that the two meet soon. How soon? Two days later.

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Immediately after sending the gift he became frightened that he had been too blunt and direct, and sent a messenger with another note, in which he apologized profusely for bothering her. He asked Rovina to “take into account the mitigating circumstances of a person who for more than two months had been engaged in monotonous work in this concrete desert, and suddenly had two free days without the brouhaha of lobbying and who had a burning passion to spend a few hours with a real person.” But even so, he concluded, it was “selfishness” on his part, and asked her to forgive him.

Rovina acceded to the invitation. She had a romantic partner, but it was hard to refuse Chaim Weizmann. In his eagerness he sent another message to “Dear Hanna,” asking her not to think ill of him and adding that he hoped the fruit had arrived safely. He signed it with “love” and gratitude, and concluded, “Until Monday.”

The first meeting spawned a few more and made Weizmann’s head spin. He wrote the actress letters, called her and left messages in her hotel, his behavior at times on the verge of harassment. In one missive he left no room for doubt as to his intentions. When he saw her letter, he wrote, he wanted to go out and “ring bells,” adding that he very much wanted to know when she would be returning and noting that he himself would be at the Ambassador Hotel. If she wished to spoil him a little, she should write, and aim to be there too. “With love,” he signed off.

The fledgling relationship was aborted after a few months, however, when Weizmann had to return home to London. Head over heels in love, he initially wanted to bring Rovina with him, as a paramour, to keep her as close as possible. The hourglass will run out, and the last grain of sand will fall, he wrote her in March 1927, but he was already living in the hope of seeing her in Europe. A visa was waiting for her, he let her know.

This time Rovina flinched, and didn’t respond. Weizmann didn’t take the hint. He wrote her saying he greatly regretted not having received even one line “from her” – addressing her in the third person – all this time. He had tempted himself all along to believe that a letter could not have arrived – but that obviously was not the case, because “she understands” how greatly he was suffering.

Again, she ignored him.

Hurt to the quick, Weizmann tried yet again. He recalled that they had met so often in New York and now it was a real goodbye, adding that this would be his last attempt to contact her – not because he was hurt, but because he was starting to think that she was not interested in receiving his letters at all. He wrote that he missed her and thought of her all the time, that he was tired of everyone and everything, concluding “with love, Chaim.”

Hanna Rovina.
Hanna Rovina.Credit: Moshe Milner / GPO

In London, to which he had returned brokenhearted, his dysfunctional family awaited him: his wife, Vera, with whom he conducted an on-and-off relationship, cheating on her left and right, and their two sons, Benjie and Michael, who did not have a warm and loving father. Weizmann, by then sickly in body and depressive and anxious in mind, moved on to look for the next object of desire.

All of these personal, intimate and revelatory details – at times bordering on the sensational, although always provocative – appear in a new Hebrew-language biography of Weizmann, “The Founding Father,” by historians Motti Golani, from Tel Aviv University, and Jehuda Reinharz, from Brandeis. The Weizmann who emerges from their book’s 1,000 pages is light-years away from Weizmann the symbol, the person behind the famous Balfour Declaration, the first president of the State of Israel.

‘A humanizing process’

“Weizmann underwent a humanizing process with us,” Prof. Golani tells Haaretz. “We discovered a person who is capable of quarreling, who has desires, who makes mistakes, fails and doesn’t tell the truth. In short: a human being,” he says, summing up the most comprehensive study ever made of Weizmann. This was a decade-long endeavor in which the two biographers left no stone unturned anywhere in the world, when it came to their subject.

“Weizmann comes out well from our book,” Golani adds. “Not in the sense of being a perfect person – he was definitely not perfect, and we have plenty of criticism of him – but in the sense that it is far easier for a biographer and a reader to feel a connection with him now, when he’s not Superman.”

Prof. Reinharz notes that in the course of his research for the book, he realized that Weizmann, “who changed the course of Jewish history, had both his good qualities and his foibles. Like all of us.”

This man had one major passion in his life. It wasn’t for women. Or for science. It was for Zionist activity. For its sake he sacrificed his family, his health, his profession – and his women.

Golani

Golani and Reinharz spared no effort to track down the stories of the women in Weizmann’s life.

“I don’t believe in the notion of a political biography, there’s no such thing. A biography is a life story – it’s the person’s hobbies, the medication he took, his relations with his wife and the way he raises his children,” Golani says, noting that he found much more than material for gossip in Weizmann’s relationships. They are “an exceptional window to understand him and to encounter him up-close.”

In other words, to get to the truth one must deal with the sensational as well?

Golani: “If you want to understand who Chaim Weizmann was in broader contexts, you also have to address his relationships with women. From these contexts we learned that this man had one major passion in his life. It wasn’t for women. Or for science. It was for Zionist activity. For its sake he sacrificed his family, his health, his profession – and his women.”

He had a passion for Zionism, but not necessarily a desire to fulfill it himself.

“Weizmann did not want to live in the Land of Israel. But, what’s beautiful about a person’s life is that the whole is rife with contradictions.”

Indeed, it’s worth dwelling on the contradictions in Weizmann’s life. It’s hard not to be taken aback by the disparity between the prodigious effort he invested in promoting the Zionist enterprise – worldwide travels, meetings with the high and mighty – with the aim of establishing a Jewish state in the Land of Israel, and the repulsion he felt at life in that land. Golani and Reinharz did not recoil from dealing with this directly and without embellishment.

Chaim Weizman and David Ben Gurion meeting in Switzerland, 1945.
Chaim Weizman and David Ben Gurion meeting in Switzerland, 1945.Credit: GPO

“Weizmann sought to lead the realization of the Zionist vision more than to live it,” the authors write. “One foot here, one foot there” – although mostly there, in London.

It’s hard to blame Weizmann, a British elitist who lived in surpassing comfort in London, for his intense dislike he had for Rehovot, where he established his research center (the Sieff Institute, now known as the Weizmann Institute of Science) as well as his private residence in Palestine in the 1930s. His wife wanted things in Rehovot to be as they were in London, but the meager level of culture in the former ruled that out, he himself noted.

“He’s despondent and thinks that the level of morality and aesthetics in Palestine is inferior,” his colleague in the Zionist movement’s leadership, Arthur Ruppin, observed.

Weizmann did not hesitate to commit to writing, in letters and other personal documents, his inability and lack of desire to live in the Land of Israel, where he only moved permanently after he was made the state’s first president, in 1949. He wrote that he was shocked to the depths of his soul by the conditions in the country. When he did live there, he wrote in 1935, it was not out of free will but because of his Zionist duty. He confessed that he lacked the courage, the strength and the devotion rooted in love that helps one overcome such difficulties. What did he mean, exactly?

Golani: “Weizmann found it difficult to tolerate life in this country – the blunt language, the lack of manners, the disrespect and the weather. He was ready to lay down his life for the country – but to live here was a different matter.” Archival documents led Golani and Reinharz to conclude that Weizmann literally counted the days until his return to London. (During World War II, he was on the move between London and the United States.)

The solution he found was possible at the time only for a person of means like himself: to be constantly on the go and yet, when compelled to live in Palestine, to bring Europe there with him – in the form of an estate designed for him by preeminent Jewish-German architect Erich Mendelsohn, at an exorbitant cost: an architectural masterpiece built on a hill in Rehovot, which is now part of the campus of the Weizmann Institute.

But Weizmann didn’t always succeed in sequestering himself in his Middle Eastern “Europe.” On one Purim festival, he remarked, he felt as if he was “a mourner among bridegrooms,” unable even to smile. The country was going wild with joy, he noted, and wondered why. He himself was in physical and spiritual “depression.” Life in the “small village,” as he termed Rehovot, was not to his liking.

As the new biography shows abundantly, the alienation Weizmann felt was not only from the country itself but – and mainly – from the people in it. Thus, in 1935, he wrote that the country was filled with tourists and visitors of all kinds, and that it was not possible to avoid them, despite efforts to keep them at a distance. Indeed, he noted, he was heartily fed up with the place, particularly when it was overrun with swarms of pesky, troublesome visitors. He’d be happy to leave, he added. “Uninvited guests” was his term for those who sought him out like pilgrims, hoping to see the man of vision and action.

Romantic hypochondriac

Weizmann was repelled even by the immigrants in Palestine who had come from Eastern Europe, which is especially noteworthy because they were flesh of his flesh. He himself was born in 1874 to a traditional, observant Jewish family in the town of Motol, in what is today Belarus, then part of the Russian Empire; he was the third of 15 siblings (three of whom died in childhood). His father, Oser, was a merchant and Torah scholar. At 18, Weizmann left to study chemistry in Germany and Switzerland, and from that point on he felt estranged from Eastern European Jewry, where his own origins lay.

“He turned his back on them and ignored them, even when he struggled on their behalf,” Golani explains. “He wasn’t able to hide his repulsion from those who weren’t like him, from those whom he used to resemble,” the authors write. He was offensive and condescending toward them, to the point of enmity and contempt. He also spoke with overt disdain about his rivals in the Zionist movement and the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in the Land of Israel), in a way that was in stark contrast to his varied diplomatic skills.

Jehuda Reinharz and Motti Golani.
Jehuda Reinharz and Motti Golani.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum, Meged Gozani

Here, too, there is an internal contradiction, one of many the new biography reveals. On the one hand, Weizmann was a “people person” whose intense charisma enabled him to enthrall admirers and lovers almost everywhere; on the other hand, that side of him was constantly at war with his blatant elitist attitude toward people. When he was 26, he wrote in a letter to his fiancée that the masses disgusted him; his biographers write that “his ego sometimes displayed infantile-like tendencies.”

The Weizmann portrayed by Golani and Reinharz comes across as unhealthy, both physically and mentally – if it’s possible to separate the two. Between handshakes with Winston Churchill and intense conversations with Lord Balfour, between a fiery speech at the Zionist Congress and a meeting in the White House, lurked a different Weizmann. A leader prone to gloominess, dejection and anxiety, even when he walked tall, radiated charisma and displayed an exuberant sense of humor.

“He was prone to frequent mood swings. Within an hour’s time he could be elated and then feel sorry for himself,” Reinharz says.

The authors’ impressive archival research revealed repeated outbursts, collapses, fainting spells, paralysis, chronic exhaustion, prolonged dysfunction, pain in his teeth, ears, eyes, nose, stomach and vocal cords, along with nerves, they write, “in a borderline state.” These manifestations were not the result of unusual events, such as a meeting with the president of the United States or with the prime minister of Britain: They were results of Weizmann’s everyday pressures and workloads. And above all this, the historians’ sources show, was his tendency toward hypochondria and psychosomatic symptoms, which aggravated his health problems.

The archives show clearly that medical matters preoccupied Weizmann for long periods of time. Stints at Europe’s luxurious spas, which he was fortunate enough to be able to afford, became a way of life for him.

Between handshakes with Winston Churchill and intense conversations with Lord Balfour, between a fiery speech at the Zionist Congress and a meeting in the White House, lurked a leader prone to gloominess and anxiety.

Nor did he hesitate to reveal his aches and pains to others. In some cases he absolutely reveled in doing so and even exploited this in his relationships with women, in a manner an outside reader is liable to find embarrassing.

“When we examined the dynamics of his courtship, we discovered that after he met a woman, he would immediately tell her about all his pains, ailments and the pills he was taking, how tired he was and how hard life was,” Golani says. “In great detail. You’re flabbergasted. This is how you court a woman? But it worked.”

In letters he and his wife exchanged, the two complained at length about the state of their health. Weizmann also shared his medical problems with friends from various circles, including some very famous figures, and did not hesitate to ask for their help. On one occasion, he wrote to Albert Einstein from London that when he has nothing better to do, he should send along some words of encouragement.

Faithful to you, you and you

Hanna Rovina was the most famous but there were plenty more women in Weizmann’s life in addition to Vera. “He desperately needed the company of women who could comfort him and admire him and listen to descriptions of his multiple illnesses,” Reinharz says.

One of the most prominent of them was Leonie Landsberg, the young wife of the chairman of the Zionist Movement in Germany. She was captivated at the 1921 Zionist Congress in Carlsbad, while observing Weizmann from the audience. She was 21 at the time; he was 47. He comports himself like a naval officer, she wrote, with a natural, free, confident and yet studied walk, as befits only someone who walks a lot or who has to adjust his steps to a listing ship. That was the initial impression he created. Three years later, they met again, when he delivered a speech in Jerusalem. Landsberg felt as though he didn’t take his eyes off her.

Leonie Landsberg.
Leonie Landsberg.

Two months later, at a German Zionist convention in Wiesbaden, she went up to him and introduced herself. As she later recalled, they looked into each other’s eyes intensely. She was thrilled by his appearance, his tall, lithe figure, the shapely head that evoked Lenin’s, the fine brow and very deep, refined voice – which she felt could probably belong only to someone whose mother tongue was Russian – and by his overwhelming charm.

Afterward, she sat next to him at an intimate meal she arranged for some of the convention’s participants in her home, and also introduced her two daughters to him. Wasting no time, Weizmann plied her with increasingly intimate letters.

“Dear girl,” he wrote her on one occasion, he could hardly wait for June to arrive, for a rest and so they could be together again, happy. And, on another occasion he wrote that he had wanted very much to see her and speak to her, even if only for a short time, but they would have to postpone the meeting – “until when?”

“What Wiesbaden did for him, no sanatorium ever could,” the biographers note.

The short, tempestuous and intense affair he had with Christiana Morgan, an American woman, in 1921, ended with a promise of marriage. She was 23, he was twice her age, and they were both married. Morgan would later become a psychoanalyst and gain fame as the co-author of the Thematic Apperception Test, widely used for psychological evaluation of personality traits and relationships.

The two met during a campaign to raise funds for the establishment of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem that Weizmann conducted in New York together with Albert Einstein who was by then a world-famous physicist. Morgan, though not Jewish herself, was enchanted when he spoke passionately about Zionism. Indeed, his articulateness and ability to show an interest in his interlocutors attracted women and men alike. “It is difficult to find the focal point of his charm: His voice, his movement, his eyes created a very alluring performance,” write Golani and Reinharz, in an effort to decipher the secret of his charisma.

Weizmann was taken by Morgan’s beauty and her roots in the American elite. “He acted toward her like an ardent suitor, even though he was very cautious because of his high standing as the president of the World Zionist Organization,” the authors note.

Morgan was ready to convert to Judaism for Weizmann and also ordered a ticket to sail to England with a view to proceeding from there to faraway Palestine. But Weizmann got cold feet and returned from America to Europe without her. His journey, Golani and Reinharz note, took him back to his one overriding passion: leading the Zionist enterprise.

“Nothing,” they write, “would divert him from the political and diplomatic activity in which he had been caught up since the Great War, when the Zionist horizon opened to new possibilities. Not a loving woman, not his family, his wife, his sons, his mother, his brothers and his sisters, not his scientific career, not his health, not the intolerable comportment of the Jewish masses in Eastern Europe, London and New York. Not even the ongoing pestering of Zionist functionaries who made his life miserable – nothing would stand in his way.”

Christina Morgan.
Christina Morgan.

Weizmann later tried to revive the affair with Morgan but found that he had missed the boat. To a letter he sent her in 1922, he received an icy, evasive reply: She referred to him as “my friend,” explaining that it was very meaningful for her to address him thus and that she had never before appreciated the beauty and full meaning of that term. Her choice of the word “friend” in connection with a man for whom, just months earlier, she had wanted to divorce her husband so that she could marry him, was not accidental. And she didn’t stop there, adding, as a ringing slap in the face, that she very much looked forward to seeing “you and Mrs. Weizmann in Paris.”

‘A very deep chasm’

Readers of the new biography will meet several other women who played roles in Weizmann’s life. But what about his relations with Vera, his wife, and with his children? “He sacrificed the family on the altar of success very consciously,” Golani says, adding that his and Vera’s relationship was one of “mutual benefit and mutual dependence,” and “a political and economic alliance, but nothing beyond that.” Concrete testimony to this is the fact that they slept in separate rooms. “She kept her distance. She did not touch him much,” the authors write.

Vera Chatzman was born in Russia in 1881, seven years after Chaim. They met when she was studying medicine in Switzerland, while Chaim, who had a PhD in organic chemistry, was working there in a laboratory. Weizmann was engaged at the time to Sophia Getsova, who subsequently became a pioneering pathologist in the Yishuv. However, after falling in love with Vera he married her in 1906; together they immigrated to Britain, so he could pursue his academic career.

In his scientific work, Weizmann invented a new method to extract acetone from corn, thereby contributing to the British effort in World War I; acetone was needed to make cordite, a slow-burning explosive used in weapons. The British leadership appreciated the invention and its uses, and Weizmann became not only wealthy but also socially prominent. At the same time, he became more active as an advocate for Zionism, in which he had become initially involved at the end of the 19th century, but for which he now embarked on diplomatic lobbying efforts in Europe and the U.S. for the establishment of, first, a national home, and later a state, for the Jews.

He desperately needed the company of women who could comfort him and admire him and listen to descriptions of his multiple illnesses.

Reinharz

From the outset there was dissonance in his relationship with Vera, the biography shows. “A very deep chasm” divided them, “a pit with no consolation that gaped in their psyches because of their increasingly fractured relationship.” One reason for this was the fact that Vera gave up her own professional occupation and devoted herself to cultivating the career and activity of her husband. Moroever, she herself was not a dyed-in-the-wool Zionist. That Weizmann’s first love was Zionism, and not his wife, hardly helped improve the situation.

Weizmann’s lengthy absences from home on behalf of the demanding Zionist cause – and whose fruits included the Balfour Declaration, the Weizmann-Faisal Agreement, the establishment of the Hebrew University, the founding of the Jewish Agency and the United Nations Partition resolution of November 29, 1947 – are described in the book as both the cause and the effect of the crisis in his married life.

“He desperately lacked a woman with whom he could have a relationship that included romance, passion and also maternal caring, one who could accommodate him without making demands. The Eros, the fuel of his boundless energy, also disappeared from the marriage,” the authors write.

What is most glaring is a dire lack of communication: Weizmann was apprehensive about revealing to Vera his innermost feelings, his anger and disappointment at her, at himself and at their relationship. Naturally, he also found it difficult to admit that he did not feel her absence when he was away from home. Golani and Reinharz see the fact that he wrote letters to her as fulfilling a “duty toward one who needs to be placated,” rather than as the expression of sincere longings by a loving person.

The biographers raise the disturbing question, “Did he love Vera?” The answer is not very romantic: “In any event, he was not jealous of her. He was not afraid to leave her alone. If he was concerned for her, he was concerned for her not to become bored, not to do herself harm.”

Vera and Chaim Weizmann, at the 1935 Maccabiah Games, in Tel Aviv.
Vera and Chaim Weizmann, at the 1935 Maccabiah Games, in Tel Aviv. Credit: From the book, “The Founding Father.”

Sharp, cruel cold

Along with the disintegration of his marriage, Weizmann also failed as a father. According to the new book, his children “bothered” him even less than the relationship with his wife. He took no genuine interest in their welfare. Benjamin (Benjie), the oldest, concisely described the depth of the family crisis in a letter he wrote his mother in 1937, when he turned 30. After noting that he had been busy, worried and depressed, he says that he felt that this was the right time to write, because something was very amiss in the state of things at home. He just wants to “warn” her that it’s time the family took itself in hand, for otherwise the Jews might have a national home, but the family will not have a home at all.

His parents had abandoned the boy in London, in the care of a tough Catholic nanny with antisemitic inclinations. The correspondence between the couple indicates that they treated him as a burden. The prolonged neglect by an absentee father and a mother whose presence was apparently sometimes more oppressive than her absence “merged into a major crisis,” which erupted when the time came for university studies. His father pushed Benjie, against his will, to pursue the natural sciences – and also to instill Zionism in him. Benjie repeatedly abandoned his studies. In World War II he enlisted in the Royal Artillery, where he had a wretched time, suffered from combat stress, was hospitalized and discharged. His wife, a physician, looked after him. He did not immigrate to Israel in the wake of his father, but spent the latter part of his life as a farmer in Ireland.

Benjie’s son, David, who was born in 1940, is the Weizmanns’ only grandchild. Golani met him while researching the book. He informed the professor that he would wait on the platform at the Reading railroad station with a black-and-white dog so he would recognize him. The dog was superfluous. “Waiting on the platform was Chaim Weizmann. The conversations with David were in a real sense a kind of meeting with his grandfather,” Golani recalls.

Michael, the Weizmanns’ younger son, who was born in London in 1916, was seen as more successful than his older brother. He served as a pilot in the Royal Air Force in World War II and was killed when his plane was shot down over the Bay of Biscay, his body never recovered.

Weizmann would write to Vera at some point that Benjie and Michael, each in his way, were testaments to his own defeat. In his clumsy way he tried to compensate them for his neglect, but to no avail. They spoke a different language, he acknowledged, and he and they operated according to different standards and different values; they were strangers; and they not only belong to a different generation but to a different “category” – he wrote of their two sons.

He was not only aloof in terms of his relationship with his wife and children. His insensitivity extended also to his mother and his siblings. His mother, Rachel-Leah, immigrated to Palestine with seven of Weizmann’s brothers and sisters Feivel, Chaya, Gita, Fruma, Mina, Hilik and Moshe. The biography relates that they felt that their brother Chaim, who was tending to the whole “Jewish people,” was too busy and did not worry about them properly. Weizmann, for his part, exclaimed that he was “tired of altruism.”

His emotional stinginess and/or disability regarding familial relations is reflected in his reaction to the sudden death of his younger sister Mina, one of the first physicians in the Yishuv, in 1925, at age 35. Weizmann did not break off his diplomatic activities abroad even after being informed of the tragedy, nor did he bother to come to Palestine. In a letter to Leonie Landsberg, who was then the person he was closest to, he noted his sister’s death in passing, and only after discussing the antisemitism that was threatening the upcoming Jewish Congress in Vienna. He didn’t even mention her name.

Weizmann also behaved callously with his friends and confidants, whether personal or professional. “What was true regarding his family was all the more true regarding his social circle,” the authors write.

Reinharz: “He was a one-man band. He was not a team player. He never led a party. He had a small group of advisers who also needed to be his admirers. The moment he did not find them useful they were dropped from his circle of friends – almost overnight.” He adds, “Weizmann was prone to complain about others who were less energetic industrious than he, or less willing to take on work that needed to be accomplished. He attributed to others ill will, laziness and much more. He saw himself as suffering almost alone on behalf of the Jewish people, carrying the heavy burden of responsibility for them.”

At the same time, Reinharz notes, “he was loyal to his supporters, but he would mercilessly attack those who stood in his way, even if in the past they had been close friends. In the best case he only severed his contact with them. At worst, he would harbor lifelong resentment, harboring on intense dislike.”

The woman he’d once loved, Landsberg, who like him also immigrated to Palestine, was not spared his callousness. In 1944, she collapsed in the Weizmanns’ home during a visit there with her husband, and had to be hospitalized. Later, she and her husband separated, but in 1946, when she sought to renew her ties with Weizmann, in part because she needed financial assistance, he responded “with stern, even cruel coldness, wished her good health and turned his back as though Leonie hadn’t once been his heart’s desire,” write the authors.

Benjie Weizmann (center) with his father, arriving in New York in 1949.
Benjie Weizmann (center) with his father, arriving in New York in 1949. Credit: Wide World Photos (from the book)

They note that with the apparent exception of two women – Blanche (“Baffy”) Dugdale, Lord Balfour’s niece, with whom he was quite close, and Doris May, his secretary – “there was no one in the close circle whom Weizmann did not hurt at one stage or another.”

Ego battles and spitting

Every Israeli high-school student learns about Weizmann’s contribution to the publication of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, in which Great Britain recognized Palestine as the national home of the Jewish people. But the general public is less familiar with the rearguard battle that Weizmann fought in 1939 to prevent Britain’s publication of the White Paper, which limited the number of Jewish immigrants to the country and constituted a retreat from the Balfour Declaration. The battle was lost, ultimately, but the extraordinary methods Weizmann adopted in his fight show how far his determination and tenacity could take him.

On May 13, 1939, two days before the White Paper was due to be published, Weizmann was invited to the residence of Malcolm MacDonald, Britain’s colonial secretary in the government of Neville Chamberlain. This time he departed from the norms of diplomacy and did not attempt to conceal his anger. When MacDonald asked Weizmann, upon his arrival, how he was feeling, Weizmann glared back at him; when he asked how the trip to the estate had been, Weizmann ignored the question, according to the new biography: “Until the two of them entered the big house, the colonial secretary hovered around the silent president of the Zionist movement like an eager, fawning student. The servants observed the spectacle with embarrassment.”

Once they were inside, Weizmann lashed out at MacDonald, saying that the politician’s father must be turning over in his grave. Ramsay MacDonald, of the Labour Party, had been prime minister four years earlier. Summing up afterward, Weizmann noted that he had spat at MacDonald and that the latter had reacted with English restraint, as though it were raining. At the end of the meeting, he shattered etiquette by turning his back on MacDonald and leaving without saying goodbye or shaking his host’s hand.

Without Weizmann, we would remember Herzl as a playwright and a journalist, and Ben-Gurion would not have been Ben-Gurion at all.

Golani

In this period, Weizmann formulated a policy that would later be attributed to his political rival, David Ben-Gurion. Four months before the outbreak of World War II, Weizmann was adamant about articulating a complicated approach, in light of the two challenges that faced the Jewish leadership: the struggle against the British, on one hand, and the need to cooperate with them, on the other.

In that same month, May 1939, he wrote to Gen. Sir Henry Pownall, the director of military operations and intelligence in the War Office, informing him that he and his colleagues very much wanted the Yishuv to throw its full weight behind Britain in the even of an “emergency.” However, the Mandatory government’s new policy was liable to cause a serious psychological difficulty in this regard: It was a policy that left the Yishuv no choice but to resist, by all lawful means. Nevertheless, he wrote, resistance to a specific policy of the present British government would not in the least affect the Yishuv’s general attitude to Great Britain or its willingness to help in an emergency with all the means at its disposal. Britain’s struggle, he stated, is the Yishuv’s struggle.

On September 12, 1939, eleven days after war erupted, Jewish Agency head David Ben-Gurion, in a speech to the Mapai party’s central committee, articulated the approach Weizmann had set forth four months earlier: “We must help the [British] army as though there is no White Paper, and we must resist the White Paper as though there is no war,” he said.

According to Golani and Reinharz, Ben-Gurion “was attentive to Weizmann” – in other words, he repeated what Weizmann had said, but in his own words. Afterward, Ben-Gurion’s biographer Shabtai Teveth attributed this policy to his protagonist, terming it the “double formula.”

Eight years later, Weizmann again mobilized himself, this time in a different arena. On the eve of the United Nations vote on the Palestine partition plan, on November 29, 1947, he worked day and night behind the scenes in New York to ensure that it would be passed. At the time, Weizmann held no official position in the movement. He acted alone and without any authority as a “one-person delegation,” as the biographers describe him. Two other delegations represented the state-in-the-making and the Jewish people – the former headed by Moshe Sharett, who would become Israel’s first foreign minister; the latter, of the Jewish Agency, was led by the American Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver.

Weizmann loathed them both. If we’re not careful, he wrote to Doris May, his secretary, we’re liable to get a Jewish state with Silver as president and Ben-Gurion as prime minister, God help us.

Weizmann met with U.S. President Harry Truman and with British Colonial Secretary Arthur Creech Jones. In addition, he did whatever he could in advance of the vote, going around UN envoys to appeal directly to hesitant heads of state. To Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, he wrote that he was asking for his help in the most critical hour in 2,000 years of Jewish history. He sent the same message to the president of the Philippines, and also wrote the leaders of France, Holland, New Zealand and others. It was nerve-racking, but those were the rules of the game, he explained.

The first president of Israel Chaim Weizmann takes the oath of office in the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem, February 17, 1949.
The first president of Israel Chaim Weizmann takes the oath of office in the Jewish Agency building in Jerusalem, February 17, 1949.Credit: David Eldan, GPO

Different legacies

In the course of writing their biography, Golani and Reinharz received financial and documentary assistance from the Rehovot-based Yad Chaim Weizmann, the public institution that maintains the Weizmann Archives and is in charge of preserving his legacy. The fact that the result of their work is not a hagiography but a book that examines Weizmann and his endeavors critically and without bias, makes their achievement all the more impressive.

“It was clear to us that Yad Weizmann sees Weizmann differently from the way we would present him. They treated that with a marvelous mixture of apprehension and admiration,” Golani says, stressing that, “we were not accountable to anyone.”

The only person who “interfered” with the writing of the biography, Golani says, was Vera Weizmann: Before her death, in 1966, she ordered the destruction of all her personal correspondence.

“The historian and the biographer mourn that decision, but in the end the loss is primarily hers,” Golani observes – because most of what we know about her character and personality comes by way of her husband.

Weizmann’s latter years, in which he served as Israel’s first president, were among the worst in his life. According to Golani, this stemmed from the crisis of an individual who has devoted decades to realizing his life’s dream – and then suddenly sees it come true.

“In the case of Weizmann,” the professor says, “the response was accompanied by mental and physical regression – a kind of voiding of a person dispossessed of his dream.”

As Golani sees it, the founding father of the State of Israel, who died in 1952, was a broken man, during his brief period in the country. “His body and mind told him that it was enough. He tried to refuse them. In vain.”

Paradoxically, in the collective memory, Weizmann remains primarily the country’s president, though that’s hardly where he left his greatest historical imprint. Few Israelis are aware of his concrete contribution to the creation of the state.

Golani: “We understood very quickly that there is an incomprehensible disparity between the image and memory of Weizmann, and his true place in history. It’s not that people don’t think he’s important. It’s worse than that: He is simply not remembered, he doesn’t exist in the Israeli ethos.”

Why is that?

“It’s like an egg. The shell is very important until the chick hatches. And when that happens – when the State of Israel is established – the shell is no longer important. It’s the end of an era. Israel needed different heroes – Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan – not diplomats like Weizmann, who didn’t even want to live here. A person like that cannot stand at the center of the historical memory.”

It’s a bit sad.

“Weizmann is like Moses, in the sense that he took the Zionist story from the time of Herzl’s vision and bore it in the desert of uncertainty, between the world wars, until the establishment of the State of Israel by Ben-Gurion. But without Weizmann, we would remember Herzl as a playwright and a journalist, and Ben-Gurion would not have been Ben-Gurion at all.”

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