Commentary Magazine


The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann, Vols. III-VII, General Editor, Meyer W. Weisgal

The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann. Vols. III-VII.
by Meyer W. Weisgal.
Vol. III, Oxford-Keter, Inc. 414 pp. $12.50. Vols. IV-VII, Keter, Inc. Vol. IV: 358 pp. Vol. V: 431 pp. Vol. VI: 454 pp. Vol. VII: 569 pp. $17.50 each volume.

The letters and papers of Chaim Weizmann began to be collected for publication, under the guidance of his devoted disciple Meyer Weisgal, in 1949. With the major collecting and research work well under way, the first volume (going up to 1902) appeared in 1968.1 Since then the pace has accelerated, and seven volumes are now available, carrying the story halfway, but with a distinct sense of flourish, to November 1917. The flourish can be saluted since the seventh volume coincides in publication with the 100th anniversary year of Weizmann’s birth and at the same time deals with the background to his first great triumph—the Balfour Declaration.

If for a second one could freeze history at that point, what a romantic story it would be, documented perfectly in these seven volumes. For decades the fight has been vague—unreal—and suddenly victory is within reach. After nearly 2,000 years of exile, the Jews are promised a National Home in the land they have dreamed of and prayed for. Looking back now, one sees it as a moment of total innocence. Ahead were tragedies and achievements beyond anyone’s conception. Yet if the precise course and scale of events were unpredictable, every element of them is tangible in these letters, governed as they are by an overpowering faith: a people crippled by suffering will transform itself in liberty. This is the thesis: and despite everything it has been fulfilled.

What is tangible too—but more baleful in its meaning—is the inwardness of this vision. The transformation called for is so momentous that it must absorb Jews totally. Success is the only way to win understanding. They will hurt no one, displace no one, but merely build where nothing existed, “making the desert bloom,” “bridging East and West,” totally sincere in every cliché that finds expression. With mounting amazement they were to learn that their inward conviction was not going to dispel enmity: yet it was a posture that the builders of Zion could never give up, even in the face of massacre and war. “One day the Arabs will understand. . . .” The tragedy was in fact immutable in the terms of the game. Without total self-absorption, nothing comparable could have been achieved. With it, they could never relax toward “accommodation” in any terms that would satisfy the Arabs.

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But if this impasse was built into the story from the beginning, the Balfour Declaration still has a messianic ring about it, for something quite extraordinary happened to the Jewish people at that moment. In the aftermath of later reversals and betrayals, Britain’s motivations in issuing the Declaration, and Weizmann’s decisive contribution to it, have occasionally been sprinkled with a kind of stale sawdust. Yet if one has a shred of historical imagination, one can see that it was revolutionary to Jewish consciousness. Isaiah Friedman, author of a new study of this period, says, quite simply: “After November 1917, Jewry was never the same again.” In terms of the Mandate that was to follow, “the Jewish people” had become “an entity recognized by international law.” What had happened for all time was “the recognition of the collective Jewish right to Palestine.”

Weizmann was not the only begetter of the Declaration, but his role was crucial. Walter Laqueur, the latest and perhaps the coolest commentator on these events, says in A History of Zionism:

The Balfour Declaration was essentially the work of one man—Chaim Weizmann. Without his leadership and persistent lobbying, the Zionist movement would not have received the charter on which its subsequent activities were based.

The late Richard Crossman, with characteristic élan, had said a few years earlier in A Nation Reborn that the Balfour Declaration was “one of the very rare cases where one can assert with confidence that one man’s personality changed the course of history.” And now we can follow the story of how this happened firsthand, in Weizmann’s own letters. The experience is like reading a great novel.

The analogy of a novel is apposite for two reasons. First, there is the exciting quality of suspense that pervades material composed day-by-day without hindsight. One knows how it is going to end, but one is caught up in each thread of the story, wondering where it will lead, where it will fit in. The other quality is even more novelistic. The letters pour out to a vast variety of people whose characters gradually emerge, always through Weizmann’s eyes, and yet with our own feelings aroused too, so that we are never content to accept them as ciphers with readymade parts. The letters are not dialogue—we are given only Weizmann’s end of the exchange in detail—yet they suggest character the way a very spare dialogue often does in a novel. And it is a great cast of characters, starting off with Jews who were at home equally with Sholem Aleichem and Dostoevsky, and then adding in strong elements of The Forsyte Saga as Weizmann’s society connections begin to expand after 1914.

But above all, of course, it is Weizmann’s own character that we are concerned with. Until 1918 Weizmann had no executive status in the Zionist movement but operated almost from the sidelines. We find his authority growing from 1915 on, when he is working in London for the government as a high-level scientific adviser and administrator, at ease in the British corridors of power, and trusted as the channel of communication to important Jewish leaders the world over. But the sense of his own personal power has been there from the beginning. Turning back from Vol. VII to the earlier days when he is fighting desperately for his voice to be heard—pleading with friends, urging them on, inspiring, denouncing, working all through the night often in remote places, without power and without funds—one finds in his letters the same conviction, the same utter self-confidence. What might have been taken in the early letters for bossiness, or youthful hot temper—Weizmann had plenty of that—is seen, as he moved on, to emerge from some unshakable quality at his core. It is not easy to analyze the look of distinction that seemed to flow from his physical presence, but in the spontaneity of the letters one at least gets a whiff of the mysterious power that so many have spoken and written of.

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The Editorial Board of this project decided, from the beginning, to print all the letters, in order to present a view of Weizmann, as Meyer Weisgal says in the Foreword to Vol. II, “through the prism of his own personality,” with no suspicion of “myth-making” that selections would have encouraged. This was a wise decision, for through the uninhibited profusion of the letters, covering so many issues and events that stirred him, we are brought vividly in touch not merely with the issues themselves—many of them still potent in Jewish life—but with a set of principles and values that were instinctive to Weizmann and far out-live the immediate circumstances in which they were expressed.

One such issue was Weizmann’s instinctive hatred of all forms of Marxist ideology among Jews. The fact that the ideologues in question were anti-Zionist was not the main point; rather, they were morally contemptible in Weizmann’s view for running away from their Jewish identity, and intellectually stupid for believing that Marxism really meant a brotherhood of man that would incidentally solve all Jewish problems. In the early volumes we read of all-night debates with other students in Geneva, reported in letters to his Zionist comrades, in which his contempt for the “socialists” expresses itself somewhat nastily and yet with a compelling kind of insight. Writing to Leo Motzkin in June 1900, he says:

I have seen socialists here unable to utter two words without swearing, spitting, or slandering someone three times, and I confess, dear friend, that I am not filled with respect for these representatives of the social conscience and social justice. The socialism of most of the local people . . . is merely an Ausfluss of their own insignificance and individual weakness. . . . They flock to the crowd because they are frightened of themselves. Only bitterness and similar negative motives drive our semi-Jewish youth here into the socialist camp. . . . They bring to socialism the elements of corruption and ferment. That is why they cannot be Zionists. They are lackeys, and lackeys in socialism cannot understand the boldness and the great cultural and ethical significance of the idea of the liberation of Jewry.

In his famous long letter to Herzl in May 1903, he is, in a way, more sympathetic. He has seen the way the Jewish youth in Russia suffer martyrdom in their thousands for the socialist cause, and longs to attach their enthusiasm to Zionism. The testing moment of this hope is reflected in Vol. VII, with the Russian upheavals of 1917. After the March revolution, followed by the provisional government, Weizmann shared with all Russian Jewry the sense of release from the horrors of Czardom, and (as his letters show) saw a chance to rouse enthusiasm among Russian Jews and the government itself for a British-sponsored homeland in Palestine. But with the Bolshevik takeover—virtually on the day of the Balfour Declaration—he recognized instantly (unlike some who still had hopes) that all the evils in Marxism that he had foreseen—corruption, confusion, terror—would rise to the surface. The future of Russian Jewry, briefly hopeful, would sink into the abyss.

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Another issue which seemed, at the time, more of a side issue, but which has persisted in various forms through the years and is still, in a sense, a fulcrum for Israel’s future, is the role of “culture” in Zionist work. Zionism in Weizmann’s view could never be simply a matter of the rescue of the persecuted, or even the creation of a state. It had to be “a life-giving force” which made Jews into better human beings, turning everything negative, stale, or corrupt into a positive reassertion of decency and dignity. In his early arguments he never put it quite so crudely, but merely talked endlessly of the need for “cultural programs” to insert “Jewish content” into the movement. He could be sardonic about what he was trying to do: “the wretched cultural issue,” he says in a letter, “is prowling unsolved like a ghost from one Congress to the next.” Yet it was central to his critique of Herzl, and could lead him to say in a speech, at the height of Herzl’s power:

To tell the truth, Herzl is not a nationalist but a project conceiver. . . . He considers external conditions only, instead of the force on which we rely—the psychology of the people and the aspirations which animate it.

The set of values which Weizmann drew on was taken by him to flow directly from the Bible, which he quotes constantly in the letters, though mostly as a kind of familiar shorthand, as everyone today quotes Shakespeare. Yet unlike another Bible-quoter, David Ben-Gurion, Weizmann did not agree that everything in Jewish history between the close of the biblical period and the reestablishment of the Jewish state in modern times was peripheral and negative. For Ben-Gurion, the Diaspora of 2,000 years—and the Diaspora today—had to be consciously rooted out. “We must not be proud of it,” he wrote. “On the contrary, we must reject it utterly and completely.” Weizmann’s concept was totally different. For him, Jewish history was not put into limbo when the Diaspora began: Jews of the remote past and the 20th century were part of an unbroken, unfolding story. The Bible was not a documentation of glory now being resurrected: it was an ancient literature, full of mysterious power, which had fed Jewish observance and aspiration continuously.

For Ben-Gurion, there were only “four major occurrences in Jewish history” (as he put it)—the Exodus, the giving of the Torah, the conquest of the land by Joshua, and the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. For Weizmann, the meaning of being a Jew would never express itself in acts of power. The return to the land of Israel meant political independence, but always he saw it in terms of interior regeneration. What kind of people morally would the people of Israel become? To put it more simply: what kind of Jews would they be? This was a question that lingered forever in his mind.

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Here, ultimately, is the paradox of the man revealed in these seven volumes of letters. From youth, he is totally at home in political strategy: from 1917 onward he will become a figure of political magic, at ease with the mighty of the world, powerful, sophisticated. Yet at heart he is a simple moralist. To be a Jew in his sense—to be a “good” Jew—was a question of behavior: one had to act in a way consonant with the spirit and faith that had carried Jews through their long Diaspora. To break this pattern of behavior—as in taking to arms—might be logically necessary, but it was not a task he could have embraced with the boldness and brashness of a Ben-Gurion. By the same token, the State of Israel, once secured, would have had a different ethos had he been young enough or strong enough to implant in it the trusting warmth of his own character.

Could he have found an accommodation with the Arabs? Certainly he was a man of compromise: but by now the situation had moved beyond the scope of sweet reason. In his last great speeches—to the Anglo-American Committee of 1946 and the Zionist Congress in that year—the power he projects is spiritual. He is like Moses on Mt. Pisgah—proud but baffled. All he asks for the Jews is a tiny piece of land where they can be themselves, neither dominating nor dominated. To be themselves was not to be turned into a new Israeli race, but to express, ineffably, the spirit of the centuries.

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Footnotes

1 See my “The Young Weizmann,” COMMENTARY, June 1971, discussing Vols. I and II.

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