Commentary Magazine

The Young Weizmann

What kind of book tells us most about history—the straight “objective” story from A to Z, or the book with fragmentary but living echoes of the past, where the historian keeps in the background and we are free to build up our own response to the voices we hear? Something of this direct personal contact with history is offered us in the first two volumes now issued of what is to be a massive venture—the publication in twenty-six volumes of all the letters and papers of Chaim Weizmann, first President of Israel.1

It is a great conception, not merely to put everything “on the record” but to open the door in a most imaginative way to a uniquely creative period of Jewish history. The work is being carried out by a devoted band of scholars, with Meyer Weisgal (former president of the Weizmann Institute) as General Editor; and it is likely that only a man of Weisgal’s relentless enthusiasm could have seized the idea—entrusted to him personally by Weizmann in 1949—with the power and vision to bring it to completion. The letters alone will fill twenty volumes; and the intention is to have them ready (and perhaps all printed) in time for the one-hundredth anniversary, in November 1974, of Weizmann’s birth. The editing and the explanatory material is of the highest quality, so that we are given an intimate picture not only of Weizmann himself but of all the forces at work in that far-off world—a maelstrom of politics and aspiration, ancient faith and revolution, gentle humanities torn by pride and jealousy, a tiny, almost helpless group of idealists working night and day on wearying administrative tasks toward a triumph that they could hardly envisage.

A straight biography of Weizmann would be tailored to what was clear-cut and lasting in his achievement. It is quite a different experience to move slowly ourselves through his letters, reliving the struggles with him without foresight, sharing his passions and doubts, his strength and frailties, through words which reflect the uncertainties of the moment and the unpredictabilities of the future. If we are ever to understand the creation of the State of Israel, we have somehow to reenter the minds of a people in Eastern Europe who were not simply seeking freedom like their neighbors, but a life that would make all history come “true,” with the power of a miracle. It is too facile to talk of Jewry’s “age-old dream” of a Return, as if it were always waiting to be realized. For two thousand years it had been a fantasy: suddenly it was put on the map of reality. Many men and women of widely different talents played essential roles: Weizmann’s own part was unique, reflecting at every turn a special amalgam of intellect and feeling. The strange thing is that the more his personal quality is exposed, the more it becomes symbolic of Jewish existence in general. One begins to understand what is meant by Sir Isaiah Berlin’s oft-quoted remark that the State of Israel was created in Weizmann’s image. A man of the rarest quality, born to lead and command, he drew ultimately, and quite simply, on the authority of his feeling as a Jew; the “Western man,” liberated and fulfilled, was still at one, as Israel even today is, with the subtle complexities of the Russian-Jewish tradition.

The period covered by these early volumes (the second goes only to August 1903), has a specially intriguing flavor. Later we shall meet Weizmann the leader, the diplomat, the celebrity. Here, mostly in his mid-twenties, Weizmann is still in the wings, a young chemist, desperately poor, passionately excited by the vision which fills him of a Jewish rebirth, tormented by the conflicting pressures of his Zionist and scientific work, full of complaint—as a young man has to be—at the crass stupidity or vulgarity of those in power. His heart is open to all his people: his mind and tastes link him with a tiny band of friends, intellectuals like himself. He falls in love, which creates its own crisis, though ultimately brings a special kind of blessing. To his family, his fiancée, and his comrades he is warm, spontaneous, affectionate. To others he might seem impetuous, demanding. He reveres Herzl, but is trying to formulate a different kind of Zionism. A home in Palestine has to be more than a refuge, but as yet he can’t define its full range. He speaks of culture and technology, the role of a Jewish university, the value of developing practical colonization in Palestine, the democratic participation of the masses (as distinct from merely diplomatic activity), the bridge that has to be built between the inward-looking Jews of Eastern Europe and the sophisticated Western world. Zionism has to make all this possible—to bring out all dormant feelings, to synthesize every-thing in a great sweep forward. Anything less, any weakness, any compromise is to be resisted.

These are the themes, but, as with a program note for a concert, the music itself has to be heard for the analysis to have meaning. For the most part Weizmann was writing in these letters about practical affairs—organizing, stimulating, criticizing, pleading, sometimes gently, sometimes bitterly; yet it was all shaped by the vision he had in him of a future for the Jewish people that would express a buried beauty waiting to be released. Suffering, weakness, distortion, narrow-mindedness—these were burdens that had to be transmuted through the expression of this new positive “natural” feeling. A solution that called for disappearance was not merely impracticable: it was degradation—a cowardly denial of something instinctive to every Jew who wanted to be a free human being.



The issue of disappearance is one which has haunted argument whenever liberalism or revolution have seemed to offer Jews a way out of the discrimination or narrowness of their lives. In the Europe of Weizmann’s youth it was a battle fought with particular intensity. In the background he came from there could be no easy watering-down of differences between the Jew and his neighbor. The Jewish masses of Central and Eastern Europe were not to be freed of the rigid separatism of their lives without cataclysmic disturbance. Jewish attachments were so deep that they would either have to be deliberately smothered, or given new “living” expression. The Communists looked to the first solution, the Zionists to the other, with many Jews holding intervening or overlapping positions, and with all views locked in desperate battle.

It was a period of turmoil, with many foreshadowings of the future. On the surface, things might look promising. The old empires in which the Jews lived were disintegrating, with liberalism and new nationalisms on the march. But many Jews looking hopefully in these directions were discovering that the growth of liberalism, in this background, had a dark underside. To the relentless defenders of anciens régimes the Jews were ever-available scapegoats for the diversion of unrest, so that organized pogroms actually increased. To the newly emerging nationalisms, the Jews were felt to be outsiders even more than had been the case under the more pluralistic empires. The full-hearted participation of young Jews in nationalist and revolutionary movements was no guarantee of acceptance. The more the Jew broke through the ghetto into the professions, the academic world, trade, and industry, or into active political participation, the more visible he became, and the more was his desire to coexist, or assimilate, resented by bigots and rivals.

To the young Weizmann, as revealed in these early letters, the message was crystal clear. Liberalism and democracy were legitimate aims for man; but to expect the achievement of these goals to result in a self-respecting future for Jews in any part of what was then the Russian Empire was to ignore the lessons of history. Nor was mankind to be transformed through some form of Marxian revolution. The revolution had to be inward: the strength of the Jews had to be canalized into a rebirth of pride, linked with their tradition. Weizmann fought for these ideas among the Jewish students pursuing their higher education, like himself, in lands adjacent to Russia. With the certainty he had that the Marxist approach was corrupt intellectually, he showed at the same time a deep contempt for the attitude it produced, which he regarded as morally bankrupt.

In Geneva, particularly, exiled Russian Communist and socialist leaders exercised an influence on Jewish students which Weizmann tried to offset, debating directly with the great Plekhanov and others. He is very disturbed, he writes in one letter, at the “pernicious effect” that Plekhanov (“the General of the Russian Revolution,” he calls him) is having:

I confess that I am not filled with respect for these representatives of social conscience and social justice. . . . [Their socialism] is merely an Ausfluss of their own insignificance and individual weakness: they need a crowd to hide behind it, not to educate it. . . . Only bitterness and similar negative motives drive our semi-Jewish youth here into the socialist camp, and on the whole they bring to socialism the elements of corruption and ferment. . . . This 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.

He was just as angry—perhaps even more angry—at those Jewish socialists in the Bund who, while they kept an intense Jewish pride and identity centered around Yiddish, opposed Zionism fiercely and saw a future through participation in Russian politics. They were the most effective competitors for youth and the workers, and there was something almost frenetic in Weizmann’s attempt to fight them. As he saw it, “Bundism” could only lead to “a degenerate, vicious assimilation.” One debate with them that we are told of, in Berne, lasted for three nights. Life was an endless round of speeches and debates, interspersed with missions throughout Western Europe to establish committees and raise funds for the practical work he was trying to further. A special aim at this period was to lay the foundations for the establishment of some kind of Jewish university or technical college in Palestine (or even in Europe) that would start the long-term job of bringing the emerging Jews into Western life, while reinforcing their Jewish pride.

It is indeed partly due to this endless traveling that so many letters have survived from this period to document Weizmann’s thoughts. In the first volume, a large part of the letters are those he wrote to his fiancée, Vera, almost from the day they met. She kept them all. At one level they are affectionate—and sometimes passionate—love-letters; but they also describe what he was doing from day to day when they were separated. She was from a very different Russian-Jewish background, but was soon part of his intimate family and student group. At critical moments, as these letters show, she kept him from what would have been a fatal decision—to give up science in order to devote all his time to Zionism. The double strain was at times crippling, but somehow he survived, with the result that as a Zionist leader in later years he was fortified by his stature as a chemist and by the financial independence which his discoveries gave him.

The other lucky chance which preserved so many letters from this early period was that for a time Weizmann was running an office—virtually single-handedly—in Geneva to further his plan for the university (organizing questionnaires on student numbers, collecting funds, and founding societies), linking this with his work for the small Zionist party (the “Democratic Fraction”) which he and his friends had founded, and pushing ahead strenuously with a plan to publish a periodical (Der Jude) to express all these ideas. His office had not yet acquired a typewriter and carbon paper, but Weizmann made copies of his letters on what was then called a “press-book,” from which we can see (albeit with gaps) the great range of his Zionist work—utterly exhausting, it proved—in the midst of his scientific teaching and research.

At this stage, much of his Zionist work seemed doomed to failure. The university, despite all his efforts, remained just an idea. The periodical had to be abandoned just when it was due to appear: the Kishinev pogrom massacre (Passover 1903) had erupted on the scene, absorbing all attention and funds. The party work never caught fire. It had been started by a few young people like himself (notably Berthold Feiwel and Martin Buber) to give value to the spiritual teachings of Ahad Ha’am and to pinpoint some of the things they felt wrong with the movement—the “aloofness” of the great Herzl to the “living” ideas of the youth, and the power he gave (without understanding the dangers) to the Mizrahi (religious) party. Herzl was suspicious of the Fraction from the start. There was a flaming row over an uncompromising critique, published by Ahad Ha’am, of Herzl’s novel Altneuland. The Fraction was attacked by the Russian authorities as socialist (to Weizmann’s horror!). Weizmann had to write to Herzl declaring his loyalty and pleading with him to take no notice of all the scurrilous rumors being circulated.



Yet despite all these setbacks, the work went on, touched at many points with the humor and affection of friendship, and illumined by the analytical power which Weizmann applied to the problems which seemed central to the future. Even in the short period covered so far in the letters, one sees the leader beginning to emerge. At twenty-one, the jollities of student life crop up, with everything else depressing him utterly. At this stage he was still studying in Berlin. Back home in “God-forsaken” Pinsk, he beseeches his friend Leo Motzkin for news:

What’s happening in the Verein [debating society]? Have you written your paper on anti-Semitism? . . . I am incredibly bored here and have not taken up at all with the jeunesse dorée of Pinsk. . . . We have managed to found a literary circle . . . but our members do not really understand nationalism. . . . There is a depressed dull state of mind everywhere. . . . The monotony is only broken occasionally when one indulges in indignation at the emptiness and nastiness of our leading Jews. . . .

Never mind, it will be merrier soon in Berlin. Everyone will assemble there and we shall start a good life again. . . . You will absolutely have to initiate me into the mysteries of mathematics: this is indispensable to me for my future progress. . . .

As his Zionist work grows, he finds it harder and harder to hide his despair:

There are so many enemies on all sides, so many attacks, and all this has to be fought off. . . . Will our [Congress] delegates have enough energy and courage to rise to the height of the task. . . . Shall we succeed in attaining peace in Zionism and doing away with Bruderkrieg. . . . I am going to Basle with a heavy heart. . . .

“We are universally betrayed,” he writes to another correspondent, “and so the faithful few have to slave all the harder.”

But while his letters continue to lament the problems, he is tireless in defining the positive aims which lie behind the most boring of administrative tasks. The questionnaires on Jewish students—he tells a correspondent in Saratov—have helped to bring a whole movement (for the university) into existence. He warns against amateurism, which would make it into “a half-baked project.” To a correspondent in Kharkov, in despair at opposition, he says:

A long time will have to elapse before better, stronger creative forces arise in Judaism. Until then we are the ones who are called upon to keep watch. . . . We are now at the beginning of a difficult but glorious endeavor. I persist in my unshakable conviction that our ability will match our aspiration. . . . Do all you can—even more—shake the people out of their slumber, heap scorn on them, tell them the truth, the whole truth. . . .

To another correspondent, in Geneva, he talks of the value of the proposed periodical (“it will make Jews out of these semi-people”); and if the university project is added: “Such projects create a force and are themselves given propulsion by that force.” To friends in Moscow he is frank about the role of their Democratic Fraction:

It has become quite clear to me that we ourselves are not a group of democrats, but rather l’intéllectuelle dans le sionisme, if one may use the term. This does not exclude the democratic process in our activities among the broad mass of people. . . . [Our paper] must be a golden bridge on which the intellectuals of Europe will meet with our Jews. . . . It must be an Elite-Organ. . . .

To Menahem Ussishkin, already an established figure, he expounds the leadership principle in greater detail. In Russia itself, he says, there is no possibility of creating a stable force, “for everything is built on a volcano.” They must create “a cadre, which would take all activity into its hands.” Groups would go to England, America, and Galicia to rally support:

The rallying theme must be a nationalization of emigration, and the unification of the Golus in its entirety through Zionism. . . . This order of “missionaries” must encompass a maximum purpose from the outset. . . . I shall probably begin my tour around the world as early as this summer [1903]. I want to see Jews wherever they are. . . .

But the most remarkable letter is a long memorandum to Herzl, covering twenty-two pages of Volume II, analyzing the complex relationship between Russia and the Jews, and drawing conclusions—almost in prophetic form—for the Zionist struggle. The political aim of the letter was to arouse Herzl to the dangers ahead if Jewish clericalism (in the form of the Mizrahi party) was allowed to keep its dominant hold on the movement. At the same time Weizmann gives full rein to his long-held feeling that any reliance by Russian Jews on socialist or Communist messianism would be self-deluding for them and tragic for the Jewish people. He pleads with Herzl to allow more room in the movement for his own “young” group through which Zionism could unite the Jewish people of all ages and outlooks.

The great mass of young Jews in Russia, he says, are anti-Zionist, “not from a desire to assimilate but through revolutionary conviction.” Hundreds of thousands (mostly very young) had been arrested, “offering themselves for sacrifice as though seized by a fever.” Zionism in its present form made no appeal because its two main elements were equally abhorrent to them: at one end, the powerful Mizrahists, expressing a medievalism that they detested; at the other end, the equally repellent “petit-bourgeois” Zionists.

If the youth of Russia were to be saved for the Jewish people, the ideas of the Democratic Fraction could be the means:

It alone is capable of assuming the struggle against the revolutionaries. It alone is freedom-loving and socially enlightened. It extracts the Jewish essence from among the masses and pours it into a European mould.

Looking further ahead, he sees that Russia, though the “natural” base of mass Jewry at the time, cannot be relied on. The Jewries of other countries must be given an organic role, for in this way alone will the Zionist idea be given a lasting base from which to work.

There is a footnote in the book summarizing Herzl’s reply. The sweep of Weizmann’s argument left him, it seems, untouched, and he concentrates on the “divisiveness” which, as he sees it, Weizmann’s group had introduced into the movement.

To understand the Weizmann of this period, one should look at the revealing photograph which appears opposite page 1 of Volume I, showing him as dark, gaunt, even haggard, with a scruffy, unruly beard and deepset, troubled eyes. For later years there is the more familiar picture (as painted by an English society painter in 1934) which appears on the jacket, in which his face is rounded, trim-bearded, assured, fulfilled—wise and warm. But it is the earlier picture and the letters of that period which tell us more, and particularly how we are to understand the dictum that Israel was “created in his image.”



On the surface it is perplexing. The Israel of today seems in many ways far removed from the extremely personal blend of tastes and instincts which motivated Weizmann. The state came into existence (and has survived) through a form of militarism, daring, and violence which was entirely alien to him. The socialist idealism which was an essential element in the Zionism of the masses and became so powerful in the growth of Israel left him cold. The clericalism which he deeply disliked also took hold and grew. The petit-bourgeois mentality which always inspired contempt in him wherever he observed it is the other element visible everywhere, and often in the German and American forms which he found so distasteful. He was in fact a difficult, autocratic man, as these letters show, with an inborn air of superiority which was to fit him well when he moved among the potentates of the world but would obviously be much less suited to the rough and tumble of a small, bustling, precarious state.

Yet he expressed the soul of this state in its true historic sense. It was because he reached back to Jewish roots that he had no patience for anything “external”—say, socialism—that might be divergent. This completely free man—a proud leader, a scientist, a sophisticated man of the world—was still ultimately a Jew of the tradition: and it was this sense of unity with the ages that gave him his distinction.

To understand him, then, one has to turn back to the early photograph and think of the Weizmann whose sole consuming passion was to give the people of his childhood a future of self-respect. Herzl had towered over the scene, but without this living source. Before him, Moses Hess—moving on from Communism—had seen the Jewish role in history, symbolized in “Jerusalem,” as part of the cosmic process. With Weizmann it was simpler and deeper. He had been drawn into Zionism not by theory but through his complete personal and moral identification with the Jews of Eastern Europe. In the poverty and crudity of life in the Pale there was warmth and love—emotions that rang true, linked to faith and decency. There was often an underlying nastiness in Jewish life, too, but this was a function of the dreadful conditions to which the Jews had been subjected. The true tradition was sacred—not metaphysically, but in terms of the human beings to whom it was instinctive. One had to rescue the millions, and the key to it was to keep alive, and foster, the feeling of the Jews as a people.

By this criterion, the mere existence of Israel fulfills the vision; but it fulfills it also in the underlying spirit which sets Israel apart when the more obvious elements—jingoism, militarism, clericalism, capitalism, and 20th-century brashness—have been paraded for inspection. From one angle, the Israelis are a new people who have broken the shackles of the ghetto; from another, they go on looking like old-fashioned Jews, harking back to the pieties, the subtleties, and the humanities of their ancient tradition. They are prepared to fight, and are good at it; but war is something they hate. They are individualistic, ambitious, unruly; but behind it all is a family feeling of unity which can transcend everything. They have created a new agricultural and industrial society; but their highest good is still the worship of learning. They absorb from every nation and remain distinct.

If “the Jewish spirit” is ultimately indefinable, one can recognize it in action, and everyone felt it in the character of Weizmann. Where other leaders were great orators, Weizmann spoke to his people intimately, in their own language, with a quiet wit and tenderness that reached into their hearts. If he communicated an unshakable faith, it had no bombast, but was subtle and self-questioning, empirical as well as imaginative. In the turmoil of politics and warfare, others made their mark through force and daring; Weizmann became more remote. But the qualities he embodied—his realism, his respect for intelligence, his humanism—continue to be reborn. There was a weariness about him in his later years—a sense that man has still a long way to go—which survives as a permanent echo of the ancient faith. Unseen, his image is as potent in Israel today as in his early letters.




1 The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann, General Editor, Meyer W. Weisgal. Letters, Volume I, edited by Leonard Stein in collaboration with Gedalia Yogev (London, Oxford University Press, 1968, 447 pp.); Letters, Volume II, edited by Barnet Litvinoff, editorial direction, Gedalia Yogev (London, Oxford University Press, 1971, 489 pp.) . Distributed in the United States by Oxford University Press, Volume I, $10.25; Volume II, $12.75.

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