Commentary Magazine

Chaim Weizmann, by Jehuda Reinharz

A Public & Private Life

Chaim Weizmann: The Making of a Zionist Leader.
by Jehuda Reinharz.
Oxford University Press. 576 pp. $29.95.

The promise implicit in the subtitle of this solid first volume on the life and times of Chaim Weizmann is largely though not entirely fulfilled. What we have here is a detailed and scholarly account of the process by which a gifted and ambitious young man from Pinsk became a successful British scientist and leader of the Zionist movement. Indeed, the biography is valuable above all as the story of the trials and struggles of Zionism in its early years. We can almost feel what it must have been like to live in a time when European Jewry was beginning to grope for a new collective identity, for new values, loyalties, ideals, and beliefs. We can grasp the underlying differences dividing the pioneers of Jewish nationalism, moderates from militants, Eastern European Jews from Central European Jews, those who insisted that the Jewish state must be in Palestine from those who were prepared to consider an East African homeland, the secularists from the Orthodox, and the snobs from the lowbrows.

Those interested in tracing the intellectual and ideological roots of the state of Israel will find this part of the book especially illuminating. For it tells how a political concept which had seemed so impractical, so visionary at the time of its inception, gradually began to attract sympathy among Jews and even some Gentiles, so that by 1914 it had become, though still small, an increasingly influential movement. Yet the eventual triumph of Zionism should not obscure the fact that at the turn of the century it was only one, and not the most important, of the many ideologies and organizations by which Jews sought to determine their future in an alien, hostile environment. Those who rejected the teachings of religious Orthodoxy, who defined their ethnic identity in secular rather than theological terms, turned to liberal, socialist, or assimilationist ideas more often than to the doctrines of Zionism. They hoped to throw off the burden of the Diaspora not by abandoning European society but by reforming it.

In 1903 Weizmann confided to Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, that “the larger part of the contemporary younger generation [in Eastern Europe] is anti-Zionist, not from a desire to assimilate, as in Western Europe, but through revolutionary conviction.” Most of those being victimized by the czarist regime for support of the social-democratic movement, he went on, were Jews; almost all Jewish students belonged to “the revolutionary camp.” But

saddest and most lamentable is the fact that although this [socialist] movement consumes much Jewish energy and heroism, and is located within the Jewish fold, the attitude it evidences toward Jewish nationalism is one of antipathy, swelling at times to fanatical hatred. Children are in open revolt against their parents. The elders are confined within tradition and Orthodox inflexibility, the young make their first step a search for freedom from everything Jewish.

The destruction of European Jewry during World War II, and the subsequent establishment of a Jewish state in the Middle East, have eroded our memory of the bitter struggle which Zionism had to wage against its ideological competitors in the quest for Jewish allegiance.


Jehuda Reinharz describes in rich detail how the Zionist movement was able to survive those early battles, and how the youthful Weizmann contributed to its growing success. What is lacking in these pages is the sense of ferment and excitement which gripped the Jews of Eastern Europe, especially the younger generation, almost a century ago. An isolated, persecuted community, which had lived in fear and submissiveness for more than seven hundred years, suddenly began to rebel against the injustice of Gentile bigotry as well as the repressiveness of Jewish Orthodoxy. It was the most far-reaching intellectual revolt in the history of East European Jewry. It marked the beginning of a struggle for political and social emancipation, a struggle out of which the Zionist movement emerged. But there was more to it than that. There was also an insatiable hunger for modernization and secularization in all aspects of cultural life, in education, literature, historiography, and the theater. And with it came the adoption of more elegant dress and manner, the pursuit of more rewarding opportunities and careers, and sometimes a disdain for the caftan and the skullcap.

Weizmann himself exemplified this rebellion against tradition. From the heder in the small town of Motol where he was taught his prayers, he moved on to the Gymnasium in Pinsk, then to doctoral studies in Germany and Switzerland, then to a teaching appointment in Geneva, and finally to a prominent position in the chemistry department of the University of Manchester. But intellectual secularization and upward mobility were not the only aspects of the Jewish cultural rebellion of a hundred years ago. There was also a liberation of the senses, of feelings, yearnings, and instincts which religious teaching had repressed as sinful. Today's “sexual revolution” in American society seems almost tame in comparison with the rejection of conventional morality by Weizmann's generation. Young men and women, leaving the parental home with its ancient pieties and prohibitions, practiced “free love” and exulted in their emotional emancipation with a defiance which scandalized their elders. The open acceptance of the libido was an essential part of that rebellion of the spirit which swept over East European Jewry.

Here too Weizmann reflected his time and milieu. It is hard to think of the austere first president of Israel as an ardent lover susceptible to the weaknesses of the flesh. Yet we see him here, still a young man in his twenties, “engaged” for four years to Sophia Getzova, a euphemism for living with her, and then abandoning her for the younger and prettier Vera Khatzman, who after another “engagement” of five years became his wife. His letters to Vera reveal an unexpected passion in the Zionist intellectual, a fierce sensuality:

We shall soon see each other. . . . If only the hour would come more quickly when I shall see you, embrace you. Am I going to cover you with my kisses? Well, I am afraid nothing will be left of you, absolutely nothing, my child. I'll smother you, pinch you, bite you. But God, beware, my darling, for I am a savage!

The reader, as if caught in the act of peeping, feels almost embarrassed by the glimpse of such intense intimacy.

Yet Vera Khatzman was by no means the last of Weizmann's loves. He remained addicted to sudden infatuations and amorous adventures well into middle age. There is something slightly comical yet touching about the letter of admonition which she wrote him barely a year after they had become lovers, as he was leaving on one of his numerous trips to some Zionist conference: “But, Chaimchik, don't let your weak character get the better of you, don't linger anywhere. Always remember that your Verochka is waiting impatiently for you.” Alas, the pleas and exhortations were often in vain. Weizmann continued to stray even after their marriage, she reproaching him for his infidelity, he swearing to her that she was the only woman he really loved. On the eve of World War I, as he approached his forties, he was still trying to assure her that

if, as you say, I become “infatuated,” this doesn't affect that love for you which is the center of my whole consciousness and existence. And the infatuations have passed. I have suffered and got over last year's incident and forgotten it, and I hope that you no longer think about it either. Please don't blame me, Verusya!

It is in dealing with the private aspect of Weizmann's life that Jehuda Reinharz is most successful. If he scants the social and intellectual milieu out of which the Zionist leader emerged, he is superb in depicting the man, with all his strengths and weaknesses, with all his contradictions, ambiguities, paradoxes, and quirks. For the first time we have a portrait of Weizmann which is human rather than heroic; we can now see his frailty as well as his greatness.

The same idealist who devoted his life to the advancement of the Zionist cause was hungry for money and prestige, and the means he employed to attain them were not always irreproachable. He yearned for the limelight, for praise and applause, for the admiration of the multitude. He was not above exaggerating or even misrepresenting his role in the struggle for Jewish emancipation. Describing the part he had played at the time of the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, he sometimes recounted how, as soon as he heard the terrible news, he rushed to the Jewish Pale to organize self-defense groups against renewed anti-Semitic attacks. At other times he maintained that he had actually been in Kishinev during the massacre: “In a group of about 100 Jews we defended the Jewish quarter with revolvers in our hands, defended women and girls, Jewish lives and property. We ‘slept’ in the cemetery—the only ‘safe’ place, and we saw 80 Jewish corpses brought in, mutilated dead.” None of this is remotely related to the truth. Weizmann was in Warsaw when the pogrom took place, and the news does not appear to have delayed his trip back home to Switzerland by way of Berlin and Mannheim. Throughout his life what he wanted reality to be could sometimes prevail over what he must have known it to be.


Even in his attitude toward the Jews, whose liberation became the overriding purpose of his life, there were curious inconsistencies and contradictions. He deeply resented the snobbery and condescension which the Jewish community of Western and Central Europe frequently displayed toward its coreligionists in the Russian Pale of Settlement. He denounced the “arrogant attitude of West European financial wizards toward their poor brethren with the lack of culture of the Pale,” declaring defiantly that “we shall finally succeed in letting the world know where hegemony in Jewry rightfully belongs—in the hands of the [Central European Jew Max Nordau] or in those of the young, spiritually free Eastern Jews.” Here he seemed wholeheartedly committed to the ideals and values of the Jewish Pale.

Yet there were also times when he expressed sentiments not much different from those of many German or English Jews. In Pinsk, where he had grown up, “everything . . . is alien to me, terribly alien. . . . Another two or three years abroad, and I'll be sans patrie in the full meaning of the word.” Jewish life in Warsaw seemed to him repellent, a “Totentanz, danse macabre. Ostentatious overdressing, overflowing cafés, gaiety and amusement, while the screw turns tighter and tighter, the circle of misfortunes gets narrower.” After arriving in Manchester, he began to sign his name “Charles” Weizmann. And in describing how he met his future wife, he wrote with pride that she belonged to a small group of Russified Jewish students who “were far more attractive than their contemporaries from the Pale of Settlement.” They “stood out in contrast from the majority of the Russian-Jewish students in Geneva, who for the most part seemed underfed, stunted, nervous, and sometimes bitter—an easy prey to revolutionary propagandists.” All of this sounds almost indistinguishable from the views of the most assimilated and patronizing of Western Jews.


How could a man of such obvious frailty possess such remarkable strength? Jehuda Reinharz does not really answer that question. He is less interested in analyzing than in recounting. He tells us—in clear, sober prose, with illuminating detail and balanced judgment—what happened, when, where, and how. If he fails to solve for us the riddle of Weizmann's life, at least we know now that there is a riddle, and each of us can try to solve it for himself on the basis of solid, factual knowledge. Someday we may get a biography which is more successful in reconciling the contradictions between the man and the statesman, between his thoughts and deeds, his theories and practices, his purposes and methods. But we are not likely to get it for a long time to come. Until then this book will remain the most learned, judicious, and detailed account of the making of a Zionist leader.

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