With Israeli independence day approaching, Gil Troy reflects on the life of the chemist and Zionist activist Chaim Weizmann, who was one of the architects of the Balfour Declaration, a crucial leader of the Zionist movement during the Mandate period, and eventually Israel’s first president. Troy notes, among other things, the great Jewish statesman’s understanding of Zionism itself:
The Jewish people have “never based the Zionist movement on Jewish suffering,” [Weizmann] would insist. “The foundation of Zionism was, and continues to be to this day, the yearning of the Jewish people for its homeland, for a national center, and a national life”—for normalcy!
Weizmann’s Zionism put him on the right side of the great 20th-century debate pitting liberal nationalism against totalitarian Communism. One of sixteen children—eleven [of whom] survived into adulthood—he and eight other siblings went Zionist, moved to Palestine, and thrived. Chaim’s brother Shmuel, who embraced Communist universalism, was executed in 1939, in Josef Stalin’s purges. His sister Maria was imprisoned thanks to Stalin’s paranoid, anti-Semitic Doctor’s Plot.
Taking this family argument to the world stage, when studying in Geneva, Weizmann debated the merits of nationalism versus universalism with some exiled Russian Communists, including Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin. . . . [Living in Britain], when his local member of Parliament, Lord Arthur Balfour, wondered why the Jews wouldn’t establish a national homeland in Uganda instead of Palestine, Weizmann asked: “Mr. Balfour, suppose I were to offer you Paris instead of London, would you take it?” Balfour replied: “But Dr. Weizmann, we have London.” Weizmann responded: “True, but we had Jerusalem when London was a marsh.”
In the 1930s and 1940s, with Hitler’s rise to power and Britain’s ban on Jewish immigration to Palestine threatening any hope of a Jewish state, Weizmann found himself without a clear role to play, yet:
Weizmann sidelined was still an epoch-making statesman. He—and his extraordinary pediatrician wife Vera—were now living in the land of Israel, helping [to create] a state where one could be Chaim the scientist and the statesman, the humanist and the Jew, all at once. . . . Believing that science, technology, and education would serve as the new state’s national building blocks, Weizmann helped found the Technion, Hebrew University, and, in 1934, what is today the Weizmann Institute of Science, which recently ranked sixth in the Nature “index of innovation.”