12 Things You Need to Know About… Chaim Azriel Weizmann

1. He was born in November 1874 in a village near Pinsk, the third of fifteen children. He studied chemistry in Germany and Switzerland, receiving a doctorate with honors in 1899.

2. He taught at the University of Geneva and then, in 1904, became a lecturer at the University of Manchester, in England, where he remained for thirty years. He settled in England and became a British subject in 1910. The MP representing his district was Arthur Balfour.

3. A committed Zionist, he missed the first congress in 1897 because of travel difficulties, but made it to all the others. Beginning in 1901, he promoted the establishment of an institution of higher learning for Jews in Palestine. His efforts (among those of others, including Martin Buber) led to the founding of the Technion in 1912.

4. In 1907, Weizmann visited Palestine for the first time. While there, he helped organize the Palestine Land Development Company as a practical means to pursue Zionist dreams.

5. Weizmann worked throughout his life as a chemist. He developed a process to produce acetone through bacterial fermentation. Acetone was used in the manufacture of cordite explosive propellants, so when the Great War came, he was asked by Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George to develop an industrial process for its production. This he did, and speedily; and from 1916-19 he served as director of the laboratories of the British Admiralty. Offered a reward or title for this important work, which was vital to the Allied war effort, he is said to have replied, “There is only one thing I want – a national home for my people.”

weizmann6. When Arthur Balfour (then Foreign Secretary) asked him if there were many Zionists like him, he answered, “The roads of Pinsk are paved with them.” In 1917, as president of the British Zionist Federation, he negotiated with Balfour for what would become known as the Balfour Declaration, written in the form of a letter to Baron Walter Rothschild. It said the British government “views with favor the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people.” While the British had many reasons for making this declaration, there is no doubt about Weizmann’s key role in it.

7. In 1918 he headed a Zionist commission sent by the British government to Palestine to advise on future development. He was among the founders who laid the foundation stone for Hebrew University in July of that year. As if that weren’t enough, he met with Emir Feisal in Aqaba to discuss the founding of an independent Jewish state – and won his assent to Jewish immigration into Palestine, with protection of Arab rights.  In 1919 he represented Jewish interests at the Paris Peace Conference ending World War I.

8. In 1920 he became leader of the World Zionist movement, a position which he held until 1931 and again 1935-46. He promoted a Zionism based not on the suffering of Jews in Easter Europe and elsewhere, but instead on the yearning of the Jewish people everywhere for a national center and a national life in their homeland. He supported both grass-roots and high-level diplomatic efforts toward these ends.

9. He continued to work as a scientist. In 1934, his efforts led to creation of a research institute in Rehovot, eventually named in his honor. He settled in Rehovot in 1937 and did research there in organic chemistry. During the Second World War he worked with the British toward the establishment of the Jewish Brigade.

10. In 1936, along with David Ben-Gurion, Weizmann had accepted the idea of partitioning Palestine – establishing a Jewish state alongside an Arab state; he was instrumental in the adoption of the partition plan by the United Nations in November 1947 and in the recognition of Israel by the United States in May 1948.

11. In June 1949 he became a citizen of Israel. He was the first president of the State of Israel, serving until his death from respiratory inflammation in November 1952.

12. He said, “A state cannot be created by decree, but by the forces of a people and in the course of generations. Even if all the governments of the world gave us a country, it would only be a gift of words. But if the Jewish people will go build Palestine, the Jewish state will become a reality – a fact.”

Want to know more?

  • Read Weizmann’s autobiography, Trial and Error, written in 1949.
  • See the video “The Vision of Chaim Weizmann” in the Steven Spielberg Archive on YouTube.
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