Chaim Weizmann (left) with New York City Mayor John F. Hylan (center), and Albert Einstein during Weizmann and Einstein’s fundraising tour on behalf of the Hebrew University; New York City, ca. 1925. (YIVO)

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Weizmann, Chaim

(1874–1952), chemist, president of the World Zionist Organization, and first president of the State of Israel. Born in Motol, Russia, Chaim Weizmann received a typical Jewish education from a private tutor (melamed) and later went to high school in nearby Pinsk. On graduation he went to university in Darmstadt and Berlin, receiving a doctorate from the University of Fribourg, in Switzerland, in 1898. Weizmann was initially a practical and cultural Zionist. At the Eighth Zionist Congress in 1907, however, he proclaimed a new position, known as Synthetic Zionism, a form followed in later years by many other East European Zionists. This new approach meant a pragmatic attitude toward the three classic trends in Zionist thought—political, spiritual, and practical—aiming to integrate all three while giving preference to the one or the other, according to circumstances. Cultural activities were particularly dear to Weizmann: in 1913, 1918, and 1925 he participated in steps that ultimately brought about the establishment of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and in the 1930s he initiated a scientific institute that later became the Weizmann Institute of Science in Reḥovot, Israel. Nevertheless, from 1917 on, Weizmann also embraced political Zionism.

In 1917, Weizmann played a leading role in the diplomatic initiatives that culminated in the Balfour Declaration. In the spring of 1918, he headed the Zionist Commission that went to Palestine to prepare conditions for the development of a Jewish National Home. Elected president of the World Zionist Organization in 1921 (a position he held for a decade), Weizmann oversaw the uneasy relations with British authorities in Palestine and in London with great skill, as well as the Zionist activities for the gradual growth of the Jewish community in Palestine. In 1929, in collaboration with Louis Marshall, he established an enlarged Jewish Agency in which Zionists and non-Zionists worked together. In February 1931, Weizmann managed to nullify the terms of the British White Paper of October 1930, under which Jewish development in Palestine was to be curtailed.

At the Twentieth Zionist Congress (1937), Weizmann was a leading spokesman for the partition plan of Palestine between Jews and Arabs. He then strongly opposed the Palestine White Paper of May 1939, in which Great Britain retreated from its policy of support for Zionist aspirations. In May 1942, he was a central participant at the Biltmore Conference in New York, which approved a platform calling for the establishment, after the war, of a “Jewish commonwealth” in Palestine. In the following years Weizmann’s position within the Zionist movement gradually weakened due to his past close political identification with the British as well as personal health problems. Others took over the leadership of the Zionist movement, but he nevertheless served as the first president of the State of Israel from 1949 to 1952.

While Weizmann spent most of his life in Europe and Israel, he remained a quintessential East European Jew, although one well integrated into Western culture. Familiar with diverse European languages, his favorite one remained Yiddish. Weizmann also knew how to adapt his broad Zionist creed to changing circumstances. As early as the 1920s, he criticized the Zionist movement for not paying sufficient attention to the Arab problem in Palestine, and he stressed the necessity of reaching an understanding with the Arabs, in Palestine and in the Middle East in general.

Suggested Reading

Jehuda Reinharz, Chaim Weizmann: The Making of a Zionist Leader (New York, 1985); Chaim Weizmann, The Letters and Papers, 23 vols. (London, 1968–1980); Chaim Weizmann, Trial and Error: The Autobiography (New York, 1972).