Chaim Weiz­mann: A Biography

Jehu­da Rein­harz and Mot­ti Golani; Haim Watz­man, trans.

  • Review
By – July 8, 2024

Jehu­da Rein­harz and Mot­ti Golani’s Chaim Weiz­mann offers a defin­i­tive account of the oft-over­looked Zion­ist states­man. Known for help­ing arrange the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion, and for hav­ing a cru­cial meet­ing with Pres­i­dent Har­ry Tru­man that inspired Amer­i­ca’s for­mal recog­ni­tion of the State of Israel in May 1948, Weiz­mann went on to serve as Israel’s first pres­i­dent. Rein­harz and Golani paint a detailed and engag­ing por­trait of Weizmann’s count­less, albeit lit­tle-doc­u­ment­ed, accomplishments. 

Born in Rus­sia, Weiz­mann spent most of his adult years in Eng­land. But, as the authors note, he felt most alive while trav­el­ing, and his peri­patet­ic nature made him unique­ly posi­tioned to estab­lish and strength­en inter­na­tion­al sup­port for the Zion­ist cause. Rein­harz and Golani write, The pro­to-Zion­ist move­ment that arose in Europe in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry was strong in ide­ol­o­gy but weak in prac­tice.” This left room for a fig­ure like Weiz­mann — who was bol­stered by his belief that prac­ti­cal work was more impor­tant than the­o­ret­i­cal for­mu­la­tions” — to play a large role. He was a pro­lif­ic leader: he helped launch Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty, a jour­nal, and a num­ber of oth­er ini­tia­tives. In one nine-month peri­od, he sent five hun­dred let­ters in Russ­ian, Ger­man, Yid­dish, Hebrew, and French, seek­ing to gal­va­nize his friends and to spur them to work on the tasks they had been assigned.”

The book gives read­ers an inti­mate look at the inter­nal pol­i­tics of the var­i­ous orga­ni­za­tions and Zion­ist con­gress­es in which Weiz­mann par­tic­i­pat­ed. He inter­act­ed pas­sion­ate­ly with David Ben-Guri­on, the Zion­ist cul­tur­al lumi­nary Ahad Ha’am, and heads of state like Win­ston Churchill and Har­ry Tru­man. As the authors recount, As ear­ly as 1902 he had writ­ten to Vera, then his fiancée, that the bur­den of ful­fill­ing the Zion­ist dream was giv­en to a few cho­sen men and women. The sense that he was one of them con­tin­ued to be a moti­vat­ing force in his life.”

Rein­harz and Golani also detail Weiz­man­n’s finan­cial and pro­fes­sion­al chal­lenges as a sci­en­tist, his depres­sion, and his mul­ti­ple affairs. Per­haps most trag­ic was the dis­ap­point­ment Weiz­mann felt when serv­ing as a fig­ure­head for the coun­try he helped to build. Rein­harz and Golani recount how for a few hours, Weiz­mann thought he would be Israel’s first prime min­is­ter and actu­al­ly run the coun­try. Between offi­cial appoint­ments, for which he appeared charis­mat­i­cal­ly and con­fi­dent­ly, he was frus­trat­ed that he no longer had the zest­ful sense of mis­sion that defined his ear­li­er decades. While it was up to Ben-Guri­on to build the state,” Weiz­mann remains a source of admi­ra­tion. After all, he appeared seem­ing­ly out of nowhere dur­ing World War I. The war’s impact on the Zion­ist move­ment pushed this man, a sec­ond-rank activist in a debil­i­tat­ed Zion­ist move­ment, onto cen­ter stage.”

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

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