Howard Epstein



Erev Pesach, in the afternoon,  I was starting to write the second part of my focussed biography of Chaim Weizmann. Having covered the three political achievements that he secured, I was ready to move onto his educational achievements that enabled Israel to develop the most technologically advanced defence forces in the world, and the world’s most dynamic economy. Then one word came to me: Dayeinu. The first of his achievements would have sufficed us. Yet there was another one, and another, and another…..

Networker and Scientist

What manner of man was Chaim Weizmann? Everyone who came into his orbit was seduced by his personality: people as diverse as his fellow students in Pinsk, Darmstadt, Berlin and Fribourg; his teachers; the leading lights of the Russian school of Zionism in fin-de-siècle Berlin; Ahad Ha’am (though the admiration was in this case a two-way street); his colleagues in successive chemistry laboratories; Arthur Balfour and Winston Churchill, whom he met in Manchester within a year of his arrival there, and who were to be so important later; Harry Sacher, the brilliant international lawyer and Manchester Guardian journalist who introduced Weizmann to Charles Prestwich Scott (the liberal politician and owner/editor of the Manchester Guardian), who in turn introduced Weizmann to Lloyd George; Lloyd George, who as Prime Minister refused to break a pre-arranged lunch date with Weizmann on 11 November 1918, even as the crowds outside were waiting to carry the PM from 10 Downing Street to Parliament to celebrate the 11am end of the Great War; Sir Mark Sykes (of Sykes-Picot fame) who was within the inner sanctum of the Zionist Federation in the last two years before the Declaration was granted; the Rothschilds; Simon Marks and Israel Sieff of Marks & Spencer fame; Mark Ormsby-Gore; Leo Amery; Herbert Samuel; General Allenby; and so very many more. Oh, and let us not forget Emir Feisel, the Arab king with whom Weizmann signed the first peace treaty with the Arabs – long before there was an Israeli state.

This is just a scratch of the surface.

The Balfour Declaration

Beneath the surface was an edifice of such breadth and depth that only epithets such as “breath-taking” or “unique” or “essential” will begin to convey the range of the man. Yet there was much more. There was a driving-force of concentrated intensity, a limitless store of energy and a selfless devotion to an end that would enrich (and save) others on a scale rarely equalled in history.

When the Balfour Declaration not so much fell from Weizmann’s grasp in the last weeks leading up to 2 November 1917, as ripped away by Edwin Montagu, an assimilationist Jew, Weizmann doubled down with his team in London – and loosed off a barrage of transatlantic cables to Judge Louis Brandeis and to the office of US President Woodrow Wilson, whose support would be crucial.

Weizmann was involved at every level: lobbying members of the War Cabinet, rolling up his sleeves and drafting the document itself even as it went through several iterations, breakfasting with the Prime Minister, reeling in the Americans, seeking guidance from Ahad Ha’am….. As we know, in the end the Balfour Declaration was his. Although addressed to Lord Rothschild, it was into the hands of Weizmann that Sir Marks Sykes delivered it outside the War Cabinet still in session, the ink not quite dry. Dayeinu!



The Negev

Dayeinu? Hold on a moment. You are surely wondering what, after the Balfour Declaration, the other two political achievements could have been. Thirty years after, single-handedly, he prevented Britain and the Empire from losing the Great War in 1917 (by generating, through the Weizmann Process, sufficient acetone to make enough cordite to manufacture vast amounts of ammunition – shell production rose from 100,000 per month at first to 1.4 million per month once the Weizmann Process was running at full speed), Weizmann, by November 1947, losing his sight, in failing health and a state of exhaustion, is called on again to work his magic with another political generation and on a different continent.

If no-one else could have wrought the Declaration from the British, it was no less true that no other person – or force of nature – could have reversed the US State Department’s meddling with the Partition Plan in the days before the vital vote at the United Nations in September 1947. Weizmann was smuggled in to see President Truman, explained to him all about the Negev and why it was essential to the viability of the incipient state and, within minutes, the American delegation at the UN had taken Truman’s call to put it back where it was needed – within the borders of what would be Israel. Dayeinu!




Dayeinu? Not at all. In order to recover from his exertions, the following January (1948) Weizmann was at the Dorchester Hotel in London, preparing to return home to Rechovot. Still unwell, still exhausted, he was called upon to work his magic with Truman again. The British had given notice that they would leave Palestine by August  (later brought forward by three months). To save the Jews (so the State Department had it) from themselves – or more accurately from a million murderous Arabs and five threatening Arab armies from as far away as Iraq – the Americans were about to abandon Partition (what we call today the Two State “solution”, every version of which the Arabs automatically rejected – from the Peel Commission to Olmert’s fire-sale of Israeli security) and impose the Trusteeship which had been bequeathed by the late and unlamented League of Nations.

Weizmann, indefatigable even when totally enervated, travelled to the States to await the call from Truman; but the President had no intention of spending another moment thinking about Jews, Zionists, Arabs, Partition or Palestine again. He had had enough of Jews and their Zionist interest groups and, in any event, it would have meant facing down Defense Secretary, General Marshall – “the greatest living American” – and the State Department.

Fate, in the form of Eddie Jacobson, Truman’s erstwhile business-partner and life-long friend, entered the White House to change Truman’s mind about seeing Weizmann. For the second time in four months, he was smuggled into the White House and, again, he changes the course of events to the Zionists’ advantage. Truman agrees to ignore Trusteeship and support Partition – and no turning back.

Then, history (which repeats itself but, of course, never in quite the same way) causes everything to fall apart again with just a few ticks of the clock left. But again, still working assiduously for his goal, Weizmann secures what is needed – Truman’s recognition of the State of Israel (the name was added in manuscript even as it the document was signed) eleven minutes after the British Mandate expired at midnight on the night of 14/15 May 1948, Ben Gurion having announced independence in Tel Aviv only hours before. (It was only the day before that the name had been decided upon, and that was the day after Weizmann had berated the Provisional Council via Ben Gurion: “What are they waiting for, the idiots?”)

The Indispensable

If Ben Gurion, giant as he was, had fallen by the way-side at any point, another would have taken his place, If any lesser figures in the Yishuv, or in the negotiating/diplomatic team in New York, had met an untimely end, an effective substitute would have been found. Even Herzl – who had no grounding in Zionism and whose pamphlet, Der Jüdenstaat, led to the 20th Century movement – was arguably not the one and only. Perhaps Weizmann himself would have kick-started the increasingly-moribund Zionist movement that, in the event, Herzl had aroused when he burst upon the scene in 1896, had there been no Herzl.

What is different about Weizmann, however, as compared with every other Zionist, is his indispensability. He and only he could have procured the Declaration; likewise only he could have recovered the Negev and he alone could have wrought the vital first, American, recognition. So, now, Dayeinu?


The Educational Achievements

No. For that would exclude Weizmann’s unique contributions to three of the most august seats of advanced education and research in Israel: the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Haifa Technion and, of course, the Weizmann Institute at Rechovot. It is these institutions that inculcated the desire in Israel to do the impossible and do it repeatedly.

In 1991, I first saw a drone. It was at the Technion, hanging by a cable in the atrium of the building where it had been conceived ten years earlier – a museum piece before any other army had thought about them. Today (as in many years past) Israel is the world’s biggest exporter of drones, and one of the biggest exporters of military in the world – by far and away the biggest by value when you add in the exports of cyber warfare software. (Half the world’s cyber companies are here!)

Weizmann won over Truman in 1947 to reinstate the Negev by telling him how brackish water was even then being made potable at the Weizmann Institute. We pray for rain and we love rain in Israel, unlike in Manchester, where Weizmann developed his patents that would save Britain and the Empire, and give him the life of a multi-millionaire by the 1920’s. But just as Mancunians know it will never stop raining – OK, only intermittently – we in Israel know that here it never needs to rain again, such is the modern Israeli industry for the desalinisation of the Mediterranean. You see the direct line from Weizmann, do you not?


In Chaim Weizmann may be seen the world’s first 20th Century, not to say 21st Century, Man. If we know anything about success and survival in the modern world, we know the importance of two things: networking and science & technology. If you want to see them combined to perfection, look at the life of Dr Chaim Weizmann.

Coda: At the same time as I was inspired to add the reference to Dayeinu, I received an emailed report of a visit to Israel organised by the OneVoice Movement. Its website declares that:

Beginning in 2002, the OneVoice Movement set out to build a human infrastructure in Palestine and Israel capable of overcoming the impediments to a peaceful and negotiated resolution to the ongoing conflict.

They spent the best part of a working week in these parts – the first two days on the West Bank.

The informant was (for me, as I received it through a third party) that prolific writer “Anon”. His (or her) report is very detailed and I do not doubt that the organisation means well (as does Btselem, Breaking the Silence, JStreet and others – just not necessarily to us). I also do not doubt that Chaim Weizmann would have had nothing to do with them, networker and bridge-builder (c/f the Weizmann-Feisel Agreement) though he was.

Here are my take-aways from the report. There was a suggestion that Israel is still traumatised by the Second Intifada. That finished twelve years ago. Since then, this supposedly traumatised society has confirmed its position at the top of the happiness index, another at the lowest reaches of the suicide index, built a thrusting, world-beating economy that puts the OECD and the G7 economies to shame (and our oil and gas are barely on-stream yet), we deal with our Arabs as equals at every stratum of our society, our policing levels are the lowest in the Western World, we have no death penalty, we do not have a gun crime epidemic, we do not have a vast and growing underclass of uneducated and ineducable people, we have the most advanced military in the world, and our science and technology are equaled only in Silicon Valley –  one of our companies was just sold, in the second most valuable hi-tech acquisition anywhere, ever, for the same amount as all the aid that the Palestinians have received from the EU and the USA in twenty years! All this while we are traumatised?

There was another suggestion that the Palestinians are traumatised? It is not for me to argue but, if true, here are some suggestions as to the reason: intractability and nihilism will get you no-where! Bringing up your kids to hate Jews is calculated to induce trauma. Showing them in kindergarten, and up though the educational system, how to kill Jews, the so-called descendants of pigs and apes (there have been many reports in the Times of London about this), will not reduce your trauma nor will it win the Israeli people over.

What the Second Intifada – and later the ramming of vehicles into people on the streets of Jerusalem (where it appeared to matter less to the Western media than when it rippled out to the streets of Europe) and the recent Steak-Knife Intifada (ditto) – did was to expose the Arab ambition not to settle for Partition but to continue to insist on a One State Solution (as did the Arab powers in 1947/8 – and every period before and since) and to find a way to have Israel gone. If I tried earnestly to jump over the moon, I would feel traumatised. Seeking something incapable of attainment is easily associated with trauma, as either the cause or the result.



What the OneVoice Movement should have been urging on their West Bank hosts is this: drop the anti-Semitism, virulent as it is. Try another way to kill Israelis – with kindness. Then, if only because of the Stockholm Syndrome, but also because Israel would wholeheartedly embrace you as friends and neighbors, you would have a cornucopia of beneficence. “Try it”, OneVoice should say. “Just try it. You have tried everything else.” They should say this with one voice and await the result.

In the meantime, a weekend in Sderot any one?

© Howard Epstein April 2017

Howard Epstein’s book: Weizmann – The Indispensable Zionist will be published in August.

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