HOWARD EPSTEIN: LIKE WAITING FOR BUSES. SUDDENLY, THREE ANNIVERSARIES COME ALONG TOGETHER.
Tomorrow (as I write) is Monday, June 5. On that day and date 50 years ago, a callow youth (’twas I) was washing his face and brushing his teeth, and listening to his transistor radio at seven in the morning in Manchester. He was stopped in his tracks by the New York drawl of the BBC’s Israel correspondent, Michael Elkins, relating how at daybreak in Israel (it was by then four hours later in Manchester) the IAF had destroyed the Egyptian and Syrian air forces on the ground. Later that day, the BBC sacked Elkins for disseminating Israeli propaganda — only to re-instate him within days, after it became clear that the “propaganda” was the truth. (This was before the days of “fake news”.)
The Six Day War that had just erupted provided the headiest, the most exhilarating week in Jewish history, given that for the first time, if there was good news for the Jews, modern communications meant that, time zone differences apart, they could all enjoy it at the same time. The most exciting part was that the Kotel, that had been demoted by the Jordanians to a hemmed-in public rest-room, was, after a break of only nineteen years, again accessible by Jews, for prayer, for inspiration and for whatever else Jews wished to derive from its ancient stones.
Only nineteen years — that is out of the one hundred since another great anniversary this year, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration on 2 November 1907. Without that seminal document, does anyone seriously believe that there would be a State of Israel?
Let us go back to the event that gives us our third milestone this year. In August next, we celebrate 120 years since the first Zionist Congress. It had been called by Theodor Herzl, an assimilated, Austrian Jewish journalist who had had believed that Germanic Jew-hatred was just a passing fad (as many American Jews do today). In the end, the “fad” passed (although only temporarily) with the Germanic destruction of what would have been 35 million Jewish souls today, six million lives then and the obliteration of a Jewish culture that had been enriched over two thousand years of wanderings, pogroms and determination to survive — always praying facing the Kotel and always urging that next year we might be in Jerusalem. Finally, fifty years ago, we were.
Herzl wrote, 120 years ago, that others might think him mad were he to write it as a journalist and not a private diarist, that fifty years after his ink had dried there would be a Jewish state in Eretz Yisrael. He was too optimistic — but only by nine months. But whilst his ambition and prediction were all but timeously achieved, it was the result not of his work but that of another Zionist, one who had foreseen at the age of eleven, that the path to Jerusalem would start in London.
That pre-barmitzvah child was Chaim Weizmann, and he was right. What is even more astonishing is that it was he who single-handedly facilitated the first serious step towards it. The granting of the Balfour Declaration was his achievement. It was he who single-handedly saved the British Empire from defeat in 1915 (by producing enough acetone to provide the cordite propellant for the guns of the Royal Navy and the British army), and he it was who had worked his magic with a wide range of Zionists, both Jewish and Protestant, at the moment juste. In 1917, the British wanted to make the Jews a gift of, and the Jews wanted to return home to, the Promised Land — a Jewish sanctuary in Palestine. As he had foretold aged 11, the road started in England — and the seer was the architect and the facilitator.
To predict that Britain would be the starting point is one thing but to live out one’s own prediction provides a history lesson with few, if any, equals. Before Herzl, there had been pamphlets about the return of the Jews to Zion and, had there been no Herzl in Paris as Alfred Dreyfus was unfrocked by a kangaroo court, someone else — probably Weizmann who became a considerable writer in his own right by and by — would have done so. If Ben Gurion had taken up Ho Chi Minh on his offer of a home in Vietnam and failed to return to the Yishuv, undoubtedly another local Zionist politician would have taken his place. Who but Weizmann, however, could have filled the role of President of a state that was yet to be born, and persuaded Truman to put the Negev back into the Jewish sector of the Partition Plan, that the State Department was about to excise in 1947? And who but Weizmann could, a few months later, have worked the magic with Truman, again, to stick to the Partition plan and not to allow the State Department and General Marshall to revert to trusteeship? Then again, who else but Weizmann could have persuaded Truman to recognize the nascent state eleven minutes after it came into being?
Of course, since the Zionists, in the US and Palestine, could think of no-one else to parley with Truman they have answered the questions for us.
So, how is it that few people are aware of Weizmann’s indispensable role in the emergence, and the success, of our country? Given the invaluable part he played with the Technion (ensuring in 1913 that its language would be Hebrew and not German), and by founding the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Weizmann Institute at Rechovot — you could have said dayenu after any one of them, yet there were six or seven achievements — why does he not loom larger in the Israeli hall of fame? Partly it was that the provisional government found him an embarrassment because he was too closely identitfied with the British — his name had already been omitted from the Declaration of Independence signed on May 14, 1948 — and they worked to give him what he regarded as an insignificant role as President.
By then, Weizmann was fading away. His eyesight was poor and he was almost — but not completely — content to live out his final years on the Rechovot Campus. In any event (and this may be the other part), he must have realised that Ben Gurion was responding in kind for Weizmann’s view that B-G was “not fit to be a shoemaker, let alone a prime minister”. How likely is it that such contempt was not being reciprocated?
In the end, it may not matter whether Weizmann gets the recognition he deserves as early as he should. Israel’s (so-called) right to exist is not admitted by sufficient states as yet, hence the nonsense at the UN, but entitled or not it not only exists but also punches far above its weight in every field of endeavor that it enters.
As for Trump’s failure to live up to his campaign promises to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem, that, too, matters little. The whole world knows that Trump is not fit to be a shoe-maker let alone a president, not even of his local bowling alley let alone of the USA. Everyone knows that as surely as they know, too, that Israel will not be dislodged from Jerusalem — not by the Palestinians with their nihilistic leadership, in whose terrorism the West invested for the past fifty years that has come to rain its bloody dividends on them; not by the Iranians, and not by Hezbollah, their proxy warriors either. They may be able to hurt us as they go down but Israel will continue to exist and prosper as surely as Jerusalem will remain undivided.
Does it really matter what others think as long as you know you strive to do most things right — and, mostly, you succeed?
© Howard Epstein June 2017
Howard Epstein’s book: Chaim Weizmann – The Indispensable Zionist will be published in August.