Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Trial and Error: The Autobiography of Chaim Weizmann

What is striking about Chaim Weizmann's story is that it is providential: a young chemist making his way from Eastern Europe to Central Europe and ending up in England at the time when Zionism needs a spokesman.  His contribution to the war effort (the production of acetone) aids his entry into the upper echelons of English society and effectively convinces the Foreign Secretary to declare Britain's affinity toward the concept of a Jewish State in the ancient land of Israel.  What makes Weizmann's position so important is that the politics of the day - the British interest in the Suez Canal and the Turkish empire aligning itself with Germany in the First World War - sidelined the world Zionist leadership which was Germanic and needed to declare neutrality.  Weizmann ably convinces Britain that the Jewish people are solidly behind the Allies and with the victory against Germany there is a predisposition on the part of the British Empire to help the Jewish people now in a position to help because it controls Palestine.

As one reads this memoir, one is struck by Weizmann's steadfast belief in loyalty and diplomacy with the ever changing British policy that turned a blind's eye, even hostile to its commitment to the Balfour Declaration. He decries "Jewish Terrorism" against the British and he himself is sidelined by Zionist leadership.  He mentions his hurt at being labeled a "British Agent" on more than one occasion.  David Ben Gurion is hardly mentioned except in the context of being asked to become Israel's first president - a clear indication that there must have been serious disagreements.

He goes out of his way to mention more than once that the Peel Commission (to which he testified) proved once and for all that Jewish settlement of the land did not displace any Arab population.

The book is a fascinating study of what Weizmann calls assimilationists and Zionists.  He comes into contact with many people in England and the USA who did not believe that the Jewish people needed a State of their own.  One gets a glimpse of Weizmann's power of persuasion when is is able to convince a Felix Warburg or a Julius Rosenwald.  He mentions Rosenwald with incredulity because his philanthropies were vast and predominantly to non-Jewish causes.  Edwin Montagu, an English cabinet member stridently objects to Zionism saying that he is English and belongs in England and not Palestine.

What I gleaned from Weizmann's perspective was his insight on the conflict within Zionism between the assimilationists and the Eastern European faction as it manifested in the Uganda option.  There was a clear difference of opinion about the fundamental role of Zionism.  Some like Herzl believed that Zionism was fundamentally a solution and refuge from Antisemitism.  Others like Weizmann believed that Zionism was fundamentally a nationalistic cultural movement toward the re-unification of the historical association of the Land of Israel and the People of Israel.  For refuge, Uganda certainly made sense but for a re-unification of the People of Israel with the land of Israel it made no sense.  Weizmann argued that even if one would concede that Uganda was only an interim solution, it was naive to believe that once the Jewish people would have a functioning state (of Uganda) that eventually they would get the land of Israel.  The nations, he argued, would always say "why do you need Palestine, you already have a state!" For the Eastern European Jews who were imbued with Yiddish, Hebrew and religious literature, Zionism needed to be much more than a refuge.  As a result of this disagreement, however, some assimilationists broke away like Louis D. Brandeis in America and author Israel Zangwill in England.

This book is an important contribution to the study of Zionism and a dramatic build up to the State of Israel.

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