Chaim Weizmann was born in 1874, in Motol - a small, isolated shtetl (township) in a bleak, marshy area, forty kilometers from Pinsk. The third of twelve living siblings, Weizmann grew up in a boisterous family, immersed in Jewish tradition. His introduction to science was from a cheder (schoolroom) teacher who surreptitiously taught him some natural science along with his Jewish studies. Weizmann left home at the age of eleven to board in Pinsk and attend high school - a rare step at the time.
At 18, his aptitude for science led him to Germany, where he studied biochemistry at one of Europe's most prestigious science institutions - the Polytechnic in Berlin. It was in Berlin that he first became involved with Zionist intellectual circles, and became an adherent of the teachings of Ahad Ha'am - a form of "Spiritual Zionism" that held that Palestine should serve as a spiritual center for Jewry. This philosophy was to prompt Weizmann to champion the idea of a Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Later, he became influenced by Theodor Herzl's "Political Zionism", which focused on obtaining an international charter for Jewish settlement in Palestine. Weizmann became an active member, and then a key figure in the Zionist movement - a lifetime career characterized by a complex, and at times stormy, relationship with less moderate Zionists.
In 1901, Weizmann received his doctorate from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland, and began his academic career at the University of Geneva. From this point on, Chaim Weizmann was destined to divide his life between a fruitful scientific career and very intensive Zionist activity.
Weizmann was critical of Herzl's emphasis on external forms of diplomacy as a means to bring about the realization of Zionism, labeling such efforts "naive and bound to failure." Zionism could not rest on personal statesmanship of several figures in the courts of Europe alone, he felt, but must be founded on development of cultural, educational and social institutions in the Jewish homeland - the concrete work of state-building. In 1904, he left Geneva for England, where he began a long research career at Manchester University, intermixed with Zionist activism in England. His empirical outlook led Weizmann to espouse a Zionism based on a synthesis of diplomatic and settlement activity. He stressed that even if a charter for settlement in Palestine could be obtained, it would be worthless if it did not rest upon a Jewish society in-the-making, rooted in the soil of Palestine. Although not a socialist himself, Weizmann was a strong supporter of the collective form of settlement (kibbutz).
Weizmann began to cultivate contacts with members of the British government, the "movers and shakers" of the time, to gain empathy for Jewish aspirations for a Return to Zion. His personal diplomacy was characterized by a charming wit and an intuitive ability to state the Zionist cause in terms with which his listener could identify personally - whether English aristocrat or shtetl Jew. Thus, in 1906 when queried about the Zionists' rejection of the Uganda Plan by a puzzled Lord Balfour, Weizmann - who had opposed temporary settlement of distressed Jews from Eastern Europe in Uganda, a proposal raised at the Sixth Zionist Congress (1903) - asked the British politician "whether he would trade Paris for London," noting that "Jerusalem had been Jewish when London was still a marshland."
In 1916 - in the midst of the World War I - Weizmann, who worked as a research chemist at Manchester University, discovered a process for synthesizing acetone, a solvent used in the manufacture of munitions. His contacts in Manchester society and his supervision of mass production of synthetic acetone for the Allies opened doors for him in British government circles, where he continued to serve as an eloquent spokesman for Zionism. Royalties on his acetone patent granted the Jewish scientist financial security and independence - both material comfort and the option to devote himself to Zionism, including presidency of the Zionist movement without remuneration.
Weizmann was a striking figure of a man - a massive bald head, deep piercing eyes, set off by a tidy mustache and goatee - whose presence and eloquence left an enduring impact on others. Lord Balfour commented dryly that "Dr. Weizmann could charm a bird off a tree."
When Lloyd George, then minister of munitions, was appointed prime minister and Arthur Balfour became foreign secretary, years of persistent persuasion and "sensitization" to Zionism played a decisive role in the decision of Great Britain to issue the Balfour Declaration. A rare constellation of British and Jewish strategic interests, together with personal empathy for Dr. Weizmann and his cause - the fruit of eight years of what today would be considered "networking" - culminated in this document, approved by the British cabinet on November 2, 1917, that proclaimed the sympathy of the British government for Zionist aims in Palestine.
Informing Weizmann of the decision, Lord Mark Sykes, secretary of the war cabinet, declared: "Dr. Weizmann - It's a boy." Indeed, the landmark document, which was to lead to the granting of a British Mandate over Palestine by the League of Nation, was a crucial step towards the birth of a Jewish State, and is considered Chaim Weizmann's most outstanding achievement.
In 1918, Weizmann was appointed head of the Zionist Commission sent by Great Britain to Palestine to advise on the future development of the country. He also attempted to achieve cooperation and peaceful relations with local Arabs who, he felt, would benefit economically from the Zionist enterprise. Weizmann met with the Emir Feisal, then the undisputed leader of awakening Arab nationalism. Feisal promised to recognize Zionist aims in Palestine, as long as the aims of Arab nationalism were achieved in Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, this agreement was short-lived.
In the same year Weizmann attended the cornerstone-laying ceremony for the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and in 1919 led the Zionist delegation to the Peace Conference in Versailles. His plea for international recognition of the Balfour Declaration was answered: in 1922, the League of Nations granted Great Britain the Mandate for Palestine, in which the historical connection of the Jewish people to Palestine was cited.
In 1920, Weizmann was elected president of the Zionist Organization. He stressed that "a state cannot be created by decree"; Zionist endeavors, he believed, must be based equally on settlement of the land and the powers of science to build a "new Jewish society." In 1924, Weizmann thoroughly irritated Polish Zionists when he proclaimed "we don't want to build our National Home according to the model of Dezika and Neleviki (Jewish commercial districts in Warsaw), yet he was greatly admired, even adored, by the Jewish masses as an eloquent spokesman of their aspirations.
During the next two decades Weizmann succeeded in broadening support for the Zionist movement to encompass non-Zionists, mobilizing Jewish capital in the west to further rural Jewish settlement though the establishment of Keren Hayesod - the financial arm of the Zionist movement. His leadership of the Zionist movement was subsequently challenged both by American Zionists, who questioned the necessity of concerted Jewish settlement and development to give the Balfour Declaration meaning - and later by the Revisionist wing of Zionism, who opposed his moderate policies towards Great Britain; still, his Zionist program bonding "diplomacy and settlement activity" remained the approach of mainstream Zionism and its institutions as a whole.
Continuing his scientific work, Weizmann laid the foundations of the Daniel Sieff Institute in Rehovot in the early 1930s - today, the renowned Weizmann Institute of Science. In 1937, Weizmann settled in Rehovot, continuing to speak for the Zionist cause worldwide, although he was overshadowed by those who opposed his moderate, pro-British policies.
Despite changes in British policy in the wake of Arab riots in 1921, 1929, and 1936-39, which culminated in the 1939 British White Paper that severely restricted Jewish immigration and land purchase, Weizmann believed alienation of British support would be a strategic mistake and would undermine Zionist interests; changing British policy must be based on persuasion, not confrontation. Speaking before the British Peel Commission in 1937, Weizmann said: "There are in this part of the world [Europe] 6,000,000 people ... for whom the world is divided into places where they cannot live and places where they cannot enter." The message was clear. However, British policy remained unchanged, with tragic ramifications. At the end of the Second World War, the horrifying dimensions of the tragedy that had befallen European Jewry became evident; and still the British were not ready to admit Jewish refugees into Palestine.
Weizmann's espousement of "gradualism" was symbolically epitomized in an incident at Kibbutz Hulda. Appearing hours after his scheduled arrival, the Zionist leader explained his tardiness - "The Zionist wagon rolls slowly." In 1946, at age 72, Weizmann received a vote of no-confidence at the post-war Zionist Congress. In deference to his stature, the President's chair was not filled. More militant Zionist leaders, led by David Ben-Gurion, ready for a confrontation with Great Britain, assumed the dominant role in Zionist affairs.