Chaim Weizmann

Chaim Weizmann, 1st President of Israel
Chaim Weizmann, 1st President of Israel

Chaim Weizmann was one of the founders of the modern state of Israel. Born in Motol (now in Belarus) when it was under Russian rule, Weizmann studied chemistry in Switzerland, where he met his future wife, Vera Chatzman, a medical student. In 1904 they moved to England, where Weizmann taught at the University of Manchester. He became a British citizen in 1910.

During World War I Weizmann worked at the British Admiralty laboratories and was instrumental in using industrial fermentation for the production of acetone, used in explosive propellants. A leading figure in the World Zionist Organization (WZO), Weizmann advocated so-called practical Zionism, which encouraged Jewish settlement in Palestine coupled with an active diplomatic program to gain international support for the creation of a Jewish state.

Weizmann's skills as a diplomat were as great or greater than his skills as a chemist. He became acquainted with many high-ranking British politicians, including Arthur Balfour, foreign secretary during World War I, and Winston Churchill. He was instrumental in the issuance of the Balfour Declaration in 1917, whereby Britain publicly expressed support for some form of Jewish state in Palestine.

After World War I Weizmann represented the Zionists at the Paris Peace Conference; he met with Emir Faysal, Sherif Husayn's son and future king of Iraq in 1918 and 1919. These meetings resulted in the FaysalWeizmann agreement of January 1919 wherein Faysal recognized the Balfour Declaration and also agreed to Jewish immigration into Palestine.

Weizmann agreed to foster economic development for Arabs in Palestine. Faysal stressed in a written codicil at the end of the agreement that his commitments would be null and void if full Arab independence was not granted. When the Arabs failed to achieve national independence after the war, Faysal considered the agreement invalid.

Weizmann served as head of the World Zionist Organization from 1920 until 1931 and again from 1935 to 1946. However, his generally pro-British stance angered some Zionists in Palestine, who felt Weizmann was too conservative and not aggressive enough in pushing for the creation of a Jewish state. As a result, Jewish leaders in Palestine, especially David Ben-Gurion, emerged as the actual political powers of Israel after it was established in 1948.

However, Weizmann's diplomatic skills and his cordial relationships with Western leaders were highly prized, and he met with President Harry S. Truman in 1948 to urge U.S. recognition and support for the Jewish state of Israel.

After Israel's independence Weizmann was elected to the largely ceremonial post of president; he held the position from 1949 until his death in 1952. After his death Weizmann was buried in his home of Rehovoth, where he had founded a research institute, now known as the Weizmann Institute of Science.