Weizmann biography sees through the myths

Chaim Weizmann: A Biography, by Norman Rose. New York: Viking. 520 pp. Illustrated. $24.95. ``There is a curious gap in Zionist historiography that has unfortunately become more pronounced in recent years. Its simplified version would begin with Herzl and end with Ben-Gurion (although since 1977 frantic attempts have been made to tack on Jabotinsky for good measure). Amidst the excitement and drama of Israel having to defend her independence by force of arms, the figure of Chaim Weizmann emerges, if at all, as a quixotic, elderly gentleman whose political ideas and style have become outdated, unfashionable, for some even positively harmful, and whose career has been consigned to a calm backwater rarely disturbed by an inquisitive public. In short, a political dodo.''

So begins this new biography of Israel's first president, the first one-volume life of Weizmann to appear in many years. It is one of the virtues of this study by an English historian who holds the Chaim Weizmann Chair of International Relations at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem that it calmly and authoritatively disposes of this politically self-serving and unfair myth. For, to exclude Weizmann from the highest peaks of the Zionist Olympus - whether one wants to confer approbation or apportion blame for the evolution of Zionist theory into the reality of the state of Israel - is akin to excluding George Washington from the company of the Founding Fathers.

Although Weizmann was able to wield little actual political power in Israel as its figurehead president from the creation of the state until his death in November 1952, he was, more than any one person, responsible for the fact that there was such a nation. For more than four decades, during most of which he was head of the worldwide Zionist movement, he used the force of his magnetic personality, his immense charm, his inordinate skill as a diplomatist, and his enormous prestige as a scientist (he did landmark work in chemistry, particularly in the synthetic production of acetone), in order to transform Zionism from dream into fact.

Professor Rose is particularly good at debunking myths - of which there are many concerning Weizmann and his political roles - but he is also adept at retaining the kernel of truth that is often at the heart of a political legend. He is far too scrupulous a historian and too meticulous an analyst to retail the story that Weizmann was able to procure a promise by Britain to further the cause of a Jewish national home in the form of the 1917 Balfour Declaration as a return for his scientific war-work in place of the title he'd been offered. Yet he is able to illuminate the aspects of this tale that have some truth. And he certainly does not slight the role Weizmann's scientific work played in making his name or his personal fortune (which, through patents on his discoveries, was considerable - another myth debunked!).

Rose demonstrates, too, that Weizmann was no moderate. In fact, he was a militant force all along in seeking a Jewish nation-state and a militant, it must be said, in wishing to do so without an equal regard for the non-Jewish inhabitants in Palestine. Yet he had excellent relations with many Arabs, including King Feisal. One cannot but think that, despite his determination to put Jewish priorities ahead of Arab ones, his imaginative and subtle political mind might have fostered a greater harmony between Jew and Arab if his advice had been more heeded in the crucial early years of Israel's existence.

The myth of Weizmann's moderation stems mainly from the perception that he was an Anglophile. (He is listed as one of the ``Great Britons'' in a volume of that name issued by the editors of the Dictionary of National Biography recently, and he surrendered his British passport reluctantly, Rose tells us, several months after becoming President of Israel!). True, he often counseled patience and abhorred terrorism - Jewish and Arab alike - as evil and counterproductive, but this was more a function of his wisdom than an indication of weak commitment to Zionism.

Rose is an authoritative scholar on the intricacies of Zionist and other politics and a sympathetic chronicler of both the public and private life. Yet the book at times is disappointingly scrappy, particularly about Weizmann's last years. Even the photographs are oddly ill-assorted. And it seems a pity that Rose has not made use of the diligent biographical scholarship of Professor Jehuda Reinharz, whose ``Chaim Weizmann: The Making of a Zionist Leader'' (Oxford University Press, 1985) deals exhaustively with the first 40 years of Weizmann's life. Rose claims it came into his hands too late to be of use, but since it has been out more than a year, this seems a weak excuse for neglecting so rich a source. But Rose has nonetheless written an excellent introduction to Chaim Weizmann and those who wish to understand Zionism and Israel would do well to read it. Rose is an authoritative scholar on the intricacies of Zionist politics.

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