To Be a Free Nation in Our Land …

Now that Israel is long past the founding stage and its story has ceased to be that of a powerless minority, it would do well to reacquaint itself with the positive aspects of Weizmannism – an exemplary, measured, moral, and self-confident approach oriented toward promoting a diverse Jewish-Israeli identity through ongoing dialogue, rather than via the political power of an orthodoxy extremist in the identity or the political spheres

Does the national-cultural vision of Zionism’s founding fathers and leaders accord with our contemporary reality? We may say, with due caution, that the degree of congruity is declining. History does not repeat itself, but many of its patterns remain with us, as do worldviews and basic assumptions. The attempt to project onto the present from the life story of any person, even if that person is a leader, requires close attention to an ever-changing context. In this essay we will look at the worldview of the nation’s most important leader since Theodor Herzl – Chaim Weizmann, whose thinking might help us to find peace between Jews in Israel, and for finding a path for our relations with non-Jewish Israelis.

Dr. Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952) was Herzl’s heir in more ways than one. The World Zionist Organization, founded by Herzl in 1897, had had five presidents by 1946.[1] The powers of the organization’s president were very broad; though subject to continuous negotiation, they were highly comparable to those of the president of the United States. The five Zionist Organization presidents were Theodor Herzl, David Wolffsohn, Otto Warburg, Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolow. Important though Wolffsohn, Warburg, and Sokolow were, the mark they left on Zionist/Israeli history was not great.

Chaim Weizmann led the Zionist movement for 40 years in the wilderness, sometimes with no visible end in sight. During that time, he served as president of the World Zionist Organization (1920-1931, 1935-1946). He translated Herzl’s utopian plan into action, thereby laying the groundwork for the State of Israel. Weizmann conceived and implemented the idea of a broader Jewish Agency, in the spirit of the Mandate conferred on Great Britain by the League of Nations. The Jewish Agency was the Jewish executive entity (encompassing both Zionist and non-Zionist elements) and played a great role in the founding of the state and in the post-1948 period. Weizmann was no “superman,” but he certainly was a “super-leader” whose power lay in his understanding of history, diplomacy, and politics. Against this background the question arises: What, if anything, remains of the cultural-Jewish approach of this founding father of Israel?

Weizmann was a nationalist, liberal and educated, a bourgeois elitist who unabashedly enjoyed the good life. He was Jewish, Zionist, and British, and fully conscious of being all of these things. His Jewishness was the basis of an identity that could not be called into question; the matrix from which emerged a person who was “sovereign” with every fiber of his being. Weizmann was deeply attached to Judaism and to its leaders, but these were not the only forces that guided him. His identity was capable of embracing what was necessary for him, and of rejecting, often quite vehemently, what he deemed superfluous. He brought the essence of his Jewish identity to bear on the national idea. His nationalism was of a positive, non-oppositional variety – soft and cautious yet also very clear and unapologetic. He aspired to a nationalism free of Jewish orthodoxy though replete with Jewish national features but refused to sacrifice for that nationalism his universal aspirations, moral and humanistic values. He did expect others to make such a sacrifice.

in the words of Isaiah Berlin, Chaim Weizmann was, “[…] the first totally free Jew of the modern world” (1980, 65). Zionism was a revolutionary act, an act of rebellion against Jewish fate, what the then-small Zionist contingent regarded as a pernicious mode of existence that would lead to degeneration or terrible calamity – in any case, an inappropriate way to live given the new possibilities offered by the modern post-industrial revolution world of nationalism and nation-states.

Central to Zionism was the idea of the individual free to pursue his or her personal destiny and the destiny of their affiliation group. “Sovereignty” was the key word in the Zionist vocabulary, not necessarily in the legal-territorial sense. Along with the political sovereignty that Herzl spoke of, sometimes assigning it a higher place in the Zionist scale of national-Jewish priorities, came cultural and religious sovereignty. Weizmann’s Democratic Faction was the first serious opposition to Herzl and reflected a desire for a suitable alternative to the old Jewish yeshiva world, and to emancipation from fear of the rabbis – Herzl having preferred not to antagonize the rabbis and their communities, so that they would support the Zionist movement. Nor is it surprising that Weizmann’s first major endeavor was to plan and implement the Hebrew (not “Jewish”) University of Jerusalem initiative. This effort in the academic sphere, which came to fruition with the University’s official opening in 1925, sparked a complex and critical discourse with Judaism and Zionism, one that Weizmann and his associates viewed as necessary and as a crucial basis for their free and proportionate Jewish and Zionist identity. “To be a free nation in our land,” says the Israeli national anthem. Weizmann gave that line a broad cultural and identity-related meaning.

Weizmann’s sphere of ethical concern was first and foremost internal: what the Jews would do, and how they would do it. He subjected to moral chastisement only those close to his heart – the Jews, the Zionists, and the British. He was not concerned with the ethics of the enemy. A successful chemist, Weizmann synthesized many different fields beyond science, which was not, ultimately, his great passion. What he was passionate about was the idea of cultural and territorial sovereignty. Weizmann was not an original thinker. His temperament and outlook sought the integration of different, sometimes apparently contrary ideas into clearly-directed action and into a vessel capacious enough to hold varied, even contradictory, approaches. Weizmann’s Zionism was an “enabling” synthesis that favored Judaism but did not subordinate itself to the purportedly independent authority of Orthodox Halacha or of any other stream of Judaism. The same outlook that caused him to reject uncompromising orthodoxy also made him oppose the denial of Jewish identity that lies at the heart of assimilation. Weizmann wished to transmit his love of his nation and the movement and state that he headed, uncompromised by Jewish religious patronage.

Weizmann felt that it was not Shabbat that would preserve the Jewish people, but rather a political framework giving sovereign expression to Jewish approaches of every variety. He attributed Jewish exilic weakness to the minority consciousness. That was inextricable from Jewish DNA. He feared that consciousness and sought to eradicate it from the mentality of Jews in Eretz Israel and outside of it. Weizmann looked with concern upon the minority consciousness that threatened to take hold of Israeli Jews even after sovereignty was no longer a matter of theory but one of practice. In his eyes, this was a mentality that placed internal and external barriers between a “correct” Judaism and an “incorrect Judaism,” and between Judaism and the outside world. For this reason he took the view, as early as the 1930s, that a Jewish majority in Palestine/Eretz Israel – a core feature of Zionist political thought – was crucially important but not the main thing. The main thing was the consciousness of a majority sure of itself, connected to its identity and, therefore, afraid of neither the Jewish nor the non-Jewish other.

Weizmann’s attitude toward the Jewish “crisis immigrants” who came to Eretz Israel without a Zionist agenda between the two world wars was highly critical. These immigrants threatened what he regarded as the desirable character of the Jewish Yishuv. His devotion to the idea of the new Jew, the halutz or pioneer, may ultimately have been an expression of that attitude. He did not agree with the social doctrine of the halutzim, but was unable to take his eyes off them. Here he thought in terms of revolution – in his recognition of the existential necessity of the new, free Jew, quintessentially sovereign in one sense, productive and self-sufficient, forging a Jewish identity of his or her own, in their own way, without waiting for any kind of rabbinical/halachic authorization. He feared that the Jews’ state of distress might bring them to establish additional diaspora-like communities in Eretz Israel along the lines of those in Europe. One need not have been a sociologist or a Zionist to understand the relationship between the new Jew and a successful national endeavor. What had been an advantage vis-à-vis the British – a proud, free, and Western Jew – became a weakness vis-à-vis the “timid” who did not fit what he regarded as the correct Jewish profile.

During his last visit to the United States in 1949, after statehood had been declared, Weizmann related that it had been unclear whether a birth certificate or a death certificate was being signed. It was not only the matter of Arab hostility that concerned him. He was more worried about the problems raised by the Jews than by those posed by the Arabs. He was seriously alarmed by the question of the Jews’ ability to face what awaited at the end of the road: the realization of the dream of the state. Before 1948 he had not been convinced that the Jews were ready for sovereignty. That fear did not leave him even after Israel achieved statehood. He did not believe that the Jews, as a national collective, were free of the ills that plagued other nations. In fact, he believed the opposite: that the long years without sovereignty in general, and sovereignty in Eretz Israel in particular, as well as the Jews’ lack of experience as a people living in its own land, made the prospect of the Zionist national enterprise’s failure a very real one. It was no coincidence that both before and after the founding of the state he quoted, again and again and again, the prophet Isaiah (1:27): “Zion shall be redeemed in justice, and they that return of her with righteousness.” This verse encapsulated his fears – fears that many Israelis share today.

The characteristic tension between Weizmann’s national consciousness and his recognition of the needs of the other, spilled over into the territorial dimension of his thought. He sought the historical Jerusalem and Eretz Israel without concern for territorial compromises. This being the case, he was able to quickly leap from one side of the Jordan to the other, while also supporting the partition of Jerusalem so that the city could be the capital of the state he had dreamed of and for which he had worked all his life, while also being central for the Palestinian Arabs. He firmly insisted on a state for the Jews in Palestine/Eretz Israel alongside, but not above or in place of, the Arab neighbor; as he put it in his testimony before the British Royal (Peel) Commission in January 1937: The Arabs should be perfectly clear that we do not want to control them and we do not want to expel them from their country. We recognize that this is their country just as it will be ours, and we can live in the country with them. His self-confident Jewish identity, open to many different nuances, could accommodate a unifying national maximalism fortified by territorial minimalism.

“Weizmannism” is thus characterized by a proud, sovereign Jewish identity, not encumbered by religion but attached to it, educated, moral, and humanistic; by a culturally, religiously, and territorially non-avaricious national particularism; by a deep understanding of the advantages and disadvantages of the Zionist enterprise; and by the recognition that that enterprise is subject to dangers – both concrete dangers pertaining to its historical and geographic setting, and dangers arising from its being a Jewish national project unprecedented in Jewish history since the Hasmonean period – dangers no less evident than the possibilities offered by that project.

The gap between the ideas of one of the State of Israel’s founding fathers and their current implementation is an existential danger for the state. No less. Hence the relevance of Chaim Weizmann’s fears. In any case, the present reality is a difficult and painful one for those Jews who wish for a country open to diverse Jewish interpretations, and for a home in every sense of the word not just for Jews but also for those who are not Jews. Embodied in this Jewish and Zionist path is an element crucial to the survival of the state in general, and to its status as the Jewish nation-state in particular. The “state of the Jews” – yes; a “Jewish state” – no.

Now that Israel is long past the founding stage and its story has ceased to be that of a powerless minority, it would do well to reacquaint itself with the positive aspects of Weizmannism – an exemplary, measured, moral, and self-confident approach oriented toward promoting a diverse Jewish-Israeli identity through ongoing dialogue, rather than via the political power of an orthodoxy extremist in the identity or the political spheres (or sometimes, and not coincidentally, extremist in both spheres); an approach  that tramples the other or, at best, is prepared to tolerate it.

Works cited

Berlin, Isaiah (1982). Personal Impressions (Aharon Amir, trans.). Am Oved. [Hebrew]

Closed-Door Testimony of Chaim Weizmann Before the Royal Commission, 8 January 1937, Weizmann Archive, 9-1954.

Professor Motti Golani is a historian, a full professor at Tel Aviv University and head of the Chaim Weizmann Institute for the Study of Zionism and Israel.

Professor Jehuda Reinharz is a historian, an expert on modern Jewish history, president and CEO of the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, and a former president of Brandeis University.

[1] During the period 1946-1956 the Zionist Organization had no president. When Nahum Goldmann was elected president in 1956, circumstances were different from those prior to 1948.