July 9, 2019
The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann
Summer 1885 – 29 October 1902
Volume I, Series A, English Edition
Edited by Leonard Stein in collaboration with Gedalia Yogev, London, Oxford University Press, 1968[Reprinted with express permission from the Weizmann Archives, Rehovot, Israel
by the Center for Israel Education www.israeled.org]
INTRODUCTION TO VOLUME I
THE letters contained in this volume range in date from the summer of 1885 to the autumn of 1902. We first meet Weizmann as a boy of just under eleven, about to start his secondary education at the High School in Pinsk, the nearest place of any size to his home in the White Russian townlet of Motol. We leave him seventeen years later, a few weeks before his twenty-eighth birthday, teaching chemistry at the University of Geneva, busily engaged in research, feeling his way as an inventor, and struggling to reconcile the demands of his scientific interests with intense activity in the Zionist Movement. Though, still only a minor figure, he is already beginning to make his mark as a spirited young man with gifts of leadership and a mind of his own.
Of this period of seventeen years, the last twenty-two months—January 1901 to October 1902—account for 269 letters out of a total of 322. This leaves only fifty-three letters for the years before 1901, and of these only eight are earlier than April 1894, when Weizmann was nineteen. Reference has already been made in the General Introduction (page xx) to the disappearance of all the letters that Weizmann must have written to his family during his schooldays in Pinsk and his student years in Germany and Switzerland between 1885 and 1898, and to the unavoidable omission of his letters, starting in 1897, to Sophia Getzova. This helps to explain why the years before 1901 are so poorly represented. Even when we come to 1901-2, the position is that, of the 269 letters belonging to those years, 232 arc to one or other of three persons—Vera Khatzman (145), Leo Motzkin (48), and Catherine Dorfman (39). It is obvious that many letters to other persons have been lost. No help can be obtained from Weizmann’s copies of his outgoing correspondence, for no such copies arc available for any part of the period covered by this volume.
Zionism and Weizmann’s Zionist activities are throughout the predominant theme, but his frequent references to his scientific work are a reminder of the important part it played in his life, only because it provided him with a living, but because he was deeply interested in it for its own sake.
At his school in Pinsk he attracted attention by his aptitude for science and was encouraged to specialize in chemistry. Though the admission of Jews to Russian universities was severely limited, his exceptional abilities might have gained him a place. But even after surmounting the barrier of the numerus clausus he would still, as a Jew, have been subject to humiliations which he was not prepared to contemplate. Accordingly, on leaving school in 1892 he turned westward, continuing his studies, first at the Darmstadt Polytechnic (1892-3), then in Berlin at the Charlottenburg Polytechnic (1893-7, with a break of about a year in 1895-6), and finally at the Swiss University of Fribourg, which in 1899 awarded him his Ph.D. magna cum laude. In the summer of that year he began teaching chemistry as an accredited lecturer (privat-docent) under the auspices of the University of Geneva, with some additional duties in the University laboratories.
Except for some glimpses of his life in Berlin, the few letters of this period which have survived tell us little about Weizmann’s student days on his way to his doctorate. It is when we come to his Geneva years, commencing in 1899, that we begin to realize how much his scientific work meant to him. The importance he attached to it can be seen from the letters in which he speaks of hopeful chemical experiments, of the technical treatise he is preparing to write, and of the beginning of a promising association with the Bayer chemical works at Elberfeld. Writing to Vera Khatzman in September 1901 while on a visit to his parents in Pinsk, now the family home, he tells her that he is in a hurry to get back to Geneva, where he means, that winter, to concentrate on his scientific interests, abjuring all social distractions: ‘I feel as though I am not keeping abreast of science, which is bad for me in every respect.’ Early in 1902 he writes that he is working up to the eyes in his laboratory, and a little later he announces jubilantly that he sees himself on the brink of an important discovery in the field of dyestuffs chemistry.
Weizmann speaks in his autobiography of ‘the tug-of-war between my scientific inclinations and my absorption in the Zionist Movement. My scientific labours and my Zionist interests ultimately coalesced, but’—he goes on—it was not so in Geneva—at least it did not seem to be so, and during the 1900-1904 period I suffered much because of the seeming division of my impulses.’ `I must’, he tells Vera Khatzman in July 1902, ‘regulate my activities in such a way that Zionism does not interfere with chemistry. I shall then be healthier and more creative’, and again, a fortnight later, ‘You know how it has always tormented me to be unable to devote as much time as I wished to chemistry. I am going to fill in those gaps was a moment in that summer when, absorbed in his Jewish University project (more will be said of this later), he felt that he might have to give up his chemistry—`the laboratory, with all its joys and sorrows’—because his Zionist duty might require that painful sacrifice.
As is not surprising, the strain told on his health. The letters of 1901 are full of complaints about the drain on his energies—Mow I have aged l’—`my head is splitting’—`I am neglecting all my work, do not go out and stay in bed part of the time’—`All this work is too much for me.’ In January 1902 he writes: ‘I was at the doctor’s yesterday. He diagnosed neurasthenia and weakness of the respiratory organs—over-fatigue and over-excitement.’ Some months later his doctor told him that he was suffering from general weakness and exhaustion.
Before passing to the correspondence concerned mainly with Weizmann’s Zionist activities, there is one other group of letters which may be mentioned at this point because the emotional crisis reflected in them may well have contributed to the nervous tension which was in 1901 undermining his health. At some time towards the end of 1900 he met Vera Khatzman, the young Geneva medical student (she was just nineteen) from Rostov-on-Don who was some six years later to become his wife. He was engaged to be married to Sophia Getzova, a Berne student of his own age from Minsk. His correspondence with Vera Khatzman in 1901 shows how strong was their mutual attraction; how quickly he realized that he was in honour bound to put an end to an impossible situation by breaking off his engagement, and what agony he endured in steeling himself to tell his fiancee the truth. This he did in the summer of 1901. That painful duty once performed, he could breathe more freely. How much Vera Khatzman had come to mean to him can be seen from the letters, full of ardent expressions of devotion, in which he plans their future together—a future in which he pictures her, coming from a very different milieu from his own, aroused by him to a consciousness of her duty as a Jewess and standing by his side as a servant of the Jewish people. ‘I had never loved’, he tells her, ‘and now I am in love.’ lie was happy now, but he was still living on his nerves—still tormenting himself at times about the past, and abandoning himself to nameless fears and fits of depression bordering on melancholia when he and Vera were separated—she in Rostov and he in Geneva—and a few days passed without his having heard from her.
His health might suffer, his prospects of a distinguished scientific career might be prejudiced, he might be distracted by the problems of his personal life, but nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of his service to the cause which had already fired his imagination when as a boy of eleven he sent his Motol teacher, Shlomo Sokolovsky, his essay on ‘The Hovevei Zion Society and Jerusalem, which is in our Land’. Though inspired, no doubt, by what he had heard about the Hovevei Zion from his teacher or his father, he seems clearly to be expressing his own response to what they had told him when he speaks with fervent admiration of the founders of the Society and of the ‘lofty and elevated idea’ for which they stood.
This essay was written a few months after a Conference at Kattowitz, in Upper Silesia It had fused into an organized movement (the precursor of the Zionist Movement to be founded thirteen years later by Theodor Herzl) the Hovevei Zion (`Lovers of Zion’) societies which had begun to spring up in Russia in 1882 against the background of the pogroms following the assassination of the Czar Alexander II. Their purpose, broadly stated, was to promote the regeneration of the Jewish people and the revival of its national consciousness by propagating the idea of Shivat Zion (`Return to Zion’) and, in particular, by encouraging the settlement of Jews in Palestine as workers on the land. Weizmann recalls in his autobiography that he began to be drawn into Zionist work (meaning at this stage work for Hibbath Zion) at the age of fifteen, and that, while still at High School in Pinsk, he did what a schoolboy could for the Hovevei Zion, collecting funds and distributing literature. The letters which have been preserved throw no light on his early Zionist activities until we reach his student days in Berlin. There, between 1894 and 1897, we sec him in his early twenties drawn into the self-contained world in which the Jewish student colony carried on its busy social and intellectual life, and identifying himself enthusiastically with that section of it to which he naturally gravitated—the group of ardent Jewish nationalists represented by the Russian-Jewish Academic Society (commonly known as the Verein), for which he claims in his autobiography that it can justly be regarded as ‘the cradle of the modern Zionist Movement’. Zionism was to owe much to the ferment of ideas generated by the endless debates in which these young men engaged among themselves and in set battles with their socialist or assimilationist antagonists.
Prominent among the leaders of the Verein was Leo Motzkin, who was later to become well known to the Jewish public as an important figure at Zionist Congresses and as Secretary-General of the Committee of Jewish Delegations at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. When Weizmann entered the Charlottenburg Polytechnic in 1893, Motzkin, though seven years his senior, was still studying in Berlin. They saw much of each other, and it is to Motzkin that most of the letters surviving from Weizmann’s Berlin period are addressed. Though there was even in the Berlin days some friction between them, Weizmann became a warm admirer of Motzkin and in 1901, four years after leaving Berlin, is to be found still speaking of him with marked respect—`the best brain among our young people’, ‘a teacher to whom to a considerable extent I owe my ability to work’. He writes to Motzkin in November 1901, ‘may be a good recording-machine . . . but you, my dear friend, are the brains.’ But between Motzkin, brilliantly gifted but rather vague, erratic, and disorganized, and the brisk, quick-moving Weizmann, knowing exactly where he was going, determined to get things done and impatient of inefficiency, there were temperamental differences which were in the end to drive them apart. The year 1902 opened with each of them nursing grievances against the other, and by the autumn they were barely on speaking terms. Weizmann’s letters present only one side of the story. It is not necessarily to be assumed that the fault was all Motzkin’s, but the fact is that in the letters of 1902 we see their relations gradually deteriorating and Weizmann’s growing irritation turning into something like positive antagonism.
Motzkin had, nevertheless, played an important part in Weizmann’s Zionist education, and, in spite of the estrangement just mentioned, there are only friendly references to him in Trial and Error [Weizmann’s autobiography] But much more profound and more lasting was the impression made upon Weizmann by the teachings of Asher Ginzbcrg (1856-1927), the most distinguished Hebrew writer of his day commonly known by his pen-name of Ahad Ha’am (`One of the people’).
The essence of those teachings was that Hibbath Zion meant, or ought to mean, much more than the settlement of Jews in Palestine. This was to be encouraged, but the Lovers of Zion must on no account allow themselves to forget that it was not an end in itself and, as Weizmann puts it, ‘had meaning only as an organic part of the re-education of the Jewish people’. Its value would lie in its contribution to the revival of the Jewish national consciousness and to the re-awakening of Jewry as a whole to a pride in its spiritual heritage. The key to Ahad Ha’am’s approach to Zionism, whether in the inchoate form represented by the Hovevei Zion or in the more sophisticated form represented by the Basle Programme, is to be found in what his biographer, Leon Simon, describes as his conception of a ‘national spiritual centre in which the secular and religious aspects of Jewish nationalism are subtly blended’.
By the time Weizmann began his studies at the Charlottenburg Polytechnic in 1893, Ahad Ha’am’s writings, with their penetrating analysis of the true nature of the Jewish problem and of its Zionist solution, had already made a deep impression on the more thoughtful minds among the Hovevei Zion, and especially on those of the generation to which Weizmann belonged. Though Ahad Ha’am’s home was in Odessa, he lived for a time in Berlin, where Weizmann met him in 1896, having already gained admission to the Bnei Moshe (`Sons of Moses’)—a group of ardent Jewish nationalists founded under the leadership of Ahad Ha’am in 1899 and dedicated as a corps d’elite to the service of Hibbath Zion. Ahad Ha’am’s uncompromising intellectual honesty made him remorseless in his exposure of what he conceived to be fallacies or illusions in the conventional exposition of the ideas of the Hovevei Zion. The youthful Weizmann, with his dynamic energy and his eager, thrusting temperament, might have been expected to be somewhat chilled by the critical probings of the older man’s analytical mind. But for Weizmann these only cleared the way for a deeper understanding of the true significance of Hibbath Zion and of what was, or ought to be, its purpose. Behind what might look like negations he perceived and was captivated by the constructive aspect of Ahad Ha’am’s teachings, which were to continue throughout his life to colour his thinking about Zionism.
Not that he blindly followed Ahad Ha’am ; it was not in his nature blindly to follow anyone. He did not, for example, stand aloof, as Ahad Ha’am did, when Herzl’s appearance on the scene with the publication in 1896 of his tract Der Judenstaat led, a year later, to the establishment of the Zionist Organization as the instrument of a movement designed to achieve by political means the main object of a programme much more ambitious than that of the Hovevei Zion—`the establishment in Palestine of a home for the Jewish people secured by public law’. We have no letters throwing light on Weizmann’s response to these events, but we know that it was the opposite of Ahad Ha’am’s. He immediately accepted Herzl’s leadership, identified himself with the new movement and actively assisted in the preparations for the First Zionist Congress (Basle, 1897), which he would have attended as the delegate from what had by then become his home town, Pinsk, had he not at the last moment been unavoidably prevented from doing so. Ahad Ha’am, on the other hand, would have nothing to do with the Congress, disdainfully brushing aside the pretensions of the new Organization, castigating the irresponsible propaganda which had brought to Basle ‘a rabble of youngsters—in years or knowledge’, and declaring that ‘the salvation of Israel will be achieved by prophets and not by diplomats’.1 After the Third Congress (Basle, 1899) Weizmann wrote to Leo Motzkin : ‘The distrustful nervous attitude to political Zionism may be expected to disappear, and a true understanding of its aims and tasks to take root.’ The distrustful, nervous attitude in which a good number of the Hovevei Zion still persisted was in part a reflection of the misgivings so strongly felt by Ahad Ha’am.
But if Weizmann was not prepared to be guided on all points by Ahad Ha’am, neither was he prepared to give unquestioning allegiance to Herzl. As the Zionist Movement developed, he became critical of certain aspects of Herzl’s leadership. Though he never dreamed of seceding from the Zionist Organization, he became convinced that the health of the Movement was being endangered by Herzl’s failure, as it seemed to him, to realize that a political success, even if attainable, could take the Zionists only part of the way—that what was at least equally essential was a sustained and determined effort to rouse the Jewish masses from their torpor, to make them conscious of themselves as a people with a heritage worth preserving, and to demonstrate to the Jewish intelligentsia that in Zionism it could find the reassurance and inspiration for which it was hungering. The ideas which he began to press with growing impatience bore the mark of his response to the teachings of Ahad Ha’am the ‘cher maitre’ whom he implored, but without success, to appear as the leading figure at a Conference called to voice the demand of the younger Zionists for a more satisfying diet than was being offered to them by the conventional Zionist propaganda.
To this part of the story of Weizmann’s Geneva years we shall return when we come to look more closely at his relations with Herzl. Another part of that story is his trial of strength with the Bundists and other Jewish left-wingers. The Bund was a proletarian Jewish organization at this time closely linked to the Russian Social Democratic movement, and represented in Geneva by a considerable proportion of the large Russian-Jewish student colony. The Bundists’ Marxist ideology made them implacable opponents of Zionism, in which they saw a bourgeois nationalist movement having nothing to offer the Jewish masses and calculated, if not indeed designed, to divert them from the revolutionary struggle and the class war. Outside the Bund but as strongly anti-Zionist and, unlike the Bundists, not interested in identifying themselves as Jews, were the students—apparently a majority—who had cut loose from their Jewish moorings and had swallowed whole the doctrines of the Russian revolutionary movement in their most uncompromising form. Behind them stood a number of Russian revolutionary emigres then resident in Switzerland, among them the formidable George Plekhanov. Writing to Motzkin from Geneva in June 1900, Weizmann speaks of the pernicious influence of ‘the General of the Russian Revolution, Plekhanov’, on the Jewish students ‘poorly assimilated as regards Judaism, degenerate, rotten, lacking in any moral fibre’. He threw himself vigorously into what he describes in his autobiography as an episode in ‘the struggle for the possession of the soul of that generation of Russian Jews in the West’. His Geneva letters tell us of at least two set battles in this campaign—the first, in February 1901, a debate with a renegade Zionist turned Bundist, and the second, in the following November, an encounter with no less a person than Plekhanov, who was, he writes triumphantly, ‘debunked and routed’.
Both the Bundists and the Jewish Social-Democrats outside the Bund were irreconcilable enemies of Zionism, but there were also Jews who, while accepting the Zionist ideology, were at the same time strongly attracted by the idea that only in a socialist society would it be possible to establish a regime of social justice. Among these a representative figure was a member of Weizmann’s Berlin circle, Nahman Syrkin, who in the summer of 1901 came out with a call for the formation of a group of Zionist Socialists. Weizmann was violently indignant, as can be seen from a letter to Vera Khatzman in which he speaks contemptuously of ‘a red cap with a blueand-white ribbon—a national group hailing internationalism with childish yells. . . .”Thank God,’ he goes on, ‘the Jewish movement has until now been free of socialist megalomania.’ As a matter of self-preservation it was important, if the Zionists were to keep clear of the Russian secret police, that they should not appear to be mixed up with socialism, but quite apart from this Weizmann had comprehensible reasons for being disturbed by Syrkin’s activities. From other references to the subject in his 1901 correspondence it would appear that he suspected Syrkin of being a socialist first and a Zionist afterwards. To him it was clear that Zionists must keep their eyes firmly fixed on their goal, that the Movement could not afford any divided allegiance, and that there must, accordingly, be firm resistance from the start to what might become a dangerous deviation. How much Weizmann disliked and distrusted the Zionist Socialists is shown by the suspicion with which he viewed their attempts to insert themselves into the Zionist Youth Conference of 1901.
The enthusiasm with which Weizmann threw himself into the organization of the Youth Conference showed how firmly he was convinced that it had become imperative, in the long-term interests of the Movement, for the dissatisfied elements among the younger Zionists to assert themselves. His feeling that there was something lacking in Herzl’s leadership seems to have come to a head about 1900. Unavoidably prevented from attending the First Zionist Congress, he was present at the Second Congress in 1898, but we have no letters throwing light on his impressions. At the end of the Third Congress in August 1899 he joined with two of his friends in sending Herzl a postcard bearing his likeness and inscribed : ‘This is a picture which is ever in our mind’s eye and which we always carry and shall carry in our hearts.’ All the same, some discordant voices were now beginning to be heard. Writing from Russia a few weeks later to Leo Motzkin, Weizmann tells him that ‘the Congress Opposition evokes great sympathy among the people ; they appreciate it and are beginning to see it in its true light’. It was not a question of objecting to Herzl’s conception of Zionism as a political movement ; on the contrary, earlier in the same letter Weizmann speaks, in a passage already quoted, of his hope that those who still mistrust political Zionism will overcome their nervous fears. ‘What did disturb the group of Russian delegates (himself among them) described by Weizmann as ‘the Congress Opposition’ was a tendency, as they saw it, to neglect what he calls in one of his letters `the prophetic aspect of Zionism’, to place all the emphasis on Zionist activities in the political and diplomatic field, to delude and confuse the masses by suggesting that a spectacular success might before long open the way to the realization of the Basle Programme, and to pay too little attention to the cultural activities—the patient educational work—without which the Movement could have no sure foundation. A year later, Weizmann left the Fourth Congress (London, 1900) in a mood of utter dejection. ‘Exhausted and weary’, he wrote to Motzkin’s wife, Paula, ‘broken morally and physically, I send you greetings, hoping that we may in the future see at our national assemblies more life, strength and courage in thought and deed.’ For what he regarded as the failure of the London Congress the main responsibility seemed to him to rest with Herzl, who, he writes in his autobiography, ‘was interested more in the impression he might produce on English publicists and statesmen than in the internal strength of the Movement. . . . I was forced to say that the striving after external effect was leading to neglect of internal construction.’
This was typical of the questionings among some of the younger men, and especially among the Russian intellectuals, which were to lead to a movement for the organization of a Zionist Youth Conference. The idea of a Youth Conference (originally conceived as a students’ conference) began to crystallize towards the end of 1900. It did not originate with Weizmann, but with a group of Russian-Jewish students in Munich. Weizmann promptly identified himself with the project and in close association with the Munich group worked energetically from Geneva on the organization of a Preparatory Conference, which, meeting at Munich under his chairmanship in April 1901, put him in charge of a Conference Office set up in Geneva to complete the arrangements.
A circular letter distributed by the Geneva Office soon after the Munich meeting explained that the object of the Youth Conference was to bring together people ‘who are already Zionists but for whom the framework of the old Organization had become too narrow and uncomfortable’. This was how it was put in this formal communication, but Weizmann’s real feelings about the meaning and underlying purpose of the Conference come out more clearly in his personal letters to various sympathizers. ‘If we only knew that there was already a group of responsible men of action’, then, he tells Catherine Dorfman, ‘we could declare war on Herzl with a light heart’. In a letter to Vera Khatzman he recognizes that ‘to convene the Conference means to declare war on Herzlism as a whole’, but ‘not to hold the Conference is quite impossible’. In another letter to Catherine Dorfman he writes: ‘Dr. Herzl has no idea of Russian Zionism and of Russian Zionists. Dr. Herzl is being misled by various creatures, flatterers, “friends of the cause”.’
For all this rebellious language, it would be wrong to suppose that Weizmann had lost interest in political Zionism or that he would not have been as jubilant as any other Zionist if a political success had been achieved. Only two months after the Youth Conference he wrote to Vera Khatzman: ‘Great things are happening in Zionism now. Our dear untiring leader is in Constantinople, and yesterday I received a telegram from Buber in Vienna: “Wide concessions expected”.’ What he wanted was forcibly to demonstrate to Herzl that, if he was concerned for the future of the Movement, he could not afford to disregard the views of those younger men who were convinced that it must broaden its foundations and were insisting on being heard.
After several postponements the Youth Conference met at Basle at the end of 1901, but not without its organizers having had to fight hard against opposition from various quarters—from those who saw in it a threat to the unity of the Zionist Movement, from those who suspected that its purpose was to declare war on religion, and, above all, from Herzl himself, who, when the project was brought to his notice, told Weizmann that it must be abandoned, since any indiscretions might prejudice delicate negotiations in which he was then engaged, meaning his discussions with certain Turkish Ministers and officials following on his reception, in May 1901, by the Sultan. A little later, in a letter to one of Weizmann’s associates, Bernstein-Kohan, Herzl expressed anxiety about factious activities calculated to split the Movement. What he particularly wanted to avoid was anything which could be construed as a provocation by the religious wing of the Movement—the Zionists who, faithful to Orthodox Judaism, saw in cultural work not directly related to religion, and generally in the ideas underlying the promotion of the Youth Conference, a challenge which must be firmly resisted. Weizmann, for his part, did not shrink from a collision with the religious Zionists. ‘Our group’, he wrote to Motzkin on the eve of the Conference, ‘will always be critical and in opposition whenever dealings with the clericals . . . are concerned.’ In deference to the ‘clericals’ Herzl had caused a resolution in favour of cultural work to be side-tracked at the Fourth Congress in 1900. Though he does not seem expressly to have said so, the same anxiety to prevent differences of opinion within the Movement from being embittered by the injection of a religious issue was, without doubt, one of his reasons for discouraging the holding of the Youth Conference.
`I am appalled’, Weizmann wrote to Catherine Dorfman, ‘by the behaviour of the “leader” and fear that the time has come to open fire.’ At the end of July he sent Herzl an indignant letter protesting against the attempt to suppress the Conference, which ‘has not been brought about artificially but is the natural outcome of an emerging need’. In the end Herzl relented and, after an interview with Weizmann in Vienna, not only agreed to countenance the Conference but promised the active support of the Zionist Organization, being satisfied that the promoters had no sinister motives and that their efforts might, indeed, serve a useful purpose.
The six days’ Conference-18-23 December 1901—did not result, as originally contemplated, in the establishment of a Zionist Youth Organization with limited objects designed to appeal to the younger intellectuals. The proceedings of the Conference are not described or commented upon in any of the Weizmann letters which have survived, but from the (incomplete) minutes, supplemented by information from other sources, it appears that, while some delegates insisted that the Conference should not go beyond its avowed purpose, Motzkin, supported—it would seem—by Weizmann, successfully argued that a loosely knit Youth Organization would not be enough ; the progressive elements must be welded into an organized Fraction (in effect, a synonym for Party) within the Movement, free to express its views and, where necessary, to oppose the leadership on any questions which might arise, including political questions, and to press for reforms in the structure of the Organization.
In the end the Conference resolved to perpetuate itself in the form of a ‘Democratic Fraction’ within the Zionist Movement. It was decided to provide the Fraction with an Information Bureau, to be directed by Weizmann, at Geneva. The programme of the Democratic Fraction was left to be worked out by a committee appointed for the purpose, but the committee was to be guided by a ‘Protocol’, the main features of which can be summarized as follows: First, the structure of the Zionist Organization must be reformed in conformity with democratic principles—the Organization must not revolve round a personality. Secondly, the Fraction must undertake cultural work on its own account independently of anything that might be done in that sphere under other auspices. Thirdly, the Fraction must devote itself to ‘the study of the physical, political and social conditions of Palestine’. Lastly, it was affirmed that any group of Zionists having distinctive views in common ought to form itself into a Fraction, and that such groupings were essential to the healthy development of the Zionist Movement, subject to the acceptance by all Fractions of the Basle Programme.
The Democratic Fraction had all initial success. The Conference ended on the eve of the Fifth Zionist Congress, which opened at Basle on 26 December 1901. At the Congress the concerted efforts of the thirty-seven delegates belonging to the Fraction were largely instrumental in bringing about the adoption of a resolution, in which Herzl concurred, declaring that ‘the education of the Jewish people in a national spirit is an essential part of the Zionist programme’, and the election of a Cultural Commission with a membership including Weizmann and Ahad Ha’am.
Cultural Commissions had been set up by earlier Congresses but had never achieved anything. This time the Commission had not only an impressive membership but the backing of a strong resolution, endorsed by Herzl, in favour of cultural work. Nevertheless, it was as unproductive as its predecessors. The Commission, or sections of it, met once or twice, but with no perceptible results. Nor did the Democratic Fraction live up to the hopes of its founders. After its auspicious start at the Fifth Congress it began almost at once to run into trouble as a result of serious dissensions between its Berlin adherents, headed by Motzkin, and Weizmann, backed by his colleagues at the Geneva office. Weizmann refused to be discouraged. ‘This’, he told Ahad Ha’am in February 1902, ‘is the first time this year that I have felt that we are fulfilling our Jewish civic duty. Our group has infused a new purifying spirit into the Organization as a whole and the cause as a whole.’ The quarrels between Berlin and Geneva might, indeed, have been no more than teething-troubles. But they were, in fact, only the prelude to a long period of tension between two of the Fraction’s leading figures, Weizmann and Motzkin. Motzkin had been entrusted with the final revision of the programme of the Fraction. During the months which passed before this had been finished Weizmann grew more and more exasperated, and, discouraged by what seemed to him to be the apathy of other members of the Fraction, he began to despair of it. `Motzkin’, he wrote to Vera Khatzman in July 1902, `is outrageously lazy. I am not writing to him any more and, generally, shall cease to take any further interest in the fate of the Fraction. I am fed up with playing the role of an enfant terrible, who, by the way, is paying out more than anyone else.’ It was not until well into August that the programme was at last ready for publication. From the summary of this rather verbose document in the bridge-note following letter No. 298 it will be seen that it was in general conformity with the principles set out in the ‘Protocol’ approved by the Youth Conference. But the Democratic Fraction never really got on its feet. It was still alive in a semi-animate condition in 1903, but, in spite of attempts to revive it, it faded out in 1904.
The establishment of the Democratic Fraction represented the first deliberate move in the direction of the party-system which was to play an increasingly influential and, in the end, a dominant part in the internal politics of the Movement. This gives the Fraction, short-lived though it was, a significant place in Zionist history, but its only visible achievement had been its successful pressure, almost immediately after coming into existence, for a Congress resolution recognizing cultural work as an important part of the Zionist programme. Even this had turned out to be a dead letter, and apart from this the Fraction’s direct impact on Zionist policies had been negligible. But this is not to say that it died without leaving any mark on Zionist thinking. Thus, for example, its programme—on this point going rather further than the ‘Protocol’ of December 1901—demanded that an immediate start should be made with the acquisition of land in Palestine for future settlement by Jews. The view still tenaciously held by the straighter sect of Political Zionists was that no activity should be undertaken in Palestine until mass immigration had been authorized by the Charter on which they staked their hopes. In its open challenge to what was then the orthodox creed the Fraction can be regarded as having contributed to the eventual victory of the Practical Zionists, who were to come into the ascendant a few years later. Ideas which were to fructify later were implicit also in the further demand that Jewish colonies to be established in Palestine under Zionist auspices should be organized on collectivist lines.
It should, moreover, be remembered that, unimpressive as were the achievements of the Democratic Fraction itself, some important new developments, especially in the field of cultural work, were due to the initiative of certain of the younger Zionists prominently associated with the Fraction. Of this one example is the establishment in Berlin of a Jewish publishing-house, the Jiidischer Verlag, with Martin Buber and Berthold Feiwel among its founders. Another is the Jewish University project, to which, in close cooperation with Feiwel, Weizmann was devoting much of his energies in 1902.
The idea was not new. At the First Zionist Congress in 1897 one of the delegates, Professor Shapira, had spoken vaguely about the establishment of a Hebrew University in Palestine. But this was only a distant dream; no practical steps towards the foundation of such a University were taken or discussed. At the Fifth Congress (1901) Weizmann set the ball in motion with a speech in which he urged the Congress to recognize that the time had come to treat the question of a Jewish University as a matter of immediate practical importance. He spoke in general terms of a Jewish University, not of a Hebrew University in Palestine. He made no proposal about the seat of the University and expressed no opinion on the question whether it must necessarily be in Palestine.
He had already given the subject some thought, and so had some of the other Zionists associated with the Youth Conference, though they had still to clear their minds as to exactly what they wanted. Was the University to be in Palestine or in Europe? Was it to be a genuine University concerned with the advancement of learning, or was there a still more pressing need for a high-grade technical institute of the type of the Charlottenburg Polytechnic? Writing in August 1901 to Catherine Dorfman, Weizmann pointed out that the whole question had now become urgent because of the fresh restrictions recently imposed on the admission of Jews to Russian universities and other institutions of higher learning, and because, even in Germany, where so many Jewish students had found openings denied to them in Russia, there was intensive propaganda in favour of discrimination against Russian Jews. Weizmann’s conclusion was that the proper course would be to begin with plans for the establishment of two or three technical colleges in the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Russia, ‘and afterwards we should develop the Jewish University project’—whether in Europe or Palestine is not made clear. These ideas reappear, though in a somewhat altered form in a letter of 5 February 1902 to Ahad Ha’am: ‘At our insistence, the Congress spoke about a Jewish institute of higher education. I must admit that I only joined the Cultural Commission to tackle this task . . . I think there must be two institutions from the start, one in Palestine devoted especially to Jewish learning, and another in Europe—a general University with a technical faculty and, of course, a Chair of Jewish Studies. . . . What an important European Jewish intellectual centre could be created at a Jewish University ; it would be a synthesis of Yavneh and Europe!’
Working closely with Feiwel, Weizmann now began to press the Jewish University project on Herzl, whose response was sympathetic, and in May 1902 he sent Herzl a ‘Preliminary plan for a Jewish University’. As to the character of the institution, his proposal was that it should be a combination of a University properly so-called and a Polytechnic. As to where it should be established, he said that it ought, if possible, to be in Palestine ; should this be impracticable, the only alternative worth considering was Switzerland. Switzerland had evidently been already mentioned to Herzl as a possible second best, for he had earlier in the month told Feiwel that he was prepared to take the matter up with the Sultan (to whom he did, in fact, submit the project, but without receiving any encouragement) or with the Swiss Government.
The case for the establishment, as a matter of urgency, of a Jewish University was set out at some length in a brochure, Einejudische Hochschule, the joint work of Weizmann and Feiwel, not published until the latter part of 1902 but completed in July. As to the seat of the University, the view expressed was that it should, if possible, be established in Palestine, but that if this should be for the time being impracticable, then—since the need was pressing —in some other country, which might be England or Switzerland, but only as a temporary expedient and on the understanding that it was intended eventually to move the institution to Palestine. This implies that Weizmann was no longer pressing the view that it was essential that facilities for higher education should be provided in Europe as well as in Palestine. In appearance at least, he moved still further away from his original position when the University question came before the Zionist Annual Conference in October 1902. Though in the debate he made it clear that, like Martin Buber, he did not regard it as axiomatic that in no circumstances could any alternative to Palestine be considered, this did not prevent him from submitting, jointly with Buber, a resolution in favour of the establishment of a Jewish University in Palestine. Recognizing the emotional appeal of Palestine, Weizmann and Buber had framed their proposal in terms which could reasonably be expected to make it acceptable to the Conference. In this they were mistaken. The strength of that appeal was demonstrated when, to make assurance doubly sure, the Conference rejected the Buber–Weiznaann resolution and substituted another calling upon the leadership to work for the establishment of a Jewish University, `but only in Palestine’.
The truth seems to be that Weizmann was too much of a realist not to doubt whether, under the conditions prevailing in 1902, it would be practicable to set up a University in Palestine and rapidly to develop it to a point at which it would satisfy the needs of some of the mass of frustrated Jewish students or would-be students in Eastern Europe—this even assuming that such students would be able to make their way to Palestine, and that the Turks in their then mood would be willing to admit such an influx of Jews. This does not mean that there was any question in Weizmann’s mind as to the ideal objective. What it does mean is that he had still to be convinced that the University must from the start be ‘only in Palestine’.
With what intense application he worked for the Jewish University project can be seen from his letters of 1902 and from those which will become available in the next volume. For the time being, it all came to nothing. The Kishinev pogroms of 1903, the death of Herzl in 1904, and the controversy then raging about the ‘Uganda’ scheme, pushed the University question into the background and caused Weizmann’s campaign to be suspended. We shall see, as this work progresses, how out of these early gropings there was to emerge a credible plan for the establishment of a Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and with what ardour Weizmann worked for its realization.
In Weizmann’s handling of the University project, as illustrated by the letters in this volume, can be seen, even at this early stage of his career, a characteristic combination of burning enthusiasm for an idea which had fired his imagination with the commonsense of a realist preferring to bide his time and feel his way rather than rush forward before the ground had been properly prepared. In his efforts to win support for the project he spent himself to the point of exhaustion. In the interests of his campaign there was no sacrifice he was not prepared to make—even, if need be, the sacrifice of the distinguished career he could foresee for himself in chemistry. At the same time, his scientific training made him suspicious of short cuts and snap decisions. On no account would he agree to a half-baked scheme being given premature publicity for the benefit of Zionist propaganda. It will be noticed that one of his favourite words is wissenschaftlich (scientific) and that there was no one for whom he had less respect than the dilettante. He would have nothing to do with slipshod improvisations. It was, he insisted, incumbent upon him and his associates to study the problems which had had to be tackled in the foundation of other universities, to dig deep into the literature on the subject, not to shrink from the dull task of compiling relevant statistics, and, in general, to make sure that before any scheme was launched the foundations had been solidly laid.
At the close of the period covered by this volume Weizmann was just under twenty-eight, with nearly two years still to go before he left Geneva for England, and twelve before he started on the road which was to lead to the Balfour Declaration. Thinking of the historical figure he was destined to become, we could easily form an exaggerated view of his standing, in those early years, in the Zionist Movement and give a disproportionate place in Zionist history to the events which loom so large in the letters here surveyed. At the age at which we leave him at the close of this volume Weizmann was still only a minor figure in the Movement, admired by a small group of kindred spirits—the ardent young men and women who come to life in his correspondence (though sometimes quarrelling even with these), acquiring a growing reputation among the Russian Zionists, less favourably known to the leaders as a gadfly, but occupying as yet nothing like a commanding position in the Zionist world. In the voluminous diaries kept by Herzl from 1895 to his death in 1904 Weizmann is never mentioned, Yet, though he had still to rise to his full stature, these letters reflect the self-confidence of a man who knows exactly where he is going, refusing to swim with the tide and expressing his views with an emotional intensity and, at times, with an almost startling vehemence which speak of the passionate conviction behind them. Not that we do not sometimes find a touching note of humility. ‘A great moral rebirth’, he declares, ‘influenced by great spirits, people of eagle vision, like our Prophets—that is what Israel needs today. We, the pygmies, will not save “the wandering Jew”—we arc the “mortal little Jews”.’ `We are nervy’, he writes a few days later, ‘unstrung, flabby, and we are unfit for the Jewish cause. . . . I can see before me the faces of our best people. They are all helpless now—yet they arc giants in comparison with me.’ So he could write when overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy in face of the immensity of the task with which but a feeble beginning had been made. What sustained him, as it was to sustain him throughout his life, was his unshakable conviction that it must be and would be accomplished. His deepest feelings are movingly expressed in his letter to Vera Khatzman at the turn of the Jewish year in the autumn of 1901:
May Israel rise, poor, oppressed, abused Israel, forgotten by its own No. 12 sons. . . . May its sons and daughters return and apply their strength to Sephealing the sores that have appeared in the body of an ancient people which yet harbours so much youthful fervour. . . . May the young generation now being born understand at last that it is their duty to save their honour, their integrity, to liberate themselves and their nation from Exile, from centuries-old chains. Israel is awaiting its children—and they are coming, they are returning, and may the coming years be a festival of reunion, a festival of the return of him who has been lost.