The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann
September 1903 – December 1904
Volume III, Series A
Introduction: Gedalia Yogev
General Editor Meyer W. Weisgal, London, Oxford University Press, 1972[Reprinted with express permission from the Weizmann Archives, Rehovot, Israel,
by the Center for Israel Education www.israeled.org.]
The third volume of the Weizmann Letters is the first to focus on developments that constituted milestones in the early history of the Zionist Movement—the controversy over East Africa (the ‘Uganda plan’), the death of Herzl, the beginnings of the reorganization of the movement after his passing, and the realignment of forces within the Zionist Organization resulting from these events. The volume also covers an important development in Weizmann’s personal life—his settlement in England in the summer of 1904—that was to influence the whole future course of the movement. Though this could not have been foreseen at the time, Weizmann himself was well aware that his decision to reside in the United Kingdom would open a wider scope of opportunities and possibilities in the sphere of his Zionist activity.
Consequently, Volume III also marks the closing of a chapter. Whilst in Geneva, Weizmann still lived the life of a student though already a junior lecturer at the University. Most of his friends were students, he was an habitué at the Cafe Landolt—the meeting place for students of Russian origin—and the majority of his friends and adversaries belonged to student circles. His Zionist work during this period also developed within the milieu of Jewish student colonies. He distinguished himself as an orator and polemicist at student gatherings, he endeavored to form a Zionist Youth Organization, and he was the moving spirit in the Democratic Fraction and the Jewish University project, whose foremost supporters were drawn from the ranks of the younger Zionist generation.
Things began to change after the Sixth Zionist Congress held in Basle in August 1903. Although Weizmann continued to reside in Geneva and there was no outward change in his way of life, his Zionist efforts were diverted into new avenues. The controversy between the supporters of the East Africa plan and its opponents overshadowed former ideological groupings and past schisms. The affairs of the Democratic Fraction and the University project gradually receded and Weizmann began to devote most of his time and energy to activity within the ranks of the Nay-sayers, as the opponents to the East Africa plan came to be known. Previously he had stood out primarily as the leader of the young opposition elements, but after August 1903 he embarked upon intensive action under the banner of the ‘Nay-sayers’ and accepted the authority of their Russian Zionist leaders.
The altered character of Weizmann’s activity was concretely illustrated by the liquidation of the Democratic Fraction and Jewish University Bureaux in February 1904, and in the summer of that year Weizmann finally severed his connection with the milieu in which his Zionist labours had been moulded since 1898.
In a letter written to Catherine Dorfman in February 1904, Weizmann dwelt on his wish to talk with her, `to recall the good old days; how good they were, how young we then were, how everything has become stale since then. Ah, old times…’ Weizmann was evidently conscious of the new turn his life was taking, even before he had left Geneva for good.
The Sixth Zionist Congress had taken place under the impact of the East Africa proposal. The initiative for the discussion of Jewish settlement in the British Protectorate of East Africa emanated from the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Joseph Chamberlain. He raised the point for the first time in a conversation with Herzl on 24 April 1903 and reverted to it a month later with Leopold Greenberg. On this occasion Chamberlain said that the Jewish settlement there would be given local autonomy.
At first Herzl rejected the proposal, emphasizing that the colonisation area should be in the proximity of Palestine; but subsequently he became attached to the idea. He was at that time greatly under the impact of the Kishinev pogrom, disturbed over the failure of the negotiations with Turkey, and disappointed by the negative attitude of the Egyptian Government towards the El-Arish colonisation project. Herzl perceived in Chamberlain’s suggestion a basis for major action on behalf of East European Jewry. On 13 July a draft charter for Jewish colonisation in East Africa was submitted to Chamberlain and on 14 August Sir Clement Hill, Superintendent of African Protectorates in the Foreign Office, informed Greenberg that the Foreign Secretary, Lord Lansdowne, had agreed to the dispatch of a survey expedition by the Jewish Colonial Trust to East Africa in order to examine colonization possibilities there. Hill wrote that if a site could be found which the Jewish Colonial Trust and the British Commissioner for the East Africa Protectorates considered suitable, and if that site commended itself to His Majesty’s Government, then ‘Lord Lansdowne will be prepared to entertain favourably proposals for the establishment of a Jewish colony or settlement, on conditions which will enable the members to observe their national customs. For this purpose he would be prepared to discuss (if a suitable site had been found and subject to the views of the advisers of the Secretary of State in East Africa) the details of a scheme comprising as its main features: the grant of a considerable area of land, the appointment of a Jewish Official as chief of the local administration, and permission to the Colony to have a free hand in regard to municipal legislation and as to the management of religious and purely domestic matters, such Local Autonomy being conditional upon the right of His Majesty’s Government to exercise a general control.’
The negotiations were at first kept secret, but on 21 August Herzl reported on the British proposal to members of the G.A.C. convened in Basle on the eve of the Sixth Congress. At the Congress itself he referred to the plan in his opening address. He stressed that only Palestine could be the final objective of the Jewish people, but that contacts with the British Government had greatly strengthened the movement, and he expressed confidence that the ‘Congress is capable of finding the means to utilize the proposal’. He added that ‘this proposal has been submitted to us in a way that is bound to contribute to an amelioration in the position of the Jewish people and alleviate its plight, without our having to forgo any of the great principles upon which our movement is founded’. Summing up, Herzl declared that ‘this is of course not Zion and can never be Zion’ and that the proposal should be regarded as an emergency measure and a colonisation palliative ‘though on a national and state basis’. Herzl moved that the Congress elect a commission to explore the question thoroughly.
The British proposal came under stormy debate at the caucuses of delegates from the various countries (Landsmannschaften) and at the Congress itself. Among those who backed the proposal or, at least, the nomination of a commission and the dispatch of an expedition to East Africa were the majority of the West European delegates, the Mizrahi, and the ‘Political’ Zionists (who on the eve of the Congress had begun to organize as a group insisting that the Zionist Organization should engage solely in political activity and not in cultural and economic affairs). Among the opponents were the majority of the Russian delegates, including most of the Russian members of the G.A.C., the Democratic Fraction, and the Hovevei Zion.
Those in favour of the British proposal argued that the condition of the Jewish masses in Eastern. Europe made it necessary to launch immediate action to relieve their distress, and that it was preferable to direct emigration to a place where the settlers could be self-governing and live their own national life rather than allow them to disperse over the world. Palestine would continue to be the ultimate goal of the Zionist movement while Africa would provide an `overnight shelter’ (Max Nordau’s phrase). The supporters of the plan further contended that the creation of a Jewish centre in East Africa would strengthen the Zionist movement; it would accustom the people to an independent national existence and train farmers who would later be of use in the colonisation of Palestine. They pointed out that the British proposal implied recognition of the Zionist movement as a serious factor with which a Power such as Great Britain was ready to negotiate; and they argued that the offer could not be rejected out of hand without putting the question to the Zionist electorate.
The opponents argued that acceptance would constitute a deviation from the Basle Programme, which stated explicitly that ‘Zionism strives to create for the Jewish people a home in Palestine.’ Jewish settlement in East Africa would constitute a philanthropic venture—the rich would send the poor there—and a settlement established on such a basis could never prosper. A project of this sort could succeed only if the people themselves wanted it; but the people aspired to the renewal of their national existence in their ancient homeland and nowhere else. It would be wrong for the movement to fragmentize its forces and all efforts must be centered on Palestine. Assent would be tantamount to relinquishing Palestine altogether and be a death-blow to Zionism. Nor would the plan provide any concrete contribution towards alleviating the plight of the Jewish masses, since only some tens of thousands of people could be settled there at the utmost. The opponents further argued that the British would comprehend the Zionist attitude if the proposal were rejected and would help the Zionists to secure Palestine, but if the offer were agreed to, then the movement would forfeit the moral support of European nations. The majority of the opponents went so far as to object to the nomination of a commission and to the dispatch of an expedition to East Africa, since a question of principle was involved, and urged that the whole scheme be summarily rejected.
A meeting of Russian delegates held on 24 August decided by a majority of 146 against 84 to submit to the Congress a motion recognizing the political importance of the British proposal and expressing gratitude to the British people, but declaring that the Congress remained loyal to the basic principle of the movement and adhered to the aim of establishing a homeland in Palestine, and could not, therefore, consider the East Africa proposal.
The motion never reached the plenary session of the Congress. A roll-call ballot was taken on a draft resolution submitted to the Congress by the G.A.C. after it had been adopted by a majority of votes. This resolution, passed by a majority of 295 ‘Tea-sayers’ against 178 `Nay-sayers’, stated that ‘in order to examine the question of colonization in the area proposed by the British Government’ a commission of nine members be appointed with the function of `assisting the S.A.C. solely in an advisory capacity’ regarding the dispatch of a survey commission to East Africa. The resolution further stated that the cost of the expedition would not be paid out of the funds of the Jewish Colonial Trust, the Anglo-Palestine Bank, or the Jewish National Fund. The right to decide on East Africa would be reserved for an Extraordinary Congress to be specially convened. The same day the Sixth Congress adopted two other resolutions offered by the `Nay-sayers’:
- (a) the survey expedition must not be financed out of Shekel revenues; and
- (b) the setting up of the commission would fall within the scope and authority of the G.A.C., which would be convened for this purpose, and which would also receive the report from the commissioners.
On the announcement of the results of the vote the `Nay-sayers,’ seven Russian members of the G.A.C. marched demonstratively out of the Congress hall. That same evening Herzl addressed a closed meeting of the ‘Nay-sayers’ when he again explained his reasons for not dismissing the British offer out of hand. The following day the `Nay-sayers’ appeared again at the Congress sessions.
Weizmann had at first shown a positive attitude towards East Africa, as evidenced in his speech at a caucus of Russian delegates. According to a despatch published in Der Fraind, although Weizmann cast doubt on the political importance of the proposal he nevertheless expressed support of the idea to direct the stream of Jewish emigration to Africa, urging Zionist initiative in this regard. He opposed the viewpoint that Jews looked to Palestine only while they remained in a perilous position; as a national Jew he believed that, once their position improved, they would crave all the more to be an independent nation. Weizmann proposed laying the following draft resolution before the Congress:
Congress does not conceive the action in Africa as the ultimate aim of the Zionists, but deems it necessary to regulate emigration, and consequently finds that the Zionists must unify all colonisation societies or convene a congress in order to decide on East Africa. Zionist funds will not be expended for this purpose. The Congress proposes that the A.C. shall not desist from action in Wadi El-Arish.
The motion was not accepted by the meeting. Weizmann did not speak on the subject at the Congress itself, restricting himself to a declaration on the second day that he was ‘taking a positive attitude’ towards East Africa.
Following the discussions in Congress, however, Weizmann voted against the A.C. motion concerning the despatch of an expedition to East Africa. In explaining this reversal to a meeting of Russian delegates held on the day of the vote, he said he had gathered from the speeches by the supporters of the motion that the Western European Zionists were not taking the Basle Programme seriously and he feared lest the Programme be entirely changed in the course of time.
Weizmann again explained his change of posture at a meeting of the `Nay-sayers’ held the day following the closure of Congress. He is quoted by Hatzefirah as saying, inter alia, that ‘so long as the African plan had not been made clear to me I was for it, but in the course of the deliberations I realized that it was bound to deflect the course of Zionism and so I became an opponent, although I am in favour of emigration.’ The same dispatch quotes him further: ‘To tell the truth, Herzl is not a nationalist but a project conceiver… he considers external conditions only, instead of the force on which we rely—the psychology of the people and the aspirations which animate it. We knew that it was impossible for us to obtain Palestine in a short time and were therefore not discouraged at the failure of this or another attempt.’
The Congress elected Weizmann to membership of the East Africa Commission. His acceptance seemingly contradicted the attitude he had evolved during the deliberations; he probably agreed so that he could represent the position of the `Nay-sayers,’ and it is very likely that the initiative for his election came from them.
Weizmann now adopted a decisive and consistent line. East Africa, and the considerable support it evoked from the Jewish public in East and West, seemed to him to be a symptom of a sickness against which he had warned for years; in his view the crisis was inevitable. As Weizmann saw it, the majority of East Africa supporters belonged to a group, comprising Western assimilationists on the one hand and Mizrahi members on the other, with only a superficial understanding of Zionist theory. They were the same people who had all along opposed the introduction of cultural work into the Zionist programme: ‘It is definitely no coincidence that the most embittered opponents of Zionist cultural activities were the strongest adherents of the Africa project.’ Western Zionism, whose representatives stood at the head of the movement, ‘remained a cliche, completely devoid of Jewish content, unstable, wavering and hollow, finding its highest expression in so-called diplomacy, and in the “Jewish Statism” that smells of philanthropy. This briefly is my view of the theorising behind the East Africa project.’ This conviction led Weizmann to the need to broaden the struggle against East Africa. The party which ‘understands Zionism to be the life-giving force’ must abandon the attitude of Russian Landsmannschaft in favor of a ‘struggle for hegemony’ within the Zionist movement: ‘It is only because the leadership is West European and the following mostly East European… that misunderstandings such as have led as far as Africa could have arisen.’ Weizmann did not, however, demand that the leadership be ousted. He unequivocally opposed the designs of Moses Gaster and Simon Rosenbaum to remove Herzl. In a letter to Menahem Ussishkin he called upon Ussishkin and his colleagues ‘to stand at the head of our cause without as yet demolishing the idols of our own making. […] We do not seek to substitute one person for another,’ Weizmann stated in reporting a discussion with Gaster in October 1903, ‘but, rather, to change the current policy of opportunism and vacillation for a firm Palestine programme and an organization.’
His concern was to reform the elements of the Zionist Organization so as to redress the balance of forces within the movement without overthrowing Herzl and his associates in the leadership; it was necessary to institute ‘such radical reforms as to enable all leaders to receive a greater share of the work, with more control and responsibility over it.’ Weizmann proposed that the S.A.C. consist of heads of special departments administering the various spheres of Zionist activity, with the central body located in London. ‘It is intolerable that the A.C. should have forty members, while the major part of the work is done almost exclusively by one individual… Only by dividing the work can there be any guarantee that no further surprises will come.’
Weizmann saw as immediate objectives the ideological and organizational consolidation of the ‘Nay-sayers,’ energetic propaganda against the East Africa plan, and the preparation of a programme of work in Palestine.
Organizational reform he regarded as a means only, but Palestine work was both a means and an integral part of the objective itself. He had urged Zionist action in Palestine previously, contrary to Herzl’s view that systematic colonization be deferred until a Charter had been obtained. But these demands were marginal and had never been voiced or explained in a consistent manner. Now, in view of the threat that the movement might be diverted from the ideal of Palestine, Weizmann agreed with Ussishkin that Palestine work should be placed in the forefront of the ‘Nay-sayers’ plans and demands. ‘If we do not come to the [Seventh] Congress with a defined programme concerning work in Palestine… then we shall not be able to have even the Neinsager that we had.’ An answer had to be found to the pressing questions of settlement and industrialization in Palestine and neighbouring countries, the acquisition of land, and cultural work in Palestine and among the Jews in the Orient. `Work in Palestine… is the very basis,’ Weizmann wrote in another letter, ‘whereas everything else, such as reforms within the organization, etc., etc., has to be grouped round this axis.’ Weizmann constantly reiterated the importance of framing a plan of practical action in Palestine without which, in his opinion, the `Nay-sayers’ could not survive. He suggested that an expedition be sent to Palestine to investigate local conditions, that the J.N.F. begin purchasing land immediately and, after the meeting of Regional Leaders in Kharkov had formulated proposals for work in Palestine, he suggested that a Legal Committee be set up to prepare the appropriate material. Despite some initial misgivings, Weizmann was greatly impressed by the work of the Palestine Commission elected at the Sixth Congress with Otto Warburg at its head, and regarded its report as the sole ray of light in the deliberations of the Zionist Annual Conference held in 1904.
We have already noted Weizmann’s decision immediately after the Sixth Congress to place himself and the Democratic Fraction at the command of the `Nay-sayers.’ It was clear to him that, to this end, the character of the Fraction would have to be altered. An idea should be raised before the Congress, namely, the conversion from an independent political group into a ‘working group’ that would assume certain Zionist tasks: propaganda, educational and cultural work, theoretical and practical studies of Palestine. The transformed Fraction would be ‘a compact group of young Zionist forces prepared to be led into the fray,’ as Weizmann wrote to Jacob Bernstein-Kohan, adding that, differences notwithstanding, ‘we, as a flexible minority, would prefer in practice to initiate a form of common action’ within the `Nay-sayers’ group. `We shall place the propagandists at their disposal and we shall conduct the campaign in accordance with a plan worked out in concert. […] Our internal activities will consist of strengthening the group, to lead the youth and take command of such activities as suit our talents and our position best.’
A meeting of Democratic Fraction members held during the period of the Congress decided to call a conference at which Weizmann intended to propose the transformation of the Fraction into a working group. Although the conference was planned for December, Weizmann started implementing the new line forthwith. As a preliminary measure it was resolved to publish a number of propaganda pamphlets to present the `Nay-sayers’ views. ‘I shall do everything in my power to direct the activities of the Fraction towards propaganda, both written and spoken, and towards preparation for the VII Congress,’ he wrote to Catherine Dorfman in the middle of September.
Weizmann had requested the `Nay-saying’ Regional Leaders to provide funds for these publications, and in November the Kharkov meeting voted 1,200 roubles to the Fraction for this purpose. Thus a solution was provided for the financial problems that had exercised his mind during the first few weeks after the Congress. These worries had almost compelled him to curtail his public activity, especially after Samuel Shriro, the Baku merchant who had earlier given financial support to the Bureau in Geneva, joined the Tea-saying camp. ‘I am in a worse plight than “Baron Hirsch without money”,’ Weizmann had written to Abraham Idelson towards the end of September 1903, ‘I am gradually turning into a Weizmann with debts.’
He attached the utmost importance to propaganda in ensuring the victory of the `Nay-sayers’ and converting them from a minority at the Sixth Congress into a majority at the ensuing one, which was meant to decide on the East Africa question and so, in the eyes of the `Nay-sayers,’ be fateful for the future of the Zionist movement. Weizmann had decided to devote himself principally to such agitation. The earlier disputes with the opponents of Zionism at student meetings, as well as the intensive propaganda for the creation of a Jewish University, ceased altogether. He intended interrupting his work at the University for a full semester in favour of `Nay-saying’ activity not only in Russia but also in England, a country of whose importance to Zionism he was becoming ever more aware.
Circumstances prevented the realization of these plans, though Ben-Zion Mossinson travelled to England in December 1903 and in the spring of 1904 to Palestine (on the latter occasion in company with Chaim Bograchov) to conduct propaganda against the East Africa project. Although Weizmann was himself an excellent and experienced propagandist, he was only once afforded an opportunity in this period publicly to formulate his attitude towards East Africa. The occasion was a meeting called by the Academic Zionist Society in Berne in November 1903. He ascribed such importance to his address there as to arrange for a stenographic record. The transcript has been preserved and, though incomplete, constitutes the only text of speeches delivered by Weizmann at a propaganda meeting during those early years.
Weizmann assigned a high priority in the propaganda effort to the projected periodical Der Jude. Martin Buber had the first issue ready as early as the spring of 1903, but adequate funds not being forthcoming, its publication had been postponed. Weizmann, Buber, and Feiwel moved quickly to exploit the new situation in the movement, and at a meeting with the `Nay-saying’ Regional Leaders, held in Beatenberg a few days after the Sixth Congress, it was agreed to publish the periodical to serve inter alia as a mouthpiece of the opposition. The Regional Leaders promised their help in raising the necessary funds while Weizmann and his associates agreed to the Regional Leaders’ control over the publication. A circular Weizmann subsequently issued did not state that Der Jude was to serve the `Nay-sayers” cause—he evidently did not wish to stamp it with a partisan character—but described its primary objectives as `the dissemination of the pure national Jewish idea’ and ‘the theoretical consolidation and deepening of the Zionist programme, with special emphasis on the historical ideal of Zion’.
Despite efforts on the part of Yehiel Tschlenow, Victor Jacobson, and Ussishkin, only a few hundred roubles were collected. Weizmann resisted the urgings of Jacobson and Gregory Belkovsky to commence immediate publication, and insisted on a financial guarantee for at least several issues. In December 1903 Buber threatened to resign his editorial duties with Der Jude unless the requisite funds were found quickly. Angrily, Weizmann wrote to Buber that ‘we “march together” only when everything works out well. But when there is a crisis to overcome, such as now, then impatience and irritation take over from unity and mutual responsibility.’ Buber, however, remained unmoved, and shortly afterwards withdrew from all public activity, Der Jude with it. Weizmann’s further hopes of raising adequate funds during his visit to Russia also remained unfulfilled, and when he took up residence in England the project was abandoned altogether. He attempted to establish a journal in England in co-operation with Dov Aberson, Kalman Marmor, and Uriah Moonitz, whom he described in a letter to Ussishkin. as ‘the only intellectual force’ in London. But this, too, failed for lack of means. As for the projected Jewish University, Weizmann now accepted the view of Ussishkin and others that it should be established only in Palestine: ‘Of course I have abandoned the plan for a possible establishment of the University in Europe,’ he wrote to Joseph Lurie in December 1903. He endeavored to incorporate the University plan in a general programme of Zionist action in Palestine. The meeting of Regional Leaders at Kharkov gave formal approval to this by including the project among its practical proposals for Palestine. ‘We are no longer on our own,’ Weizmann wrote joyfully to Mossinson. He contemplated himself traveling to Palestine to investigate the possibilities. Ussishkin, who in the summer of 1903 had proposed the establishment of a Polytechnic in Palestine, promised his assistance, and ultimately the task was added to the duties undertaken there by Mossinson and Bograchov. In the summer of the same year Weizmann discussed with Narcisse Leven, President of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, the possibility of converting the agricultural school at Mikveh-Israel into a University. This was the last step Weizmann took at that time to implement the great plan on which he had embarked with such zeal two years earlier. He had at one time been optimistic about enlisting ‘the assistance of some English societies’ in obtaining a concession from the Turkish government to build the school, for then ‘the funds necessary could also be raised easily.’ Yet it would seem that, by forgoing all thought of setting up the University provisionally in Europe, he took a decisive step towards abandoning the idea altogether, at least for the time being.
True, during the months succeeding the Congress Weizmann believed he could offer some temporary alternative for the University that would ward off the collapse of the whole idea until more favourable circumstances allowed the resumption of large-scale action. In September he put a suggestion to Buber and Feiwel for annual University Courses in various fields of Jewish studies during the summer vacation. In a circular issued in November 1903 he explained that the Courses would help to propagate the University idea, since he had come to realize that routine propaganda was inadequate. Moreover, the plan constituted an end in itself—a frame in which Jewish scholars would establish mutual contact and present the latest achievements in Jewish studies to a public of Jewish students, thus establishing the nucleus of an eventual University. Such a project, Weizmann wrote in the first flush of enthusiasm, `could contribute greatly toward the furtherance of the entire undertaking’, and it would be ‘the beginning of, and preparation for, the University… besides being a most splendid national demonstration’. Two weeks later he wrote to Buber that he considered the plan `to be enormous propaganda material for the University, for the idea, for Zionism.’
Buber welcomed the idea, while Feiwel’s reservations did not deter Weizmann. In October 1903 he visited Paris and London to enlist lecturers for the Courses. Preliminary success encouraged him to write to Buber of his hope `to extricate our University project by this undertaking.’ Over the ensuing weeks the Vacation Courses became one of Weizmann’s main preoccupations, but by the beginning of 1904 it had become clear that the project was in difficulties. `As to the Hochschule,’ he wrote to Mossinson in February, ‘all efforts must be concentrated on the Courses, but for the time being the right people are not available, for they are all dispersed. All my hopes are placed on the Russian tour.’ These hopes, like the others he reposed in his Russian tour, were frustrated, and after his return he did not pursue the project further.
Weizmann’s journey to England was not his first—he had attended the Fourth Congress in London—but this was the first visit of which a detailed and lively description has been preserved. Besides his intention of enlisting lecturers for the planned Courses, he wished to investigate the situation regarding East Africa, and to ascertain the possibility of securing a post in England in the event of his ultimate settlement there. Weizmann had originally intended also to conduct propaganda in London on behalf of the ‘Nay-sayers’, but decided to put this off to a second visit in December. In Paris he held discussions with Nordau, Alexander Marmorek, and I.C.A. leaders. In London he met with Zionist leaders, including his colleagues on the East Africa Commission, and also had talks with William Evans-Gordon, M.P., and Sir Harry Johnston, the former Special Commissioner in Uganda.
London at first depressed him: ‘There is slush here, foul weather, fog, din and uproar, and a language which is not exactly comprehensible to me,’ he wrote to Vera Khatzman, ‘but I am not losing my spirit by any means.’ Upon seeing Whitechapel in the East End of London he was shocked: ‘Lord, what horror! Stench, foul smells, emaciated Jewish faces. A mixture of a London avenue and Jewish poverty in the suburbs of Vilna.’ Only a few days, however, were sufficient to effect a change in his mood: ‘What an interesting city London is!’ he wrote four days later, and, further, ‘I have never in my life felt so well as here… This is the hub of the world and, really, you sense the breathing of a giant, the city of cities . . . I am already finding my way around London, everything is familiar to me, as in Berlin.’
His more cheerful mood was probably due to the prospects of success he perceived for his mission. He had been impressed by Gaster’s decision to fight the East Africa proposal to the bitter end, as well as by the pessimism of the Commission members over the plan’s materialization. Johnston commented caustically on it, expressing enthusiasm for the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine and promising to address a mass meeting and to circulate a memorandum on Zionism to be provided by Weizmann. This prompted him to write to Vera Khatzman: ‘If I were to publish the entire content of the conversation, a mortal blow would be dealt to the Africans. I am convinced that Herzl would speak of “enormous successes” were he to know all I know now.’ Weizmann also obtained a favorable response from Gaster and others, to his invitation to participate in the Courses. He wrote optimistically that ‘the subject can be considered settled.’ Soundings in connection with his own personal affairs had produced both Gaster’s and Evans-Gordon’s promise to help him find a suitable post. A meeting in Brussels with the geographer Elysee Reclus, while Weizmann was en route home, strengthened his conviction that mass colonization in East Africa was not feasible.
On returning to Geneva Weizmann circulated two memoranda to the Regional Leaders and some friends. In the first he summed up his impressions and set forth his conclusions: large-scale colonization in East Africa was impossible, whereas an opportunity for work in Palestine existed. He declared that a great deal could be accomplished in England. ‘We must manifest our desire for Palestine with deeds rather than shallow phrases… Every serious statesman understands full well our renunciation of Africa and reckons with our aspirations to Palestine as a power factor. A small settlement in Palestine strengthens our prestige in the eyes of the world more than the half-baked projects which unhappily preoccupy us so much at present.’
The second memorandum stated his views on the policy and course of action that the `Nay-sayers’ should embark upon: ‘Collective and strategic’ colonization in Palestine; introduction of reforms within the Zionist Organization; propaganda founded on a proper ideological basis; ‘a national Zionist Press not limited by territorial boundaries;’ and the conversion of the Fraction into a working group serving the `Nay-sayers’.
These impressive memoranda, and the intensive activity they reflected, indubitably enhanced Weizmann’s position and prestige among the `Nay-sayers.’ Ussishkin thanked him for ‘the great trouble you took which was really useful’, and Jacobson announced his readiness to proceed in accordance with the plan outlined by Weizmann. A few months later he even suggested that a centre for Western Europe, parallel to the `Nay-saying’ centre in Russia, be set up in Geneva under Weizmann’s direction.
Weizmann himself was full of enthusiasm and optimism: ‘I now have an enormous store of energy and shall work very hard,’ he wrote to Jacobson in his letter accompanying the first memorandum. Although he complained to Buber and Feiwel of being ‘burdened with far too many responsibilities,’ he added: ‘I am so eager to be creative, however, that I do not shrink from them.’ His optimism was nevertheless short-lived. The still unresolved financial question, as well as the difficulties in publishing Der Jude, and the dispute that arose between Buber and Feiwel over its editing, weighed heavily upon him. In a letter to Feiwel he inveighed bitterly against the lack of any sense of obligation among his colleagues: ‘Now that such a critical situation has set in, and the few we do have must hold together, everyone is starting to go his separate way… I keep getting a mood, and it’s growing within me at this moment, intensifying into a feeling of despair. We shan’t achieve anything… Vainly, absolutely vainly, I have taken the trouble during the past weeks to travel around, write letters, worry about all kinds of things, for I cannot count on a scrap of support anywhere.’ But despite all, he counseled against despair: ‘One thing is incontestably established, and that is the existence of a field of activity; it is large, and even more rewarding now than it has been in recent years. We are short of good workers, but that does not mean that we should throw in the sponge.’
The Regional Leaders meeting, in which the majority of participants were Way-sayers’, took place in Kharkov in mid-November. A series of resolutions were adopted, and their purport was to limit Herzl’s power within the Zionist Organization and strengthen the authority of the G.A.C., as well as to liquidate the East Africa business and safeguard against any future territorialist scheme. The resolutions largely reflected Ussishkin’s views and accorded with those of Weizmann, but the meeting decided not to make them immediately public, thus putting Weizmann in a most embarrassing position. He had to plead for information. ‘I cannot imagine our comrades deciding to keep their decision secret from me too,’ he wrote to Jacobson a fortnight after the meeting. Ultimately Bernstein-Kohan sent him the text of the resolutions, but the incident again demonstrated that despite his devoted and assiduous efforts on behalf of the Way-sayers’ Weizmann did not belong to the leadership. This was perhaps one link in the chain of experiences that led him to decide in the middle of 1904 to restrict his Zionist activities temporarily and to devote most of his time to establishing his personal position.
The Kharkov resolutions satisfied Weizmann—although he afterwards expressed reservations as to the tactics employed against Herzl—and strengthened his belief that the Regional Leaders were not ‘likely to go to Canossa.’ He energetically supervised the preparations for the Fraction Conference, at which he hoped to establish a well-knit group that he would lead into battle on behalf of the `Nay-sayers.’ Writing to Bernstein-Kohan in mid-December he stated: ‘One can agree in general with the programme [of the Kharkov meeting] as outlined. Our future working group will accede to it wholly. We would even go one step further and also assume the responsibility for cultural work in the Golus.’ In spite of his indifferent health, which had compelled him greatly to restrict his activity during the second half of December, he resolved to continue working at least until after the Fraction Conference. ‘The doctor has positively forbidden me everything, but he doesn’t know about “Africa”,’ he wrote to Jacobson at the end of November.
The conference was never held; differences arose between Weizmann and some Fraction members in Russia. There was criticism of the proposed agenda and opposition to the incorporation of the Fraction into the Way-saying’ party. The situation within the movement was also obscure. A deputation of Russian Regional Leaders was due to meet Herzl early in January 1904 in order to submit the ‘ultimatum’ from the Kharkov meeting. Simon Rosenbaum, a member of the deputation, persuaded Weizmann to postpone the conference without fixing a new date until the situation cleared up. Instead, a consultation was held in Berlin in January, attended, among others, by Weizmann, Buber, Feiwel, and Zvi Aberson, while Abraham Idelson and Michael Kroll, leaders of the Russian centre of the Fraction, absented themselves. Weizmann set forth his views—much in the spirit of his programmatic memorandum of October—concerning the course of action that he felt should be pursued by the Way-sayers in general and the Fraction in particular, but no agreement was reached and no decisions were taken. Weizmann’s intended meeting with Rosenbaum and Belkovsky, members of the deputation to Herzl, for the purpose of framing a future course of action, failed to materialize, and he returned to Geneva empty-handed.
Weizmann still hoped to convene the conference and succeed, during his anticipated tour of Russia, ‘in consolidating all our enterprises and setting up those closed groups’. But this did not come about. In fact, the talks in Berlin had marked the end of the road for the Democratic Fraction. The working group was not formed and Weizmann was thus deprived of an organizational base for his Zionist activity.
Weizmann now found himself at a dead-end: the working group was not created, Der Jude failed to appear, the information pamphlets were not published, and the University Courses remained on paper. The Way-sayers generally were unable to derive any great satisfaction from the general situation in the movement. The reports of a final breakdown in the East Africa negotiations proved to have been inaccurate. Rosenbaum and Belkovsky had failed in their mission in Vienna. They did not, after all, dare to confront Herzl with the `ultimatum,’ and the meeting of Regional Leaders summoned in St. Petersburg following their return decided in effect to do nothing until the next session of the G.A.C. Weizmann wrote to his friends in London: ‘At this moment I cannot give you a single word of comfort or relief. We have the vast majority of the party against us. The Zionist rabble is celebrating its triumphs now… There are just a few still standing loyal, and these few do not know how to conduct their policy. Our Russian A.C. members are working so slowly that one becomes almost paralyzed. They have ruined their own case through their ineptitude.’
The one man who—in Weizmann’s words—had not taken leave of his senses in the atmosphere of failure and inadequacy that prevailed among the Way-sayers’ was Ussishkin, whose qualities as a stubborn, fighting leader came to the fore at this critical period. He wrote to Weizmann at the end of January, giving a general outline of future work, urging him to continue his activity, and expressing full confidence in the ultimate triumph of the `Nay-sayers’. Although Weizmann did not subscribe to Ussishkin’s sanguine forecast, he was greatly encouraged by the letter and, expressing his hearty gratitude for Ussishkin’s ‘clear and sensible letter’, he gave assurances of his intention not to shirk his duty. In a series of letters sent out at the beginning of February, Weizmann outlined his plans: to take one term’s leave from the University and go on a tour of Russia, engaging in propaganda, establishing direct contact with individuals, forming groups of ‘Naysayers,’ working for the University Courses, Der Jude, and the planned working group. ‘Sitting here writing letters,’ he wrote to Jacobson, `I cannot possibly organize those comrades on whom we count. It is my deep conviction that there is such a muddle in the Zionist heads of Russia, with everybody straggling along and singing different tunes, that a personal visit to every centre, be it more important or less, is necessary, indeed essential, to pick out those people who can work and bring them together on the basis of a single programme; only then will the centres… be able to function properly.’
Weizmann left on his tour at the end of March, but his visit to Russia, which was to have been the greatest of his propaganda campaigns, was completely fruitless. The reason seems to have been mainly financial: although Ussishkin supported the plan, he was unable to provide the means for Weizmann’s tour. The latter still hoped to be able to work for the cause, but his financial situation prevented him from forgoing his income in Geneva, and finally he did not even avail himself of the university vacation, but spent almost the whole of his stay with his family in Pinsk.
Financial problems, however, were apparently not the only reason for the abandonment of his plans: the restrictions on Zionist propaganda imposed since the summer of 1903 and the general conditions prevailing in Russia made their realization difficult. The Russo-Japanese war had broken out—Weizmann hoped fervently for Japan’s victory over antisemitic Russia, fearing that, otherwise, ‘doomsday will follow.’ The atmosphere was tense, economic conditions bad, and the Jews lived in fear of pogroms. Thus Weizmann was seized by a mood of despondency. ‘Every time I walk through the town I return home with a broken heart’, he wrote to Vera Khatzman from Pinsk. ‘There is not a single animated face, not a single smile; all around there are only dead shadows. I wonder what keeps people alive!… but the feeling that all the Jews are suffocating, including those near to me, gives me no peace. […] One is compelled to marvel at the great moral force that lives in the hungry Jew. In such conditions others would have turned into beasts long ago!’
The position of Zionism in Russia added to Weizmann’s gloom. `The Zionist mood is everywhere below zero’, he wrote upon his arrival in Pinsk after a visit to Warsaw. The following day he was more specific: ‘Zionism, which once upon a time was the bright light against the background of life in the Pale… has become confused, tangled. The interregnum within the party has muddled young, untrained minds. […] Old Zionists survive on the squabbles between Vienna and the Regional Leaders, they shake their heads in tedium and despair…The new young ones occupy themselves with anything but Zionism. […] Everybody talks about emigration and territorial schemes crop up everywhere. Weizmann spoke with sorrow about Poalei-Zion, the majority of whom supported the East Africa project and other territorialist schemes. ‘The Poalei-Zion movement […] is now off the track and split. Zionism has been supplanted by territorialism. I always placed the greatest hope in that part of Russian Jewry which is courageous, aware, honest and productive. Now these people have been literally driven out of Zionism.’
Weizmann had no faith in the ‘peace’ achieved at the G.A.C. meeting between Herzl and the East Africa opponents. Although differences had not been reconciled, it was decided to send the survey expedition in accordance with the Congress resolution and to avoid excesses in internal polemics. The Kharkov demands on Herzl were completely forgotten. Weizmann was convinced that the agreement prepared the way for a complete capitulation by the `Nay-sayers’ or at least by their moderate elements led by Tschlenow. `Ugandism will undoubtedly triumph. […] It is now celebrating a precocious victory,’ wrote Weizmann to Jacobson. This belief was strengthened as a result of Weizmann’s conversation in Minsk with Rosenbaum, who had participated in the A.C. meeting. ‘Our Regional Leaders, who had made so much noise,’ he wrote sarcastically to Vera Khatzman, “quietened down” in Vienna. They left with the resolve “to stand on guard” and nothing else. […] There is nothing more we can expect from them . . . and we are once more on our own. As a matter of fact, given the present state of affairs, we too can now sit back.’ However, on his way to Geneva, Weizmann finally managed to meet Ussishkin in Berlin and was again impressed by his steadfastness and optimism. ‘He is full of cheer, ready to work and confident of victory.’ `Ussishkin and his associates will agitate vigorously against the regime, against Uganda and, I am inclined to believe, successfully.’
The meeting with Ussishkin drew Weizmann out of his dejection and dispelled every thought of ‘sitting back.’ He even encouraged Ussishkin to act: ‘One should not remain a disinterested spectator […] even for one moment, but one should get down to work at once […] a league could save the situation, first of all by being united in a positive Palestine programme, secondly by demands for reform within the organization, and thirdly by action against Uganda.’ It was at this time that Mossinson and Bograchov went to Palestine on their mission on behalf of Ussishkin and Weizmann.
When Weizmann returned from Russia he already knew that this would be his last term in Geneva. His decision to leave for England was now final and his negotiations for a University post in either London or Manchester were well advanced. At the same time, however, he was confronted with a proposal that could have changed the course of his life. The Hilfsverein German-Jewish relief association required a teacher in natural sciences for their seminary in Jerusalem, and Weizmann agreed enthusiastically to Chaim Khissin’s suggestion that he apply for this post. Despite the low salary, Weizmann declared his immediate willingness to forgo England for Palestine: ‘I would feel myself the luckiest of mortals,’ he wrote to Ussishkin. But within month it became clear that the position would not be his. Nevertheless he overcame his disappointment: ‘Perhaps this is all for the best,’ he wrote to Ussishkin; ‘I shall pass through the English school too and then, being better prepared, come to my native land. I have made this the aim of my life.’
On 3 July 1904, shortly before Weizmann left Geneva, came the news of Herzl’s death. Although Weizmann had been for years among the fiercest critics of the leader, he was profoundly affected. In a telegram to the A.C. he described Herzl as ‘our great beloved leader—`Herzl’s name and work are immortal.’ To Vera Khatzman he wrote: ‘At this moment all the differences between us have disappeared, and I only have the image of a great creative worker in front of my eyes. I feel… deep grief. He has left us a frightening legacy… My thoughts are not with me. I tremble every time the door-bell rings…’, and he added, in words that carry the ring of prophecy: ‘I feel that a heavy burden has fallen on my shoulders, and the shoulders are weak and tired.’
Weizmann does not explain fully in his letters the reasons that prompted his move to England. He is more explicit in Trial and Error. He was obviously moved by two considerations: his professional career and his future in Zionism. As Weizmann states in his autobiography, prospects of his professional advancement in Switzerland were few, and England seemed to allow a Jew more scope. Moreover, as a Zionist platform England was much more important than Switzerland, although the latter served as traditional host to the Zionist Congresses during this period. As early as October 1903 Weizmann wrote to Buber that his professional prospects in England were promising and that ‘I ought to be there for the sake of the cause.’ At the same time he wrote to Vera Khatzman: ‘If we are to get help from any quarter it will be in England which, I don’t doubt, will assist us in Palestine.’
In one respect Weizmann’s letters contradict his Memoirs: he did not go to England resolved to retire temporarily from public activities. The opposite seems to be true. He wrote to Jacobson in March that his participation in Zionist affairs depended to a large extent on his leaving Geneva, and during the early weeks spent in London he was very active, even undertaking moves towards founding a periodical. It was apparently only then that he decided to curtail his Zionist activities for a while and devote most of his time to scientific work.
While seeking a post in London Weizmann engaged in discussions with Zionist leaders on the situation in the movement following Herzl’s death, and on the East Africa question. His letters of this period constitute an important source of information on the Zionist atmosphere in England during the crisis. During a brief stay in Paris he had heard from Nordau why the latter would not assume the leadership of the movement. Nordau had in fact hinted that Weizmann was qualified for the task, ‘Sie sind aber zu jung!’ (But you are too young!)
In London Weizmann drew closer to Gaster, who helped him find a suitable post and took him under his wing. This was the beginning of a long ambivalent relationship, characterized on the one hand by close co-operation and dependence—initially one-sided—and on the other by personal friction.
In London Weizmann also had his first meetings with English public figures. Through Evans-Gordon’s good offices, Weizmann was received by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Earl Percy, and by the Superintendent of the African Protectorates, Sir Clement Hill, whose letter to Greenberg regarding the East Africa proposal is quoted above. Discussions between the Zionist Organization and the British Government had made very slow progress during the previous year. It had transpired that the area which the British Government was prepared to allot for Jewish colonization was far smaller than that previously mentioned by Chamberlain. The project had encountered opposition on the part of the British settlers in the Protectorate, and the attitude of the High Commissioner, Sir Charles Eliot, had not been encouraging. Moreover, the survey expedition charged with examining the suitability of the area for colonization had not yet set out. It was obvious that the Foreign Office would have welcomed renunciation of the project, and during the last months of his life Herzl had been inclined to accept its withdrawal provided an alternative was assured—preferably in the El-Arish area of Sinai.
Weizmann set down his interviews with Percy and Hill verbatim in a memorandum and sent a copy to Vera Khatzman. This version was subsequently amended in a few particulars by Percy and Hill, but nevertheless Weizmann carried away from this interview the feeling that both Englishmen opposed the East Africa project and evinced full understanding for the Zionists’ aspirations in Palestine. According to Weizmann, Hill told him: ‘If I were Jewish I would oppose such a project absolutely. For a Zionist there is nothing to look for in Africa.’
Weizmann regarded his first experience in ‘diplomacy’ as a great success. He wrote enthusiastically to Vera Khatzman that he had achieved ‘more than Herzl with all his diplomacy’ and he considered this proof that ‘we can have our own diplomacy, without spectacular effects’. He had succeeded in extracting from two of the personalities of the Foreign Office statements favorable to the ‘Nay-sayers,’ which he felt could serve as a trump card in the struggle with their opponents. ‘There is no doubt that with the publication of these documents, Africa and the Africans will become impossible. But I shall postpone this surprise to a more convenient time’, he wrote to Vera Khatzman.’
This opportunity never came. At the Annual Zionist Conference in August Weizmann was persuaded that, for tactical reasons, it would be impolitic to publish the documents, and they did not in fact play a role in the liquidation of the East Africa project. But Weizmann had made his debut: ‘I have, in fact, assumed the role of some kind of self-styled diplomat of the Russian Zionists to the British Government’, he wrote at the time. It was a modest prelude to the chapter in his life that was to open ten years later.
Out of various possibilities, Weizmann eventually accepted Professor William Perkin’s offer to become his assistant at Manchester University, although he had at first to be content with the unsalaried status of a research student. The prospect appealed to him—Perkin was one of the best-known chemists in England and he promised Weizmann that after a few months he would be appointed Research Fellow.
Weizmann soon realized that organic chemistry, his own subject, was a neglected field in Manchester and that his chances for advancement were therefore good. Although his limited finances worried him a great deal, he managed to overcome this obstacle with the temporary assistance of his brother-in-law, Chaim Lubzhinsky, and also with the income due from research undertaken for Samuel Shriro. Towards the end, Weizmann reached an agreement with Charles Dreyfus, chairman of the Zionist Association of Manchester, to work for the latter’s chemical products plant, the Clayton Aniline Company.
It will be recalled that Weizmann had decided, evidently after his arrival in England, to curtail his Zionist activities and concentrate on his professional career and the place this would earn him in England. Two days after his arrival he wrote to Vera Khatzman that, to begin with, he had to put some order into his own affairs: `Until then I will be unable to do anything. One has to have standing here.’ As he put it to Ussishkin some months later, he had to ensure that it would not be said of him: ‘He was a gifted fellow, and yet he is a failure.’ His decision was also motivated by the feeling that the movement was at an ebb, and that the upheaval and internal struggles that followed Herzl’s death would drive him into a position without influence. He did take part in the Annual Conference, but later he wrote to Vera Khatzman that ‘for Zionists of our kind there is no work now, and I can see a bad transitional period. […] This is my last Zionist activity. I must withdraw from the cause for a year.’ Ten days later he reverted to the subject: ‘I have firmly decided to stand aside for the time being… This… is not at all despair… The “men” who at present lead the movement are such that it is impossible to work with them, while fighting them is ludicrous. […] One has to use this period in collecting one’s strength. The cause will summon me and I shall then come.’
After ten years of working for Zionism, including three years of intensive activity in the movement, it was a difficult decision. In addition to Weizmann’s longing for Vera and the loneliness he suffered in his new surroundings with only letters, books and the laboratory assistants for company. He wrote to Gaster a week after his arrival in Manchester—he was afflicted by a feeling of isolation from everything that had formerly stood at the centre of his interests. After the Annual Conference, ‘something within me snapped, the thread linking me to the party was severed… I am so infinitely remote from you all. […] Here I am completely by myself and alone in the fullest and most terrible meaning of the word,’ he wrote to Ussishkin three months after arriving in Manchester. Weizmann immersed himself in his laboratory work and studied English and thus found some consolation: ‘True, I work the whole day long, but this work gives me infinite satisfaction. I cannot wait till the morning to go to the lab.’
The results were not long in coming. Perkin complimented him on his work, appointed him instructor to a number of students, and promised that he could begin lecturing after Christmas. Weizmann published the results of his work in a scientific journal a few weeks after starting work: ‘I have achieved a new reaction that re-opens a complete area … Something new again; a Manchester product this time.’ Nevertheless, Weizmann was unable to lock himself up completely in science. Zionism was part of his being. Late in November he addressed the Manchester Zionist Association: ‘There was a crowd of people who stood for nearly three hours as though under a spell, and at least for the duration of my lecture a bond was established between them, myself, and the whole mass of suffering Jewry.’ A fortnight later he decided to join the committee of the Association and was already planning propaganda tours to several towns in northern England and Scotland. He promised Ussishkin a report on a forthcoming meeting of the Zionei-Zion (as the `Nay-sayers’ were now calling themselves) and undertook to follow their instructions as well as to initiate propaganda work. Although Weizmann was to remain in the shadows for some time to come, these were the first steps along the road that was to lead him finally to a key position in the English Zionist Federation, and to renewed and full activity within the movement.