Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Chaim Weizmann: November 2, 1874

Chaim Weizmann, first President of Israel, was born November 2, 1874 in Motol, a village near Pinsk (at that time part of Russia). From his youth he combined science with political activism -- Zionism --and became a leader in the foundation of the State of Israel. His passport, I learned recently, is number 1 -- as you can see in the above photo (click on photo to see larger version).

Weizmann's scientific and technological accomplishments won him wide recognition and reward in his adopted country of England. His diplomacy and influence on high-level public figures in Europe and the US was essential in pre-state Israeli negotiations. His influence on Truman was especially important in the last stages of the founding of Israel.

Weizmann was among the founders of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and of the Weizmann Institute for Science in Rehovot, Israel. The photo shows his grave, located near his home on the Rehovot campus.

Weizmann was outstanding in an entirely secular academic discipline (chemistry), in Jewish political representation, and in visionary creation of institutions. I suppose that secular Jews who have decided to reject the entire Zionist enterprise retroactively might find him an anti-hero. I find him a remarkable combination of admirable leadership for Jewish purposes and secular accomplishments.

In any case, Weizmann doesn't seem to be a hero to the ultra Orthodox sector today. On our flight to Israel to visit the Weizmann Institute in 2006, about 1/3 of the other passengers seemed to be Haredi -- ultra-orthodox Jews in 18th century clothes. They used up a lot of bin space for their hatboxes: Haredi men wear black felt hats. The young man sitting next to us kept his hat at his feet. He told us he was a seminary student in Jeruslam, originally from LA.

I said "My husband is a visiting scientist at the Weizmann Institute."

He said "What's that?"

I said "A science institute in Rehovot. It's named for Chaim Weizmann."

He said "Who's that?"

We said "He was the first President of Israel, and an important figure in the Zionist movement in the first half of the 20th century. He was also an important chemist who worked in England, so he had lots of contacts there that were important to Zionism."

He said "That's great." We understand that the ultra Orthodox in yeshivas aren't allowed to learn about history, basic mathematics, literature, or any other subject except religion. This really shows how far they go. It's like an American who had never heard of George Washington.

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