An Authentic Leader
Chaim Weizmann.
by Isaiah Berlin.
Farrar, Straus and Cudahy. 60 pp. $2.25.


“To Know—to enjoy the friendship of—a great man,” says Sir Isaiah Berlin of his great friend, Chaim Weizmann, “must permanently transform one’s ideas of what human beings can be or do. . . . Greatness is not a specifically moral attribute. It is not one of the private virtues. It does not belong to the realm of personal relations. . . . [In] the realm of action, the great man seems able, almost alone and singlehanded, to transform one form of life into another; or—what in the end comes to the same—permanently and radically alters the outlook and values of a significant body of human beings. The transformation he effects, if he is truly to deserve his title, must be such as those best qualified to judge consider to be antecedently improbable—something unlikely to be brought about, by the mere force of events, by the ‘trends’ or ‘tendencies’ already working at the time—that is to say, something unlikely to occur without the intervention, difficult or impossible to discount in advance, of the man who for this very reason deserves to be described as great.”

This set of propositions and the succeeding section of Berlin’s brochure, which vaguely attempts to prove that they apply to Weizmann, are the least one could expect of an outstanding philosophical antagonist of historical determinism. It must have been almost automatic for Berlin, when called to deliver a Weizmann Memorial Lecture, to begin by introducing Chaim Weizmann as a hero in history, and to follow with a few paragraphs showing how Weizmann’s share in recent Jewish history illustrates the doctrine that history is made by heroes. Fortunately, he makes only a perfunctory effort to substantiate this point, and goes on to his real and fascinating subject—Weizmann’s private and public virtues, his moral attributes, his qualities as a person and a political figure.

Whether or not heroes, as a general rule, achieve the “antecedently improbable” in history and singlehandedly transform human life is a subject that can be argued with charm and grace, as Berlin himself has shown. But an attempt really to prove this about any particular hero is practically certain to become pedantic and ill-humored. For to prove that the hero of a particular situation is one particular person means almost inevitably to discredit the claims of others who were involved in the same events. And the method necessarily employed in such “demonstrations” is an unesthetic, tedious, and petty chain of quibbles.

It is easier, moreover, to disprove the claims of any particular hero than it is to affirm those of another. A contemporary historian of Zionist affairs, Oscar K. Rabinowicz, has been following Weizmann’s trail for years with ferocious pertinacity, and has turned up incident after incident in which achievements attributed to Weizmann are proved to be legendary, or where Weizmann appears in an unheroic role. On the other hand, Rabinowicz’s affirmative argument, seeking to demonstrate that Theodore Herzl was the hero who achieved (among other things) the Balfour Declaration, is very far from convincing.

Luckily, Berlin soon turns from trying to prove Weizmann the prime creator of the Zionist achievement to giving us a sensitive, human, and illuminating portrait of his friend. Weizmann’s private virtues and moral attributes, of which Berlin gives a striking account, can be described in a word as “positive.” Realism, optimism, self-confidence, and rootedness; the mental and moral health of a vigorously extroverted attitude; a monolithic solidity of character, relatively free of self-pity and self-deception; a synthetic rather than an analytic mind, an applied rather than a pure scientist; a harmonious nature, free from the bigoted rationalism of the ideologist who believes in final solutions for which no human suffering can be too high a price; an empiricist, for whom ideas were primarily important as tools of practical judgment; an imperious and unsentimental leader, detached and ironical, who addressed himself to the intelligence, not the passions, and who yet enjoyed the confidence of the vast majority of his people; an irresistible political seducer of those imaginative and generous natures among the English whom he himself liked almost too well—these are the lines of the character of Weizmann which Berlin has drawn. Weizmann’s greatness resides in the hold which this character had upon the imaginations both of the Jews whom he represented and the British political leaders who saw in him the representative Jew.



More than any other figure of recent times, Weizmann was the leader in whom the vast majority of Jews saw a model of their own virtues and moral attributes. His tough-mindedness and humor, his vitality and appetite for life, his ability to find positive advantage in any turn of events, his realism and practicality, his instinctive recoiling from anything outré and extremist—in all these he was a Jew of the Pale of Settlement, a notable exemplar of an authentic type. Weizmann himself remained always fully and proudly aware of this, and it served him as the bedrock foundation of his political strength, not only among Jews but as a Jewish representative to England.

It is not quite true, however, as Berlin would have us believe, that the Zionist movement was a solid block of positive characters who were “neither zealots nor reformers, but normal human beings,” and that they instinctively chose Weizmann as their leader because he was like them. Indeed, the Zionist movement rejected Weizmann’s leadership on two separate, critical occasions (one wonders whether any other leader so completely dominated his time and yet was so often abandoned); and, when at the close of his career he became the first President of Israel, he knew quite well what this honor meant—homage to his person together with a certificate of honorable discharge from leadership. Besides, other leaders, who appealed to the Zionists as true heroes, were often enough men whose character broke the mold of the Pale, who were in fact outré and extremist, zealots and reformers, and not simply normal human beings.

Yet, Weizmann’s leadership, too, contained in it an element of something larger than life. He was the Jewish leader—and this was a novel achievement—who attracted the Gentiles because of what was authentically Jewish in his character. In him the Jews saw themselves accepted and admired for what they knew themselves to be, and not for any distortions of themselves, disproportionately noble or exotic, in which the Gentiles could express their contempt for the typical Jew in the very act of applauding the exceptional Jew.

Disraeli and, for that matter, Herzl had been accorded a recognition by the outside world, in part for the strikingly Jewish element of their characters. The proud display of Jewishness in both cases attracted attention and permitted the Gentile the interesting novelty of admiring the Jew instead of conventionally despising him. But both Disraeli and Herzl were non-typical Jews in a sense: together with qualities of exotic Eastern color always conceded to the Chosen People (such as brilliance, flair, excesses of style), they made a display of qualities like boldness and virility which might perhaps have belonged to the Biblical Jews, but were now considered undeniably Gentile. A Gentile could admire such men without altering in the least his opinion of the other Jews he saw about him.

Weizmann carried off a similar performance, but with a significant difference. Balfour or the other British leaders who admired him could very well have gone on disliking the English Jews if they were so inclined, for Weizmann made it quite clear that he was an entirely different type; but he did not, like Herzl or Disraeli, play the role of an interesting throwback to an ancient Hebrew aristocracy. He did not have to recall antiquity, when Jerusalem was a center of civilization and London was a swamp, in order to impress contemporaries with his dignity as a Jew. He stood for an existing, full-blooded, historically effective Jewish type, the Eastern European Jew of the Pale.

When Weizmann spoke to Balfour, the credentials he presented were those of a Russian Zionist leader. He spoke for the great mass who had passionately rejected the offer to Herzl of Uganda as an alternative to Zion; who could no more give up Jerusalem for any other capital than Balfour would accept Paris in place of London. He spoke with the full authority of his conviction that he, and those whom he represented, and not Jewish notables who wished to be accepted as English gentlemen, were the true Jewish people. If admiration for Weizmann veiled contempt for other Jews, it could cover a dislike only for Jews who themselves denied the norm of their people. For the Zionists, at any rate, the acceptance of Weizmann by the Gentiles was an acceptance of the Jew as he was; and for this to have been achieved by a Jew of the Pale endowed him with that aura of greatness which true leadership requires.



+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link