Prof. Jehuda Reinharz


Date: March 13, 2018

Prof. Jehuda Reinharz became the new Chairman of the International Board of the Weizmann Institute on January 1. Born in Haifa, he received his high school education in Germany and moved to the U.S. as a teenager. Prof. Reinharz established the Judaic Studies program at the University of Michigan where he was a professor for 10 years, and joined the faculty of Brandeis University in 1982. He served as President of Brandeis from 1994 to 2010 and became President of the Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel Foundation the following year.

Prof. Reinharz is the author of an award-winning two-volume biography of Dr. Chaim Weizmann, and is soon to release the third and final volume, which he co-authored with Prof. Motti Golani of Tel Aviv University.

q: How did you become interested in the life of Chaim Weizmann?

a: I was in Israel in 1973 to do research, and when the Yom Kippur War started my plans were upended. A relative of mine, Prof. Yehoshua Arieli, a great historian of American history, told me that the Weizmann Archives was compiling the Chaim Weizmann letters [which became The Letters and Papers of Chaim Weizmann, in 23 volumes]. He said, ‘If you are interested, I’ll make the connection.’ I said ‘yes’, and edited volume 9. So I started coming to the Weizmann Archives on a regular basis and during sabbaticals.

Then, in 1975 I got a call from Walter Laqueur [the prolific historian and author], who had been my teacher at Brandeis University when I was a graduate student and who had been asked by Meyer Weisgal [a former President of the Weizmann Institute and a close confidant of Chaim Weizmann] to become Chaim Weizmann's official biographer. Walter asked me to do it with him and I agreed. But within a short time, he got busy with other things and changed his mind, and suggested I do it myself. It became clear to me from the beginning that one volume didn’t make sense—there was so much to be said. It required a great deal of research over many years, and the Weizmann Archives was extremely helpful to me every step of the way.

Then I began to meet other people on campus, and I realized early on that I’d have to know something about chemistry in order to write about Chaim Weizmann. It seemed overwhelming, but I did it anyhow with the help of some outstanding chemists. At some point I was asked by Prof. Aryeh Dvoretzky [the seventh President of the Institute] to give a lecture on Chaim Weizmann’s chemistry. And in a moment of total insanity, I said, ‘sure’. Giving a talk on Chaim Weizmann’s chemistry to a bunch of Weizmann scientists was one of the craziest things I have ever done—I never sweated so much at a lecture.

q: Has the public perception of Chaim Weizmann changed as a result of your biography?

a: I have been doing an experiment with Israelis where I ask them: ‘When I say ‘the founder of the state of Israel’, what name comes to mind?’ Everyone says David Ben-Gurion. Chaim Weizmann’s name is never the answer. But I did not write the biography because I wanted to return Chaim Weizmann’s honor and secure his place in history; that’s not my role. I’m an historian, and I was simply interested in him.

But I’m now convinced more than ever—and I believe that Prof. Motti Golani and I prove it in the third volume of the biography—that without Chaim Weizmann, there would be no State of Israel. There would also be no Weizmann Institute. And I don’t say this to diminish Ben-Gurion’s contributions. However until 1946, Ben-Gurion was not a critical figure in the Zionist movement outside of Israel; he was an important leader of the Yishuv [the Jewish settlement in Palestine]. We have gotten used to the idea that Ben-Gurion was the prime mover of the State of Israel. But in the international arena, there was no match for Chaim Weizmann.

How does someone who has no army behind him, doesn’t even have the entire Jewish people behind him—how does one man accomplish what he did? The answer is his personality: it’s all about the ‘who’, and he was the ‘who’. No one came close to achieving what he did. Even as Britain withdrew from its obligation to the mandate, Weizmann was able to summon the British Prime Minister and members of cabinet, and spoke to American leaders about the importance of creating a Jewish state in Palestine. It was Weizmann who persuaded President Harry Truman to do so something about the DP camps in Europe, include the Negev in the prospective State of Israel, and to loan $100 million to the fledgling state—which in 1947 was an untold fortune. And it was Chaim Weizmann who convinced Truman to recognize the State of Israel.

q: So why hasn’t Chaim Weizmann received his due recognition until now?

a: First, because he was a one-man band. He was an elitist, a benevolent dictator who had a coterie of people around him who were totally devoted to him, but the moment they got in his way, he got rid of them. He didn’t believe in creating a party, so there was no institutional way of creating a legacy. Second, because all the events around and after his removal from the Zionist leadership [as President of the World Zionist Organization in 1946], were so overwhelming—the War of Independence and the subsequent wars—he became overshadowed by the enormous achievements of Ben Gurion, [Moshe] Dayan, and [Yitzhak] Rabin. Chaim Weizmann was never part of the Yishuv; he had a house in Rehovot, but spent very little time here in the early days. In fact, when he was named President of the State of Israel, he was in Switzerland.

Thanks to Meyer Weisgal and his decision to compile the Weizmann Letters, Chaim Weizmann’s memory was rekindled. But that was not enough.

q: Do you see your new role as Chairman as a continuation of your dedication to the legacy of Chaim Weizmann?

a: There is something fortuitous in that I’m becoming Chairman as I’m finishing the biography. The Weizmann Institute is synonymous with excellence. If Chaim Weizmann were alive today, I’m certain that he would say that the Weizmann Institute is by far his greatest legacy. He would see that not only does the Institute attract the best minds who are leaders in their fields, but its discoveries and inventions improve the lives of tens of millions of people all over the world. And it is educating Israel’s future leaders in science, which he repeatedly said upon his creation of the Sieff Institute would be the backbone of the state. We must remember that he is responsible for the establishment of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and, to some degree, the Technion, too. And if those institutions aren’t the creative backbone of the state, what is? So I’m extremely proud and honored to have been asked to serve as Chairman, which in some small way will continue Chaim Weizmann’s legacy. On a personal level, I feel very attached to the Weizmann Institute and the Weizmann Archives. The Institute is run by a great President and Executive Board, and it is on sound financial and academic footing. My hope is that I can contribute to helping it become an even greater institution.