Dr Chaim Weizmann and his wife
Manchester and the birth of Israel
On 14 May 2008, the 60th anniversary of the state of Israel will be celebrated by Jews across the world. But with particular resonance here in Manchester.
Dr Chaim Weizmann, a former lecturer at the University of Manchester not only became Israel’s first president. He was arguably the catalyst for its creation.
1948: How the news broke in Palestine
Back in 1917, he was credited with securing a promise from the British to build a ‘Jewish National Home’ in Palestine - better known as the Balfour Declaration.
Historians have even claimed that if it hadn't been for Weizmann, it's quite likely that a Jewish state may not have come into existence in 1948.
Weizmann, a Russian-born Jew, came to Manchester in 1904 where he eventually became a lecturer in chemistry at the University.
Weizmann fervently supported the political campaign for a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and was pivotal in turning Manchester into the ‘cradle of Zionism’.
1900: Chemistry lab in Manchester
He established the Manchester School of Zionism, a group of friends and associates that included Simon Marks (of Marks and Spencer fame), who provided influential contacts, fundraising, and advice.
And support also came from CP Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian who used the power of journalism to further their cause.
But it was the First World War that really lit the fuse on Weizmann’s dream.
Cordite and conkers
Cordite - used in the manufacture of ammunition and artillery – was in short supply and Britain needed to produce its own. For that, a chemical called acetone was required.
Arthur Balfour, Prime Minister (1902-05)
When supply routes were cut, Lloyd George, as Minister of Munitions, turned to Dr Weizmann after learning of a development which could aid the war effort.
Working in Manchester, Weizmann had discovered a fermentation process to produce large volumes of acetone from maize.
When supplies of maize ran short, it was even supplemented with horse chestnuts – or conkers – avidly collected by British schoolchildren!
Lloyd George’s gratitude was evident and led directly to British approval for the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people - the state of Israel.
UK Zionists (c) M'cr Jewish Museum
Certainly, Weizmann’s scientific assistance brought him into close contact with British leaders, including the then Prime Minister and later Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour - whose constituency coincidentally lay in Manchester.
Then, on 2 November 1917, soon after Britain's acquisition of Palestine in the First World War, came the statement the Manchester Zionists had been waiting for: the Balfour Declaration.
Dr Weizmann who’d been waiting patiently outside for news outside the cabinet office in Downing Street was, of course, delighted. He celebrated into the night, apparently joining fellow Zionists in a Chassidic dance at a Chelsea restaurant!
The Jewish state of Israel was eventually established years later on 14th May 1948 when the British mandate over Palestine came to an end and Weizmann was made its first president in recognition of his efforts. He died in 1952.
Information from the Manchester University Centre for Jewish Studies, the Manchester Jewish Museum and ‘British Jews and the Dream of Zion’ on BBC Radio 4 (28 April 2008)
last updated: 14/05/2008 at 13:58