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Smuts and Weizmann
Author(s): Richard P. Stevens
Source: Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Autumn, 1973), pp. 35-59
Published by: University of California Press on behalf of the Institute for Palestine Studies
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SMUTS AND WEIZMANN
RICHARD P. STEVENS *

1. INTRODUCTION

have so influenced
Perhapsfewpersonalfriendships
thecourseofpolitical
eventsduringthe twentiethcenturyas the relationshipbetweenGeneral
Jan ChristianSmuts,South Africa'scelebratedprime minister,and Chaim
Weizmann,the charismaticZionistleader and Israel's firstpresident.But
the importanceand significance
of thislittlepublicizedrelationship
fartranscendsthe personalelementsinvolvedor its contribution
to Zionistsuccess;
rather,it helpsto throwintoperspectiveboth the contradictions
of western
liberalismand the psychologicalclimatewhich rationalizedthe dominant
in South Africaon the one hand and of a new
positionof a whiteminority
in Palestineon the other.
European settlement
Both Weizmannand Smutsstood in much the same way towardstheir
respective"constituencics"and both representedin their "constituencies"
theimperialfactorin itseconomic,politicaland strategicdimensions.
Without
Weizmanntherewould have been no BalfourDeclarationand withoutSmuts
the Union broughtforthin 1910 in SouthAfricamightwell have foundered.
On thepersonallevelit mustbe notedthatduringtheentirethirty-three
years
of thisrelationship,
extendingfrom1917 to Smuts'death in 1950, bothmen
took for grantedthe moral legitimacyof each other'srespectiveposition.
or writing
Thus, not a word is to be foundin Weizmann'scorrespondence
questioningthe racial basis of the SouthAfricanstateon whichZionismwas
so dependentor Smuts' own role in upholdingits racistsystem.Similarly,
Smuts assumedwithoutquestion "the right" of Jewishsettlersto occupy
Palestinewithoutregard to the rightsof the indigenousPalestinianArabs.
In bothcases,Smutsand Weizmannprojectedat thehighestlevelthecapacity
* Richard P. Stevensis Professorof Historyat Lincoln University,Pennsylvania,and
Zionismand US ForeignPolicyand otherworkson Palestine.This
the author of American
articlehas been abridgedfroma manuscriptby the author on the relationshipbetween
Smuts and Weizmann.

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36 JOURNAL OF PALESTINE STUDIES

conquest
of westerncivilizationto rationalizedominationand exploitation,
Judeo-Christian
ethnocentric
or
mission
and controlas Christiancivilizing
fulfilment.
2. SMUTS AND ZIONISM
timein
Smutsand Weizmannwereintroducedto each otherforthefirst
London in June 1917.1 At that time Smutswas the "Special Delegate from
and War Cabinetand was theonly
SouthAfrica"to the BritishGovernment
of the Britishdominionsto play a full role in the wartime
representative
policiesadoptedby GreatBritain.2Weizmann,who had obtainedrecognition
fromthe BritishCabinet forhis success in producingacetone to aid the
3was PresidentoftheEnglishZionistFederationand actively
Britishwareffort,
attemptingto convincethe BritishCabinet of thesoundnessof the Zionist
to Britishpolicyaims. Weizmannrecordsthat
programmeand its usefulness
he was receivedby Smuts
hearing.A sort
in the friendliest
fashion,and givena mostsympathetic
radiated fromhim, and he assured me
of warmthof understanding
heartilythat somethingwould be done in connectionwith Palestine
and the Jewishpeople. He put many searchingquestionsto me, and
triedto findout how sincerelyI believedin the actual possibilities.He
4
treatedtheproblemwitheager interest,one mightsay with affection.
There were several elementsin Weizmann'scharacterand approach
of the SouthAfricanleader,and
whichappealed naturallyto thesensibilities
on at leastthreemajorgrounds,Smutscouldshare a kindredfeelingwiththe
RussianJewishexile. Not least of thesewas Weizmann'scandid avowal that
Zionismwas naturallyand organicallylinkedto Britishimperialinterests.
This was thecrucialtestforSmuts,whosaw in theBritishEmpirethe buttress
with
Smutshimselfwas identified
of worldorderand civilizeddevelopment.
oftheBritishEmpire;
thevisionofan Anglo-Boerunionwithintheframework
meantthat
Weizmann'sown plans fora Zionistentitywithinthisframework
nationaland imperial
he, likeSmuts,was sparedanyproblemof conflicting
oftheBalfourDeclaration,observed:
loyalties.As Leonard Stein,thehistorian
Fromthe outsetit was clear to him[Weizmann]thatBritishsponsorship
inPalestinewas notonlymorelikelyto be obtainable
ofZionistaspirations
but was beyondall comparisonmore to be desiredthat of any other
theircase to the British,the Zionistswouldnot be
Power.In presenting
1 Leonard Stein, The BalfourDeclaration
(London, 1961), p. 480. This dating contradictsthat of Weizmannin Trial and Error,p. 159.
2 A.P. Thornton,TheImperialIdea and Its Enemies(New York, 1968), p. 214.
3 Samuel Shikor,HollowGlory(New York, 1960), pp. 23-26.
4 Chaim Weizmann, Trial and Error(New York, 1966), p. 159.

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SMUTS AND WEIZMANN

37

approachingthemmerelyas suppliants,stillless as suppliantsforsomein line withBritishinterests.
thingnot manifestly
As he wroteto Israel
Zangwillon October 10, 1914, he thoughtit self-evident
that England
needed Palestineforthe safeguarding
of the approachesto Egypt,and
that if Palestinewere thrownopen for settlementby the Jews, then
"Englandwouldhave an effective
barrier,and we wouldhave a country."
This was while Turkeywas stillneutral.With her entryinto the war
on theside ofthe CentralPowers,thefutureofherAsiaticEmpire,and,
as part of it, the futureof Palestine,becamean open question.This was
an invitation,of whichWeizmanntook fulladvantage,to insiston the
communityof interestbetweenGreat Britain and the Zionists.The
commoninterestwas something
in whichhe genuinelybelieved.For him
the Zionistcause came first,but in doinghis best to promoteit he was
not speakingmerelyfroman advocate'sbriefwhenhe dweltupon what
Great Britainstood to gain by a pro-Zionistpolicy. "Dr. Weizmann,"
says Webster,"could not have attainedthe positionwhichhe held in
official
circleshad notall thosewithwhomhe came intocontactbelieved
absolutelyin his probityand sincerity
and learnedto workwithhim as
a partnerin a greatenterprise
whichwould be of advantageto Britain
as well as to his own people."5
A secondreason forthe appeal of Zionismto Smutswas that,in Weizmann'smind,the Zionistcause was justifiedin the same way as European
civilizationhad rationalizeditsexpansionovertheAmericas,Asia and Africa.
It was, explainedWeizmann,a simplequestionof the "desertversuscivilization."6 Disclaimingany "arrogance"in his analysis,Weizmannexplained:
Yet even today we hear people saying: "Well, yes,perhapswhat you
have done is all verygood, but the Arabs in Palestinewere used to a
quiet life. They rode on camels; theywerepicturesque;theyfittedinto
the landscape. Why not preserveit as a Museum,as a National Park?
You came in fromthe Westwithyourknowledgeand yourJewishinsistence.You arenotpicturesque.
You do notfitintothelandscape.You drain
the marshes.You destroymalaria.And you do it in such a way thatthe
mosquitoesflyon to the Arab villages.You stillspeak Hebrew witha
bad accent, and you have not yet learned how to handle the plough
properly.Insteadofa camel you use a motorcar." It remindsone ofthe
eternalfightof stagnationagainstprogress,efficiency,
health,and edu7
cation. The desertagainst civilization.
Atthesametime,therewasWeizmann'ssimpleconviction
oftherighteousnessof the Zionistcause - a convictionso fundamental
that,like the claim
of the Europeansto South Africa,it seemedself-evident.
"The basis of our
wholeexistence,"said Weizmann,"is ourrightto buildup ourNationalHome
5 Stein, pp. 14-15.

6

Chaim Weizmann, "The Position in Palestine," PalestinePapers, No. 2 (Jewish
AgencyforPalestine,London, 1929-30), p. 24.
7 Ibid., pp. 24-25.

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38

JOURNAL OF PALESTINE STUDIES

in Eretz Israel. This is a right which has belonged to us for thousands of
years... which originated in the promise of God to Abraham, and which we
have carried with us throughthe whole world, throughouta career of many
vicissitudes."8
In his attitude towardsJewryitselfin South Africa, Smuts had already
shown favourable leanings. He believed that the defence of South African
civilization (which he equated with "white civilization") required white
unity. No sooner had Smuts and his colleague General Botha set about forming their Het Volkparty afterthe Boer War, than theydeclared that it was
"open to all white men whether Boer, Jew or Briton."9 Since it was only
through white unity that "civilization" could be preserved, anti-Semitism
was r(jected.
In a more personal vein, it has been suggested that Smut's affinityfor
Jews reflectedhis sense of a similar background between them and the Boers.
In the words of H.C. Armstrong,the Jews
. . . had the same background as his [Smuts] own people: the Dutch
of theveld and the Jewsof the desert. They had the same characteristics.
Both were sour, bitterpeople; strictlyreligious with their lives based on
religion learned from the same Book - from the Old Testament.1L
But to champion the Zionist cause - "to see the Jews great again" 1" of
necessitymeant opposition to the Arab renaissance. "Justiceapart, he [Smuts]
had natural sympathywith neither French nor Arabs."'12 In short, Smuts'
attitude towards the Arabs was essentially racist. Whereas some Europeans
mighttolerate a romantic attitude towards the Arab, Smuts, like most South
Africans,could not be so inclined. As his biographer noted:
As to Arabs, a Bedouin Arab quite naturallycannot seem so romantically
strangOto a South African as to a European, for the South Africanvery
well knows dark skinned peoples; peoples resembling, indeed, the
Arabs - and with reason, since Arab blood is in them. All his life the
South African has been surrounded by millions of these dark peoples
who, like the Bedouins, live in huts or wander over the land; are more
courtly,couragcous and poetic than he will admit; and (unless civilization
compels them) like the Bedouins again, do, make, grow, want and own
nothing.
Smuts thinksas a European rather than as a South African- yet dark
skinned people cannot seem exotic to him.13
8 Ibid., p. 24.

9 Sarah GertrudeMillin, General
Smuts,Vol. II (London, 1936), p. 109.
10 H.C. Armstrong,
GreySteel: J.C. Smuts,A Studyin Arrogance
(London, 1937), pp.

300-301.
1 Millin, p. 110.
12 Ibid., p. 111.

13 Ibid., pp. 112-113.

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SMUTS

AND

WEIZMANN

39

Although Smuts' cultural and racial bias undoubtedly worked in Jewish
favour, the fact remained that there were also sound domestic reasons for
supportingZionism. From its inception, the party of Botha and Smuts - the
South African Party, and the United Party, its successor- was the party
"that representedmine owners, industrialistsand bankers" 14 and in at least
two of these categoriesJews were well represented.While not the dominant
economic forcein South Africa,Jews clearly controlledcertain industriessuch
as clothingmanufactureand later the cinema. AlthoughfewJews were farmers,
those who turned to agriculturewere heavy investorsin machinery,and both
the "potato king" and the "maize king" were Jews.15 The vast majorityof
the group, some 80 per cent, traced theiroriginsto Lithuania, thus makingfor
an unusual degree of homogeneity.16 Despite their original poverty,Jewish
immigrants,like all white immigrantsto South Africa,quickly discovered that
the racial inequalitics of the countryallowed forupward group mobility; the
working class element soon became a small minority.According to many
observers,the South AfricanJewish community had become, by the end of
the First World War, the wealthiestJewish communityin the world on a per
capita basis.'7 Nor was the size of theJewishcommunity,as Rabbi Dr. Andre
Ungar observed, a true reflectionof the position of theJews in South African
life:
... it would be a grievous mistake to underestimate the significanceof
theJewishminority.Even purelynumericallyspeaking, under the absurd
rules of South Africanethnic arithmetic,the size of theJewishpopulation
constitutesa factor necessary to reckon with... in the two main cities,
Johannesburg and Cape Town, the Jews constitute one-tenth of the
citizens "that count": the Whites...18
Jewish institutionsreflected the Zionist priorities and interestsof the
community.Fully 99 per cent of South AfricanJews were Zionist-affiliated.
19
With the small but influentialSouth AfricanJewish communitycommitted
to Zionist philosophy, Smuts readily saw the political wisdom of embracing
the Zionist vision. Since Zionism would obviously fit in with the imperial
scheme of things,there was all the more reason to accept it wholeheartedly.
14 J.H. and R.E. Simons,Classand Colourin SouthAfrica,1850-1950 (Baltimore,1969),
p. 288.
15 BernardSacks, "South Africa:Lifeon a Volcano,The JewishCommunityin A Caste
IX (June, 1950), p. 530.
Society,"Commentary,
16 Dan Jacobson,"The Jews of South Africa:Portraitof a FlourishingCommunity,"
XXIII (January,1957), p. 39.
Commentary,
17 Ibid.
18 AndreUngar, "The Abdicationofa Community,"
AfricaSouth,III (January-March
1959), pp. 29-30.
19 Sarah G. Millin, The Peopleof SouthAfrica(New York, 1954), p. 236.

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40

3.

JOURNAL OF PALESTINE STUDIES
SMUTS AND WEIZMANN FROM WORLD
OF THEIR RELATIONSHIP

WAR I TO WORLD

WAR

II:

AsPECTS

While the names of Lloyd George and Lord Balfour and Lord Milner
have long been identifiedwith the Balfour Declaration, the role of General
Smuts has not receivedthe same attention,despite the factthat by the General's
own account he figuredprominentlyin that decision.
Smuts' intriguingrole in the Balfour Declaration has occupied the
historianof that document, Leonard Stein. Now the firstmeetingwith Weizmann, as mentioned above, took place in June 1917, in which month one of
Weizmann's associates had advised that since Smuts was joining the War
Cabinet ratherthan accepting an offerto command Britishforcesin Palestine,
"we must try to win him for our cause." 20 While Weizmann described the
friendlyreception accorded him by Smuts he gave no details of the conversation. On September 25, Weizmann's correspondent,Sacher, expressed
satisfaction that Weizmann had "found Smuts so very understanding."21
Concluding that "the part actually played by Smuts in helping to secure
the approval of the Declaration is, however,difficultto assess," Stein nevertheless admitted that "he must rank among the architectsof the Declaration"
even though his contribution"was not of the same order as that of Balfour,
Milner, or Lloyd George." 22
Yet the whole storyis not told,as Stein admits,because Smuts, as was his
custom, "exerted his influencein the background." 23 It is this "influence in
the background," so amply demonstratedon Zionism's behalf over the next
three decades, that concerns us.
Over the three decades followingthe Balfour Declaration General Smuts
and Chaim Weizmann would in large part respectivelydominate or influence
the course of events affectingSouth Africa and the Zionist movement. Smuts,
in or out of office,never abandoned his supportof the Zionist cause nor ceased
to use his considerable influencein London on its behalf. Weizmann, ousted
from the presidency of the Zionist Organization and Jewish Agency in July
1931, and without official position until 1935, continued to cultivate his
friendshipwith General Smuts. Thus, as Britain found it increasinglydifficult
to honour the Balfour Declaration without jeopardy to other imperial
interests,Smuts responded to Weizmann's appeals for assistance. Whether
it was the White Paper of 1922, the PassfieldWhite Paper of 1930, the Royal
Commission Report of 1937 or the White Paper of 1939, Smuts was
20

Stein, p. 480. Smuts had already promiseda local Zionist to "help 'Zionism"'
whilein SouthAfricain 1916,accordingto theSouthAfrican
ZionistRecord,
September22, 1950.
21 Ibid.
22 Ibid., p. 482.
23 Ibid.

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SMUTS

AND

WEIZMANN

41

heard championing the Zionist cause and demanding the fulfilmentof the
Balfour promise.
While attending the Imperial Conference in late 1923 Smuts stayed
in close contact with Weizmann and the Zionist Organization Central Office
and was brought up to date on difficultiesencountered by the Zionists in
Palestine. 24 And as Smuts would later state, he thereuponraised the question
ofthe National Home withthe otherprime ministers.In the result,said Smuts,
the BritishGovernmentonce more affirmedthe maintenance of the National
Home principle.25
On October 21, 1930 the MacDonald governmentpublished the Passfield
White Paper (later withdrawn), a document which stated that in view of
disorderswhich had taken place in Palestine, Jewish immigrationand land
purchases should stop. This threatened to repudiate the Balfour Declaration
and threwthe ZionistOrganization intoturmoil.At Weizmann's request Smuts
cabled the Prime Minister "as one of those who is responsibleforthe Balfour
Declaration" against what he considered "a retreat fromthat Declaration":
As one of those who is responsible for the Balfour Declaration, I feel
deeply disturbed because of the present political situation in Palestine
which is a retreatfromthat Declaration. The Declaration was a definitive
promise to the Jewish world, that the politics of a national home would
be activelypursued and its intentionwas to win powerfulJewishinfluence
for the cause of the allies in the lowest hours of the war. As such it was
approved by the United States and the other allies and supportedin good
faithby theJews. It cannot be altered unilaterallyby the British.It now
representsa pledge which mustbe honoured. The accompanyingceremonies of that declaration were so celebrated that there can be no backing
off.I wish to insist that the governmentissue a declaration that it will
carry out to the fullestthe provisions of the Balfour Declaration in good
faith,and that the Palestine politics of the government will be altered
accordingly.26
MacDonald's immediate and lengthy telegraphic reply allayed Smuts'
fears. In response, Smuts declared:
I welcome especially your assurance that the recent declaration does not
chrystalizethe policy of the governmentas regards the national home,
as my impressionremains, that as regards the purchase of land as well
as immigration,the governmentdeclaration does not deny the active
duty to establish a Jewish national home as called for in the Balfour
Declaration. 27
24

Weizmann to Smuts,November6, 1923.
Cable, Johannesburg,South AfricanZionist Conferenceto Zionist Organization
Central Office,March 5, 1924.
26 Smuts to MacDonald, October 22, 1930.
27 Smuts to MacDonald, October 24, 1930.
25

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42

JOURNAL OF PALESTINE STUDIES

Smuts also prepared the way for Weizmannto see Lloyd George on
October 23. 28
ofthe 1930WhitePaper,theSeventeenth
In spiteofBritishmodifications
ZionistCongress,whichmetin 1931,was in no moodto tolerateWeizmann's
attitudeto GreatBritain.Having failedto winmajoritysupport,
sympathetic
he leftthe Congressin anger and spentthe next fouryearsout of office.
expeditionto South
In late 1931 he decided to go off"on a money-raising
TrialandError,
Africa."29 This trip,describedin Weizmann'sautobiography,
TakesLonger,was significant
and also in his wife'smemoirs,The Impossible
in that it broughtforthno critical commentfromWeizmannon the race
problemofSouthAfrica.This was despitethefactthatduringtheirextensive
visitthroughall partsof the Union, the Weizmannswere broughtface to
As his wifeobserved:
face withAfricanwretchedness.
The conditionof theAfricanpopulationappalled us. The trainstopped
at everystationand alwaysnaked childrencame round,theirtummies
distendedfromhunger,theirlittlelegscrookedfromrickets.The Africans
did not knowhow to cultivatetheirland properly.Their farmsdid not
gfowin size withthe increasein the size of theirfamilies.The young
generationhad to go to the big townsto makea living.Emigrationinto
the largercitiessuch as Capetown,Durban and Johannesburgbecame
a problem.Africanswerenot allowedto come intoshops: exceptby the
back door!30
withthethought
In thefaceofthismiseryMrs.Weizmannconsoledherself
betweenthe Jewishpeople...
that"therehas alwaysbeen a bondof sympathy
and otherpeople seekingtoemergeintonationhood"and that"manymembers
oftheJewishpopulationin SouthAfricahave playeda notablepartin trying
than
to alleviateand improvethe lot of thosein that countryless fortunate
31 She gave no indicationthattheproblemsofAfricanservitude
themselves."
and whitedominationby Boer,Jew and Briton meritedfurtheranalysis.
Weizmann'sown memoirsmake no mentionof Africanswhatsoever,except
forthefactthatat 4 a.m. onemorning"excitedKaffirboys"- thederogatory
- awoke themin
termused by whiteSouthAfricansin speakingofAfricans
the Krugergame park withwordthatlionswere in the vicinity.Even more
on the beauties of the park and the
paradoxicalwas Weizmann'sreflection
happy lives of the animals:
28 Vera Weizmann (David Tutaev writer), The Impossible
Takes Longer(New York,
1967), p. 113.
29 Vera Weizmann,p. 122.
30 Ibid., p. 123.
31 Ibid., p. 124.

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