Bygone Days: Chaim Weizmann's tea with Mussolini

"I have already spoken to the Arabs," il Duce said, "I believe that an agreement can be reached."

haim weizmann 88 (photo credit: )
haim weizmann 88
(photo credit: )
Ceremonial guards saluted him as he ascended the grand marble stairway of the Palazzo Venezia, lined with Donatellos and Verrocchios. Ahead of him walked a starched footman who led him with polished steps into a gilded Renaissance drawing room hung with Bellinis and Botticellis. There he was asked to wait until summoned, and as he stared admiringly at the grandeur about him, in walked Count Alberto Theodoli, the Italian president of the League of Nations Permanent Mandates Commission. He was attired in a dark suit, with a winged collar and a cravat, and at first sight his face was all straight lines - eyebrows, mouth, nose, everything. He carried his five-and-a-half feet of height straight as well. "I heard you were here to see il Duce," said the aristocrat, "so I thought I would take the opportunity to have a brief word." THE YEAR was 1934, and he was talking to Dr. Chaim Weizmann, future first president of Israel and presently the influential head of the World Zionist Organization. As such, he strove to maintain contacts with as many world leaders as were willing to listen to him, particularly members of the League of Nations, under whose nominal tutelage Britain administered the mandate for Palestine. And being something of an autocrat himself, he was not overly inhibited in the company of kings and premiers; nor did he have any qualms in conversing with despots, as he was to do that day. "The matter I wish to talk about has to do with the purchase by your Zionist Organization of the vast stretches of land in the Jezreel Valley [the Emek]" said the count in a hushed, almost conspiratorial tone. "The price you paid was far too low. It has to be adjusted." Weizmann's eyes stirred to anger. He knew Theodoli had a personal stake in the transaction. He was connected by marriage to the powerful Arab family in Beirut, the Sursuks, who were the absentee landlords from whom the Zionist Organization had purchased the land years before. No wonder the count could be relied upon to veto any pro-Zionist proposal in the Mandates Commission which he headed. WEIZMANN'S response was understandably caustic: "Considering the condition of the land at the time we purchased it," he said, "the price we paid was exorbitant." "Nonsense!" hissed the count, dabbing his balding forehead. "We could have gotten five times as much." "My dear count," said Weizmann in a voice that was an admixture of reason and sarcasm in equal measure, "what you sold to us was a mosquito-ridden swamp. All the Arab villages on it were abandoned. To make it inhabitable we had to sink vast sums into drainage, reclamation and road works. If the land is more valuable now, it is only because of our sweat, blood and money." "But it is an indisputable fact that you Jews always take the best land in Palestine," snapped Theodoli haughtily. "I tell you frankly," said Weizmann in a tone steeped in Jewish resignation, "either you are ignorant of the facts, or you are an anti-Semite. We Jews take the worst land in Palestine and make it the best. God, it seems, has inundated the soil of Palestine with rocks, marshes and sand, so that its true beauty can only be resurrected by those of us who devote our memories and our lives to healing its ancient wounds." "Il Duce will see you now," interrupted a uniformed equerry, bringing the acerbic exchange to an abrupt halt. "Follow me, please." Dr. Weizmann followed the man down a chandeliered marble corridor toward a lofty burnished brass door, which he pulled ajar and obsequiously cried out in a sonorous voice: "Dottore Weizmann." THE ZIONIST leader found himself at the threshold of choreographed fascisti theatricality, and with his sharp sense of the bizarre, fed by the self-mocking wit of his Russian Jewish background, it was with the faintest flicker of a sardonic smile that he trod the 50 paces through the almost empty hall toward its single illumination - a lamp on a small desk in its furthest corner, at which sat Italy's fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, in splendid isolation. Leaning his bulk into his overstuffed chair - higher than the one in front of him - and in a leisurely manner crossing his glittery jackboots, which were integral to the vestments of his Fascist party, Benito Mussolini contemplated the melancholy yet aristocratic-looking middle-aged, middle-statured man advancing toward him in a well-cut suit with a silk handkerchief neatly tucked in the breast pocket. He half-rose, and, after sketching the merest hint of a welcome, invited him to settle into the lower seat, looked down his nose at him, and said jocularly in French, "You know, Dr. Weizmann, I have to begin by telling you, not all Italian Jews are Zionists." "Of course, I know that only too well," responded Weizmann with equal banter. "And not all Italians are Fascists." Il Duce laughed at that. It was not the first time he had met the Zionist, and he granted him a morsel of familiarity. But now in earnest, he said, "Am I to understand, Dr. Weizmann, your Zionist enterprise in Palestine is growing thanks to an influx of Jews from Germany?" "Ten thousand have found refuge there in the past year," answered Weizmann gravely. "Many more wish to come. Their situation in Germany is becoming intolerable." Mussolini nodded and sounded a non-committal grunt. His protégé, Herr Hitler, had prevailed the previous year over the Weimar Republic in becoming Germany's Nazi dictator, demonstrating the incipient decadence of Europe's liberal democracies - or so his convictions told him. And from that day forth the Fuehrer had been sending him repeated messages of homage and admiration. However, il Duce did not take kindly to the Nazi's display of interest in the German minorities in Italy's north, nor did he like Hitler's designs on Austria, which he looked upon as his own sphere of influence. Besides, he could not help but look down on Germans generally, being descendants of illiterate, barbaric tribes who wrote not a single document of their history at a time when Rome had Caesar, Virgil and Augustus. So, elliptically, he began musing about "the barbarians across the Alps," and "the silver clouds of European civilization," and "the renaissance of Rome." BUT WEIZMANN wanted tachliss. He wanted to talk about the need to help the Jews in Nazi Germany [Mussolini had yet to overtly adopt an anti-Semitic policy], lobby his support for the Zionist enterprise, and persuade him that it was in his best interests to ally himself with the British and the French to save Austria from German annexation. But Mussolini had other fish to fry at that moment, most notably the expansion of Italy's influence across the Mediterranean to counteract that of the British. So, with something of a scowl, he snapped, "I sometimes get the impression, Dr. Weizmann, that the British are using you Zionists as a pawn in their power game to take permanent possession of an important Mediterranean shoreline." Weizmann stroked the pointed tuft of his diminutive beard to calm his thoughts, and said artfully, "I have never seen evidence of any particular sinister intent behind Britain's Zionist policy toward us. Britain is the only great country that has, thus far, shown a readiness to help us initiate our Zionist operations in Palestine. And as long as they make our operations possible and enable us to carry them out without hindrance we shall maintain our relations with England, which I consider vital." And then, in a deeply innocent tone, "I cannot vouch for what ulterior motives certain British statesman might have in the backs of their minds on this matter." This, of course, was poppycock, and Mussolini assuredly knew it. Who, other than Weizmann, had persuaded the British establishment that a strong Jewish position in the East Mediterranean would help buttress British interests? And who more than he had advocated British sponsorship of a Jewish national home in Palestine so as to give Britain a card to play against France and Italy? This, after all, was what the Balfour Declaration was largely about. BUT IF Mussolini took umbrage at the Zionist leader's disingenuousness he made no sign of it. Rather, he said bombastically, "Dr. Weizmann, Rome could create your state in a single go." "Really? responded Weizmann irreverently. "As I recall it, Rome destroyed our state in a single go." Il Duce did not find that particularly amusing but, nevertheless, rearranged his scowl into a smile, and said, invitingly, "A cup of tea?" He pressed an unseen button and a maid in a black dress and a starched lace cap and collar silently entered and began pouring them tea from a silver teapot into fine china, with fastidious care. While she was doing so the two men sat in silence, each sizing the other up as if by mutual consent. Then, after taking an audible sip, Mussolini went on, "To go back to the subject - in order for you Zionists to return to Palestine you must create a Jewish state. I have already spoken to the Arabs. I believe that an agreement can be reached. The one difficulty that might arise is the question of Jerusalem. The Arabs say that the Jews should have their capital in Tel Aviv." WEIZMANN, exclaimed, "Ah, a Jewish state - what a tremendous idea. A state of our own, however small, is the fulcrum of Archimedes." "The what?" "I speak of leverage," explained Weizmann the scientist. "Having our own state, however small, would give us sovereign leverage." "True, but declaring statehood is not enough in itself," countered Mussolini sagely. "The importance of a state consists of it being recognized by others. Nations which are not crystallized into sovereign states are born and die because others do not recognize them. It is therefore recognition as a state that is decisively important for the existence of a nation." And then, without pause, "So what about Jerusalem - what do you say about its future?" Adamantly, the Zionist leader replied: "One thing has to be made abundantly clear - if Jerusalem does not become a Jewish capital it cannot become an Arab capital. Jerusalem is the confluence of three religions. But it must be noted that the sanctity of Jerusalem for Muslims is something of a recent invention, whereas for the Jews Jerusalem is the City of David and, of course, for Christians it is the center of their holy places." MUSSOLINI seemed pleased with that answer, but Weizmann had the distinct feeling he was skating on thin ice. This dictator was tossing him a bone to entice him to cast Zionism's lot with Italy and away from England, something he would never do. So he shifted the subject to the value of a Rome-London-Paris alignment, as against a Rome-Berlin axis, which had yet to be forged. This was the point at which the Fascist dictator abruptly cut the meeting short, and why he did remains a matter of conjecture. Was it because he considered Weizmann an insignificant factor representing an embryonic movement pushing its first roots on a backward Mediterranean coastline, or because his ideological penchant propelled him into the embrace of the Nazi in Berlin, in all circumstances? Whatever the reason, Weizmann genuinely believed a Rome-London-Paris alignment was doable, and he lobbied British ministers hard to court Mussolini in an effort to play him off against Hitler. He was so persuaded of this that in his memoirs he writes, "I do not know whether detaching Rome from Berlin would have prevented the outbreak of the [Second World] war, but it certainly might have made a great difference to the war in the Mediterranean, might have saved many lives, and shortened the agony by many months." Is this farfetched? One would think so, given the benefit of hindsight. But Weizmann had no such advantage. He was the son of a dark age when Satan himself came down to take a look at the budding despots and their willing appeasers, liked what he saw, decided to stay awhile, and wreak hell on earth, most notably upon those whom a Jewish state was meant to have saved. The writer is a veteran diplomat. [email protected]