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Imagining a Jewish Atom Bomb

Revisiting the history of Israel’s secretive, influential nuclear program

Or Rabinowitz
Yehonaton Abramson
November 09, 2022
Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Chaim Weizmann with Albert Einstein, circa 1921Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Chaim Weizmann with Albert Einstein, circa 1921Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the past two decades, scholars have paid increasing attention to Israel’s secretive nuclear program and its history. The existing accounts begin the story of Israel’s nuclear efforts with the establishment of the state in 1948, mainly focusing on three protagonists—David Ben-Gurion, the state’s political leader, Ernst David Bergmann, Ben-Gurion’s scientific adviser, and Shimon Peres, his executive right hand. In this study, we broaden the historical scope, demonstrating how early thoughts of an “atomic bomb from Palestine” first emerged within Zionist circles as early as 1945, immediately after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Further, we analyze the early efforts made by Dr. Chaim Weizmann, a world-renowned chemist and a prominent Zionist leader, to cultivate and mobilize a Jewish knowledge network related to the Manhattan Project.

Our analysis focuses on several initiatives that Weizmann took between 1945 and 1947. First, we show how Weizmann sought to utilize the involvement of Jewish scientists in the Manhattan Project to advance the migration of Holocaust survivors from Europe to Palestine, appealing in particular to Albert Einstein. Second, we demonstrate how in 1947 Weizmann tried to promote the construction of a “Zionist” nuclear reactor in British-controlled Palestine, attempting to win the support of two important Jewish American figures for this initiative: J. Robert Oppenheimer, the former scientific director of the Manhattan Project, and David E. Lilienthal, the newly appointed head of the American Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

In addition to the historical significance of the case—tracing the roots of Israeli nuclear thinking to the Yishuv period—an examination of Weizmann’s efforts sheds new light on the nexus between science and diplomacy, particularly the attempts to cultivate and mobilize a scientific diaspora. The role of “scientific diasporas” and “diasporic knowledge networks” has been widely discussed in the literature concerning the global history of technology, with scholars examining the issue from several perspectives. Some studies discuss how the British Empire used the dispersion of scientific staff as an instrument of imperial control, while others explore how scientific diasporas are recruited to act as agents of technological and economic development. This study differs from these two approaches in two significant ways.

First, instead of assuming the presence of a preexisting “diasporic knowledge network,” we examine Weizmann’s attempts to construct a scientific diaspora that did not yet exist. We detail the microlevel practices implemented by Weizmann, a political entrepreneur embedded in a certain context, to animate diasporic feelings of obligation among selected scientists and experts and to channel these feelings toward “homeland”-related goals. The mobilization of a scientific diaspora may have a wider utility than previously assumed. Indeed, this utility is not limited to attempts to facilitate the transfer of knowledge or skills; rather, it may also include efforts to take advantage of the scientific clout of the targets to accomplish diplomatic goals.

Second, the existing accounts within the literature regarding nuclear proliferation focus primarily on the role of transnational mobilization in promoting nonproliferation goals or on the role of illicit transnational trafficking of nuclear technology. We add a third aspect to the mix, demonstrating how a nonstate actor can use transnational mobilization in an attempt to promote the establishment of a nuclear reactor. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first such case discussed in the literature.

In contrast to mass or collective mobilization, the mobilization of scientific diasporas is a very selective and tailored process. Due to the secrecy surrounding Israel’s nuclear establishment, which extends to the years before the state’s establishment, many of the relevant documents are still classified. To overcome this challenge, we rely on extensive evidence from various sources: biographies and draft biographies, documents, diaries and letters from several international archives. Significantly, the aim of our analysis is not to determine the impact of scientific diasporas or the conditions under which scientific diasporas are successfully (or unsuccessfully) mobilized. While Weizmann’s efforts in part failed, this article focuses on the underlying process.

The key figure at the heart of our analysis is Dr. Chaim Weizmann, a world-famous chemist and a Zionist leader, who would serve as Israel’s first president. His discovery of how to produce synthetic acetone and his role as the president of the World Zionist Organization placed him in a particularly advantageous position to promote transnational mobilization. His British social circle remarkably included no fewer than three British prime ministers.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Weizmann competed with socialist Zionist David Ben-Gurion for the leadership of the Zionist movement. After isolating Weizmann politically and marginalizing him within the organization in the early 1940s, Ben-Gurion nonetheless capitalized on Weizmann’s international connections and prestige to accomplish several international tasks. In addition to their different personalities and backgrounds, the two strongly disagreed on how the Zionist movement should handle the conflict with the British government. By the late stages of the Second World War, Ben-Gurion saw Anglo-Zionist cooperation as instrumental and temporary, viewing armed hostilities between the Jews in Palestine and the British as unavoidable. He saw the political decision on the fate of Palestine as mainly a “British decision … with American consent,” assessing that the Soviet Union would stay out of the fray.

The two differed in other respects as well, for example in their primary reaction to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ben-Gurion did not initially recognize the significance of the atom bomb. He did not mention it in his diary; indeed, the only related entry appears on Aug. 15, 1945: “The war with Japan is over.” As we shall see below, Ben-Gurion began to take an interest in atomic fission only three years later, during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948. At that time Ben-Gurion’s friend, who would later become his scientific adviser, Ernst David Bergmann, a German-born organic chemist (and a former close confidante of Weizmann), together with other leading Yishuv scientists, persuaded him that “a national nuclear project was within Israel’s scientific abilities.” Weizmann, by contrast, had immediately perceived the significance of this new technology.

Weizmann’s mode of operation following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the resulting discovery of the Manhattan Project is embedded in his personal history and diplomatic habitus. First, Weizmann was a “diplomats’ diplomat”: he believed in promoting political goals through close ties with carefully chosen representatives of the top echelons, especially the British elite. He preferred influencing decision-makers by enlisting their advisers to the cause or talking to them privately, and he was deeply opposed to Ben-Gurion’s notion of “going to the public” and leveraging public opinion to create political pressure. He used this approach with British leaders around 1917 when trying to secure British support for Jewish national claims, as well as with President Harry Truman in the late 1940s, meeting him privately three times to secure his political support for the establishment of the state.

Weizmann’s attempts to construct a scientific diaspora around the issue of nuclear technology did not take place in a void; rather, they were embedded within a particular national sociotechnical imaginary that was dominant in the Yishuv. This imaginary ties together the legitimacy of the Zionist cause, modern notions of progress, and the practical needs of state-making and nation-building. Through scientific and technological developments, the Zionist movement saw itself as bringing the promise of Western progress to Palestine, as well as transforming religious Eastern European Jews into modern members of the nation.

Regarding the atom bomb, this Zionist sociotechnical imaginary manifested itself in two ways. First, the involvement of Jewish scientists in the Manhattan Project reinforced the idea of a unique “Jewish genius,” linking the achievements of Jews abroad with the Zionist movement. The Yishuv’s newspapers commented with pride on the notable participation of Jewish scientists in the Manhattan Project. When reporting on the bombing of Hiroshima, the headline of the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth read: “2 Jews assisted in the development of atom bomb.” The article itself opens with a quote from Rudolf Peierls and Franz Eugen Simon, two Jewish scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, who expressed their satisfaction with their role in developing the bomb: “Dr. Simon told Reuter that they were delighted about helping the Allies win the race for the bomb which will shorten wars.” A later report published in the same newspaper in 1948 proudly reported: “Jews among aircrews of both bombers which dropped the atomic bomb.”

Second, Zionist intellectuals in the Yishuv began to ponder, in the context of Jewish scientists’ contributions to the Manhattan Project, what role an “Atomic Bomb from Palestine” could potentially play in forcing the world powers to prioritize the resolution of what was termed “our question.” In this sense, the atomic bomb was seen as a powerful tool, potent enough to potentially “buy” the Zionist movement and its leadership a seat at the table and force the world powers to take Zionist leaders seriously. Natan Adam, a publicist for the socialist Mishmar paper, reflected this perspective in his column from November 1945:

“If the secret of atomic energy were in our hands, we would be able to talk with those responsible for the resolution of our question in this world.”

Archival evidence demonstrates that Weizmann himself was not only a part of this sociotechnical imaginary but actively shaped it. On Dec. 12, 1945, Arthur K. Epstein, a Zionist activist affiliated with Weizmann, sent a fundraising solicitation letter to a potential donor as part of a campaign to expand the existing Sieff Research Institute (est. 1934, Rehovot). Epstein opened the letter by quoting a communication he had sent earlier to Weizmann, indicating, significantly, that Weizmann was aware of this line of thinking. Reflecting on the tragic state of world Jewry in 1945, Epstein lamented that “at present we are looked upon as ‘nobodies’ whom governments and Presidents do not hesitate to betray.” In the context of the atomic bomb, he posed the following open-ended query: “I wonder what our political situation would have been if Drs. Meitner, Frisch, Oppenheimer and James Frank would have made their contributions of atomic energy in Rehovot, and their contribution to the Atomic Bomb from Palestine” (emphasis added). Significantly, the scientists listed here were Jewish scientists, and Epstein was referring to their scientific contribution and to the question of how this contribution could be harnessed to promote the Zionist cause.

Foreshadowing later Cold War era writing on the status and prestige associated with nuclear weapons, Epstein went on to answer his own question: “The world would think of us differently today if all the great Jewish scientists would have made their contributions from Palestine, rather than from Germany, France, Italy, USA and Great Britain. The world would have to recognize our force and power not based upon armies, fleets, etc., [sic] but upon intellectual achievements which are meant for humanity at large.” Further evidence for Weizmann’s line of thinking on Jewish participation in the Manhattan Project appears in an unpublished draft of his autobiography, written between 1946 and 1948:

“Very few people … have any notion of the role which Jews have played in modern science, and particularly of their astounding share in the development of nuclear physics. … I have heard Einstein speak of ninety percent. … I am continuously struck by the utter disproportion of the Jewish contribution.”

In sum, Weizmann’s personal characteristics and experience, his sociospatial positionality, and the Zionist sociotechnical imaginary significantly enabled his attempts to cultivate and mobilize a scientific diaspora. In line with his discreet diplomatic approach, Weizmann consistently leveraged his scientific success to advance the Zionist national cause as early as the beginning of the First World War. His sociospatial positionality—marginalized from leadership positions but still possessing deep transnational connections in both the scientific community and the Zionist “para-statal institutions”—afforded him great ability to engage in transnational action. Finally, his vision for the Yishuv was based on the concept of harnessing science for state-making, embedded in a broader sociotechnical imaginary dominant within Zionist circles. As Hannah Arendt wrote about Weizmann: “For him science is not the eternal search for truth but the urge ‘to make something practical,’ an instrument for a well-defined task: the building of Palestine most of all, but also the possibility of that financial independence to which he owes so much of his political success, and, last not least, his unsurpassable entrance ticket to the international world.” Thus, when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, Weizmann was already perfectly situated to utilize his brand of personal and targeted scientific diplomacy.

Weizmann’s attempt to construct a “nuclear” scientific diaspora was first geared toward convincing foreign governments, especially the British, to allow the migration of Holocaust survivors from Europe to British-controlled Palestine. On Aug. 24, 1945, mere weeks after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Weizmann received a letter from Selig Brodetsky, a Zionist activist, a mathematician, and one of his close associates. This letter represents the first indication that Weizmann considered using Jewish participation in the Manhattan Project for political purposes. In his letter, Brodetsky updated Weizmann on his conversation with two unnamed “French (Polish-Jewish) scientists” regarding “the atom bomb and the Jews.” Brodetsky noted that as opposed to the “Radar business in which practically no Jews took any serious part at all,” the “Jewish part” in the development of the atom bomb “is indeed remarkable.”

Brodetsky expressed to Weizmann his doubts on “the advisability of pushing publicity about the Jews’ part in the atom bomb.” In his eyes, the public was not yet sure whether the atom bomb “isn’t after all a great curse.” He advised Weizmann to “talk it over” with “a number of Jewish scientists.” Despite Brodetsky’s warning, Weizmann decided to move ahead with the attempt to utilize Jewish participation in the development of the atom bomb for political purposes.

In October 1945, Weizmann began mapping the relevant targets. He asked a scientist confidant in London to create a list of the known Jewish scientists who participated in the project, based on a statement by the British government. The list contained 12 names, as well as short remarks on their nuclear expertise. It included Otto Frisch, Lise Meitner, Hans Halban, Leo Szilard, Rudolf Peierls, and Joseph Rotblat. Klaus Fuchs, the son of a Lutheran pastor and an infamous Soviet nuclear spy, also appears on the list because his name sounds Jewish, although the remarks section notes, “No details known.” In late 1945, Weizmann took the initiative a step further, attempting to enlist the world’s most renowned Jewish scientist, Albert Einstein.

Einstein and Weizmann first met in 1921, when Weizmann solicited Einstein’s help for a campaign in America to raise funds for a new university in Palestine. Einstein was already well aware of Weizmann’s strategy, writing to a friend: “Naturally they don’t need me for my abilities but because of my name, whose luster they hope will attract quite a bit of success with the rich kinsmen of Dollar-land. In spite of my emphatic internationalism, I believe that I am always under an obligation insofar as it is in my power to advocate on behalf of my persecuted and morally oppressed kinsmen.”

By 1945, Weizmann had become well aware of Einstein’s ambivalent relationship with Zionism. On the one hand, Einstein persistently expressed skepticism on the advisability of the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, voicing concerns regarding the clash with the local Arabs and his support of a One World ideology. On Jan. 11, 1946, he voiced his objection to the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine when testifying at a hearing of the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, much to the disappointment of the people of the Yishuv, who saw this as a form of betrayal. On the other hand, at the end of the war, as revelations of the scope and enormity of the loss of life in the Holocaust emerged, Einstein’s position was congruent with the Zionist movement supporting Jewish immigration to Palestine, especially as an answer to the plight of Holocaust survivors. Upon the establishment of the state in 1948, he publicly declared his support of it.

Based on his knowledge and perception of Einstein, Weizmann’s efforts focused on recruiting Einstein to the cause of Jewish immigration to Palestine by utilizing his scientific-celebrity status. Weizmann wrote to Einstein stating that he had been giving “a great deal of thought to a certain matter,” though he refrained from explicitly stating what the matter concerned. He added, “Our good friend Alex [Alexander Sachs] has kindly consented to act as the intermediary in conveying to you in greater detail some of the thoughts that have passed through my mind.” Alexander Sachs was the natural choice: an American Jewish banker and economist, he was a wartime informal adviser to President Roosevelt and was instrumental in the initiation of the Manhattan Project. He was the person who delivered the now-famous Einstein-Szilard letter to Roosevelt on Oct. 11, 1939.

In a letter sent to Einstein in December 1945, Weizmann referred to an undated draft of a speech, which bears the handwritten heading “Draft sent to Dr. Einstein” and was probably delivered by Alexander Sachs around that time. This was a proposed draft for a speech that Einstein had been invited to give at the Nobel anniversary dinner on Dec. 10, 1945; the text does not note who composed it. This proposed draft starts with an appeal “to the victorious nations, above all Great Britain and the United States, to bethink themselves of their moral obligations, to the end that the nearly vanished remnant of European Jewry, through transference to its recognized homeland in Palestine, may become a ‘saving remnant.’”

Significantly, it goes on to highlight “the notable role” that Jews played in first “perceiving the danger of a Nazi exploitation of nuclear energy for purposes of war” and later in devising “the atomic weapon” and placing it “in the hands of the democracies.” This was accomplished, according to the draft, “by good fortune” and “against the teeth of time.” The draft concludes with the following statement, which the author apparently wanted Einstein to make: “It is therefore my conviction that the free immigration of Jews into Palestine and the opportunity for them to create there a commonwealth … is the immediate practical step to be taken toward the restoration of this people to a normal status.”

The speech that Einstein eventually gave at the 1945 Nobel dinner underlined his mixed feelings on the subject. Despite his qualms about Zionism, he strongly felt that Holocaust survivors and refugees should be allowed to settle in Palestine. In the speech, he did not mention the contribution of Jewish scientists, as proposed in the draft, but rather referred to “we,” the “physicists,” who participated in the development of the bomb in general, touching on some of the concepts suggested in the draft:

Today, physicists who participated in forging the most formidable and dangerous weapon of all times are harassed by an equal feeling of responsibility, not to say guilt. … We helped in creating this new weapon in order to prevent the enemies of mankind from achieving it ahead of us, which, given the mentality of the Nazis, would have meant inconceivable destruction. … We delivered this into the hands of the American and the British.

Separately, he referred to the plight of the Jews, mentioning “the case of my own people, the Jewish people” and lamenting the fact that “the remainders of European Jewry, one-fifth of its pre-war population, are again denied access to their haven in Palestine and left to hunger and cold and persisting hostility …”

Weizmann sought to construct a scientific diaspora to achieve a second, more concrete goal: to facilitate scientific contributions to the development of a nuclear reactor in the Yishuv. Weizmann was preoccupied with the Yishuv’s energy needs from a scientific perspective for decades. In the 1930s and 1940s, he studied the question of energy supply, exploring the fermentation process as a possible energy source.

Under the auspices of the Sieff Institute, Weizmann took initial steps toward bringing nuclear knowledge to Palestine. This was accomplished together with Ernst David Bergmann, who joined the institute in 1934, becoming “Weizmann’s faithful right-hand man and scientific collaborator.” The two formed an intimate bond, growing yet closer after Weizmann lost his son, Michael, an RAF pilot, in 1942. Bergmann’s biographers believe it is likely that Bergmann first became interested in nuclear technology in August 1945, though they explain that it is impossible to pin down the exact moment because most of the relevant documents are still classified.

In the spring of 1946, Bergmann and Weizmann jointly invited Chaim Pekeris, a renowned Jewish American scientist, to give a guest lecture at the Sieff Institute titled “Fear of the Atomic Bomb.” Although the content of the lecture was never published, Bergmann’s biographers estimate that the talk likely dealt with early thoughts on nuclear deterrence. A year later, Weizmann took his interest in nuclear development a step further. At his suggestion, Bergmann arranged for a chemist from the Sieff Institute to visit the Paris lab of Frédéric Joliot-Curie, France’s leading nuclear physicist. In 1946, Joliot-Curie had become the first French high commissioner for atomic energy, and in 1947 he was working on the construction of the first French atomic reactor, which was inaugurated in 1948.

On Aug. 11, 1947, Bergmann wrote to Weizmann expressing doubts regarding whether the chemist selected for the visit to Paris, Frieda Goldschmidt, was the right choice, writing: “I am not sure whether she would be the right person to work with Joliot as you suggest,” and tellingly adding that “it will be very important for us to work in that line for reasons which it is better not put on paper.” Two weeks later, in a second letter to Weizmann, Bergmann added:

I would hesitate to send her to work with Joliot as the work which she could do there requires a better understanding of modern physics and chemistry than Miss Goldschmidt has. If there is a serious possibility that Joliot would take someone from here and show him some of his important work, we will certainly find a person who would be better suited to that purpose.

Weizmann’s next step was to directly promote the construction of a nuclear reactor in Palestine. Indeed, he did so in the days leading up to the critical U.N. vote on the partition plan, which was set to take place on Nov. 29, 1947. On Nov. 11, 1947, Weizmann visited Princeton, New Jersey, where he met with Einstein and Oppenheimer, crowned at the time as the father of the American atom bomb. The Weizmann archive does not contain a record of the meeting, but Oppenheimer himself disclosed what took place a decade later. When Oppenheimer visited Israel in the summer of 1958, he told Prime Minister Ben-Gurion that at this meeting Weizmann had discussed with him the construction of a nuclear reactor in the Yishuv; at the time, Oppenheimer informed Weizmann that he thought it was a bad idea.

A day after the meeting, Weizmann wrote a letter to American Jewish Zionist Felix Frankfurter, associate justice of the Supreme Court, noting that he was “anxious to see one or two people in Washington, particularly … Mr. Lilienthal.” This was David E. Lilienthal, who served at the time as chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, (AEC), a position he held from 1946 to 1950.

Weizmann saw Lilienthal as a key figure in the world of nuclear research and placed a premium on his role within the AEC. A hint of this is found in Weizmann’s unpublished memoir: “With the exception of a few anti-Semites, no one thought of Lilienthal, who became the head of what is probably the greatest atom research station in the world, as a Jew.” Weizmann also offered the following explanation in his letter to Frankfurter: “Yesterday I spent some time in Princeton seeing Professor Einstein and Professor Oppenheimer and the projected meeting with Lilienthal is a sequel to my interview with Professor Oppenheimer.” The combined narrative of the documents indicates that Weizmann was seeking a meeting with Lilienthal, the head of the American AEC, specifically to promote the construction of a nuclear reactor in the Yishuv, following his discussion with Oppenheimer regarding the matter.

Weizmann and Lilienthal had previously met in 1943 during Lilienthal’s term at the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), when Weizmann was involved in the promotion of the Jordan Valley Authority project, an infrastructure scheme modeled on the TVA and designed to allow large-scale irrigation in Palestine using water from the Jordan River. Based on that meeting, Weizmann recounted in a report to the Jewish Agency that Lilienthal, “who was himself a Jew … knew nothing about Zionism, but expressed himself as willing to do what he could.” Though Lilienthal was indeed impressed by Weizmann at this meeting, he noted in his journal that “somehow Zionism still seems a strange notion to me.”

In a letter to Lilienthal following the 1943 meeting, Weizmann wrote that “it is heartening to know that in you, the cause has an understanding friend.” It seems that Weizmann hoped in November 1945 to awaken similar sympathies in Lilienthal vis-à-vis a nuclear reactor for Palestine. However, the Weizmann archive in Rehovot and the David E Lilienthal Papers collection at Princeton University Library, as well as Lilienthal’s journals, hold no record of such a meeting or any other direct communication between the two in 1947. Further evidence for Weizmann’s interest in a reactor in this period comes from an interview given by engineer Meir Rabinowitz, “Batz,” a former official of the Hagannah, the Yishuv’s armed resistance, which was aired on Israeli television in 1972. According to the firsthand account detailed in the interview, Weizmann expressed his interest in what he termed “atomic energy” to a group of Yishuv scientists on an unspecified date during the pre-1948 period, most likely during 1947.

In the interview, Batz detailed a meeting that Weizmann held with some of the top scientists in the Yishuv, including Batz himself, discussing what Weizmann referred to as “the Atomic Energy of tomorrow” in the context of “winning the war” with the Arabs. Significantly, this segment ends when the interviewer interjects and states, “Now let’s talk about small bombs,” framing the previous answer as one which refers to “big bombs,” at which point the crowd bursts out laughing. It is clear to everyone in the studio that the story they had just heard specifically concerned these implied “big bombs” in the context of “atomic energy,” which would be harnessed to win a war rather than to light the streets.

There is not enough information in the existing documents to assess conclusively whether Weizmann’s interest in “atomic energy” and the establishment of a nuclear reactor in this period also extended to a clear interest in an atomic bomb. It is possible that Weizmann was interested in building a nuclear reactor exclusively for civilian uses. However, the secrecy with which he and Bergmann referred to the issue in their August 1947 correspondence lends credibility to the assumption that they were considering the military implications of such a development. At the time, “atomic energy” was an umbrella term for nuclear technology in general, used to describe the new possibilities offered by it, including – but not limited to – nuclear weapons, and this was also evident in the publications relating to the Manhattan Project. Natan Adam and AK Epstein both referred to the “atomic bomb” and “atomic energy” interchangeably Weizmann also used the term “atomic energy” in a dual manner when writing his memoir.

The early interest in a nuclear reactor, which originated with Weizmann’s appeals to Oppenheimer, passed from Weizmann to Ben-Gurion via Bergmann. It seems that at some point during 1948, Weizmann’s views on nuclear technology began to change: he moved away from ideas of practical science to “pure science.” The existing sources do not directly outline how Weizmann’s thinking evolved, leaving room for some speculation. It is possible that Weizmann felt compelled to join the community of scientists, like Einstein, who by now publicly rejected the development of an atomic arsenal and its handling by the US government, which in their view was not making the required progress toward nuclear disarmament. Another explanation relates to Weizmann’s political decline and his sense of betrayal by his former close confidante, Bergmann.

During 1947, Bergmann drew closer to Ben-Gurion, both personally and professionally. According to his biographers, as of the fall of 1947 Bergmann became “completely absorbed in the task of meeting the immediate wartime needs of Israel, and any plans which he might have been formulating with regard to nuclear energy had to be put on the back burner.” As the academic director of the Weizmann Institute of Science, Bergmann championed the institute’s participation in the Yishuv’s war effort. During the War of Independence, in 1948, Bergman and other scientists persuaded Ben-Gurion that “a national nuclear project was within Israel’s scientific abilities.” Weizmann’s declining interest in atomic energy took place in parallel with Ben-Gurion’s increasing interest in the matter and the close cooperation between Ben-Gurion and Bergmann. It is possible that growing resentment toward Bergmann, who crossed the line into Ben-Gurion’s camp, in some part motivated Weizmann’s rejection of Bergmann’s nuclear activism. In 1951, Bergmann would become Ben-Gurion’s personal scientific adviser and later the chair of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission (1952-1966).

Ben-Gurion first publicly mentioned his fascination with the atom on Sept. 11, 1948, citing the “miraculous make-up” of the atom and the “enormous capacity hidden in its dismantlement.” In March 1949, Ben-Gurion held a meeting with Moshe Moris Sordin, a French nuclear scientist raised in the Yishuv. Sordin, who in 1945 took part in the establishment of the French Atomic Energy Commission, was secretly brought to Israel to meet with Ben-Gurion and discuss “the future of nuclear reactors.” In a 1986 interview, Sordin recalled that at their meeting Ben-Gurion demonstrated deep understanding of and interest in nuclear technology. Around that time, Bergmann also convinced Ben-Gurion to send six promising Israeli graduate students to study nuclear physics abroad.

It was Ben-Gurion, together with Bergmann and the young Shimon Peres, who pushed forward the Israeli nuclear program during the 1950s, bringing about the establishment of two research reactors in Soreq and Dimona. Of the three, it was Peres, the political operator, who cemented the nuclear relationship between France and Israel, paving the way for the French agreement to build the Dimona reactor in the days leading up to the 1956 Suez crisis.

On Feb. 14, 1949, a fragile and almost blind Weizmann inaugurated the opening session of the Constituent Assembly of the new State of Israel. No longer enthusiastic about the role of the Jewish scientists in the Manhattan Project, a more cautious, weary Weizmann took the stand. Though his speech was short and concise, he included in it, remarkably, a warning against the dangers of the atomic bomb. He framed this as the result of scientific development lacking any moral vision:

Yet, for all the decisive importance of science, it is not by science alone that we shall win through. Let us build a new bridge between science and the spirit of man. Where there is no vision the people perish. We have seen what scientific progress leads to when it is not inspired by moral vision—the atomic bomb threatening to destroy the entire planet.

Unpublished memoir passages shed light on Weizmann’s views regarding nuclear technology and its benefits, and how these relate to its so-called Jewish heritage:

“If human folly reaches such a stage that atomic energy will be used extensively in the next war about which one hears so much talk, it will be said that the Jews have conspired to destroy the world. If, however, as I hope and believe is the case, atomic energy will be guided into constructive channels, and humanity will enjoy the benefits of unlimited sources of energy ... I doubt whether people will remember the great number of Jews who will have helped to bring these results about.”

Dr. Or (Ori) Rabinowitz is a tenured Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) at the International Relations Department of the Hebrew University. She is currently also a visiting associate professor of Israel Studies at Stanford University (2022-2023).

Dr. Yehonatan Abramson is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. His research interests include International Relations Theory, diaspora politics, and critical security studies.

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