THE HISTORY of Zionism to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 is dominated by a succession of charismatic personalities. It begins with Theodor Herzl, who crystallized the movement as a political entity in 1897, and ends a little over 50 years later with David Ben Gurion leading it to realization.

Between them was Chaim Weizmann, whose overall achievement is more complex. For a quarter of a century he was the almost unrivalled leader of world Zionism; but by the Second World War, his British-oriented policies had so compromised him that he became scarcely more than a distinguished figurehead. His major achievement -- his role in the creation of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 -- came at the beginning of his ascendancy and was the reason for it. Proclaiming the support of the British government for the establishment in Palestine of "a national home for the Jewish people," the Declaration served as the political foundation for the eventual Jewish state.

An interesting aspect of the story of Weizmann and the Balfour Declaration is the picaresque one. His sudden rise to world-historical leadership began in 1914 when, at the age of 39, he was still only a humble Reader in Biochemistry at Manchester University who had just been passed over for a professorship, and a Russian-Jewish immigrant only 10 years in England -- "a yid from Pinsk," as he called himself -- who had not become a naturalized subject until 1910. Even his position in the Zionist movement was then only secondary at best: the preeminence he was to attain in the next three years by persuading Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour and others to issue their historic statement on Palestine was to be snatched by independent initiative and sheer force of personality and will.

It is the formation of this man that is described in Jehuda Reinharz's Chaim Weizmann: The Making of a Zionist Leader. The first of two projected volumes of biography, it ends with the outbreak of war in 1914. Reinharz's decision to cut off the narrative at this point makes dramatic sense, although it has added a burden to his task: for the reader, thus deprived of direct evidence of the subject's claim to greatness, becomes all the more eager to see promises of it. And Reinharz often gives abundant satisfaction. Watching Weizmann grow in his apprentice days among the student and intellectual circles of Pinsk, Berlin, Basel and Geneva, we see clearly the emergence of his unshakeable convictions, his unusual powers of persuasion, and even his glimmering sense of personal destiny. We also see the young chemist arriving at his own distillation of loyalty to the Zionist movement and a certain impatience -- even a touch of insubordination -- that often prodded him to follow an independent course within it.

But sometimes Reinharz loses focus, and we see the background in too much detail, the foreground too dimly. This is due in part, I think, to a scholarly embarrassment of riches. Few public figures have undergone, so soon after death, such an efficient organization of their biographical sources as Weizmann has: not only the splendid Weizmann Archives in Rehovot, Israel, but also the 23 volumes of his letters that have been published are monuments of collective learned endeavor. It is hard for a lone biographer to hold to his own course among them -- and to resist the temptation, when confronted by convenient and imposing amassments of material, to give some matters more space than they really deserve. Reinharz has provided, for example, too many intricate descriptions of the often fatuous squabbling at Zionist meetings. To be sure, the young Weizmann cut his teeth on much of this; but we could have seen him doing so in half the space.

ON THE other hand, one important episode does not seem to me to have been given its due: the January 1906 meeting in Manchester between Weizmann and Balfour, the Conservative prime minister, during the latter's unsuccessful campaign to stay in office. Here is a problem reflecting the obverse of the rich Weizmann biographical legacy and its effect upon Reinharz; for if there is too much material to enable him to give a balanced account in some areas, there is too little in others. In his letters, Weizmann makes only brief references to this meeting with Balfour; whereas in his autobiography, Trial and Error, composed largely from memory over 40 years later -- and more than 30 years after history was made by the Balfour Declaration -- it becomes quite a story.

Now, all who have written about Weizmann know that caution and skepticism must always be applied when using Trial and Error; nevertheless, it is sometimes indispensable for filling gaps. And Reinharz does indeed quote at length from its description of the 1906 conversation with Balfour; but the gist of his context is to dismiss the whole story, apparently because the letters do not seem to him to give it adequate support. I disagree with him about this. The Trial and Error account is certainly exaggerated, but it is possible to perceive in it a kernel of reliability. One might have hoped for greater effort than Reinharz makes to sift out the story's likely from its unlikely elements; but this would not have been in keeping with his usual method of compiling certainties.

In another case, the contrast between the letters and the autobiography has led Reinharz into what I consider to be an outright misinterpretation. The Weizmann of Trial and Error says of his reaction to the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 -- in which 49 Jews were killed and hundreds injured -- that "I lost my head, and was in something like a panic," then goes on to claim that he temporarily abandoned his work in Geneva and went to Russia to organize Jewish self-defense groups. There is nothing in the record to corroborate the latter statement, and it is almost certainly a wishful trick of memory. But there is also nothing to contradict the former statement, and if Weizmann's letters of the time show no panic, they show plenty of dismay, nor is there a single letter written immediately upon receiving news of the pogrom. To describe Weizmann's attitude in that moment, then, as one "of almost complete detachment" is completely unwarranted. Reinharz clearly has done so out of an overreaction to the faults of Trial and Error and an overreliance on the informativeness of a compilation of letters which, vast and thorough as it may be, still cannot pretend to give a complete accounting of its author's every breath and sob.