Not many Jews today recall a nineteenth-century European Jewish leader who wrote a booklet that inspired young Jews to move to the Land of Israel. The man first believed in assimilation as an answer for Jews. Later, due to what he saw as rising anti-Semitism, he advocated a new idea — what eventually became Zionism. He met with notables all over Europe to advance his plans, and his booklet led him to chair a movement that convened a groundbreaking convention of Jews discussing a mass Return to Zion. Leon Pinsker
If you think the man was Theodor Herzl, the book was “The Jewish State” (1896), the convention was the First Zionist Congress, and the movement was the World Zionist Organization, you are wrong.
This Jewish leader died five years before Herzl wrote “The Jewish State.” His name was Leon Pinsker, and this year is the bicentennial of his birth in 1821. Pinsker’s booklet was titled “Auto-Emancipation: A Warning of a Russian Jews to His Brothers” was published in 1882. The 1881 pogroms that followed Tsar Alexander II’s assassination had caused Pinsker, a physician, to rethink his dedication to assimilation. He was recruited to the Hibbat Zion (Fondness For Zion) movement and chaired its 1884 conference in Katowice, which united various parts of the movement as Hovevei Zion (Lovers Of Zion).
The eminent historian Walter Laqueur, in his 1972 opus, “A History of Zionism,” labeled Pinsker’s book “a milestone in the development of Zionist thought.” British Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits also stressed Pinsker’s importance in his 1984 book, “If Only My People Zionism In My Life”: “Political Zionism was born and sustained out of negative factors: the intolerable conditions of Jewish homelessness. Pinsker’s Auto-Emancipation (1882) was sparked by the Russian pogroms in 1881. The seeds of Herzl’s Judenstaat were planted at the Dreyfus trial in Paris, and even Jabotinsky was only converted to Zionism at the age of twenty-three by the Kishinev pogrom in 1903.”
There was a time that when anyone who was an educated Zionist knew who Pinsker was, had familiarity with his ideas, and understood the importance of Hovevei Zion to Zionist history. But over the years, the Zionist narrative became simplified and little room was left to recall those who came before Herzl. Beyond simply correcting the record and restoring Pinsker’s place in the story of Zionism, we can learn much from his work on what Zionism was, is, and can be.
Jewish unity was a key idea of the Hovevei Zion. The Katowice conference brought together less than three dozen delegates, but they traveled from France, Britain, Germany, Russia, and Romania to attend. What’s also important to note is that even though Pinsker was not observant, he could find common ground with the delegates, some of whom were Orthodox rabbis.
It is a misrepresentation of history to state that the Zionist movement was secular and that Orthodox rabbis opposed early Zionism. It is simply impossible to understand the early development of modern Zionism without studying the ideas, activism, and impact of rabbis such as Yehuda Leib Kalischer, Yehuda Alkalai, and Shmuel Mohilever. Rabbi Mohilever attended the 1884 conference and was elected president; Pinsker was elected chairman; Rabbi Kalischer’s son was elected to the central committee.
Part of the organizing that Pinsker and his colleagues did was generating direct financial support for the Jewish communities being developed throughout the Land of Israel in the last several decades of the 1800s. For example, the first agricultural school in pre-state Israel, Mikveh Israel, was built in what is now the Tel Aviv area in 1870 (Tel Aviv itself would not be founded until 1909). The 1884 conference attendees voted to send much-needed funds to two communities in Israel. In essence, Pinsker helped build Zionist towns decades before the Holocaust.
Through their work, Pinsker and his colleagues put the idea of the Return to Zion into the consciousness of European Jews so that when Herzl arrived on the scene, there was already something serious to work with.
Throughout the time in which Hovevei Zion was active, Jews had to contend with Ottoman laws that prohibited them from buying property. If it were not for these immoral laws, which is to say that millions of Jews would not have left Europe for Jerusalem, the Galilee, Hebron, and the Tel Aviv area long before Hitler ever came to power?
Despite the challenges to obtaining real estate and many other obstacles, the early Zionist pioneers blazed a solid path. And that perhaps is the single most important lesson to learn from Pinsker and his contemporaries: In addition to the vital need for Jewish unity, however serious the challenges may be, Zionist work must go on.
Let’s use the bicentennial of Pinsker’s birth to recommit to Zionist education and to ensure the Zionist movement remains the big tent that it was from the outset — a safe space for the Orthodox and non-Orthodox to combine their efforts on behalf of the Jewish People in our eternal homeland.
Moshe Phillips is the national director of Herut North America’s U.S. division. An Unapologetic Zionist Organization of which The Lid is an active member. Why don’t you join us? More information is available at www.herutna.org.