Tag Archives: Zionism

Jews of the Week: Mohilever, Pinsker, and Lilienblum

Hovevei Zion, The “Lovers of Zion”

Moses Lilienblum

Shmuel Mohilever (1824-1898) was born in what is today Belarus to a deeply religious family. He studied at the famed Volozhin Yeshiva and became a rabbi. Violent pogroms against Jews in Russia in 1881, followed by the antisemitic May Laws of 1882, convinced Rabbi Mohilever that Jews would never be safe in the diaspora and must return to their ancestral home. In 1882, he took a trip to Paris to meet with Edmond James de Rothschild and convinced him to fund Jewish settlements in the Holy Land. While chief rabbi of the town of Bialystok, Rabbi Mohilever would inspire Jews in his community to make aliyah. In 1884, he joined a group of leaders in Katowice (then in Prussia, today in Poland) to formally establish Hovevei Zion, the “Lovers of Zion”, into an organized movement. At the meeting, he was elected president while Leon Yehuda Leib Pinsker (1821-1891) was elected secretary. Pinsker was born to a secular Russian-Jewish family in what is today Poland. He was one of the first Jews to attend Odessa University to study law. However, restrictions on Jews becoming lawyers made him switch to medicine and Pinsker became a physician. At first, Pinsker believed Jews must assimilate into European society and that this would end antisemitism. He soon saw that this was not working at all, and concluded that antisemitism is a misnomer; the proper term should be “Judeophobia”, since fear and hatred of Jews is irrational, deep-seated, and essentially incurable. He started writing articles to convince Jews to move to their homeland, since everywhere else they would inevitably be hated. He worked closely with Moshe Leib Lilienblum (1843-1910) who, like Rabbi Mohilever, was born to a deeply religious Russian-Jewish family. Lilienblum was a noted Jewish scholar from a young age, and soon founded and headed a yeshiva in Vilnius. With time, however, he saw that poverty and persecution in exile was destroying his people. He became a committed Zionist, recognizing that the only solution for the Jewish people is to return to Israel and establish their own independent state. Lilienblum wrote a great deal of early Zionist literature. When Rabbi Mohilever distanced himself from Hovevei Zion because it was becoming too secular, Lilienblum took over as president. Hovevei Zion went on to convince countless Jews around the world to take up the Zionist call, and founded the cities of Rishon LeZion, Hadera, and Rehovot in Israel. Rabbi Mohilever, meanwhile, set the stage for the Mizrachi religious Zionist movement. He made sure that Jewish settlement in Israel conformed to Jewish law. The town and kibbutz of Gan Shmuel in Israel was founded in his honour in 1895.

Photo from the 1884 Katowice Conference, with Rabbi Mohilever and Leo Pinsker seated at centre.

Video: The Hidden History of Zionism

Words of the Week

To the living, the Jew is a corpse; to the native, a foreigner; to the homesteader, a vagrant; to the proprietary, a beggar; to the poor, an exploiter and a millionaire; to the patriot, a man without a country; for all, a hated rival.
– Leon Pinsker

Jew of the Week: Yair Stern

Israel’s Freedom Fighter

Avraham Yair Stern (1907-1942) was born to a Russian-Jewish family in what is today Poland. The family fled during World War I, and Stern ended up living in a small village in Siberia. At 18, he made aliyah on his own to the Holy Land. Stern joined the Haganah defense organization and took up studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 1932, he joined the more right-wing Irgun and trained to become an officer. Stern was also a passionate writer and poet. His lyrics were credited with inspiring and strengthening countless Jewish pioneers in Israel. The Hebrew University was so impressed that they sent him to Italy for doctoral studies. Meanwhile, he travelled around Eastern Europe to convince more Jews to make aliyah and join the Zionist movement. Stern quickly recognized the British as oppressors and foreign colonialists, and argued that as the indigenous people of the land Jews had to do whatever it took to reclaim their ancestral home. When the British released the infamous 1939 White Paper limiting Jewish immigration (allowing only 75,000 Jews to enter over five years), Stern concluded that negotiations and diplomacy with the British was no longer possible, and armed resistance was necessary. At the outbreak of World War II, Stern was actually part of a training program with the Polish Army to train 40,000 Jews to liberate Israel from the British! The Nazi invasion of Poland put an end to that program. Stern eventually broke away from the Irgun and formed Lohamei Herut Israel, “Freedom Fighters of Israel”, abbreviated Lehi, in 1940. Some Lehi members sought to recruit local Arabs in their struggle against the British oppressor. But Stern, having lived through the terrible 1929 Hebron massacre and Arab riots (in which over 130 Jews were slaughtered and hundreds more injured and raped), foresaw that the Arabs would never share the land with the Jews in the long-term. Stern went on to organize attacks on British positions and assassinations of British authorities. His group was commonly referred to as “the Stern Gang”. Stern was shot to death by a British policeman in early 1942. Nonetheless, the Stern Gang continued its activities, and even assassinated the antisemitic Lord Moyne, the highest-ranking British official in the Middle East. These events finally convinced the British to abandon the Holy Land for good, allowing the State of Israel to be proclaimed. Immediately after, the new government of Israel disbanded Lehi. In January of 1949, they granted amnesty to past Lehi members, including future Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir. Though he was only 34 years old when he was killed, Yair Stern is credited with playing an instrumental role in the formation of the State of Israel.

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Words of the Week

The current Palestinian political economy, influenced far too greatly by the BDS and anti-normalization campaigns, amounts to a corrupt, unsustainable, terror-supporting regime that is disinterested in the economic well-being of its own people and the development of a new state.
Khaled Abu ToamehArab journalist and filmmaker 

Jews of the Week: Belkinds and Hankins

Israel’s Great Pioneers

Israel Belkind (1861-1929) was born near Minsk, Belarus. After a Hebrew elementary school education, he enrolled at a Russian gymnasium and planned to study in university. However, the terrible 1881 pogroms turned him into a passionate Zionist, and the rest of his life was dedicated to saving the plight of diaspora Jews. He founded an organization called BILU (an acronym of Beit Yaakov Lechu v’Nelcha, from an End of Days prophecy in Isaiah 2:5, where the Biblical prophet encourages Jews to get up and take possession of their land). In the summer of 1882, Belkind led the first group of Biluim to the Holy Land. After several years of working on Jewish agricultural settlements, he decided to focus on education instead. He taught at a school in Jaffa, and then in Jerusalem. In 1904, Belkind started his own school for children orphaned by the devastating Kishinev Pogrom. Meanwhile, Belkind wrote several important Zionist texts, and was also a noted anthropologist. Intriguingly, he did a great deal of research among the local Arab population and came to the conclusion that they must be the descendants of Jews who had been forcibly converted to Islam! He noted how the locals did not even refer to themselves as “Arabs”, but only “Muslims” (they called the Bedouins “Arabs”), and many of them knew about their Hebrew ancestors. They had various customs that resembled Jewish ones, used an Arabic dialect peppered with old Jewish terms, and venerated the same Biblical figures as the Jews. His dream was thus to open Hebrew schools for the Palestinians, and slowly return them to the Jewish fold. (Later, thanks to the opportunities created by the Zionist movement, a massive influx of non-indigenous Arab immigrants came from neighbouring areas, particularly Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon.)

Yehoshua and Olga Hankin in 1910

Belkind’s older sister was Olga Hankin (1852-1943). She studied in St. Petersburg to become a midwife. Olga joined her brother in the Holy Land during the First Aliyah of 1886, making her the first professional midwife in the region. She soon became the most famous midwife in the land, and was sought out by Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. She made a name for herself as being the only woman to ride alone on horseback—even at night—and became something of a feminist icon. Olga married Yehoshua Hankin (1864-1945), originally from Russia. Hankin was well-respected by local Arabs, and was able to negotiate a purchase of a massive plot of land on behalf of the Zionist movement in 1890. This land became what is today the city of Rehovot, a name proposed by Israel Belkind based on a verse in Genesis. In 1891, using donations from diaspora Jews, the Hankins purchased what is today Hadera (the neighbourhood of Givat Olga in Hadera is named after Olga Hankin). In 1908, Yehoshua Hankin joined the Palestine Land Development Company and became its number-one real estate agent in the Holy Land. His most famous deal was the Sursock Purchase, acquiring Haifa Bay and the Jezreel Valley from the Sursocks (an Orthodox Christian family who had purchased the land from the Ottomans decades earlier). Hankin’s work secured hundreds of thousands of dunams of land for the Jewish cause, and he is credited with being the top negotiator of land purchases in Israel’s history.

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Words of the Week

We are worth what we are willing to share with others.
Sir Moses Montefiore