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Abraham Menahem Mendel Ussishkin


Biography of Abraham Menahem Mendel Ussishkin


Menahem UssishkinAbraham Menahem (Menachem) Mendel Ussishkin(August 14, 1863 - October 2, 1941), was a Zionist leader, member of Hovevei Zion, and the president of the Jewish National Fund  (JNF).

Ussishkin was born in Dubrovno in the district of Mogilev, Russia. His family moved to Moscow  in 1871. From 1878, at age 15, he became an enthusiastic reader of contemporary Hebrew writers, kindling a life-long interest in the revival of the Hebrew language.

The 1881 pogroms shocked Russian Jewry and led to the emergence of the BILU movement. At a meeting of Jewish students at Moscow University, Ussishkin and his friend Jehiel Tschlenow founded a Society of Pioneers to Eretz Israel. In 1882 he entered the Technological Institute in Moscow, where he founded a Jewish students' society. In August of 1884 the Bnei Zion society, which was to spawn many Zionist leaders, was founded in Moscow. Ussishkin was elected to the society's committee and in 1885 was chosen secretary of all the Hovevei Zion groups in Moscow. From 1887 on he published reports and articles in the Hebrew newspaper Ha-Melitz. Together with M.L. Lilienblum, he was elected secretary of the Druzkieniki Conference (1887). A clash took place at the conference between the Orthodox faction of Samuel Mohilewer and Leon Pinsker's liberal Chovevei Tzion faction, but Ussishkin managed to bring about a reconciliation. The practical proposals made by him at the conference were early signs of his Zionist pragmatism. He viewed agricultural settlement as the essential task of Zionism.

In 1889, Ussishkin joined the Bnei Moshe society that was founded by Achad Haam,   In the same year he graduated as a technical engineer at the Technological Institute. In 1890 he participated in the founding meeting of the Odessa Committee. Ussishkin visited Eretz Israel (Palestine) for the first time in 1891 and described his journey in a booklet that made a considerable impression.

Upon his return, Ussishkin settled in Yekaterinoslav, where he remained for 15 years (18911906). At first he was active in Hebrew educational work as well as in Zionist propaganda and fund raising; he was instrumental in founding the modernized Hebrew-speaking Heder (Heder metukkan) and a Hebrew library, and became a member of the board of the publishing house Achi'asaf.

The publication of Theodor Herzl's Der Judenstaat in 1896 and his meetings with Herzl and Max Nordau  in Paris and in Vienna on the eve of the First Zionist Congress made a deep impression on Ussishkin, despite his reservations regarding a concept of Zionism based exclusively on political work, without settlement and cultural work. He was elected Hebrew secretary of the First Zionist Congress (1897) and took an active part in the debate centered on the formulation of the first, political article of the Basle Program. He expressed his fear that too explicit a formulation of Zionist aims might rouse the Turkish government against the existing Yishuv. Accordingly, the article called for a "national home" rather than a "Jewish State."

Ussishkin's opposition to pure political Zionism at the First Congress precluded his election as the leader of Russian Zionism, but at the Second Congress (1898) he was elected to the Zionist General Council and served on it for the rest of his life. When Russia was divided by the Zionist organization into districts at the Third Zionist Congress (1899), he was chosen to head the Yekaterinoslav district, including all of southern Russia and the Caucasus. Thanks to his leadership in part, this district became one of the most active in Russian Zionism, both in its cultural and in its practical activities.

At the Fifth Congress (1901) Ussishkin delivered an address on the "United Organization," stating that there was no placefor separate "groups" and "societies," and proposed the establishment of the Anglo-Palestine Company as a branch of the Jewish Colonial Trust . On his return from the Congress, he convened a conference of Zionists in the Caucasus,  introducing Zionist activities into the non-Ashkenazi communities there. In the same year he was a member of a delegation that approached Baron Edmond de Rothschild protesting the "paternalistic" methods of his officials in Palestine. Rothschild rejected the delegation's demands, and when Achad Haam insisted that the demands be accepted even if it meant withdrawal of Rothschild's support of the settlements Ussishkin's opposition to Achad Haam's intransigence saved the situation. In 1902 at the Minsk Conference of Russian Zionists, he called to  recruit youth for pioneer work in Eretz

After the Kishinev Pogrom in April 1903, Ussishkin visited Kishinev and was profoundly shocked. He called for action. For him that eant primarily the organization of the Jewish population of Eretz Yisrael (Palestine) -- the embryo of the future Jewish state . He traveled to Vienna and received Herzl's approval for his plan. Ussishkin then set out for Palestine and remained there for four months from July to September 1903) Immediately upon his arrival in Jaffa, he published a leaflet on the need to "organize the Yishuv." In August 1903 the Great Assembly (Ha-Keneset ha-Gedolah) of the Jews of Eretz Israel was held in Zikhron Ya'akov on his initiative. It lasted for three days and aroused great enthusiasm and hopes, but he was not able to form a lasting association of Zionists. He did found the Teachers' Association at a meeting in Zichron Ya'akov on Sept. 28, 1903.

He bitterly opposed the Uganda scheme and became one of the leaders of the opposition to Herzl. He was the initiator and the moving spirit behind the Kharkov Conferencee (1903), which demanded that Herzl abandon the scheme. Ussishkin was aided in his opposition to the Uganda scheme by Ber Borochov. The two had met and worked together before. Now Borochov became a lieutenant and willing emissary of Ussishkin, speaking out against the Territorial Zionists. It must not be imagined that Russian Jews were united in opposition to the Uganda scheme. Borochov's experiences as a populist for Ussishkin were harrowing. In January of 1905, he addressed a meeting of about 500 people in Vilna. He noted, "Everything would have been all right except that the third of my opponents began insisting that the 'Palestintsy are not Zionists.' That produced a terrible storm of outrage, a scandal; the windows the synagogue were smashed, there was brawling, etc." In Warsaw, in June, he held about ten meetings but found that the territorialists "possess very strong forces." (Source, Frankel, Jonathan, Prophecy and politics: socialism, nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862-1917, Cambridge University Press, 1981, p. 333)

At the beginning of 1905, Ussishkin convened a conference of the anti-Uganda Zionists, which he called Ziyyonei Zion, in Vilna. The second conference of this faction, also organized by him, took place in Freiburg three days before the Seventh Zionist Congress in July of 1905 and influenced the congress to abandon the Uganda Scheme and concentrate wholeheartedly on settlement activities in Eretz Israel.

In 1904, Ussishkin had published Our Program, a complete presentation of his ideas, though these were, for the most part, fairly well known. It laid a five-point foundation for "Synthetic Zionism:"; political action, acquisition of land, aliyah, settlement, and educational and organizational work among the people. This approach was taken up at the Helsingfors Conference and was also credited to Chaim Weizmann. A sterile debate had begun about which of the different paths was most important, and which should be neglected. Ussishkin made the obvious point that all the different spheres of activity must be pursued together, as they complemented each other, and that political, practical and cultural Zionism all served the same ends. 

In Our Program, Ussishkin wrote of farms and of settlements in which Jewish workers would cultivate the land acquired by the JNF "with their own hands, without help from hired laborers." This was the earliest form of the idea of the moshav ovdim.

While engaged in the great debate over the Uganda Scheme, Ussishkin was fighting the tide of assimilation prompted by the abortive Russian Revolution of 1905. He struggled to promote the Zionist Movement in general and the Hebrew language in particular. In 1906 he was elected head of the Odessa Committee. He kept this post until the committee itself was abolished by the Soviet regime (1919). Under his leadership, the committee supported the establishment of the settlements Ein Gannim, Be'er Ya'akov, and NaHalat Yehudah. Ussishkin also proposed support for the training farm at Kinneret and for all the existing educational and cultural institutions in the young Yishuv.

During the revolution of the Young Turks (CUP) in 1908, Ussishkin went to Constantinople ito promote the Zionist cause with the help of influential Sephardic Jews. In 1913 he visited Palestine for the third time. .

In the winter of 1912, at the eighth conference of Hovevei Tzion, he spoke of the need for a Hebrew university and put through a resolution in the committee to allocate the sum of 50,000 gold francs for the purpose of acquiring land on Mount Scopus. At the 11th Zionist Congress in Vienna (1913) he reported together with Chaim Weizmann  on the idea of the Hebrew University.

During World War I, in February 1915, the Copenhagen office of the Zionist Organization was established, and a secret Zionist conference, attended by delegates from all the warring countries, was held in that city. The Czarist government considered every contact with enemy subjects as an act of treason. Nonetheless Ussishkin attended the conference. Upon his return to Odessa, he was informed that there was a deportation order against him and was obliged to flee to Moscow, where he remained until the situation in Russia had changed. During the 1917 February Revolution if Kerensky, Usshishkin fought the Yiddishists, who promoted Yiddish rather than Hebrew  as the recognized national language of the Jewish people, and against all those who thought that the granting of equal rights to Russian Jews had made Zionism obsolete.

Ussishkin organized a mass demonstration in Odessa to celebrate the Balfour Declaration. It was attended by 200,000 people. At the invitation of Chaim Weizmann and Nahum Sokolov, he attended the Paris Peace Conference, and on Feb. 27, 1919, he addressed the conference in Hebrew.

In November 1919 Ussishkin settled in Palestine and was the head of the Zionist Commission. For more than three years (191923) he guided the Yishuv in its first and difficult steps toward the materialization of the national home. He was instrumental in organizing the Hebrew school network in Palestine and in establishing the settlement Kiryat Anavim near Jerusalem. The Soviet revolution had begun to close in on Zionist organizations, and had robbed Ussishkin of his Russian constituency. The American Zionist leader Louis Brandeis recommended cashiering Ussishkin, Ze'ev  Jabotinsky and others who were "inefficient" as managers, in favor of "efficient" (and presumably American) "experts." This caused Weizmann to unseat Brandeis as the head of the American Zionist movement.

In the spring of 1921 he travelled to the United States with Albert Einstein on a fund-raising campaign for Keren Hayesod.

At the 13th Congress in Karlsbad (August 1923), Ussishkin's was not elected chairman of the Zionist General Council because of his disagreement with Weizmann's moderate policy toward the Mandatory regime in Palestine. The British had lopped off a large portion of Palestine and given it to the kingdom of Transjordan, had sided with the Arabs in the riots of 1921, and were cautious about allowing immigration. Ussishkin thought these policies should be countered more strenuously. Weizmann now turned against him. 

However, Ussishkin was chosen to head the Jewish National Fund, and remained head until his death in 1941. He devoted himself completely to the idea of acquiring land as the property of the nation, making trips to Europe (1924) and Canada (1927) to raise funds. Large tracts of land in the Jezreel Valley (1921), Hefer Plain (1927), Haifa Bay area (1928), Beth-Shean (1930), and other parts of the country were purchased. He increased the landed property of the JNF from 22,000 to 561,000 dunam and its income from 70,000 to 600,000.

Ussishkin had advocated early for a Hebrew University. He played an important role in the establishment of the University and was present at the official inauguration on April 1, 1925. He was elected to both the Board of Trustees and the Executive Committee of the university and took a a life long active interest in it.

Ussishkin was elected chairman of the Zionist General Council at the 19th Congress in 1935. When the Arab uprising broke out in Palestine in 1936, the The  Peel Commission proposed partition.  Ussishkin  fought against the proposal at the 20th Congress in Zurich.  He participated in the Round Table Conference in London in 1939. He fought against the British White Paper of May 1939 that forbade Jews to purchase land in most areas of the country and limited immigration to 15,000 per year.

Ussishkin's activities were widely admired. In 1939, when the JNF purchased land in Upper Galilee, north of the Huleh Valley, it was decided to found a series of settlements there called Mezudot Ussishkin ("Ussishkin Forts") moshavei ovedim and kevuẓot in which all sections of the nation and members of all Zionist parties would participate. For 60 years no Zionist or Jewish national activity took place in which he had not participated and on which he had not left his own unique stamp. Ussishkin's writings have been collected in two volumes (which also include appreciations): Sefer Ussishkin (1933) and Devarim Aharonim (1946).

Ami Isseroff




Encyclopedia Judaica


September, 21, 2009



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