Biography of Abraham Menahem Mendel Ussishkin
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
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.
Upon his return, Ussishkin settled in Yekaterinoslav, where he remained for 15 years (1891–1906). 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.
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
and Nahum Sokolov, he attended the Paris Peace Conference, and on Feb. 27, 1919,
he addressed the conference in Hebrew.
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
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.
September, 21, 2009
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