A few weeks ago, I visited the Pinsker Building, a famous Jerusalem apartment building located down the block from the Inbal Hotel. Its official name is the Rose Building, as it borders a lovely park called the Rose Garden; nevertheless, the moniker Pinsker Building has stuck because it is situated on Pinsker Street. With so many Anglos living in the Pinsker Building, I felt compelled to learn more about Leon Pinsker.
Soon after starting my Pinsker research, I was interviewed by the Times of London for an article they were writing that focused on assertions that up to 40 percent of Britain’s Jewish population may emigrate if the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, becomes elected prime minister. That interview got me thinking about the circumstances leading up to Leon Pinsker becoming a leader of the Zionist movement and the philosophies he championed.
Leon Pinsker was born in Russian-controlled Poland in 1821 and, having been one of the first Jews accepted to Odessa University, initially had a broad world perspective. He studied law until he realized that Jews could not gain employment in the legal field, and then studied medicine and became a doctor. Notwithstanding—or perhaps due to—his experiences with strict employment quotas, Pinsker believed that anti-Semitism could be eradicated only if Jews attained equal rights. Pinsker became a leading member of the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews, whose aim was to help Jews adapt to Russian culture and values, with the belief that doing so would make them accepted in society.
The 1871 riots against Jews in Odessa planted the first seeds of doubt in Pinsker about the future of relations between Jews and Russians. The outbreak of state-supported anti-Jewish riots in 1881, however, shattered his assimilationist beliefs. Understanding that humanism and enlightenment would not defeat anti-Semitism, Pinsker came to the realization that hatred of Jews was rooted in the fact that they were global foreigners.
Consequently, in 1882, Pinsker wrote “Auto-Emancipation,” in which he defined anti-Semitism as an incurable societal disease that worsened during times of economic and social turmoil, and offered a radical proposal: the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Pinsker’s ideas struck a responsive chord among Russian and Eastern European Jews. As the prevailing mood was anguish and despair, Pinsker’s Jewish nationalism proposal was a breath of fresh air. The book was enthusiastically embraced by the creation of the Hovevei Zion—also known as Hibbat Zion—movement, with the stated goal of establishing Jewish colonies in Palestine.
The Hovevei Zion movement, in which Pinsker was one of the founders and its chairman, quickly grew to over 4,000 members, some of whom founded the settlements Rishon Lezion and Zichron Yaakov. This movement was a forerunner to Theodor Herzl’s World Zionist Organization.
Unfortunately, Leon (Yehuda) Pinsker passed away in 1891, long before the Zionist movement gained serious traction. However, his name and legacy live on, as several streets across Israel are named after him, as well as Nahalat Yehudah, a community near Rishon Lezion.
Observing the widespread hostility against Jews across Europe over the past number of years, and now the anti-Semitic rumblings in England, helps me appreciate how fortunate we are to have our own state, a homeland and refuge for all Jews. The current state of affairs worldwide hearkens me back to Pinsker’s prescient arguments at the end of the 19th century that the Jewish nation can only control their destiny when they are home.
By Gedaliah Borvick