Odessa, a city in Ukraine, South-West of Russia, was a hub of Zionist activity for several decades, and being the home of several key early Zionist thinkers during the late 19th Century, Odessa played an important role in shaping the advancement of Zionist thought. Famous inhabitants included Hebrew national poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, writer Moshe Leib Lilienblum, former child prodigy Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginsberg); and Zionist ‘wunderkind’ Vladimir Jabotinsky.
These people had all been drawn to Odessa by the freedoms promised, which were designed to attract eastern Europeans and incidentally oppressed Jews, following its recent takeover by Catherine the Great. The city is also a port on the Black Sea, allowing easy sea access to Palestine, meaning when Zionists such as Ahad Ha’am visited Palestine, they would have had no trouble getting there. With the discrimination early Zionists had experienced in Russia, one can see that this oppression was a clear catalyst for Zionism; particularly so once the Zionists reached liberalist Odessa.
Here in Odessa, societies such as Hibbat Zion, and Hebrew journals such as Ha-Melitz (first published in 1860) flourished, and several of the key Zionists mentioned above were actively involved with contributing to the running of these organisations (Goldberg, 1996: 93). By 1897, an estimated 37% of the population of Odessa were Jews, and the city became an important base of support for Zionism (Wikipedia). Chaim Nachman Bialik moved to Odessa from a town in western Ukraine in 1891, when he was 18 years old.
This journey was similar to those made by several of his Zionist peers, such as Ahad Ha’am, who moved from a Yeshiva in Belarus after drigting away from his religion, to come to Odessa. Bialik left Odessa in 1921 when his publishing house was closed down by Communist authorities, he then lived in Berlin until 1924, when he moved his publishing house to Tel Aviv, though he died ten years later in 1934 (Almog, 1990: 57). During his time in Odessa, Bialik became a follower of Ahad Ha’am and also became a Hebrew poet, which would eventually lead him to become the national poet of Israel.
Moshe Leib Lilienblum moved to Odessa in 1869, intending to study at university, though this was never realised. He, like Ahad Ha’am, made his journey from a religious Yeshiva, and was formerly a Talmud teacher there, though he was forced out of his town after suggesting reforms in Talmudic law in an article in Ha-Melitz (Sachar, 1990: 208-209). In Odessa, where Ha-Melitz is published, and where he moved to be able to express himself as he pleased, he ended up losing his religious faith, though he appeared to begin to regain it in 1883 when he wrote the article ‘The Future of Our People’.
Ahad Ha’am, born Asher Ginsberg, was one of many Zionists to have come from the world of ultra orthodoxy, in particular the ideology of ‘Sadagora Rebbe’, in Kiev, his birthplace. This meant the young Asher Ginsberg found himself hailed as a child prodigy in the teachings of Judaism (Goldberg, 1996: 92), was aware of his Jewish identity from a young age, and was well learned in the Torah, all good foundations for a future Zionist.
In 1886 Asher Ginsburg’s family moved to Odessa, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise, and he immediately joined Hibbat Zion, quickly becoming a committee member (Goldberg, 1996: 93). Here too Ginsburg discovered radical Russian writers such as Pisarev and began writing his own thoughts, first using his new pen name Ahad Ha’am (‘One of the People’) in an article in 1889. This name, according to him, was supposed to signify that he was not a writer, and thought of himself as just a normal man writing down his views.
His 1889 article, ‘This is not the way’ for Hebrew journal Ha-Melitz brought him instant notoriety and gained him several devout followers (Goldberg, 1996: 104). These followers created their own group, B’nei Moshe, meaning ‘sons of Moses’, though member numbers never exceeded one hundred, and the group fell apart following the first Zionist congress in 1897 (Goldberg, 1996: 93). In 1891, Ahad Ha’am visited Palestine and made several points that other Zionists who had visited had seemed to have ignored, and wrote ‘The Truth from the Land of Israel’, bringing realism to the problems there.
He described the way the indigenous inhabitants of Palestine were being ill-treated by arriving Jews, unlike most other Zionists at the time, who appeared to ignore or knowingly conceal the existing population of Palestine (Birnbaum, Katznelson, 1995: 275). This is a good example of the Jews’ reactions to their previous oppression in Eastern Europe, Ahad Ha’am’s description of the Jews in Palestine being ‘slaves-turned-masters’, which he was allowed to suggest in liberal Odessa.
Despite his controversial anti-Jewish standpoint on the state of Palestine, Ahad Ha’am was criticised for not actually suggesting any solutions to the fact that the people who were already there were causing a problem for Zionism, and has always been thought of as one who thinks but does not act (Almog, 1990: 53). Vladimir Jabotinsky was born in Odessa in 1881, but was brought up in a highly assimilated environment, and failed to recognise Odessa as a hotbed of Zionist activity.
He moved to Italy, a country whose culture he had great admiration for, and studied law at the University of Rome, though he did not graduate until his return to Odessa in 1901 (Wikipedia), where he then became a literary critic, and discovered Zionism in 1903 when he was asked to cover the 6th Zionist congress. Upon discovering Zionism, Jabotinsky quickly learned Hebrew and translated Chaim Nachman Bialik’s poetry writings into Russian, eventually becoming the ‘wunderkind’ of Zionism at the time.
Jabotinsky was thought by many to have been the so-called heir to proto Zionist Theodor Herzl. Jabotinsky went on to become a huge contributor to the Zionist movement, from forming the Jewish Legion in 1916 to fight in World War One, to leaving the Zionist executive in 1923 before establishing Revisionist Zionism in 1925. His life in Odessa could have influenced Jabotinsky’s radical thoughts which are the basis of Revisionist Zionism, which is that violence is the only way to be successful and that negotiation makes you appear weak.
Odessa could have influenced Jabotinsky here because many of the people around him at the time had experienced great oppression in Russia, and he could have seen that no matter what these people tried, they were not successful, which would have made him angry at the Russian government’s lack of a reaction. Jabotinsky also looked up to Irish republicans and similar cases of the ‘blood for soil’ ideology being enacted, which he believed showed the success of violence being used to gain something.
The organisations associated with Odessa such as Hibbat Zion and Ha-Melitz would have been a factor in attracting several other early Zionists, who sought freedom of speech and other likeminded people with whom they could discuss what the future held, which is of course a very important aspect of Zionism. Ha-Melitz was a Hebrew language journal published in Odessa, which several pioneering Zionists wrote articles for, and is proof that Hebrew was being claimed by the Jews as more than just a religious language, but also an important way of expressing Jewish culture.
Several early Zionists in Odessa, such as Jabotinsky, began learning Hebrew and the language soon became a part of Jewish culture outside of religious Judaism. The idea of Jews as a people with their own separate culture goes back to the days of the Pale of Settlement in Russia, the areas Catherine the Great had allowed Jews to settle within from 1791 until 1917. Here Jewish people felt extremely outcast and came together, using mediums such as poetry and music, in an attempt to overcome the great sadness in their lives.
Organisations like this existing in Odessa at the time displays that there was clearly freedom of speech, and that the city was a hub of intellectual activity. When socialism and the ideas of social revolution came around, an unusually high percentage of social revolutionaries were Jewish, because a large amount of Jews had turned to the ideas of socialism. In particular, the Menshevik Party, which was led by several Jewish leaders. Socialism seemed like a solution to all of the oppression and problems in Russia, and there were no boundaries on who could join the movement, so it naturally attracted Russian Jews of the time.
Upon leaving socialism, however, Jews who had originally had a religious upbringing, followed by becoming social revolutionaries in later life, then became Zionists. This generation was a transitional generation and the pattern of religion to socialism to Zionism was fairly common, and the faction of Zionism known as Socialist Zionism also formed. The Menshevik Party played an important part in a socialist uprising in June 1905, in Odessa. This followed a strike by the Bund and the Mensheviks, and the workers were supported by the crew of the ship on the Black Sea, the S. S. Potemkin Tavrichesky (Frankel, 1981: 146).
This was a very important event as the Russians and the Jews were fighting together for the same goals of freedom and equality, and it all happened in Odessa. Another important figure in Odessa in the early stages of Zionism was Leon Pinsker, one of the founders of the Hibbat Zion movement. He was a proto-Zionist who came before the aforementioned followers of Zionism, and died in 1891 in Odessa. Since Pinsker only awakened to the anti-Jewish regimes in 1871 following the Odessa pogrom when he realised assimilation and Haskalah alone would not defeat anti-Semitism (Wikipedia).
The several pogroms carried out at Odessa do however show that the city was not entirely as liberal and completely free of anti-Semitism as some imagine it to be. Many Jews were subject to persecution on a regular basis and fled to Palestine to escape this, however the pogroms in Odessa were relatively tame in comparison to those in the rest of Eastern Europe, such as the Kishinev pogroms. Many believe the first pogrom recorded was actually in Odessa in 1859, as described by the Jewish Encyclopedia (www. jewishencyclopedia. com).
This shows that Odessa is not quite the Jewish paradise most people make it out to be, though it was much more liberal and free for them than the oppression they were used to in Russia. In conclusion, Odessa was a very important city to the early Zionists, and featured greatly in many of their lives. Its promise of a more free life to Russian Jews in the Pale of Settlement was reassuring, and many key Zionist thinkers would possibly never have gone there and been able to freely express their thoughts of a Jewish homeland if it was not for Catherine the Great’s decision to make it different from the rest of Russia.
The city was the birthplace of Vladimir Jabotinsky, an important name in the history of Zionism, and because of it being the home of Zionist organisations like Hibbat Zion and Ha-Melitz, Odessa attracted people like Ahad Ha’am and Moshe Leib Lilienblum, who sought freedom of speech and beliefs as well as likeminded people to help their collective cause.
Being a hotbed of intellectual as well as Zionist activity, Odessa helped create many great Zionist activists and creatively brilliant people, like Chaim Nachman Bialik, who wrote many of his famous poems there, and eventually became the national poet of Israel. It is clear that Odessa was the main melting pot of Zionist ideas and talent at the time, and if it weren’t for its political and social freedoms to Jews, these ideas may never have been heard or embraced, let alone finally realised.