Chovevei Zion: The roots of the type of thought that saved a people
Kindergarden at Rishon-Le'zion
It is hard to imagine how it must have felt for Jews, specifically in Eastern Europe, to go about with their daily lives knowing that they were surrounded by hate, not only of their religion, but every single cultural characteristic that they held so dear.
This has been a truth throughout all of Jewish history, but nowhere has it been as bad, despite all of Europe in the Second World War, as in Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century where antisemitism was unbridled.
Let us not forget that Hannah Arendt once said that Romania was perhaps the most anti-Semitic country of its time. Let us also not forget of the pogroms that plagued Russia, and drove its Jewish populations further West which were perhaps the most unforgettable. It is therefore no surprise that Chovevei Zion first began to spring roots in these two countries.
Years before Zionism became a full fledged force that would modernize the Jewish world in the West, smaller organizations congregated that aspired for the same thing, the same ideal- to see Israel become a reality. The most prominent of these, of course, was Chovevei Zion mainly because of its proto-Herzelian concept of one Jewish people, in one land.
The movement which also went by Chibbat Zion, was in fact a conglomerate of sparse communities of Jewish intellectuals, men of labor, Rabbis, and Jews from all walks of life that knew that the antisemitism that they encountered in Europe and lived through was too much to bear. They were right. Israel was indeed the only answer.
In short, most of these groups gathered to discuss the needs of Jewish people, particularly in Eastern Europe where rampant antisemitism led to unbearable lives for many. Hovevei Zion amassed a much larger following in the late 1880’s specifically after most of Europe’s Jews were already or beginning to be emancipated. Yet the xenophobia that they encountered before they were given full rights, remained unchanged. It is no surprise therefore that the main topic of discussion at many of their meetings were to find a means to actually get Jews to move back to Eretz Yisrael in Palestine.
Although at first a great deal of the work that Chovevei Zion organizations practiced were mostly philanthropic, they also played an important part in diffusing the culture of Zionism, and the idea of a Jewish state as more than just a dream. Isaac Keib Goldberg took it a step further, and actually established a small settlement called Rishon LeZion in Israel which was also interestingly the first Zionist colony in Eretz Yisrael.
In Russia, almost 14000 followers of Chovevei gathered numerous times to talk politics, issues about the future of Eretz Yisrael, and the current situation of their people in under the despotism of the Tsar, led by leaders such as Leon Pinsker and Rabbi Samuel Mohilever.
Interestingly, despite the obvious political tenets behind Hovevei in places such as Russia, the organization would not be made official unless it was registered as a charity with the government, which is a testament to the political fears held by Alexander III, whose antisemitism was more than obvious, but fear of rebellion towards his crown even more so. Something which led him to take some harsh actions towards the Jews of Russia.
It is essential not to forget the significance of Chovevei Zion-as it literally means “The Lovers of Zion.” Also it is paramount to contemplate the absolute importance of these almost unofficial but still important movements. They represented men and women who became fed up with being unwelcome in lands in which their families had lived for hundreds, even thousands of years since their exodus.
Their love for Israel, and their people had transpired towards the need to congregate and find a solution. This of course was the wave of socio-political thinking that would later lead to the Zionist Congresses and would aid Herzl towards actually consolidating support for his modern, and more organized Zionist movement. It was in Romania and Russia that the first inkling towards understanding the idea of “one people” first began to become part of common language and thought.
The small meetings of a few dozen people sometimes in the most uncanny of places, were the first small steps towards a nation. To forget that is to forget their characters, and spirits as the men and women who laid the roots of the type of thought that saved a people.
Am Yisrael Chai. Milad Doroudiam a native of Jassy Romania, is a writer, historian, and the senior editor of The Art of Polemics magazine. He is currently working on a book on The Jassy Pogrom of 1941.