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Zionist Leaders

Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) is the father of modern Zionism. Herzl was born in Budapest, Hungary on May 2, 1860 and was raised in a Jewish home, but after his Bar Mitzvah he moved steadily away from Jewish practice.  Herzl became a novelist and successful journalist and felt that Jews could thrive in cosmopolitan Europe. But his opinion radically changed when Herzl was assigned to cover the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French Army accused of treason. Herzl witnessed the anti-Semitism that seethed just under the surface of the society he had deemed so enlightened. In 1896 Herzl published Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State) where he argued that the only solution for the Jewish people was the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state.  In 1897 Herzl convened the first Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, which created the World Zionist Organization, the driving force behind Israel’s establishment.

To mark the 150th anniversary of his birth in April 2010, Prime Minister Netanyahu addressed the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament):  “In world history and in the history of our people, there are very few cases in which one can point out a certain man who almost single-handedly saved his people from extinction. Benjamin Zeev Herzl was one.”

Ze’ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940) was born on October 18, 1880, in the city of Odessa, Russia. . Jabotinsky is best known as one of the founders of Revisionist Zionism.  In 1920, Jabotinsky formally split from the mainstream Zionist organization and established the Revisionist movement and its youth arm, Betar.  He advocated the importance of Jewish self-defense, not just as a means to ensure physical security, but as a necessary source for Jewish confidence and pride. Together with Josef Trumpledor, he established the Zion Mule Corps, a Jewish fighting unit in World War I.  As conditions in Europe worsened, Jabotinsky was at the forefront of creating underground armed resistance groups in Palestine to fight the British and smuggle European Jews to safety in Palestine.

Ahad Ha’am (1856-1927) Born Asher Ginsberg in Russia, he is best known by his pen name Ahad Ha’am which means “one of the people” in Hebrew.  Ha’am is regarded as the founder of Cultural Zionism. He envisioned Palestine as a spiritual center for Jews – a hub whose spiritual and creative energy would radiate to Jews throughout the world. He thought that the political solution proposed by the Zionist organization was impractical because not all Jews would or could move to a Jewish national home in the Land of Israel.  Ahad Ha’am, in contrast to other Zionist leaders, advocated for a “Jewish State, not merely a state of Jews.”

Chaim Weizmann (1874-1952) was the first President of the State of Israel. He was born in a small Russian town and trained as a biochemist. Weizmann became involved with the Zionist cause in its early days while living in England.  A total pragmatist, he championed a Zionism that created a Jewish homeland through political and diplomatic avenues alongside Jewish settlement in Palestine.  He championed Zionist activity in the Diaspora as a means to bring the Jewish state to life.  Weizmann played a key role in convincing the British to issue the Balfour Declaration in 1917, officially expressing support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine.  He also become the founder of the first Israeli research institute known today as the Weizmann Institute of Science.

David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973) was the first Prime Minister of Israel. He was born in Poland, then part of the Russian Empire, as David Grün. From his earliest years, he was an avid Zionist and moved to Palestine as a young man where he took the Hebrew name of Ben-Gurion and eventually became the leader of the Jewish Yishuv (Jewish residents in pre-state Israel). On May 14, 1948, Ben-Gurion declared Israel a sovereign Jewish state. The new country was immediately attacked by its Arab neighbors, but Ben-Gurion against all odds, led Israel to victory in the War of Independence. As the Prime Minister of Israel, he was instrumental in the formation of the infant State, building state institutions and absorbing vast numbers of olim (immigrants) into Israel. Ben-Gurion never stopped leading by example and upon his retirement from public life in 1970, he moved to the sparsely populated Negev (desert) which he believed offered great opportunities for Jewish settlement.

Golda Meir (1898-1978) was dubbed Israeli politics’ “Iron Lady.” Born in Kiev, Meir moved to Milwaukee with her family at age eight, and then made aliyah (immigration) at age twenty-three. In the nation’s earliest days, Meir raised $50 million to purchase armaments for Israel to defend itself against the Arab onslaught in the War of Independence. An ardent Zionist her entire life, Meir served her country in a multitude of official capacities, including Ambassador to Moscow, Labor Minister, Foreign Minister, and Prime Minister from 1969-1974. Golda Meir led Israel through the difficult period of the Yom Kippur War of which she famously said, “We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours.”

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) was the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Palestine and is considered the father of Religious Zionism.  Rav Kook was born in what is today Latvia and was a child prodigy in Torah study. He moved to Palestine in 1904 as the Chief Rabbi of Jaffa where he engaged in Jewish outreach to the mostly secular Zionist agricultural settlements in the area. Rav Kook succeeded in building bridges between the secular Zionists, the religious Zionists, and more traditional non-Zionist Orthodox Jews. He believed that the modern movement to re-establish a Jewish state in the Land of Israel had profound theological significance and that the Zionists were agents in a heavenly plan to bring about the Messianic Era.

Louis Brandeis (1856-1941) was a prominent American jurist who served as the head of the Federation of American Zionists from 1914-1918. President Woodrow Wilson appointed Brandeis to be the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice in the Unite States in 1916. Justice Brandies paved the way for a uniquely American vision of Zionism and was instrumental in the negotiations leading up to the Balfour Declaration of British support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. He led the way in creating a space for American Jews to participate in the Zionist endeavor.

Henrietta Szold (1860-1945) established Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization, in 1912 to provide nurses and health services to the mostly impoverished Jews living in Palestine. She was the only female member of the executive committee of the Federation of American Zionists. Her accomplishments in health, education and social work continue to impact Israel today. Szold was born in Baltimore, Maryland where her father, a rabbi, instilled in her a commitment to the Jewish people. Szold immigrated to Palestine in 1933 to run the Youth Aliyah program, which helped rescue over 20,000 Jewish children from Nazi occupied Europe.

Leon Pinsker (1821-1891) was a leader of the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) movement in Russia which was one of the first Zionist organizations, promoting settlement in the Land of Israel.  Pinsker spent most of his life in Odessa, where he was a practicing physician.  Initially he believed that equal rights and assimilation would resolve the Jewish problem, but the 1871 Odessa pogrom changed his mind and spurred him to become active in Jewish public life. In the wake of additional pogroms and state-sponsored anti-Semitism, Pinsker wrote Auto-Emancipation and argued for a Jewish national homeland.

A.D. Gordon (1856-1922) was one of the spiritual forces behind the Labor Zionist movement.  Aaron David Gordon was born in Russia and was an early member of Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion movement) and eventually moved to Palestine in 1904.  He believed that agricultural labor could unite the Jewish people with their Land. Gordon believed that much of the “Jewish problem” was a direct result of the Jewish dis-connection from nature and manual labor that rendered the Jew “parasitic.”  He thus promoted physical labor and agriculture as a means of strengthening the Jewish spirit and restoring Jewish pride and security.