Zionist movement

Zionist movement. A Jewish political movement formed in the last quarter of the 19th century for the purpose of bringing Jews back to Zion (ie, Jerusalem, the land of Israel). Zionism was born in Ukraine and flourished there despite Soviet persecution.

The first Jewish organization intent on systematic settlement of Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire, was established in Kharkiv in the wake of the pogroms that followed the assassination of Alexander II. A group of students created BILU (the Hebrew acronym of Isaiah 2:5, ‘House of Jacob, Let us Go’) and in the summer of 1882 sent a band of settlers to Palestine, where the newcomers founded Rishon L'Tzion and G'dera. Another movement, known as Hibbat Zion (Love of Zion), also became popular in Ukraine. Odesa was a center of Zionist activity. Important early Zionists in Ukraine include L. Pinsker, an Odesa physician who wrote the classic Autoemancipation, and Ahad Ha'am (Hebrew for ‘One of the People,’ pseud of A. Ginsberg), the founder of Cultural Zionism. Ukrainian Zionists played a decisive role in defeating the so-called Uganda scheme, a plan to settle East Africa instead of Palestine. M. Ussishkin organized a conference in Kharkiv in 1903 to protest the Uganda plan.

Under T. Herzl's leadership Zionism soon became popular in Western Europe. A wide range of Zionist ideologies were represented in Ukraine. After the fall of the tsar several world Zionist parties flourished in Ukraine, and Zionism was the most popular ideology of the politically conscious elements of Ukrainian Jewry. Besides the so-called General Zionists, Ukrainian Jews supported Mizrachi (‘East,’ a religious Zionist party), Zeire Zion (‘Young Zion,’ a socialist-oriented Zionist party), and Poale Zion (‘Workers of Zion’). During the Ukrainian struggle for independence (1917–20) the Zionists participated in the Central Rada, yet their bitter conflict with Jewish socialist parties precluded their involvement in higher levels of government. The left-leaning Poale Zion co-operated with the Jewish socialists, however, and several Jews from that party (Solomon Goldelman, Abraham Revusky) were influential in the Ukrainian National Republic.

Under the Soviets Zionism was mercilessly attacked as a ‘tool of British imperialism’ and decried as Jewish bourgeois nationalism. According to Soviet nationality policy Soviet Jews were not part of world Jewry and could have no desire to emigrate to a non-Soviet Jewish land. Futhermore, their immigration represented a security risk for the Soviet Union. To divert the Zionist aspirations of Ukrainian Jewry a Jewish autonomous region (Birobidzhan) was carved out of the RSFSR in the Far East, and Soviet Jews were encouraged to settle there. In the terror of 1937–8 Zionists and reputed Zionists were increasingly isolated and persecuted.

Except for a brief respite in 1948–9, when the Soviet Union officially supported the establishment of the state of Israel, Zionism continued to be suppressed. Jews who expressed Zionist sympathies were discriminated against, particularly the so-called Refuseniks (Jews who had been refused exit visas to emigrate to Israel). In 1982 there were an estimated 2,574 Refuseniks in Ukraine.

During the 1980s Ukrainian Jews continued to press for permission to emigrate to Israel and other countries and achieved increasing success. In late 1989 and early 1990 relaxed emigration laws allowed an unprecedented number of Jews to leave Ukraine for Israel.

Henry Abramson

[This article originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 5 (1993).]




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