(1868 - 1924)
Born in Belorussia, Nahman Sykin's early Jewish education was
provided by private tutors. When the family moved to Minsk in 1884,
he went to a Russian high school. He joined the Hovevei Zion there,
while also maintaining contact with Russian revolutionary circles.
In 1888, he was arrested, after which he went to London and then Berlin, where he studied psychology and philosophy.
In Berlin, Syrkin became a founder of the Russian-Jewish Scientific
Society, whose members included future Zionist leaders such as
Shmaryahu Levin, Leo Motzkin and Chaim Weizmann.
At the age of 19, he began writing on both academic and Zionist
subjects. Syrkin tried supporting himself and his family by writing,
but eventually gave up and returned to philosophy, publishing his
doctoral thesis in Bern in 1903.
A leader of the Socialist Zionists at the First Zionist Congress,
Syrkin was also an early sponsor of the concept of the Jewish
National Fund, and submitted a resolution to this effect at the
Second Zionist Congress (1898).
Syrkin was banished from Germany in 1904, spent some time in Paris
and, after the 1905 revolution, went to Russia where he continued to
work with Zionist-Socialists, as they called themselves. He
emigrated to the United States in 1907, eventually joining the
Poalei Zion and returning to the Zionist
Organization. He remained
the leader of the American Poalei Zion until his death.
In 1919, Syrkin was a member of the American Jewish delegation to
the Versailles Peace Conference which followed the end of World War
I. The same year, he was the key figure in the World Poalei Zion
Conference in Stockholm, which assigned him the task of heading a
study commission to visit Palestine to draw up a plan for mass
Returning to the U.S., he intended to settle in Palestine, but died
suddenly of a heart attack. In 1951, his remains were reinterred at
Kibbutz Kinneret along with the other founders of Labor Zionism.
By the age of 20, Syrkin had conceived the idea which became his
lifes work: the combination of socialism and Jewish nationalism. In
1897, he was a leader of the Socialist Zionists at the First Zionist
Congress. The following year, two years after Herzl published The
Jewish State, Syrkin published an article in the Austrian Socialist
monthly entitled, The Jewish Question and the Socialist Jewish
State. This was the first time he outlined his concept of Zionism
based on cooperative settlement of the Jewish masses.
At Zionist Congresses, he became known for his attacks on the
establishment which led to loud protests at Congress sessions. In
the early years of the 20th century, he worked to establish
Socialist Zionist groups in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, while
continuing to write. Throughout his life, Syrkin was a prolific
writer in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, German and English.
During World War I, he worked to convene the Jewish Congress in
America and supported the idea of a Jewish Legion to fight with the
Allies to liberate Palestine.
Syrkin differed from many of the other Socialist Zionists in that he
was not an orthodox Marxist. He viewed socialism more as a moral
concept than the inevitable outcome of class struggle.
On different occasions, in speeches and in his writing,
he attacked virtually every stream of Zionism.
At an early Zionist Congress, he criticized the "bourgeois and
clerical" elements in the Zionist Organization. He later attacked Ahad Ha'am for his concept
of the spiritual center in Eretz Yisrael, claiming that
it disregarded realities including anti-Semitism and mass migration.
Within his own camp, he took issue with Ber Borochov's Marxist analysis
Despite his differences with many within the movement,
Syrkin supported making Hebrew the sole Jewish national language and
spoke Hebrew perfectly.
An independent spirit in every way, he was apparently a deeply
religious individual, who was able to reconcile these feelings with
his revolutionary political ideas.
Sources: Joint Authority
for Jewish Zionist Education; Picture courtesy of: Zionism
and Israel Information Center