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Abraham Menachem Mendel Ussishkin

(1863 – 1941)

Abraham Menachem Mendel Ussishkin was a Zionist leader, member of Ḥovevei Zion, and the president of the *Jewish National Fund (JNF). Born in Dubrovno in the district of Mogilev, Russia, Ussishkin moved to Moscow with his family in 1871. From 1878 he became an enthusiastic reader of the works of contemporary Hebrew writers, and from then the revival of the Hebrew language became one of his guiding principles. The 1881 pogroms shocked Russian Jewry and led to the emergence of the *Bilu movement. At a meeting of Jewish students at Moscow University, Ussishkin and his friend Jehiel *Tschlenow founded a Society of Pioneers to Ereẓ Israel. In 1882 he entered the Technological Institute in Moscow, where he immediately founded a Jewish students' society. In August 1884 the Benei Zion society, which nurtured many Zionist leaders, was founded in Moscow. Ussishkin was elected to the society's committee and in 1885 was chosen secretary of all the Ḥovevei Zion groups in Moscow. From 1887 on he published reports and articles in Ha-Meliẓ. Together with M.L. *Lilienblum, he was elected secretary of the Druzkieniki Conference (1887). A clash took place at the conference between the Orthodox faction of Samuel *Mohilewer and Leon *Pinsker's liberal Ḥovevei Zion faction, but Ussishkin managed to bring about a reconciliation. The practical proposals made by him at the conference were early signs of his Zionist pragmatism. He viewed agricultural settlement in Ereẓ Israel as the essence of the whole.

When *Aḥad Ha-Am founded the *Benei Moshe society in 1889, Ussishkin became one of its active members. In the same year he qualified as a technical engineer at the Technological Institute. In 1890 he participated in the founding meeting of the *Odessa Committee. Ussishkin visited Ereẓ Israel for the first time in 1891 and described his journey in a booklet (written in Russian and later translated into Hebrew) that made a considerable impression. Upon his return from Ereẓ Israel, he settled in Yekaterinoslav, where he remained for 15 years (1891–1906). At first he was active in Hebrew educational work as well as in Zionist propaganda and fund raising; he was instrumental in founding the modernized Hebrew-speaking ḥeder (ḥeder metukkan) and a Hebrew library, became a member of the board of the publishing house Aḥi'asaf, etc. The publication of Theodor *Herzl's Der Judenstaat in 1896 and his meetings with Herzl and Max *Nordau in Paris and in Vienna on the eve of the First Zionist Congress made a deep impression on Ussishkin, despite his reservations regarding a concept of Zionism based exclusively on political activity, to the neglect of settlement and cultural work. He was elected Hebrew secretary of the First Zionist Congress (1897) and took an active part in the debate centered on the formulation of the first, political article of the *Basle Program. He expressed his fear that too explicit a formulation of Zionist aims might rouse the Turkish government against the existing yishuv. His opposition to pure political Zionism at the First Congress precluded his election as the leader of Russian Zionism, but at the Second Congress (1898) he was elected to the Zionist General Council and served on it for the rest of his life. When Russia was divided into districts for the purpose of Zionist activities at the Third Congress (1899), he was chosen to head the Yekaterinoslav district, which included all of southern Russia and the Caucasus. Under his direction, this district became one of the most active in Russian Zionism, both in its cultural and in its practical activities.

At the Fifth Congress (1901) Ussishkin delivered the address on the "United Organization," in which there was no room for separate "groups" and "societies," and proposed the establishment of the Anglo-Palestine Company in Ereẓ Israel as a branch of the *Jewish Colonial Trust. On his return from the Congress, he convened a conference of Zionists in the Caucasus, thus introducing Zionist activities into the non-Ashkenazi communities there. In the same year he was a member of a delegation that approached Baron Edmond de *Rothschild protesting the "paternalistic" methods of his officials in Ereẓ Israel. Rothschild rejected the delegation's demands, and when Aḥad Ha-Am insisted that the demands be accepted – even if it meant withdrawal of Rothschild's support of the settlements – Ussishkin's opposition to Aḥad Ha-Am's intransigence saved the situation. In 1902 at the *Minsk Conference of the Russian Zionists, he delivered an address that exerted a great influence on the future development of the Zionist movement. The call to recruit youth for pioneer work in Ereẓ Israel was then heard in the movement for the first time.

After the Kishinev pogrom in April 1903, Ussishkin went to Kishinev and was profoundly shocked. He was moved to call for action, which for him meant primarily the organization of the Jewish population of Ereẓ Israel – the embryo from which the future Jewish state would develop. After he traveled to Vienna and received Herzl's approval for his plan, Ussishkin set out for Ereẓ Israel for the second time and remained there for four months (July–September 1903). Immediately upon his arrival in Jaffa, he published a leaflet on the need to "organize the Yishuv," and in August 1903 the Great Assembly (Ha-Keneset ha-Gedolah) of the Jews of Ereẓ Israel was held in Zikhron Ya'akov under his direction. It lasted for three days and aroused great enthusiasm and hopes, but this atmosphere was shattered by the subsequent controversy in the Zionist Movement over the *Uganda Scheme. The only practical outcome of the convention was the founding of the Teachers' Association at a meeting in Zikhron Ya'akov immediately following the Great Assembly (Sept. 28, 1903). Upon his return from these two meetings, Ussishkin was confronted with the news that Herzl had received a proposal from the British government to establish an autonomous Jewish colony in Uganda, East Africa. He bitterly opposed the Uganda Scheme and became one of the leaders of the opposition to Herzl. He was the initiator and the moving spirit behind the *Kharkov Conference (1903), which demanded that Herzl abandon the scheme. At the beginning of 1905, Ussishkin convened a conference of the anti-Uganda Zionists, called Ẓiyyonei Zion, in Vilna. The second conference of this faction, also organized by him, took place in Freiburg three days before the Seventh Congress (July 1905) and was instrumental in influencing the congress to abandon the Uganda Scheme and concentrate wholeheartedly on settlement activities in Ereẓ Israel. During the conflict over the Uganda Scheme, Ussishkin published Our Program (at first in Russian and later in Hebrew, German, and English translations), which laid the five-point foundation for "synthetic Zionism": political action, acquisition of land, aliyah, settlement, and educational and organizational work among the people. This approach thereafter dominated the Zionist Movement. In this pamphlet, he spoke for the first time of farms and of settlements in which Jewish workers would cultivate the land acquired by the JNF "with their own hands, without help from hired laborers." This was the earliest form of the idea of the moshav ovedim. Our Program became the platform of practical Zionism, which gave rise to the Second Aliyah.

While engaged in the great debate over the Uganda Scheme, Ussishkin was fighting the tide of assimilation prompted by the first Russian Revolution (1904–05). He struggled to promote the Zionist Movement in general and the Hebrew language in particular. In 1906 he was elected head of the Odessa Committee and retained this post until the committee itself was abolished by the Soviet regime (1919). Under his leadership, the committee supported the establishment of the settlements Ein Gannim, Be'er Ya'akov, and Naḥalat Yehudah. Ussishkin also proposed support for the training farm at *Kinneret and for all the existing educational and cultural institutions in the young yishuv.

During the revolution of the Young Turks in 1908, Ussishkin went to Constantinople in an attempt to promote the Zionist cause with the help of influential Sephardi Jews. In 1913, after his third visit to Ereẓ Israel, he published in a pamphlet his "general survey" (translated into Hebrew under the title Massa Shelishi le-Ereẓ Yisrael), which discussed the various problems of the yishuv. In the winter of 1912, at the eighth conference of Ḥovevei Zion, he spoke of the need for a Hebrew university and put through a resolution in the committee to allocate the sum of 50,000 gold francs for the purpose of acquiring land on Mount Scopus. At the 11th Zionist Congress in Vienna (1913), he reported together with Chaim *Weizmann on the idea of the Hebrew University. During World War I, in February 1915, the Copenhagen office of the Zionist Organization was established, and a secret Zionist conference, attended by delegates from all the warring countries, was held in that city. Despite the danger involved (for the Czarist government regarded every contact with enemy subjects as an act of treason), Ussishkin attended the conference. Upon his return to Odessa, he was informed that there was a deportation order against him and was obliged to flee to Moscow, where he remained until the situation in Russia had changed. During the days of the February Revolution (1917), he waged a bitter struggle against the Yiddishists, who wished to eliminate Hebrew as the recognized national language of the Jewish people, and against all those who thought that the granting of equal rights to Russian Jews had made Zionism obsolete.

Ussishkin organized a mass demonstration in Odessa to celebrate the *Balfour Declaration that was attended by 200,000 people, Jews and non-Jews alike. At the invitation of Weizmann and Nahum *Sokolow, he attended the Paris Peace Conference, and on Feb. 27, 1919, he stood before the assembled representatives of the nations of the world as the representative of the Jewish people and addressed them in Hebrew.

In November 1919 Ussishkin settled in Palestine and was the head of the *Zionist Commission. For more than three years (1919–23) he guided the yishuv in its first and difficult steps toward the materialization of the national home. He was instrumental in organizing the Hebrew school network in Palestine and in establishing the settlement Kiryat Anavim near Jerusalem. In the spring of 1921 he left for the United States with Albert *Einstein to promote the fund-raising campaign for *Keren Hayesod. At the 13th Congress in Karlsbad (August 1923), Ussishkin's election as chairman of the Zionist General Council was prevented by his disagreement with Weizmann's moderate policy toward the Mandatory regime in Palestine. However, he was chosen to head the JNF and retained this position for nearly 20 years (1923–41). He devoted himself completely to the idea of acquiring land as the property of the nation, making trips to Europe (1924) and Canada (1927) to raise funds. Due to his tireless efforts, large tracts of land in the Jezreel Valley (1921), Ḥefer Plain (1927), Haifa Bay area (1928), Beth-Shean (1930), and other parts of the country were purchased. He increased the landed property of the JNF from 22,000 to 561,000 dunam and its income from £70,000 to £600,000.

Ussishkin played an important role in the establishment of the Hebrew University and was among those who officially inaugurated it on April 1, 1925. He was elected to both the Board of Trustees and the Executive Committee of the university and took an active interest in its affairs until he died. He was elected chairman of the Zionist General Council at the 19th Congress in 1935. When the Arab riots broke out in Palestine in 1936 and the Royal Commission (the Peel Commission) proposed the partition of the country, he fought against the proposal at the 20th Congress in Zurich (August 1937) and participated in the Round Table Conference in London in 1939. He fought against the British White Paper of May 1939 that forbade Jews to purchase land in most areas of the country.

Ussishkin's activities were widely admired. In 1939, when the JNF purchased land in Upper Galilee, north of the Ḥuleh Valley, it was decided to found a series of settlements there called Meẓudot Ussishkin ("Ussishkin Forts") – moshavei ovedim and kevuẓot in which all sections of the nation and members of all Zionist parties would participate. For 60 years no Zionist or Jewish national activity took place in which he had not participated and on which he had not left his own unique stamp. Ussishkin's writings have been collected in two volumes (which also include appreciations): Sefer Ussishkin (1933) and Devarim Aḥaronim (1946).


S. Kling, The Mighty Warrior, the Life Story of Menaḥem Ussishkin (1965), incl. bibl.; H. Sacher, Zionist Portraits and Other Essays (1959), 52–56; L. Lipsky, A Gallery of Zionist Profiles (1956), 72–78; N. Sokolow, Ḥibbath Zion (Eng., 1935), index; Kressel, Leksikon, 1 (1965), 43–44; J. Klausner, Menaḥem Ussishkin; his Life and Work (1942); A. Druyanow, Ketavim le-Toledot Ḥibbat Ẓiyyon, 2, 3 (1925–32), indexes; S. Schwartz, Ussishkin be-Iggerotav (1950).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.