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David Wolffsohn

WOLFFSOHN, DAVID (1856–1914), second president of the World Zionist Organization. Born in Dorbiany, Russian Lithuania, Wolffsohn received a religious education. In 1873 his parents sent him to live with his brother in Memel (now Klaipeda) in order to avoid conscription to the czarist army. He studied at a talmud torah under Rabbi Isaac *Ruelf, who later became one of the leading forerunners of the *Ḥibbat Zion movement, and who very much influenced Wolffsohn. At an early age Wolffsohn began to earn his living in Loebau, East Prussia, and in Lyck, where he made the acquaintance of David *Gordon, the editor of the Hebrew newspaper Ha-Maggid and one of the first proponents of Ḥibbat Zion. He moved from place to place and worked at various jobs, at one time even as a peddler. He finally settled down in the timber trade, first working for others, and later independently, becoming prosperous.

Wolffsohn's bent for public life was first displayed in his activities in various Jewish communities. This did not appear to satisfy him, however, and he joined various cultural and philanthropic organizations. He finally found his place when he chanced to hear a lecture in Cologne given under the auspices of the Society for Jewish History and Literature. This forum was utilized by Max *Bodenheimer to propagate his Jewish nationalist ideas. After one of Bodenheimer's lectures, which had aroused the opposition of the majority of those present, Wolffsohn rose to defend the speaker and his views. After making Bodenheimer's acquaintance in this way, he began to find an outlet for his public activities in Ḥibbat Zion. Wolffsohn was possessed of an unassuming nature, which prevented him from pushing himself to the fore. In later years he was almost the only one of Theodor *Herzl's associates who lacked a formal secular education, and continuous association with all the "Doctors" in Herzl's circle most probably gave rise to guarded feelings of inferiority.

Wolffsohn was one of many whose latent sympathy for the Zionist idea was fired by the appearance of Der Judenstaat. He met Herzl in the autumn of 1896, was immediately captivated, and promised his assistance, especially in matters of finance. From then on he was Herzl's constant companion, and is one of those most frequently mentioned in Herzl's diaries. His imagination was set aflame by Herzl's political vision, which, despite Wolffsohn's habitual reserve and cultivated image as a "businessman," motivated him throughout.

Wolffsohn's debt to Herzl is universally recognized; what is less well known, however, is the fact that Herzl owed much to Wolffsohn as well. Herzl, who knew almost nothing of Jewish life, found in him a teacher and a guide. At the height of the preparations for the First Zionist Congress, in the sphere of protocol so dear to Herzl's heart, Wolffsohn gave the Zionist Movement its first two symbols: the colors blue and white on the model of the tallit, for the movement's flag, and the ancient term *shekel, for the Zionist members' due. He was the moving spirit behind the founding of the *Jewish Colonial Trust, which he directed until his last days, as well as of all the other financial and economic institutions of the movement. Despite his enormous admiration for Herzl, Wolffsohn never hesitated to disagree with him on matters with which Herzl was insufficiently acquainted. It was this quality above all that endeared him to Herzl, who portrayed him in glowing terms as "David Litwak" in his novel Altneuland. Wolffsohn accompanied Herzl on his journey to Ereẓ Israel to see Emperor William II (1898) and on his journeys to Turkey. Herzl's death was a terrible blow to Wolffsohn, who, in lieu of the eulogy forbidden by Herzl, swore to cherish his memory by repeating the words "If I forget thee, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning" at his graveside. Herzl nominated him as the guardian of his children, and Wolffsohn, himself childless, was a loving and devoted father to them until he died.

Herzl's death was a critical blow to the Zionist Movement, then split between those in favor of the *Uganda Scheme and those opposed to it, and on more or less parallel lines between the political Zionists and the "practical" ones. Herzl had managed to bridge these differences by his personal authority, but he left no one to take his place. Wolffsohn was a member of the delegation that asked Max *Nordau to take Herzl's place. Nordau refused, but suggested instead that Wolffsohn himself was the most suitable candidate, and, at the conference of the Zionist Federation of Germany (Cologne, April 1905), Adolph *Friedemann offered Wolffsohn the presidency. His consistent rejection of these proposals, which was both honest and modest, was prompted by his conviction that no one person, least of all himself, was worthy to take Herzl's place. In the end, a triple leadership was agreed upon: Wolffsohn, Nordau, and Otto *Warburg. This compromise was accepted by the Seventh Zionist Congress, which elected him chairman of the Executive and the Zionist General Council.

Wolffsohn's leadership of the Zionist Movement was overshadowed by tragedy. The giant figure of Herzl constantly before him and the rest of the movement was the source of a great deal of bitterness in his life and a spur to the opposition that began to appear at the start of his tenure. Wolffsohn built up his self-confidence very slowly, until he came to the point where he was a competent enough speaker to parry the thrusts of the opposition. His roots in eastern European Jewish life added to his confidence and enabled him to introduce elements of humor and traditional associations into his speeches, which the Jewish masses found very appealing.

The Seventh Zionist Congress not only put an end to the Uganda Scheme but also effected a programmatic innovation by achieving a compromise between the "practical" and the political Zionists that called for settlement activity within the framework of the *Basle Program. Practical work in Ereẓ Israel was not made conditional on the attainment of a "charter." Although Wolffsohn tried to reconcile differences in the Zionist camp, full unity was not achieved because each side believed he was putting the other side's program into effect. This moderate position became his guiding policy, but it could not be viable for any length of time because it encountered much opposition, despite the fact that Wolffsohn made executive posts available to his staunchest opponents.

After Wolffsohn moved the central Zionist office to Cologne, the *Jewish National Fund center, under Bodenheimer, was transferred there as well. He invited Nahum *Sokolow to act as general secretary of the Zionist Organization and founded the official Hebrew newspaper of the Zionist Organization Haolam (1907), which was initially edited by Sokolow. He took part in the conference of Jewish organizations in Brussels (1906) that met to organize matters concerning emigration. Although the practical results of the conference were insignificant, its value lay in the fact that the Zionist Organization made its appearance side by side with other worldwide Jewish organizations. When his health collapsed, Wolffsohn set out on a holiday to South Africa (1906), a journey which was transformed into a triumph for Zionism and became the foundation stone of the South African Zionist Federation. On his return he visited Ereẓ Israel and published his impressions in Die Welt.

The compromise between the political and the "practical" Zionists, which took place at the Eighth Zionist Congress in The Hague (1907) and was theoretically expressed in Chaim *Weizmann's famous speech on "synthetic Zionism," found its mediator in Wolffsohn, who restrained both sides at once. His emphasis on efficiency in practical work earned him the epithet "kaufmaennisch," a barb directed against him by both sides. He revealed his ability as a leader capable of deciding between extremely opposed views and methods, while simultaneously insisting that everything was being done in the spirit of Herzl. All the practical programs then being instituted (the opening of branches of the Jewish Colonial Trust in Ereẓ Israel, the beginnings of settlement, the activities of the JNF) were, in Wolffsohn's opinion, a continuation of the plans and the activities of Herzl's period. He was elected president by 135 votes to 59.

Afterward Wolffsohn went to Turkey, but was prevented from seeing the sultan by the outbreak of the revolution of the Young Turks (1908), which disrupted all his arrangements. At this time he also showed himself capable of decisive action by agreeing to grant a JNF loan to the first settlers of Aḥuzat Bayit, the nucleus of Tel Aviv, despite widespread opposition on the grounds that the requested loan was against the regulations of the JNF. Great demonstrative value was attached to Wolffsohn's journey (accompanied by Sokolow) to Russia in 1908 and to the splendid reception he was accorded by Prime Minister Stolypin, Foreign Minister Isvolsky, and other members of the government. Although his attempts to secure legal status for the Zionist Organization in Russia were unsuccessful, the downtrodden Jews of Russia experienced a degree of gratification at the show of cordiality with which he was received by the government. On the outbreak of the revolution of the Young Turks, Wolffsohn was one of the few Zionists to retain his composure and refuse to be drawn into the excited political scheming rife in the movement. Instead, he proceeded to organize a branch of the Jewish Colonial Trust in Constantinople and found and acquired newspapers there for the propagation of the Zionist point of view. In 1908 he also visited Hungary, where the Zionists were under severe attack from the assimilationists with government assistance, and succeeded in seeing the prime minister and lessening the tension to a certain extent.

Wolffsohn, who enjoyed Nordau's support, was again elected president of the Zionist Organization, despite the opposition to him that gained in strength, reaching its climax at the Ninth Congress in Hamburg (1909). He did everything in his power to bring the opposition, the "practical" Zionists, closer to the leadership, but all his efforts were in vain. His health was rapidly failing and, finally, proved insufficient to meet the demands of the struggle with the opposition. At the Tenth Congress (Basle, 1911) he resigned from the leadership of the movement, retaining only the directorship of the financial and economic institutions. The center of the movement moved from Cologne to Berlin, and Wolffsohn, apart from remaining active in the above institutions, also undertook various journeys on behalf of the cause. He intended to settle in Ereẓ lsrael and even learned to speak Hebrew with this end in view, but he died before this could be accomplished. He was buried in Cologne, and in 1952 his remains were brought to Israel and interred next to Herzl's grave on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. His estate provided the means for the National and University Library building in Jerusalem, which also houses his archives, including diaries and letters, and contains a room named in his honor.

It was only after Wolffsohn's death that his personality and work were fully appreciated. Only then was he recognized, even by his opponents, as a man of the people who had risen from the ranks by virtue of decades of devoted work. He was also a symbol of the synthesis between East and West, combining the best qualities of both European Jewish communities. His good nature, however, made him an easy prey for all those who considered Herzl's successor fair game for any treatment they cared to mete out to him. This was the source of the tragic quality that permeated the period of his leadership of the Zionist Movement.


E.B. Cohn, David Wolffsohn (Ger. 1939, Eng. 1944); A. Robinsohn, David Wolffsohn (Ger. 1921); T. Herzl, Complete Diaries, 5 vols. (1960).

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