10 Things You Need to Know About… Nahum Sirkin

Founder of Labor Zionism

1. Nahum Sirkin (or Nachman Syrkin) was born in Mogilev, Russia – now Belarus – in February, 1868. Early on, he was educated by Jewish private tutors; but when his family moved to Minsk in 1884, he attended a Russian high school.

2. He had a philosophical bent and became interested in both Hovevei Zion (a movement to settle Palestine) and socialism. Moving in Russian revolutionary circles, he sought to meld the two, an effort in which he was joined by Ber Berochov [see my blog post of April 10]. He led the Socialist Zionist faction – admittedly, a group with few members – at the First Zionist Congress in 1897.

3. In 1888, after a 3-week imprisonment for his activities, he left Russia and settled in Berlin to pursue his studies in psychology and philosophy. There, he was a founder of the Russian-Jewish Scientific Society; among its members were a number of future Zionist leaders, including Chaim Weizmann. He founded short-lived Yiddish and Hebrew journals and wrote Socialist-Zionist pamphlets which were smuggled into tsarist Russia.

4. “The Jewish Question and the Socialist Jewish State” – originally written in German (1898) – described his concept of Zionism based on cooperative settlement by the Jewish proletariat. In fact, he was the first to propose that immigrants in Palestine form collective settlements. At the Second Zionist Congress, he submitted a resolution for the formation of a Jewish national fund to support settlement.

5. At the congresses, he was known for his provocative speeches, in which he attacked establishment views; he fought with just about everyone about their ideas of Zionism, and his frequent outbursts gave rise to loud protests. He went to the Seventh Zionist Congress in Basel in 1905 as a delegate of the new Zionist Socialist Workers Party.

6. In 1905, no longer welcome in Berlin, he returned to Russia. Then, in 1907, he moved to the United States and became one of the leaders of Poale Zion (the socialist Jewish labor party) in America. He would lead this party until his death.

7. During World War I, Sirkin supported the idea of a Jewish legion to fight with the Allies for the liberation of Palestine from the Ottoman Empire. In 1919, following the war, he served as a member of the American Jewish delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference.

8. In the same year, 1919, the world Poale Zion conference was held it Stockholm. He was given the assignment of visiting Eretz Yisrael as head of a study commission that would develop a plan for kibbutz settlement. He toured the land with other members of the commission and was principal author of the plan, which was later adopted in concept by the Zionist labor movement.

9. Sirkin intended to make aliyah, but he died of a heart attack in New York City in September 1924. His remains were re-interred in Kibbutz Kinneret, along with other founders of labor Zionism, in 1951.

10. What sort of thinker was Sirkin? Unlike many socialists and communists, he was deeply religious, despite his contempt for what he considered the “petrified” form of rabbinic Judaism in the diaspora. He was not a Marxist; he considered socialism a moral concept, perhaps coming out of Biblical concepts of social justice. He supported making Hebrew the national language. He suported Herzl’s Uganda Plan. Herzl called him “that exaltado.”

syrkin“A classless society and national sovereignty are the only means of completely solving the Jewish problem.”

You’ll find Sirkin Street in Tel Aviv off Bograshov, between Ben Yehudah and Sholem Aleichem; and in Haifa south of the City Hall.  Kfar Sirkin, founded 1933, is located close to Petach Tikvah.

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