1. He was born in Kovno, Lithuania in 1856 to a financially struggling family. His father was a Talmudic scholar, and he had a traditional Jewish education.
2. In 1872, he was sent to East Prussia, where his brother lived, in order to avoid conscription in the Russian army. He continued his Jewish studies with Rabbi Isaac Ruif, also learning German and mathematics. Later, he met David Gordon, editor of HaMaggid. Both men influenced his commitment to Jewish nationhood, which had begun with his father.
3. After a number of failed business attempts, Wolffsohn became successful in the timber trade and settled in Cologne. In 1894, with Zionist Max Bodenheimer, he founded the Association for the Development of Agriculture in Israel, a German branch of Hovevei Zion.
4. In 1896, having read and been transfixed by Herzl’s Der Judenstaat, Wolffsohn sought out Herzl in Vienna. They soon became fast friends. Wolffsohn was a loyal friend and a diplomatic one, standing by Herzl even when he disagreed with him. With his unassuming nature, he mediated between the political and the practical Zionists (explained below), and he stood by Herzl in the Uganda crisis while generally soothing ruffled feathers. The character of David Littwak in Herzl’s Altneuland is said to be based on Wolffsohn.
5. As the moving spirit behind, and first president of, The Jewish Colonial Trust, Wolffsohn ensured its solvency. He became the director of all the financial and economic institutions of the Zionist movement, serving in this capacity until his death.
6. In 1898, he accompanied Herzl to London, Constantinople and Palestine. He was present during the audience with Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II, taking photographs that unfortunately did not come out (haven’t we all, at some important moment?).
7. When Herzl suggested seven gold stars on a white background for the Jewish national flag, Wolffsohn lifted his tallit and said, in effect, why re-invent the wheel? We have our flag right here. Thus was conceived the banner with a white field, two blue stripes near the margins, and a six-pointed Star of David in the center. Wolffsohn also introduced the shekel for the payment of Zionist members’ dues.
8. In 1907, after Herzl’s death, Wolffsohn was appointed leader of the World Zionist Organization, its second president. He took a typically moderate stance on the issues roiling up between the practical and political Zionists, all the while maintaining that all WZO programs were being carried out according to Herzl’s plans. The main issue between the political and practical Zionists was this: the political Zionists remained faithful to Herzl’s view that a charter of some kind was necessary prior to organized settlement in Palestine, while the practical Zionists (many of them from Russia, where conditions for Jews were dire) emphasized immediate local activity in Palestine.
9. Wolffsohn carried on with political efforts while allowing practical colonization. Under his watch, an office was opened in Jaffa to foster agricultural settlement; a JNF loan was granted to the founders of Ahuzat Bayit, the settlement that was to become Tel Aviv; the WZO’s official newspaper, HaOlam, was founded; and Wolffsohn traveled widely – to South Africa, Turkey, Russia, Hungary – in furtherance of Zionist efforts.
10. In failing health, he resigned leadership of the WZO in 1911, though he continued as financial director until his death in Hamburg in 1914. His estate provided the means for the National and University Library to be built in Jerusalem. In 1952, his remains were brought to Israel and buried on Mount Herzl.
In Tel Aviv, you’ll find Wolffsohn Street just west of the Central Bus Station.
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