1. Leon Pinsker was born Yehudah Leib – or Lev – in Poland in 1821. His father was a scholar, teacher, writer and translator. The family moved to Odessa, where his father established one of the earliest Russian schools for Jews to receive secular as well as traditional education. He attended his father’s school and was one of the first Jews to attend Odessa University, where he studied law. But because of quotas on Jews, he decided to practice medicine, which he studied in Moscow. He served in the Crimean War and was decorated for his service.
2. Initially, he followed the ideas of the Haskalah, believing in Western values and holding that Jews could attain equal rights in their respective countries. Believing in assimilation, he was the founder of a Russian language Jewish weekly. Then, in 1871, came the anti-Jewish riots in the Russian Empire – followed by devastating pogroms in 1881-2 after the assassination of the tsar. Pinsker’s ideas changed radically.
3. In 1882, in Vienna, Pinsker anonymously published a highly influential pamphlet entitled “Auto-Emancipation.” Written in German, it analyzed the situation of Russian Jewry and Jewry in general. Its conclusion was that anti-Semitism was incurable throughout Europe; that Jews must organize themselves as a separate entity and establish their own national homeland, in Palestine or elsewhere.
4. He preferred the term “Judeophobia” to “anti-Semitism,” and wrote: “To the living the Jew is a corpse, to the native a foreigner, to the homesteader a vagrant, to the proprietary a beggar, to the poor an exploiter and a millionaire, to the patriot a man without a country, for all a hated rival.”
5. In 1884, with the help of Edmond James de Rothschild, he became one of the founders of Hovevei Zion. He was an organizer of a conference for the organization in what was then Prussia. Pinsker was chosen to be chair of the central bureau in Odessa, to coordinate the various groups seeking to build communities in Palestine.
6. In 1890, Russian authorities approved the establishment of the “Society for the Support of Jewish Farmers and Artisans in Syria and Palestine.” It was known as the Odessa Committee, and it was headed by Pinsker.
7. Though he traveled widely on behalf of Hovevei Zion, his activities and writings were more influential in Russia than elsewhere.
8. He died in Odessa in 1891, still unsure whether or not his vision would ever be realized. In 1934, his remains were brought to Jerusalem and re-interred in Nicanor’s Cave next to Mount Scopus. Moshav Nahalat Yehuda was named for him; built in 1913, it later became part of Rishon L’Zion.
In Tel Aviv, you’ll find Pinsker Street running off the north end of Allenby and crossing Trumpeldor and Bograshov. Look for Hovevei Zion St. right nearby.
Photos of Pinsker Street by Telavivi