10 Things You Need to Know About… David Wolffsohn

Zionist leader

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.

"Ever since I learned to think and feel, I was a Zionist."

“Ever since I learned to think and feel, I was a Zionist.”

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.



10 Things You Need to Know About…Emile Zola

Journalist, author, man of conscience

220px-ZOLA_1902B1. Emile Edouard Charles Antoine Zola was born in April 1840 in Paris. He was a French writer, an exemplar of the naturalist school, but this blog will concentrate on the reason why an Israeli street is named for this non-Jew who never set foot in Palestine.

2. Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a French artillery officer, one of the army’s General Staff, was a Jew. When French intelligence discovered evidence of military secrets being smuggled to the Germans, Dreyfus was accused, court-martialed, convicted of treason, and sentenced to life-long penal servitude on Devil’s Island in French Guiana. At the court-martial, Dreyfus was not permitted to examine the evidence against him. A handwriting expert testified that the very lack of resemblance between Dreyfus’ handwriting and the document in question was evidence that he had written it.

3. Dreyfus was publicly humiliated, his insignia torn off and his sword broken in half; he was marched around the parade grounds as the crowd spat at him and cried out “Jew” and “Judas.” Herzl, a young newspaperman at the time, was present, and the experience crystallized his conviction that Jews had no secure home in all of Europe.

4. When evidence emerged that the real culprit was another officer, Ferdinand Esterhazy, a military cover-up ensued. The issue was raised in the French Senate, but the government refused to consider new evidence in the case. Esterhazy was tried, but acquitted.

170px-J_accuse5. Enter Zola. On January 13, 1898, the morning after Esterhazy was acquitted, Zola, who was editor of the newspaper Aurore, risked his career and his freedom by publishing “J’Accuse…!” in bold letters on the front page. In an open letter to the French president Faure, he accused the top levels of the French army of obstruction of justice and anti-Semitism. The letter named names and offered evidence of Dreyfus’ innocence. It accused the handwriting experts of submitting false reports. It accused the courts-martial of violating the law and committing judicial crime. It accused Esterhazy of espionage. Zola wrote, “[Dreyfus] is the victim of…the ‘dirty Jew’ obsession that is the scourge of our time.”

6. Zola’s intention was to be prosecuted for libel so that new evidence could be brought and made public. His letter was to prove the turning point in the case; because of his stature among the intelligentsia, his stand was enormously influential, both in France and abroad. Zola was brought to trial for criminal libel on February 7, 1898, convicted on February 23, and removed from the Legion of Honor.

7. To avoid imprisonment, Zola fled to England, arriving in July of 1898 with only the clothing on his back. A year later, he was offered a pardon – as opposed to exoneration – which he accepted, saying, “The truth is on the march and nothing shall stop it.”

8. Nothing did. In 1899, Dreyfus was returned to France, retried, found guilty and pardoned. Then in 1906, Dreyfus was exonerated by the French Supreme Court. The guilty verdict was annulled; Dreyfus was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor as “a soldier who has endured an unparallelled martyrdom.”

9. Zola did not live to see this happy conclusion. He died in September 1902 of carbon monoxide poisoning due to a blocked chimney. Thousands attended his funeral, at which he was eulogized by Anatole France as not just a great man, but “a moment in the human conscience.” Suspicion remains to this day that the blocked chimney was deliberate, a murder by an anti-Dreyfusard.

10. For an excellent article summing up the ins and outs of the case, see Adam Gopnik’s “Trial of the Century: Revisiting the Dreyfus Affair,” published in The New Yorker of September 28, 2009. It should also be noted that in 1998, on the hundredth anniversary of Zola’s statement, France’s Roman Catholic daily, La Croix, apologized for its anti-Semitic articles during the Dreyfus Affair.

In Tel Aviv, you’ll find Emile Zola Street just west of Dizengoff and south of Ben Gurion.

8 Things You Need to Know About…E. M. Lilien

Art nouveau illustrator and printmaker

1. Ephraim Moses Lilien was born in Galicia in 1874.

EM Lilien2. He attended the Academy of Arts in Cracow from 1889 to -93. In 1896, he won an award for photography (he was mighty good at it – see below) from Jugend, an avant-garde publication.

3. In 1902, he was one of the founders of Judische Verlag, the first Jewish-Zionist publisher in Western Europe. Based in Berlin, the company produced artistic and literary works – done by Jews, of course.

4. He was a delegate to the Sixth Zionist Congress in 1903, when the Uganda Plan was first broached.


Lilien’s Self-portrait

5. In the years between 1906 and the First World War, he traveled frequently to Palestine. He was with Boris Schatz in Jerusalem for the establishment of the Bezalel Art School and taught the first class there.


The Silent Song

6. His influence on the establishment of a distinctly Israeli style of art was enormous. He explored Jewish themes, using Biblical subjects in a Zionist context, and incorporating Jewish symbols into art nouveau style. It was thus that he created a visual vocabulary for Zionism.

Lilien:Herzl7. Reportedly, it is his photograph of Herzl that became THE portrait we know today. He believed that Herzl was the perfect example of the New Jew in the modern world and used Herzl as a model for depictions of Moses.

8. He died in Germany in 1925.

In Tel Aviv, you’ll find Lilien Street parallel to Struck just northeast of Rabin Square.