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[Page 407]

Poalei-Zion “A La Minsk”

by Nachum Kantorovich

Translated by Judy Montel

The author (born in 1899) – was one of the activists of the Zionist Socialist Movement since his youth. A journalist and historian. Published books in Yiddish: “The Labor Zionist Movement Between the Two World Wars (1918-1939)”, “Jewish Settlements That were Utterly Destroyed in Russia and in Poland”, “The Jewish Rebellion Movement in Poland (1941-1945)”. He lives in New York. A leader of those active at the time in publishing “Sefer Minsk”.
Minsk was the cradle of Poalei-Zion. Minsk was also the birthplace of the first organized Poalei-Zion movement to step upon the public stage with its own ideology, and it is recognized in the history of the movement as the “Nusach Minsk” (Minsker Talk) [Minsk Version] of Poalei-Zion.

The first Zionist Labor Union to call itself Poalei-Zion was founded in Minsk in 1897 1, which was the year of the first Zionist Congress, on the one hand, and also of the founding of the “Bund” on the other. “Nusach Minsk” of Poalei-Zion made its mark upon the activities of more than a few groups of Poalei-Zion in Belorussia and in Lithuania.

Even B. Berochov writes in his “Memoirs”2, that the name 'Poalei-Zion' was first used already in 1899 when it was taken by a union in Minsk led by the currently famous author A. Litwin, Itzchak Berger and Avraham-Aba Rubenchik. However, this union negated the socialist class views regarding the Diaspora. This is the origin of those called “Minsk Poalei-Zion”, who united with the Socialist-Teritorialists in 1907.

In “Regulations of the Poalei-Zion Union in Minsk” the goal of the union was defined as follows:

  1. To encourage the Zionist idea, as it was introduced in the Basle Program (here the Basle plan was copied out verbatim).
  2. To strengthen national Jewish feeling in the hearts of Jewish laborers.
  3. To elevate the spiritual state of the Jewish laborers and to improve their material circumstances.
The first convention of the Zionist Labor Unions was held in Minsk on November 10th, 1901, the 21st of Kislev, 5662. After the opening session came the first part: “Propaganda, Literature and Organization”. The second part dealt with “Cultural Activity”, and the third, with – “Relations with other Organizations”, the fourth, with – “Economic Activity”, the fifth – demands from the Fifth Zionist Congress.

The first propagandists of the Zionist idea among the laborers were the Liberal-Democratic Zionists who were looking for support among the laboring class for their Democratic Zionism, which was more or less “liberal in its outlook”. The democratic Zionist intelligentsia felt it would be difficult to create a strong movement in the passive atmosphere that existed among the Jewish petit-bourgeoisie, since the interests of the householders and petit-bourgeoisie mentality had to much weight in those circles.

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But on the other hand, the laboring classes came with their own demands of Zionism. The liberal intelligentsia were not concerned with class interests and roles. They mainly took into account the energies of the proletariat, their readiness for battle, and wished to enlist them to the cause of the Zionist movement, in which the laboring public was supposed to function as a progressive element.

When the central agency was founded after the first convention of Poalei Zion in 1901 it was charged with instilling Zionism in the proletariat and making a stand against the influence of the anti-Zionism of the “Bund”. And thus a second task was added to that of instilling Zionism with democracy, no less important than the first. But the two roles needed to be fulfilled within the framework of the Zionist movement. The general national interests and tasks needed to be a part of all of the social groups that made up the Jewish people, and to stand above their class and group interests. In fact they thought very little about encouraging class interests of the Jewish laborer. They included the laborers in the Zionist Union because they were Zionists.

“To appreciate that period,” writes Yitzchak Zar, “one must take into consideration the fact that the theories were created and the debates conducted mainly verbally… newspapers, and united ones, were not possible in the underground associations.” Zar is relying in this matter also on the situation of the socialist-revolutionaries and the social-democrats. And this is how it was for Poalei Zion. “The difference of Poalei Zion… was determined not only by the person and the place, but by the problems which needed to be addressed and due to organizations they were separated from one another for the moment, and various partnerships started up that later became political parties within the framework of general proletarian Zionism.” 3 The most important point of disagreement for Poalei Zion was the position to take regarding the “political struggle.” This concept included the political struggle in the Diaspora, in places – the political part of what was called “the work of the present”.

There was a theory that the Diaspora was not capable of giving anything to the Jews, and that the situation of the Jews would not improve under anyone's rule. Even further, the Jews were even likely to damage the revolution because it would be presented as a Jewish affair and there would be an attempt to deflect the fury of the masses towards Czarism against the Jews, as had indeed been done in various periods and various countries. The Minsk stream, which connected with this theory, therefore espoused “apoliticism”, even though apoliticism had adherents in other cities as well, and in the Minsk district there were, on the other hand, also many adherents of political struggle. Minsk in general was lucky with regard to the socialist as well as the Zionist movement. In 1898 the first convention of the Russian social-democrats had taken place there. In 1902 the all-Russia Zionist convention was held there, known as “The Minsk Meeting”. In 1897 the first Zionist Labor Union started there, which was called “Poalei Zion.” And even the “unaffiliated” appeared there in 1901-2.

Y. Zar tells from his “personal experience”, that the number of the adherents of the “political struggle” was very large compared to the opponents. With the “fighters” were included mainly those who came to Poalei Zion off the street tending to revolution and from the “Bund”. But he believes that in the history of the ideology of the “Zionist Laborers” the Minsk stream deserves mention not so much because of the number of its supporters, but because of the sympathetic significance of extreme Diaspora-rejection. “The Minsk “Spirit”, says Zar – was that inevitable historical brake on the path of the “Zionist Laborers”, which stopped it on its path to broader levels and allowed the “Bund” to develop.”

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Minsk “Version” of Poalei Zion

In 1901 a “Central” [committee] of the organizations of Poalei Zion took place in Minsk which included: Yitchak Berger (later – one of the leaders of the general Zionists there, died in Israel), Avraham Rubenchik (later immigrated to the United States, died there), Avraham Grinhaus, A. Litwin (immigrated to the United States, lead the first union of Poalei Zion since 1899), Yosel Goldberg (later – a member of the Jewish People's party, author and translator, died in Minsk) and Chaika Cohen (later a member of Poalei Zion in America. Married the author M. Salyovski there).

The area of influence the “Central” included Minsk, Bobroisk, Borisov, Grodno, Bialistok, and to an extent Vilna as well. The “Central” published one volume of a periodical, which was printed by lithography “Der Arbeter-Zionist” (“The Zionist Worker”). In the organizational area the “Central” was not distinguished at all, and Y. Berger was criticized for this at the meeting of the Vilna committee of the Poalei Zion union, which was founded in 1901 and called “Bnei Moshe” and which in early 1902 took the name “Poalei Zion”.

The “Central” in Minsk created what is known as the “Minsk Version” (“Minsker Talk”) of Poalei Zion, which had in important role in the early formative years of Poalei Zion, until the “Poltava Period”, which is connected to the names of B. Berochov and Y. Ben Tzvi.

“The way of thinking of the Minsk 'direction',” writes M. Gutman 4, “was as follows: Zionism is a national ideal which touches all classes of the Jewish nation equally; it will solve the Jewish question in a radical fashion by establishing a Jewish state in the land of Israel, to which the vast majority of Jews in the world will immigrate. The Jews do not have any future in the lands of the Diaspora. The Jewish participation in the revolution is only giving the revolution a bad name, since it gives it an image of a “Little Jewish Conspiracy” in the eyes of the non-Jewish population. The Jewish workers can expect nothing from the revolution: even the maximum democratization of Russia will not economically improve the situation of the Jews. Even if rights are obtained, they will remain on paper. Socialism is indeed a lovely ideal, but Jewish workers should appropriately devote themselves to socialist propaganda only on the soil of Israel. Among the Jews in the Diaspora there are no sharp differences of class; therefore, it is not possible to conduct a class war in the full meaning of the word. One can only conduct economic strikes to improve the situation of the workers.”

“Apoliticism”, the apathy to the social-political struggle, held way among the Minsk Poalei Zion for a long time thanks to this typical ideology of the Minsk “Version”, which separated it radically from all of the other “directions”, later ones, in Poalei Zion – the “political”, “Dvinsk Version,” the Marxist “Poltava Direction” and others.

In August 1902 the first all-Russia Zionist convention was held in Minsk. This legal convention aroused general attention. Several delegates of Zionist Labor also participated in this convention such as: Y. Berger, A. Rubenchik, Chaika Cohen, A. Lapidot, Nachum Shtif, Ben-Adir, Ya'akov Leshchinski, Yehuda Novakovski, Shimon Dubin, Cheskas (except for the first four from “Minsk Version”, the others moved quickly to the “Bund”, to the “Folkespartei” and to the “Unified”. Y. Leshchinski returned to Poalei Zion, died in Israel in 1966). The workers' delegates held a consultation during the convention, but did not start a unified association. Some of the delegates learned then for the first time that there were Poalei Zion groups in many places, and they disseminated the idea of unifying them throughout Russia.

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The first council of all of the Poalei Zion associations in Russia took place in June 1903 in Vilna. This was a short time after the pogrom in Kishiniev, which had a horrifying influence on the Jews of Russia, because it emphasized the abnormal situation of the Jewish minority in Russia, and thus caused a strengthening of Zionist awareness. The participation of the of police office in organizing the pogrom lit a powerful enmity in the hearts of the Jews towards Czarism and a desire to take revenge upon him and defeat him along with all of the opposition parties in Russia. The thought of political struggle then started to penetrate the apolitical ranks of Poalei Zion in Belarussia and Lithuania, among whom the Minsk “Version” was popular. This version was represented in the Vilna council by Rubenchik, Berger and Lapidot. There were representatives from Vilna, Dvinsk, Warsaw, Kiev, Bobruisk, Gomel, Moghiliev, Kovno, Grodno, Lida and Kreslavka at the council.

The ruling direction at the council was the Minsk one, which was expressed by its adherents in Vilna, Moghiliev, Bobruisk, Grodno and Lida. Opposed to the “Minsk Version” was the direction of those from Dvinsk, according to its representative Alter Jaffe. This direction recognized class divisions and opposing class interests among the Jews, and expressed its enthusiasm towards the Russian revolution, but believed that the salvation to come from the future revolution would not be so great as to justify that the Jewish proletariat participate fully in the struggle. Its position about political struggle was weak in places. The Dvinsk social-Zionist direction was also supported by a minority of the delegates from Vilna, Kovno, Gomel and Kreslavka.

The third direction, the most leftist, was ideologically entirely anchored in the political struggle in Russia proper and was therefore called by the name the “Peka'istic” (P.K. – the acronym of “Politisher Kampf”, political struggle). The main clash was between the two extreme wings at the council. Rubenchik, the leader of the “Minskers”, claimed that preaching for revolutionary struggle should not be done among Jews, since what Jew was not a revolutionary under the conditions of the hated anti-Semitic Czarist pogrom-regime. But what can one expect from political struggle when the Jews are a minority and the Jewish laborers are concentrated in small manufacturing? Now it is necessary to enlist all of the nation's strength to one and only one task – the realization of Zionism. Only afterwards would it be possible to conduct the struggle for socialism and a true Jewish revolution. At the hour of decision, when there will be a battle at the barricades, our place, of course, will be at the barricades fighting for a democratic republic. But this could take a long time, and until this struggle arrives, we must concentrate all of our energies not on purposeless revolutionary propaganda among the Jews, but on Zionism.

A large portion of the delegates believed that if the concept of political struggle was accepted, there would be no discernable difference between them and the “Bund”. The Peka'ists won three votes, of those from Vilna, Konin and Y. Leshchinski, and that of S. Zusman from Warsaw.

When they left Warsaw [sic] Rubenchik and Berger were arrested. And even though they were later released, the material and the decisions from the council that were taken from them when they were arrested were not returned.

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The council in Vilna chose a central chamber for all of Russia, and its majority was in the “Minsk direction.” The elected central chamber was also located in Minsk, and therefore the two other directions did not trust it. The Peka'ists were not included in the chamber at all, and in fact it functioned as a central leadership only for the “Minsk Version” associations: Minsk proper, Bobruisk, Borisov, Bialistok and Grodno – all of them in Belarussia.

The Uganda Crisis

The Uganda crisis that later occurred hastened the future development in Poalei Zion and also caused major changes in the victorious “Minsk Version”.

The suggestion of Uganda as a country for Jewish settlement brought, as is known to a split in the sixth Zionist congress, which divided into “yea sayers” and “nay sayers.” The struggle passed also into the ranks of Poalei Zion. Among the general Zionists two camps formed after the sixth Zionist congress: Zionists for Zion and Uganda supporters. Among the Poalei Zion of the “Minsk Version” who had always decried the low state of the Jewish working class, which was concentrated in failing economic areas, the false vision of this new-born territorialism aroused stormy debates on the question “Uganda and Zion”. Several left Zionism entirely, several became active Uganda supporters; the social-democratic Poalei Zion, the Poltavists, sided, via Berochov, with the stand that the land of Israel had to be the national center, while others, the socialist-territorialists expressed their opinion in favor of pure territorial activism and later, together with the Territorial Union that was founded at the time headed by Israel Zangwill, began searching for territories for Jewish immigration and settlement.

The attempts among Poalei Zion to create a unified center continued. In 1904 the Vilna committee of Poalei Zion established a “Temporary Central Committee”, which sent circulars to all of the Poalei Zion associations and called for a national convention to be held. M. Gutman, who conducted a trip through several cities for the committee visited Minsk also and conducted negotiations with Lapidot, Grinhaus and Yosel Goldberg. According to him, in his article, which was quoted earlier, the right leaning majority in the Minsk association suspected Vilna of “apostasy”. Those from Minsk knew that in Vilna there was a revolutionary majority. The leftist's minority in Minsk was too weak. S. Niger, one of its leaders, left Minsk; his brother, Vladek, went over to the “Bund” during his imprisonment. One of the Podnos brothers died, the other went over to the Russian social-democrats.

The Vilna attempt also faced opposition from Warsaw, Gomel, Kiev and other associations for whom Vilna was too “right wing”.

Nachman Sirkin visited Minsk in 1905 on family matters, having come there from his dwelling place in Moghiliev after the death of his father. His periodicals, “The Masses” in Yiddish, and “The Dawn” in Hebrew, in which he preached the ideology of socialist Zionism, with his reliance on the masses, as opposed to the Jewish bourgeoisie which tends towards assimilation, were usually much better known abroad, among the circles of Jewish student youth from Russia.

Initiative for another attempt to unify the associations came from Warsaw. And indeed, there was an early convention of “The revolutionary, proletarian-Zionist association” that took place there at the end of July 1904, in which Shlomo Zusman participated as a representatives of the leftists who had already separated from the Minsk association and created their own. The convention stabilized on a territorial basis, even though the association from Yekaterinoslav had a majority of “Zionists for Zion”. The organization's officers of the early convention included: Ya'akov and Yosef Leshchinski, Yehuda Novakovski, Alter Jaffe, Shmuel Chasidov-Tzadukov and B. Friedland from the “Vozrozhdenye” (“The Rebirth”) group.

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The officers settled in Kiev and prepared programs for calling a convention of all of the territorialist Poalei Zion, or as they were then called – Z.S., Socialist Zionists. But instead of that a convention on the matter of self defense was held in December 1904 in Odessa. Minsk was represented there by S. Niger.

The convention opened on December 23rd and the next day all of its participants were arrested. They were released at the beginning of February 1905. The convention declared itself the founding convention of “The Zionist-Socialist Worker's Party” (Z.S.-Territorialists) and elected a central committee consisting of: Ya'akov Leshchinski, Yosef Leshchinski, Moshe Litvakov, Alter Jaffe V. Latzki, Y. Novakovski, B. Fridland and S. Dubin.

The Zionist workers then conducted endless debates with the “Bund” about socialism and nationalism, Judaism and assimilation, territorial solutions or non-territorial solutions to the Jewish question, land-of-Israelism or autonomy and such. These debates, which were frequently very heated, contributed to both camps. They helped the “Bund” create the national-cultural autonomy plan and they provided incentive to Poalei Zion to stick to the revolutionary movement and to accept the principal of the political struggle while they were still in the Diaspora. A great and well-known influence in this matter, of course, was due to the general revolutionary movement in Russia, which continued growing in strength and at the time sprouted the two separate revolutionary parties, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks on the one hand. And the socialist-revolutionaries, who continued the “Narodniks” and “Trudoviks” etc. on the other hand.

The general pessimistic outlook of the “Minsk Version” regarding the possibility of development for the masses of the Jews in the Diaspora was given expression eventually also in the continuing quest for ideologies for Zionist labor. In this fashion, the theory of “un-proletarization” arose, which said that the masses of Jews in the Diaspora must not become proletarian. These masses, during capitalist development are weakened and become property-less and classless. But since the gates of the factories are closed to them, because of anti-Semitism and discrimination, the Jewish masses cannot take part in the proletarization process and they therefore become an eternal classless element, lumpen-proletariat, for whom there is only one outlet – to immigrate and search for normalization and social-economic productivation opportunities in other countries. The Poltavian direction of Poalei Zion which was founded then with B. Berochov at its head was of the opinion that such processes could take place only in the land of Israel, while the later Z.S., for the same reasons, accepted the yoke of territorialism.

“Proletarian Zionism,” writes Y. Zerubavel 5, was an oral teaching. Every theoretician had his own method; every city had its own theoretician. Most of the associations and groups of Poalei Zion were essentially only “worker factions” of general Zionism and dealt with the interests of the workers in Zionism. Since it consisted of large numbers of workers, they viewed Zionism as the historical salvation of the entire nation.”

Two representatives, those of the “Israeli” Poalei Zion and those of the Zionist-Socialists (Z.S.), who later officially defined themselves as a separate party of territorialists arrived at the seventh Zionist congress in 1905.

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Z. Shazar, in his book “Light of Personalities”, shows how the “Minsk Version”, thanks to the “un-proletarization” connects to Berochovism. He writes: “The very fact of basing this theory on the blackness of the future in the Diaspora had the hand of the young Berl (Katzenelson). At times of tenderness and openness, when he didn't fear that it would be seen as an eighth of an eighth of arrogance, Berl would say – and later I was able to find the documents that confirmed this – that as it seemed to him, it was he who created the famous theory of “un-proletarization”. The way to this was developed by Dr. H.D. Horvitz at the convention of the Zionists of Minsk, where Berl – and he was still a boy, fifteen years old – was one of those present among the guests, and the phrasing and material for it was donated by Ya'akov Leshchinski. But in arguments with his fellow-opponents, in his debate with Berochov, and that debate I mentioned earlier, with the leader of the Siemists Yehuda Novakovski in Kiev, he had already developed the philosophy of “un-proletarization”. That is: the Jews are blocked in the Diaspora from being partners in the workers revolution because in the Diaspora they are blocked from working. Afterwards the theory of “un-proletarization” was elevated to a founding principle in socialist Zionism at the beginning of its flowering, and later it was abandoned, changed and deepened. There was a period when Berochov was in favor of it; and there was a time when Berochov wrote against it, and rephrased it, instead of “un-proletarization” he said “un-industrialization”, and after in-depth study of the material he based in its stead the theory of 'the flaws of the strategic base of the Hebrew laborer in his class war in the Diaspora.'” 6

There is reason to add here about the strange meeting point that there was at that period, purely by chance, of course, at the debates on the Jewish question between Yitzchak Zar and Vladimir Lenin. Lenin publicized an article in Russian called: “Is Jewish social-democracy necessary?” while the pamphlet of the Poalei Zion theoretician was called: “Is Jewish social-democracy possible?”

In his book, Z. Shazar also gave an accurate estimation of the Z.S. party that came after the Minsk Version: “Z.S. was the party that more than all of the other Jewish parties in its generation saw the black future that awaited the Jews in the Diaspora. It was the party of pessimism and it had the recognition that there would be no resurrection for the Jews amid the nations, as a minority among the many, for 'amid those nations thou shalt not rest.' With a revolution, without a revolution, during the revolution, the downward slope and atrophy were to be expected. The exilic pessimism which surrounded the Z.S. – this is its great and special merit. With this it became the Pinskerian movement. And more than Pinsker it saw the abyss yawning before the Diaspora, for in the meantime it studied and taught how to decipher economic flaws and economic signs which prophesized ill. And there was not then a party that saw that we were doomed to extermination in the Diaspora and which attempted to create a movement based on this recognition as the Z.S. did in those years.

And there was no party in Israel that later denied its black vision, and made a mockery of this entire tremendous revelation and wasted its despair and alienated in the way this party did so, when it later joined with others and with rivals and when it compromised with the most extreme optimism of the Diaspora. Its members were swallowed up by the “Farainikte” party. And many of its leaders also lost their way amid the Ivskian desert of idleness and denial from which all who enter do not return.” 7.

Translator's Footnotes:
1 This is one version. Another version set 1899 as the founding year. See below quote from B. Berochov and see in our book, on page 340 also a report from Minsk by H.D. Rozenstein in “HaMelitz” from 1900, which might function as proof of the 1899 version – the printer. Return
2Published in “Di Kemper Shtime” no. 31 February 1916, New York, and also in “Yidisher Arbeter Yar-Buch un Almanach”, 1928, Poalei Zion Publications, New York, p. 182. In a comment on the aforementioned section, by the editorial board apparently, it says that: “Berochov has mistaken the date here. The Minsk Poalei Zion was founded in 1897.” The Hebrew vision – according to the translation of L. Lvita in editing the third volume of the writings of Berochov, pp. 516-517. Return
3“Zu der Geshichte fon Poalei-Zionistishen Gedenk”, Yidisher Arbeter Yar-Buch un Almanach, 1927, pp. 253 ff. Return
4Zu Der Forgesichte fon Z.S., “Roiter Pinkas”, first collection, Kultur Liga Publications, Warsaw, 1928, pp. 152-173. Return
5Y. Zerubavel, Der Grindungs Feridod fon Y.S.D.A.P. Poalei Zion in Rusland, “Roiter Pinkas”, pp. 131-151. Return
6Z. Shazar, “Light of Personalities” [Or Ishim], Vol. II, Zionist Library, Jerusalem, 1964, pp. 113-114. Return
7Ibid., pp. 112-113. Return

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