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[Page 49]


The Origins of the Zionist Movement in Rokitno

Avraham Ben Dor [Binder] (Ramat Gan)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

The population of Rokitno was mainly young. It consisted of people who came from neighboring villages and from distant settlements in Russia. Here, their families grew. Among these people there were three opposing movements: Hasidism, “Bund” and early Zionism. Why early Zionism? In order to answer this question, we must know the public and political image of the population of Rokitno during World War I.

The Hasidic movement, which left a deep imprint on the Jews of Rokitno, did not understand Zionism and opposed it. It saw in Zionism an attempt to postpone the end and to bring the Messiah before its time. The second element that dominated the public was the “Bund”. Its influence on the youth was great. Even in 1905, a strong group of Bund members settled in Rokitno. Among them were: Moshe and Nissan Polishuk, the dentist Moshe Kutzin and his sister Idel. They were better educated than the rest of the local population. Thus, their influence on the youths was great from an ideological point of view. These youths had not yet defined their view of the world. They were, in general, susceptible to influences and no wonder that the “Bundists”, who were highly educated, were able to direct them to their way of thinking and their worldview. They sowed hatred towards Eretz Yisrael as it was, according to Ansky's declaration, “a land of holy graves” and that it would not solve the problems of the Jews. In their opinion, the change in the Russian governing body would solve the Jewish problem automatically. In these beliefs, there was a great misconception. The youths did not possess analytic skills and could not distinguish truth from nonsense. This nonsense would solve nothing and would only serve as a basis for a losing ideology. These youths, in their innocence, believed that the Bundists' beliefs would be redemption for the Jewish people.

In order to deepen their influence among the youths, the Bundists established a library, which served as a center for the dissemination of their ideology. Meetings of youths and adults were held there. It was the only cultural center in town.

However, the Bund ideology hit a brick wall, which it could not break down. As a result, the movement shattered into tiny pieces. What was this brick wall? It was the stories of the destruction of the Temple in “Eyn Yaakov”, which Jewish children read and studied in the cheders. These stories had a tremendous influence. This is where the children received their knowledge of the land of their forefathers and the prophets. In this struggle, ultimately, “Eyn Yaakov” was the winner over the maligning ideology of the Bund. The buds of Zionism and the Hebrew language began to develop among the Rokitno youths.

The actual push for the formation of the Zionist movement in Rokitno came from nearby Sarny. The Association of Lovers of Hebrew was founded in 1911 in Sarny. Its goal was to teach and to speak Hebrew, to open Hebrew libraries and, as much as possible, to establish a Hebrew school. The Association influenced and directed the formation of a large branch in Rokitno. It became the basis for the Zionist movement in Rokitno. Since they were young, their power was limited. Still, they were able to overcome the influence of the Bund, to stop it in its tracks and to cancel its influence on the streets of Rokitno. The members of the Association kept in touch with the committee of the Hapoel Hatzioni (the Zionist worker) in Berlin. They obtained materials from Petrograd. In the circulars that were sent to them, the youths were asked to establish a Hebrew library, evening classes and to open a Hebrew school.

According to the instructions from the central office, the young members of the Association of Lovers of Hebrew intended to open a Hebrew library in Rokitno. Since the population at that time was small, there really was no need for two libraries. As a result, there was a movement to remake the existing library into a Zionist one. All members of the Association took out library cards and in this way they were able to join its administration in a democratic way. After a long struggle, the young Zionists succeeded and became the directors of the library. The leaders were: Gedalya Lifshitz, Pinie Kliger, Haya-Sara Lifshitz, Polia Rotman (Lifshitz), Leibel Geipman, Yeshayahu Meiri (Meirson), Rachel Meirson (Margalit), Haim Zandweis and others. The library became a center for serious Zionists.

Receipt from the Odessa Committee

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While the Zionist movement was organizing itself, the October Revolution began. Tremendous revolutionary forces were in evidence. The fermenting forces in Russia touched the Jewish population in Rokitno. All colors of the rainbow were represented by the many political groups, such as the “Bund”, “Social Revolutionaries”, Young Zionists, and Achdut (Unity). These groups struggled for the souls of the Jewish population, in general and the young, in particular.

The ideological struggle was won by the Zionist movement. The youths of Rokitno were not blinded by the promises of the emissaries of the revolution who predicted wonderful things for the Jews. In this time of turmoil, the Zionist dream took shape and became a way of life – a way of life which had no alternative. The anti-Zionist parties were beaten and their influence was minimal. Rokitno became a well-known Zionist town.

The Association of Lovers of Hebrew prepared the foundation for a political Zionist movement, which left its mark on the life of the community. The young Zionists took part in every public performance and in elections of various secular and Jewish institutions.

It must be noted that many of the old timers, graduates of the cheder, secretly admired the new movement. However, during elections, they voted for Achdut (Unity) – a religious movement. Mizrachi was not acceptable to the Hasidim. They rejected it because it was a Zionist movement and they saw its adherents as heretics. However, the Rabbis felt that it was necessary to become involved in political movements and not to stay on the sidelines. For that purpose, the religious political movement, Achdut (Unity) was organized. The Zionists fought it. However, when the choice was between the “Bund” and the Zionists, the Achdut people supported the Zionists and the Tarbut School.

When the Revolution broke out, the Association of Lovers of Hebrew declared themselves as the Zionist Party of Rokitno. At that time, there were no sub groups and parties yet. The movement began a difficult struggle to broaden its horizons and to increase its membership. After two years of hard work, the Zionist movement reached its peak. The dream of the Zionists of Rokitno came true in 1912- the Tarbut School was founded.

The main Zionist activities were centered in three areas: study of the Hebrew language, collection of money and work for the Jewish National Fund. At every event- weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and other happy occasions – pairs of people would appear representing the Zionist movement and would obtain donations for the Jewish National Fund. This was especially true on the eve of Yom Kippur. Those active in this area were: Avraham Golod and Moshe Gurman. There were many meetings to collect funds for Jewish National Fund. Its organizers were: Avraham Shapira (from Kisorich), Haim David Weiner and others.

The funds were sent to the Palestine committee in Odessa headed by Ussishkin. Every year a book was published listing the names of donors and the total amount of money collected. This is how the Zionist movement developed in Rokitno, up to the Balfour Declaration.

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