On November 6, 1884, groups of Jews from around eastern Europe, shaken by anti-Semitic attacks and dazzled by visions of Zion, convened in the Prussian city of Kattowitz, hoping to forge themselves into a movement with coherent leadership. It was 13 years before Theodor Herzl was to convene the First Zionist Conference.
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The Kattowitz Conference reflected the desperation of Jews who were confronting the wave of government-organized violence against Jews that broke out in the Russian empire in 1881 — combined with the abiding if almost hallucinatory dream of a physical return to Zion.
The so-called Hovevei Zion (“Lovers of Zion”) societies began to organize in towns in Russia and Romania in 1881 and 1882. Their common goal was immigration to Palestine and the establishment there of agricultural colonies, but for the most part they had no political program. (Rishon Letzion, today a city south of Tel Aviv, was settled by members of Hovevei Zion from Kharkiv, Ukraine, in 1882.)
Early efforts to convene and form a committee of the leaders of the separate Hovevei Zion societies were unsuccessful. Then, in 1884, Leon Pinsker, Moses Leib Lilienblum and several others agreed to the suggestion of David Gordon to meet in Kattowitz (today called Katowice, in Poland).
Gordon, a journalist and editor of Hamagid, the first Hebrew-language newspaper, proposed that the delegates gather on October 27, 1884, which was to be the 100th birthday of the great English-Jewish benefactor Moses Montefiore. Difficulties encountered by some of the Russian delegates in traveling to Kattowitz required a postponement of the meeting, however, to November 6.
Records reveal that 36 people attended the conference, which opened at 6 P.M., at the Bnai Brith hall in the town. Two-thirds of that number had come from the Russian empire, with the remainder arriving from Romania, France, the United Kingdom and Germany. Others who couldn’t make it, sent statements of support and proposals for action.
The delegates elected Leon Pinsker to be the chairman of the Hovevei Zion central committee they formed, and Rabbi Samuel Mohilever as president, an honorary position. Although the secular Pinsker, author of the 1882 pamphlet “Autoemancipation,” was known as an early advocate of an independent Jewish state (“a home like the other nations have,” in his words), by 1884, even he had accepted that such an ambition would have to be postponed to the distant future. This was in part because the Ottoman rulers of Palestine began to become nervous about the growing Jewish immigration there, and began to allow only individuals or small groups to enter the country, and insisted they take Ottoman citizenship (a demand they did not enforce).
Hence, the talk at the Kattowitz Conference centered on establishing financial institutions to support Jewish land purchase, settlement and farming in Eretz Yisrael. The assembled delegates also agreed to set up two committees to continue their work, one based in Warsaw, the other in Odessa. They also established a body called Agudat Montefiore, to advance the cause of settlement, and immediately decided to dispatch funds to two struggling Jewish colonies in Palestine.
Unfortunately, future fundraising efforts fell short, particularly those led by Pinsker in Odessa, and support of the Jewish pioneering colonies in Palestine became increasingly dependent on funding from Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who between 1884 and 1899, contributed some 1.5 million to the cause.
By the time of the First Zionist Congress, in 1897, most of the existing Hovevei Zion societies subsumed themselves into the new framework created by Theodor Herzl.