1881: Deciding That anti-Semitism Is Eternal, Jew Writes Seminal Zionist Pamphlet

Reversing his views, Leon Pinsker decided that Jews would only be safe in their own homeland, and penned Autoemancipation!, in German.

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Leon Pinsker, author of Autoemancipation!, hair combed back and wearing a dark coat. Originally an optimist regarding Jewish assimilation, he became convinced that anti-Semitism was eternal and that Jews only stood a chance of survival in a nation of their own. The date of the image is uncertain but it apparently dates from before 1891.
Leon Pinsker, author of Autoemancipation!, hair combed back and wearing a dark coat. The date of the image is uncertain but it apparently dates from before 1891.Credit: Michalszew and Wikimedia Commons, elaboration by Haaretz

On January 1, 1881, Leon Pinsker published the seminal Zionist text “Autoemancipation!” Writing anonymously, and in German, Pinsker, a longtime advocate of Jews’ integration into their Diaspora host societies, now wrote a highly polemical and passionate plea to his fellow Jews to recognize that Judeophobia – his preferred term for anti-Semitism – was unextinguishable. Until the Jews had a physical homeland of their own, they would never be safe or have equality with other nations, he argued.

Leon (in Hebrew, Yehudah Leib) Pinsker was born on December 13, 1821, in the town of Tomaszow Mazowiecki, in central Poland. When he was still an infant, his family moved to Odessa, Ukraine, where his father Simchah Pinsker, a rabbi and scholar of Karaite Jewry, founded Russia’s first modern Jewish school in 1826.

Leon studied at his father’s school, then at Odessa’s Richelieu Lyceum, before attending law school at Odessa University, one of the first Jews to do so. After earning his law degree and realizing that a Jew could not find employment in the field, he went back to school, at the University of Moscow, studying for a medical degree.

Returning to Odessa in 1849, Pinsker opened a private medical practice and also was appointed head of the psychiatry department of the city hospital. He also fought in the Crimean War (1853-56), and received a commendation for bravery.

Upbeat, until the pogroms

Simultaneous with his medical career, Pinsker co-founded two Jewish periodicals. Both of them, published in Russian, Rassvet (Dawn) and Sion, were infused with the optimistic belief that legal emancipation would allow the Jews to find equality and acceptance in Russian society.

Two major cataclysms are said to have been behind Pinsker’s conversion from his pro-assimilation optimism to a proto-Zionist stance: the Odessa pogrom of 1871, and a decade later, the wave of anti-Jewish violence that spread across southern Russia after the assassination of Czar Alexander II.

Pinsker was hardly the only Jew to decide that Europe would never become a secure home, even with assimilation, for his people. Theodor Herzl had much the same epiphany a decade later, after witnessing the hatred released in France by the Dreyfus affair. But Pinsker was one of the earliest and most articulate to publish a manifesto, albeit anonymously.

Even in the punctuation of its title, “Emancipation!: Warning to His Brethren, from a Russian Jew” anticipates the essay’s anguished and embittered tone. The author, whose identity soon enough became known, had unhappily concluded that there is no remedy for Jew-hatred, other than for the Jews to take responsibility for their fate, and find a physical home of their own.

'To the living, the Jew is a corpse'

Whatever the Jew becomes or does, Pinsker writes, the psychosis that is Judeophobia will cause his neighbor to view him as alien and sinister: “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."

Pinsker challenges his readers to take action, as he did. He became the head of an Odessa branch of the Hibbat Zion movement (later called Hovevei Zion, Lovers of Zion), which called for Jewish immigration to Palestine, and, with the assistance of the Baron Edmond de Rothschild, even established agricultural settlements there in the late 19th century.

Pinsker suffered from heart disease, and tried on several occasions to relinquish his leadership role in the Hibbat Zion movement, which had been basically thrust upon him, but without success. He also became discouraged, as the movement’s members began bickering among themselves, with traditional Orthodox pitted against maskilim (Enlightenment Jews).

Toward the end of his life, Ottoman Turkey began to prohibit Jewish immigration to Palestine, and Pinsker despaired that the Jews would ever be able to make their home there. He wrote a paper to that effect, acknowledging that the physical (as opposed to spiritual) home might have to be in the Americas, but died - on December 9, 1891, in Odessa - before it could be published, and thus remains identified in Zionist history with being a progenitor of the movement later led by Herzl.