In the spring of 1881, Jewish communities within the Pale of Settlement in Russia and Romania witnessed the creation of the Jewish nationalist groups, regional associations, and other core organizations that would subsequently evolve into the movement that came to be known as Ḥovevei Ẓion (lovers of Zion), or Ḥibbat Ẓion.
Although antisemitism played an important role in stimulating the emergence of Ḥibbat Ẓion, the movement’s establishment must be understood as having been shaped by two concurrent processes. One was the conclusion of Jewish emancipation in central and western Europe, which brought central figures in the national movement, such as Leon Pinsker, to the decisive conclusion that the Jews could only be truly emancipated in an independent Jewish state. The second stemmed from the poor socioeconomic conditions faced by Jews of the time, particularly in eastern Europe. The demographic growth experienced by the Jews of eastern Europe, which reached a high point during the last few decades of the nineteenth century, required a dramatic socioeconomic solution that was nowhere to be found. Proponents of the Jewish nationalist movement argued that the establishment of a Jewish state would also help relieve the Jews’ social and economic plight.
In this article, we focus on the rift between the two sociocultural groups that constituted Hibbat Zion—the maskilim and the ultra-Orthodox—and on its overall activity. It seems clear that the Jews in Russia were not ready for a movement aimed at establishing a Jewish national entity in Palestine. After 1885, many of them felt that despite anti-Semitism, their living conditions were improving and only a few among them sought to emigrate to the USA. Only a small minority saw their destination as Eretz Israel, yet it was this relatively inconsequential minority that fuelled the activity of Hibbat Zion, even though only very few of them actually believed in the possibility of settling in Palestine. Hibbat Zion and the Odessa Committee both failed to achieve the goals they set for themselves. Yet, we must acknowledge that the very existence of these Jewish national movements and the evolution of patterns of activity and the leadership they engendered paved the way for the development of a national home for the Jews in Palestine. Their members and their leadership established structures that provided a foundation for those who succeeded them: Herzl’s Zionist Organization and the state of Israel.