Monthly Archives: February 2015

Zionist movement in Latvia 1918-1940

The elected Jewish politicians in the middle the Latvian Zionist leader Mordehai Nurok

The elected Jewish politicians in the middle the Latvian Zionist leader Mordehai Nurok

On 18-19th century the nationalist movement became popular among many nations among Europe. Nationalist idea presented the unity by ethnic and cultural means and formation of a national state. For each nation the nationalism manifested in different ways. For French and British nationalism evolved into imperialism. For nations under foreign rule like Latvians the nationalism evolved into struggle for self determination. For the Jewish people their unique position in Europe made them create a specific type of nationalism – Zionism. For the nation left without homeland living in Diaspora among many places of the world the Zionism meant many things. First the rejection of assimilation and conversion to Christianity instead openly display their Jewish identity and demand equal rights in countries they lived. Second the ultimate goal – the creation of a Jewish state in their historical homeland in Middle East. Zionist movement appeared in late 19th century and reached Latvia that had significant Jewish population. At first it was rather weak, but after the foundation of the Republic of Latvia it became prominent even among other Jewish movements among Europe. This article is about these Zionist movements in Latvia, who were they and what they meant for Latvians and the Jews.

The Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook born in Grīva, Latvia

The Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook born in Grīva, Latvia

The term Zionism was first used by Nathan Birnbum on 1982 in Vienna. The roots of the idea were at least 20 years older and expressed by thinkers including Rabbi from Bauska Mordechai Eliasberg who said people is only possible in their homeland. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook who was born the Grīva present day Latvia on 1865. He is regarded as one of the most prominent religious thinkers who developed these ideas further. Ultimately this Latvia born scholar became the first Chief Rabbi of the Ashkenazi Jews in British Mandate of Palestine. But, the Zionist idea on the political level was raised by Jewish physician from Odessa Leo Pinsker. His book Auto-Emancipation published in Berlin on 1882 outlined the idea of the political Zionism. In his pamphlet he urged his fellow Jewish people to strive for independence and self-determination and reject assimilation and conversion that will not entirely remove anti-semitism. A state governed by Jews in the place of their own was further elaborated by Theodor Herzl in his Judenstaat – The Jewish State on 1896 and made the zionist idea widespread. There was a reason why one of the first proponents of Jewish national idea came from Russian Empire like Rabbi Cook and Leo Pinsker – the Jewish rights were in backwards state comparing to Western Europe. Thats why the ideas of Leo Pinsker where not generally accepted in Germany but praised in Russia.

The first Zionist organization in Russia was BILU society on 1882. On 1884 it was replaced by Hovevei Zion society. They established branches in Liepāja, Daugavpils, Krustpils, Bauska and other cities within present day Latvia. They did not manage to start colonization of Palestine owned by the Ottoman Empire. The boost was given by more practical ideas of Theodor Herzl and formed in the First Zionist Congress in Basel Switzerland on 1897. Russia’s Jews faced pogroms as early as from 1880ies causing them to look for common political ideology of defiance. Herzl works were known in Latvia and evolved in different movements. Some called them Palestiophiles, among them V Kaplan, L Shalit,  Z Berman J Tron and others. They split up in political and spiritual Zionists. The third movement was Socialist Zionism organized in movement Poaley Zion and Ceire Zion who worked in Riga, Daugavpils, Ludza, Tukums and many other places. They were outscored by the Bund who were Jewish Marxists who played major role in the 1905 revolution and enjoyed greater popularity. As Marxists they rejected national and religious ideas instead focused on social issues and rights of the Jewish workers.

The First World War disrupted the lives of Jews in Latvia. Many were deported from combat areas in false accusations of spying, many took refuge by themselves. Large portion of them ended up in Russia. Together with Latvians, the Jews had the most organized refugee support societies. After the fall of the Russian monarchy on 1917 the Jewish movement split up in many ways. Many joined the Bolsheviks, others stayed true to the social-democracy regarded as Mensheviks. The Bund in Latvia rejected the communist party. Others in the light of the events in Palestine saw chance in revival of Zionism. The 1917 Balfour Declaration promising “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people” however failed to match the Zionist expectations. The Zionist Leader Chaim Weizmann made agreement with Arab leader Emir Faisal for Jewish-Arab cooperation that would give Palestine to Jews, while Faisal receives a united Arab kingdom within Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Faisal’s logic was that Jews were wise and rich enough to turn Palestinian desert into garden while Arabs have the great kingdom in Baghdad and Damascus. However, the Allied powers failed his expectations by creating the Palestinian Mandate governed by British, giving Syria to France and Iraq to UK.  Such betrayal to the both to Arabs and Jews created a decades of war and hate still not solved until this day.

Meanwhile for Jews in Latvia there were three choices: support the Bolshevik Latvian Soviet Republic that was hostile to religion and national self-determination.  Support the Germanic Baltic Duchy that may give some rights to the Jewish minority or support the Republic of Latvia that promised equal rights for all nationalities in Latvia. At first the third choice did not seem obvious- the Latvian Provisional Government was weak and seemed short lived. However, some Jewish representatives joined the Latvian Peoples Council from the start. After the victories over Bolsheviks and Germans on the summer of 1919 the third choice was now the primary one. More than 1000 Jews took part in the ranks of the Latvian army. Some were decorated. After the independence was won it was time for Jews in Latvia to make out what is best for themselves.

The Republic of Latvia was a champion of the minority rights in the post war Europe. Jews finally had chance for their own schools supported by state, cultural movements and political parties to elect in parliament and local municipalities. The 93 479 Jews in Latvia (according to 1935 census) were different kind of people. Some of them were traders, shopkeepers, craftsmen, doctors, teachers, workers and poor. And different was their political and even religious views. In 20 years of independence the Jews in Latvia failed to create united organization to represent the entire Jewish community. The zionists were not united among themselves. The socialists and orthodox opposed them and each other. So the Jewish political climate in Latvia was diverse.

Zionism in Latvia had many wings. The Histadrut Chazionist party founded on 1919 represented the general right wing bourgeoisie Jews. They had sections in all Latvia, their idea was to create a national zionist center in Palestine and improve the lives of Jews within Diaspora. Other aspect of their ideology was to increase the Jewish involvement in the agricultural and industrial sector. Party was influential at first but failed to get elected in parliament only in some municipalities. Only the Constitutional Assembly from 1920  to 1922 had one elect Zh Thorn. The party contributed to the creation of the Palestine Bureau that was a center of communications between Zionists in Latvia and the settlers in Palestine. Also it organized the emigration from Latvia to Palestine. Party made many youth organizations Chatio (Hope), Bney Zion (the sons of Zion), and Herzlia. The youth organizations worked in cultural, sports and social fields.

An alternative Zionist movement was the religious Zionism movement Mizrachi. Judaism was the main force uniting Jews around the world. However, Judaism was not primary nationalistic and rejected political solution to the Jewish problems. As mentioned before the two Rabbis from Latvia Mordechai Eliasberg and Abraham Isaac Kook were the ones who promoted the middle way between secular and religious solution. The idea of combining both truths for the common good of the Jewish people created the religious Zionism that accepted secular state as part of the messianic way. The religious values can be kept in the Jewish state, thus for the religious Jew moving back to their ethnic homeland is a obligation and the Zionism is the will of G-d. Not all orthodox   Jews agreed on that, however the Mizrachi party in Latvia was quite influential.

Nuroks

Mordechai Nurock (left) speaks to the president of Latvia Alberts Kviesis (right)

 Mizrachi (the Religious Center) party was run by rabbi Mordechai Nurock was born in Tukums on November 7 1879. He served as rabbi in Jelgava, on 1903 he took part in the Zionist Congress. He moved to Russia during the war and played key role in refugee organizations. He also joined the All-Russian Jewish Committee and established a religious Jewish group known as “Tradition and Freedom”. On 1921 he returned to Latvia and was elected in the parliament. He was consequently elected in next three elections until 1934. Nurock was active man, both in Latvia and abroad. He cooperated with many organizations and contributed to their work. He was well recognized among the Latvian politicians, his main allies however were the Social-Democrats who were mostly in the oppositions. The anti-semitic Latvian press always pointed to Nurock as the main patron of the two short lived leftist coalitions. But, Nurock was just and tolerant towards his opponents and supported democracy. The coup by Kārlis Ulmanis on May 15 1934 came to his disappointment and created opposition. In result his movement was rejected by the regime. On 1940 the Soviets exiled him to Turkmenistan. His wife and two children were killed in the Holocaust, while he was freed on 1947 and moved to Palestine. After the creation of the State of Israel he was elected in the Israeli Knesset on 1952 he was elected as minister of Postal service, he was also a candidate for the President of Israel. He served in the Knesset until his death on 1962 November 8 becoming the most successful Zionist from Latvia who actually took part in creation of Israel.

However, there were people who rejected the both general secular way and the religious way.  They were the left wing Zionists or Socialist Zionists. Already mentioned  the Poalie Zion (The Workers of Zion) and Ceirei Zion were already known before WWI. In socially unequal Latvia the left wing Zionism was apparently popular. Their leader Max Laserson was elected in many elections and stood united with social democrat organization. One of his main ideas was the Jewish Political and Cultural autonomy in Latvia greatly extending the Jewish rights. Also Baltic Germans and Russians pushed for the same making the Latvian legislators fear the creation of “state within state”. His proposals were not entirely rejected but politely “delayed” in parliamentary commissions. His socialism was not radical but more moderate achieving unity and progress in both national and social means. The left wing Zionists opposed the idea employed by the right wing and religious Zionists that Hebrew language used only in Torah and religious rituals should be brought to life.  Instead they insisted on keeping Yiddish the mix of Hebrew and German that was main language for Jews in the Eastern Europe. Not all Jews in Latvia used Yiddish as primary language. In Courland and Riga some preferred German; in Latgale some spoke only Russian. The both parties argued over the teaching of Hebrew in schools and the common ground was not achieved; some schools taught only in Hebrew, some in Yiddish. But, Hebrew was never used in the daily lives of the Latvian Jews.

On 1931 the Ceirei Zion united with their counterpart Zionist-Socialist party and created the United Party of Zionists-Socialists of Latvia”. But, the new force never made it to elections on 1934 after the coup they were banned by the anti-left wing Ulmanis regime. Max Laserson survived the Holocaust and made it to Israel and was elected in Knesset.

Zeev_Jabotinsky

Zeev Jabotinsky

The Zionist movement was not complete without its far right wing. And Latvia played significant part in it. After the Zionist hopes to achieve statehood with the help of the Balfour declaration failed there was common sense of disappointment. The parties mentioned above continued to work on diplomatic solution and start colonization of Palestine. However, the hostility between Arabs and the new settlers resulted in violence. Palestine was not entirely devoid of Jews before the start of Zionist movement. The small Jewish population living there for centuries were generally tolerated by the Muslims who came there on 6th century. However, now the influx of the new settlers raised hostility boosted by the British inability to control situation in their mandate. This made some to come to conclusion that the only way to achieve Zionist goals is using radical force, by using self defense and armed response both to British and Arabs. This was a radical thinking for Jews in those times, as Jews living in other countries had no real militaristic tradition since the fall of Kingdom of Israel. The main leader of these people was Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Born in Odessa 1880 October 18 Jabotinsky started as moderate Zionist. He came to militarism during WWI when he pushed for the Jewish Legion within the British Army to fight the Ottomans. In 1915, together with Joseph Trumpeldor, a one-armed veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, he created the Zion Mule Corps, he saw action in Palestine as Lieutenant within the 38th Royal Fusiliers. After demobilized he started to train Jewish Self Defense corps. After his unit was repressed by the British he became even more radical. In 1920, Jabotinsky was elected to the first Assembly of Representatives in Palestine. The following year he was elected to the executive council of the Zionist Organization. He was also a founder of the newly registered Keren Hayesod and served as its director of propaganda But after having major disagreements with moderate leading Zionists he left the Zionist Organization.

Jabotinsky considered that his political carrier is over. Then he was invited to Latvia and Lithuania to hold lectures. On 1923 he arrived in Riga to speak in  front of student organization Hatiho. As he preached his radical views he was told that he has no rights to preach them if he is not intending to create a political movement. That made Jabotinsky think over his intention the local students of Riga inspired him to start a new political movement called Zionist Revisionism. It was to revise the Zionist policy that failed to achieve its goals on 1917.

The logo of the Jabotisky Betar

The logo of the Jabotisky Betar

As Riga was the cradle of the revisionist movement the first of its organization was established in Latvia. The Latvian Union of Zionists-Revisionists came to being on 1925. The main Jabotinsky organization Betar is claimed to be founded in Riga. Betar soon spread all around the Europe and made its way in US and even Australia. In Palestine the Betar was often viewed by the British as terrorist organization. Some more radical offspring’s as the so called Stern Gang  or Lehi and Irgun were responsible for terrorist acts against the British like the King David Hotel bombing and the murder of the UN negotiator Folk Bernadotte on 1948. But, Jabotinsky movement major achievement was the contribution of making strong Jewish military to defend the new state of Israel. The Israeli Defense Force was created from these Jewish self defense units. Also major political parties like Likud and Kadima are followers of the Zionist-Revisionist movement. Without the Zionist-Revisionists the creation of Israel would not be possible and the fact that Riga was the starting point of this movement puts Riga as important place in the history of Israel.

The other wing of Zionist Revisonism active also in Latvia was Joseph Trupeldor movement. Joseph Trupeldor was a charismatic war hero that became famous in the Battle of Tel Hai on March 1 1920 where died in battle. Already famous war leader he was recognized as the national hero. To his honor a youth organization “Brit Josef Trumpeldor” (The Union of Josef Trupeldor) was created and was active in Latvia. The organization employed a militaristic lifestyle, marched in uniforms and often were called the “Jewish Fascists” because of their brownish uniforms. The brown color was to resemble the Palestinian desert and brown British uniform Trumpeldor wore. The organization made major contribution to youth sport and education.

There were two major opponents of Zionists among Jews in Latvia. The Bund that was the oldest socialist party in Russian Empire was still true to their pre-1918 views and rejected nationalism. They also opposed the teaching of Hebrew. Other major opponent was Agudat Isroel lead by Rabbi Mordechai Dubin. Influential politician and businessman was a Orthodox Jew who opposed moving to Palestine and create a new state before the arrival of the Messiah. Instead he pushed for staying in Latvia and maintain the religious traditions. He supported the teaching of Hebrew but only for religious means. Dubin who once even visited the US president Herbert Hover, had great influence on the Latvian politicians even Kārlis Ulmanis. Dubin however broke his principals when he made major effort to save thousands of Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany stranded in Latvia. One part of them was sent by him to Palestine because for Dubin the main prinicipal was to save help his common people regardless of his views.

Kārlis Ulmanis banned all the Zionist parties after his takeover. But, he banned every party regardless their nationality even his own Lavian Farmers Union. But, Ulmanis was not against Zionism in general as he saw nothing wrong of Jews moving away from Latvia and leaving more space for Latvians. Zionists except left wingers worked and non-political movements. The marching Trumpeldor’s were tolerated by Ulmanis. Then came the 1940 when the Soviet occupation closed all the Jewish societies and took over their property. Many of the Zionist leaders were arrested, sent to Siberia or shot. A year later Nazis destroyed the entire Jewish population in Latvia.

But the story of the Zionist movement in Latvia does not end with that. While the surviving Zionists worked in Israel, the Zionist movement, the Jewish national movement in Latvia appeared again in 1960ies as response to the anti-semitic Soviet policy. But that is another story to be told in future.

Selected Sources:

Волкович, Б. (2012) Сионистское движение в Латвии (1918-1940) 2-е изд., доп. Daugavpils

Sinkēviča, Eva (2014) Reliģiskā cionisma kustība Latvijā: vēsture,organizācija, ietekme. Promocijas darbs. Latvijas Universitātes Teoloģijas fakultāte.

Walter, Laquer (2003) A History of Zionism. From the French Revolution to establishment of the Sate of  Israel. Shocken Books. New York.

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