Secular Jewish figures active in nineteenth-century Russia. Simḥah Pinsker (1801–1864) was an educator and translator of Karaite documents; his son Lev (often Yehudah Leib or Leon; 1821–1891) was a leader of the Ḥibat Tsiyon movement.
An important figure of the first generation of Russian Jewish scholars familiar with general culture, Simḥah Pinsker was born in Tarnopol. He moved to Odessa, where in 1826 he established one of the earliest Jewish schools in Russia for students to receive a secular as well as a traditional education. Pinsker also gained acclaim for translating and publishing Karaite documents that had been discovered and brought to him by Avraam Firkovich.
In 1860, Pinsker published his best-known work on the history and beliefs of the Karaites, Likute kadmoniyot (Historical Notes). Shortly after his death, however, scholars challenged some of his references, calling them falsifications. Pinsker also wrote extensively on Hebrew grammar, and published his Mavo el ha-nikud ha-Ashuri o ha-Bavli (Introduction to the Assyrian or Babylonian Punctuation) in 1882.
Lev Pinsker, born in Tomaszów, Poland, studied medicine at the University of Moscow and settled in Odessa in 1849. There he worked as a physician and became a leading member of the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews (OPE), whose aim was to help Jews adapt to Russian society. After the Crimean War, Pinsker was decorated for his service in the Russian army.
The 1871 riots against Jews in Odessa planted the first seeds of doubt in Pinsker about the future of relations between Jews and Russians. Ten years later, pogroms in southern Russia and the accompanying anti-Jewish attitude of governmental authorities convinced him that there was no hope for Jews to integrate into the general society. In the summer of 1882, he published (in Vienna) the German-language brochure that made him famous, Autoemancipation. Mahnruf an seine Stammesgenossen von eimem russischen Juden (Autoemancipation: A Call to His Brethren from a Russian Jew).
Written in a highly emotional tone and offering original solutions, Autoemancipation analyzed the situation of Russian Jewry, and indeed of Jewry in general. Pinsker’s analysis of antisemitism was new: he defined it as an incurable disease of general society, in Eastern as well as Western Europe, that was worsened by economic and social circumstances. Believing that efforts to emancipate Jews were condemned to fail, he urged Jews to recognize this reality and organize themselves as a separate entity. Finally, he offered a radical proposal: the establishment of a Jewish homeland.
Pinsker’s ideas touched a responsive chord for Russian and East European Jews, since in the general atmosphere of despair and public disarray that affected Russian Jewry after the riots, Pinsker was proposing a new and positive course of action. His very general plan for a Jewish homeland was enthusiastically greeted in Russia by the developing Ḥibat Tsiyon movement, which was establishing colonies in Palestine. At the organization’s Katowice Conference in 1884, Pinsker was chosen as chair of a central bureau founded in Odessa, whose aim was to coordinate the diverse groups interested in building communities in Palestine.
Pinsker traveled widely to promote the ideas of Ḥibat Tsiyon. He met with Western European Jewish figures, but was unable to convince them to support his plans; consequently, Ḥibat Tsiyon remained a movement limited to the Russian Empire. The Odessa bureau scored an important success in 1890 when Russian authorities gave it legal recognition under the name Society for the Support of Jewish Farmers and Artisans in Syria and Palestine, with Pinsker at its head.
Nevertheless, Pinsker was a reluctant leader. He was not convinced that the Jewish homeland should necessarily be established in Palestine and also considered alternative options (such as Argentina) for Jewish emigration. In later years, the Zionist movement came to consider Pinsker as one of its ideological fathers, but in fact, after 1881, he was more a Jewish nationalist than a Zionist.
Shlomo Breiman, ed., Jehuda Leib Pinsker: Autoemantsipatsyah (Jerusalem, 1952); Alter Druyanow, “Pinsker u-zemano,” Ha-Tekufah 12 (1922): 215–221; Arthur Hertzberg, The Zionist Idea (New York, 1959), pp. 178–198; Yosef Klausner, ed., Sefer-Pinsker: Sefer zikaron li-melot me’ah shanah le-huledet Yehudah Leib Pinsker (Jerusalem, 1921); Simḥah Pinsker, Mishle ha-gizrah veha-binyan: ‘Al shimush ha-gizrot veha-binyanim (Vienna, 1887); David Vital, Zionism: The Origins of Zionism (Oxford, 1975).