Members of Ha-No‘ar ha-Tsiyoni, a youth movement affiliated with the General Zionist movement, harvesting a crop at a hakhsharah (Zionist training farm), Pinsk, ca. 1930s. (The Institute for Labour Research in Memory of Pinchas Lavon, Tel Aviv)

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General Zionists

Party affiliated with the World Zionist Organization. When the World Zionist Organization was first established in 1897, it acted as one unified political body, based on the Basel Program that had been adopted at the First Zionist Congress that year. According to this program, the Zionist movement would be divided only into regional, not political, blocs; a mere few years later, however, the movement split into political parties, each one basing itself on an ideology other than that articulated in Basel. Consequently, the bulk of the movement was represented by international parties, including Po‘ale Tsiyon, Mizraḥi, the Radical Zionists, and the Revisionist Zionists.

In light of this situation, those Zionists who had, from the outset, opposed a partisan divide, and who had by 1923 begun to call themselves General Zionists, saw the need, paradoxically, to form their own international party. As a result, a new party, the World Association (Ha-Berit ha-‘Olamit) of General Zionists, was founded in 1931.

The party owed its founding to the well-organized activities that were taking place in Central and Eastern Europe in general and in Poland, with its Jewish population of about 3 million, in particular. It was in Poland that the General Zionists had strong support, and it was there that its leaders played an important role in the country’s domestic political system. The General Zionists in Poland were divided into three independent organizations: one in Poland (excluding Galicia), based in Warsaw; a second in eastern Galicia, based in Lwów and led by Leon Reich and Emil Schmorak; and a third in western Galicia, centered in Kraków and led by Ozjasz Thon and Ignacy (Yitsḥak) Schwarzbart. The Warsaw-based organization was the largest but was divided into two competing factions: ‘Al ha-Mishmar (On Guard), headed by Yitsḥak Grünbaum, which up until 1933 had aligned itself with the international Radical Zionists; and ‘Et Livnot (A Time to Build), headed by Yehoshu‘a Gottlieb and Leon Lewite.

Yitsḥak Grünbaum, a leader of the General Zionists (fourth from left), at the first convention of Jewish municipal representatives in Dobrzyń nad Wisłą, Poland, ca. 1920. (YIVO)

The latter faction cooperated fully with the two Galician centers both in formulating a Zionist policy and in devising a strategy for tackling Poland’s domestic civic and legislative agenda. Its primary goal was to enter into negotiations with the Polish ruling circles and persuade them to moderate their antisemitic policies. This was in contradistinction to the stance adopted by the ‘Al ha-Mishmar faction, which supported adopting a domestic policy that was aggressively opposed to the regime, and which began its campaign by aligning itself with the state’s ethnic minorities and subsequently joined forces with other leftist opposition parties.

Schwarzbart, one of the leaders in western Galicia, was the moving force behind the establishment of the International Alliance of General Zionists, founded in 1931 in Kraków. His efforts gained the support of the heads of the eastern Galician center, and of the leaders of the ‘Et Livnot faction. It was on the eve of the Seventeenth Zionist Congress, in Basel in 1931, that the General Zionists formally convened to establish the International Alliance, which proceeded to generate the party’s ideological platform. In general, their document tended to emphasize broad national interests over class interests in its approach to Zionist policy, to the general society, to labor relations, and to the promotion of private enterprise alongside the cultivation of pioneering settlement projects in Palestine.

The General Zionist platform deliberately confined itself to bare essentials, since from the outset the International Alliance had to contend with pragmatic and ideological differences of opinion between the two competing factions of this new party. Faction A, which made up the minority of the party, drew its membership primarily from Western and Central European states. It favored close cooperation with the left-wing Zionist parties and supported the moderate policies of Chaim Weizmann. In 1933 this faction was enlarged, thanks to its merger with the ‘Al ha-Mishmar group. Faction B, which at the beginning relied on the two Galician centers for its membership, was much closer in its political and social views to the right wing of the Zionist movement. For example, it tried, without much success, to enforce party discipline with respect to the casting of votes on resolutions at the Zionist Congresses.

Of the other East European countries in which the General Zionists were able to make a mark, Romania, with a Jewish population after World War I of 800,000, was the most responsive. The Zionist movement was legally active in Romania until 1942. Here, as in Poland, the General Zionist camp was split into four independent centers: the Rigat region (“Old Romania”), and the three districts that had been annexed after World War I—Transylvania, Bucovina, and Bessarabia. The Bucovonian and Transylvanian Zionists, under the stewardship of Me’ir Avner, joined Faction A of the General Zionist Alliance immediately after the Alliance was established in 1931. However, it took four years of lengthy debates before the Rigat and Bessarabian Zionists finally decided, in 1935, to join the same faction.

The Czechoslovakian and Yugoslavian General Zionists also joined Faction A immediately after its establishment in 1931. By contrast, the General Zionists in the Baltic States of Lithuania and Latvia could not agree on a preferred faction. The majority of Lithuania’s Zionists joined Faction B, whereas those of Latvia joined Faction A.

Studio portrait of council members of Ha-No‘ar ha-Tsiyoni, Mława, Poland, 1924. (Standing, left to right) Yisroel Borshteyn, Zev Lewkowicz, Mortkhe Ofshanko; (seated, left to right) Ḥayim M. Borshteyn, Arn Zeldofski, Yitskhok Niborski, Mława, 1924. Photograph by L. Lipszyc. (YIVO)

Affiliated with this General Zionist bloc were also two of Poland’s previously independent Zionist pioneer youth movements that had a proven track record of attracting a large and flourishing membership: Akiva and Ha-No‘ar ha-Tsiyoni (The Zionist Youth). Both these movements had rejected the ideology of the socialist Zionists, and both had had partial success in attracting new members outside Poland, from Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and the Baltic States. 

The shaky coalition that made up the General Zionists did not last very long. In July 1935, at an International Alliance of General Zionists convention in Kraków, the party officially split into its factions. That same year, Faction A declared itself an independent party, choosing the name World Association (Hitaḥadut ‘Olamit) of General Zionists. This party had particularly strong support in Western Europe and the United States, and it granted its various national branches wide autonomy. By contrast, there was much more homogeneity among the Alliance’s various constituent bodies, and much more uniformity in the positions that they adopted. Chaim Weizmann was the patron of the World Association’s delegation; he was opposed by Menaḥem Ussishkin, the patron of the World Alliance.

In August 1939, on the eve of World War II, the Twenty-First Zionist Congress convened in Geneva. While the Association boasted 143 delegates (including 63 from the United States), the Alliance sent just 28 representatives. This was the last time that a Zionist Congress featured a large contingent of delegates from both Polish General Zionist parties. A very tense atmosphere prevailed during the proceedings, which was especially felt by the Zionist delegations from Eastern Europe. After World War II, General Zionist activities were confined mainly to the United States and to the State of Israel.

Suggested Reading

Israel Cohen and Nathan Michael Gelber, Kitsur toldot ha-tsiyonut (Jerusalem, 1956); Walter Laqueur, A History of Zionism (New York, 2003); Ezra Mendelsohn, Zionism in Poland: The Formative Years, 1915–1926 (New Haven, 1981); Isaac Schwarzbart, Tsvishn beyde velt-milkhomes (Buenos Aires, 1958); David Shaary, Mi-“Setam tsiyonut” le-“Tsiyonut kelalit” (Jerusalem, 1990).



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler