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Lewite, Leon

(1878–1944), Zionist leader in Poland. Born in Warsaw, Leon Lewite joined Kadimah, the association of Jewish students at the University of Warsaw and at the Technikum (Polytechnic College). As an active Zionist, he devoted himself to acquiring pledges for shares in the Jüdische Kolonialbank (Jewish Colonial Trust).

Following the revolution of the Young Turks in the Ottoman Empire, Lewite used his own resources to try to convince the leaders of Turkey to encourage Jewish settlement there and in Palestine. His proposals, however, were rejected. When World War I began, Lewite moved to Moscow where, after the February 1917 Revolution and the issuance of an ordinance granting equal rights to all citizens, he was elected to the Central Committee of the Jewish Communities in Russia. When the Polish republic was reestablished in 1918, Lewite returned to Warsaw and, with Yitsḥak Grünbaum, joined the leadership of the Zionist Federation of Poland.

Unlike many of his associates in the Zionist movement who devoted their energies to Jewish policy in Poland, Lewite committed himself to the issue of immigration. As a director of the Erets-Yisroel–Palestine-Amt (Office), which was established in Warsaw in 1918, he encouraged candidates to register for aliyah and assisted groups of potential ‘olim (immigrants) to jointly amass resources for facilitating their absorption in Palestine. In 1919, he took part in negotiations conducted by the Comité des Délégations Juives (Committee of Jewish Delegations) at the Paris Peace Conference to ensure the rights of Jews in new states or in those revived following World War I. He also participated in the 1919 Zionist Conference in London and in 1920 was elected to the Zionist General Council.

Convinced that increased aliyah would have a positive effect on the development of the Zionist movement in Poland, Lewite demanded that a maximum number of immigrants be allowed to emigrate from Poland. In 1924, the Erets-Yisroel–Palestine Amt began to issue a bimonthly Yiddish newsletter, Di tsaytung (Yedies fun tsentralen Erets-Yisroel-Amt in Poyln), with information about immigration. After the Zionist Federation of Poland split in the mid-1920s, Lewite joined the ‘Et Livnot (A Time to Build) faction that encouraged Jewish immigrants to establish an economy based on capitalism. On this issue Lewite came into conflict with Yitsḥak Grünbaum’s ‘Al ha-Mishmar (On Guard) faction, which argued instead that the very essence of Jewish society had to be revolutionized, and that the Zionist economic structure should be based on working-class ideals. When the number of middle-class immigrants, including merchants and industrialists, increased during the Fourth Aliyah (1924–1925), the ‘Et Livnot faction grew dominant, and in 1925, the delegates to the Zionist Federation of Poland chose Lewite to head a new central committee. Also that year, he helped to establish the Izba Handlowo–Przemysłowa Polsko Palestynska (Polish-Palestine Chamber of Commerce and Industry).

The crisis of the Fourth Aliyah in 1926 was the result of massive unemployment and financial difficulties. Many ḥalutsim (“pioneers”; participants in the Palestine immigration movement) returned home, which led to a weakened Zionist Federation of Poland. At this point, Lewite focused his attention on finances, and set up the Polish-Palestine Bank of Warsaw to handle the transfer of funds. In 1936–1937, he took part in negotiating a “clearing contract” with the Polish government to make it possible to transfer investment capital owned by immigrants to Palestine, as well as to move monies from the Zionist funds. For most of the decade (1932–1939), Lewite headed the editorial office of Palestyna i Bliski Wschód (Palestine and the Near East), the only Polish-language newspaper devoted to economic situations relevant to Zionism and the Middle East.

As antisemitism spread in Europe, the central committee of the Centrala Związku Kupców (an organization of Jewish merchants) resolved in April 1933 to boycott goods from Nazi Germany. As a leader of the boycott, Lewite worked with the Centralny Komitet dla Antyhitlerowskiej akcji Gospodarczej (Central Committee for Economic Action against Hitler). In 1939, Lewite immigrated to Palestine. Failing health, however, prevented him from taking part in public affairs after his arrival.

Suggested Reading

Isaac Grünbaum (Yitsḥok Grinboym), “Ha-Histadrut ha-tsiyonit,” in Entsiklopedyah shel galuyot, vol. 1, V’arshah, cols. 357–412 (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1953); Isaac Grünbaum, Pene ha-dor, vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 1957/58); Ezra Mendelsohn, Zionism in Poland: The Formative Years, 1915–1926 (New Haven, 1981).



Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann