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Helsingfors Program

Helsingfors Program - The Helsingfors program of the Helsingfors (Helsinki) Congress of 1906 was prepared by Russian Zionist groups meeting in the shadow of the Kishinev Pogrom of 1903 and subsequent Pogroms, particularly, the 1906 Bialystok pogrom, and the worsening Russian political situation following the aborted 1905 revolution, as well as the death of Theodor Herzl and the failure of the "Uganda Plan" and other schemes of Territorial Zionism. The Jews of Russia could sense that they were increasingly trapped and powerless, and the Zionists understood that there was no future for them in general socialist revolution, but a powerless organization could not offer any good solutions.

Helsingfors was in fact the third "All Russian" congress of Zionist organizations. Indicative of the status of the Russian Zionist movement, the meeting took place in Helsinki Finland because political meetings in Russia were virtually impossible. The program is often associated with Ze'ev (Valdimir) Jabotinsky, though he was only one of its framers. Jabotinsky stood out as an eloquent advocate there:

"this resolution was passed mainly through the compelling arguments of twenty-six-year-old Jabotinsky! He dominated the assembly, and Weizmann called him “the boy wonder.”"  ref

The Helsingfors program reflected a great many different trends in Zionism as well as the harsh reality of a movement that was powerless to implement its program and had no political rights. It would be a mistake to attempt to summarize the program in a single sentence, but many summaries have made precisely that mistake. Several contradictory ideas were born in Helsingfors, some more successful than others:

1 - Synthetic Zionism is said to have been born there - the idea that Zionism required both a political charter and settlement on the land, and that the latter should not wait for the former. International recognition would come on the basis of Aliya (immigration) practical work and settlement. Since the Second Aliya had already started, the program was expressing a reality in the Zionist movement as much as it was calling for action. 

2. Work in the present or "Gegenswartarbeit." This was a useful, attractive and seductive fiction in retrospect. It was an attempt to implement the Cultural Zionism of Achad Haam. The principal proponent of this idea was Isaac Gruenbaum. He  submitted the following formulation: Zionism opposes the Exile (galut), but does not oppose the Diaspora (golah).

The idea was to provide a rational for political work in advancing the rights and improving the conditions of the Jews in Russia, rather than simply organizing for immigration to Palestine. The background of this idea, which in the end proved to be tragically sterile in many aspects, was understandable. The Jews of greater Russia were subject to the influence of the Bund, Socialist organizations and others. Their conditions were desperate. Zionism offered no practical immediate salvation, since mass immigration to Ottoman Palestine was impossible. It was imperative that Zionism provide a political program for the present, that would allow Zionists to build a political organization. At the same time, an alternative had to be provided to the totally Russian secular culture offered by assimilationists and radical socialists, the religious framework of rabbinical Judaism which did not suit Jews for practical life in a modern society, and the Yiddish education and culture of the Bund and others. Both Ze'ev (Valdimir) Jabotinsky and Leo Motzkin spoke out on behalf of this idea.

The "work in the present" resolution was based on Paragraph Two of the 1897 Basle Program:

"The organization and binding together of the whole of Jewry by means of appropriate institutions, both local and international, in accordance with laws of each country."

Meant to be the basis of Zionist political organization, this was reinterpreted as a directive to Zionists to organize the Jewish masses in the Diaspora as a national minority and lead them, in the Zionist spirit, in their daily life. The conference found itself stating and perhaps believing that such activity would "strengthen Diaspora Jewry and provide it with new cultural, material, and political means in its struggle for the creation of a sound national life in Eretz Israel."

The political program included the following:

1. Full democratization of the regime according to the principles of parliamentary democracy, autonomy of the national territories and guaranteed legal rights for all minority peoples.

2. Full and unconditional (civil and national) rights to the Jewish population.

3. Representation of all national minorities in federal, regional and local elections that shall be conducted by secret ballot. The right to vote shall be extended to women.

4. Recognition of the Jewish people in Russia as a single political entity entitled to govern itself in matters of national culture.

5. A national assembly of Russian Jews shall be convened for the purpose of forming the basic structure of a national organization.

6. Jews shall have the right to use the national language (Hebrew) and the spoken language (Yiddish) in the schools, courts and public life.

7. Jews shall have the right to observe the Sabbath on Saturday instead of Sunday. This right shall be guaranteed without regard to geographic location...

Source: Judische Runschau 22 (June 8, 1917) pp. 190-193. Trans. and excerpted by R. Weiss and P. Mendes-Flohr. Quoted in The Jew in the modern world: a documentary history, By Paul R. Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, Oxford Univ Press 1995, pp 423-424.

This was a bow to autonomism, a strange doctrine that had developed in the special conditions of Russia and the Austro-Hungarian empire, and made sense in entities  like Austria or the Russian Empire, that, contrary to modern nation states, were composed of many nationalities. The principle was that nationality, like religion, was a matter of personal preference rather than political significance and should be given expression in autonomous organization of national minorities within political structures like Austro-Hungary or Russia. A proponent of this idea, if not an originator, was the Austrian socialist Karl Renner. It attracted Jewish intellectuals like Chaim Zhitlowsky and Simon Dubnow. 

By anyone familiar with conditions in Eastern Europe, the program of autonomism in general, and in particular the program of the Helsingfors congress could charitably be characterized as wishful thinking. Russia was not going to allow national self-expression for anyone except Russians. and Austria, stripped of her empire, would become rabidly nationalist. Polish patriots viewed separatist aspirations of Jews as disloyal. Greenbaum went on to help found a political faction in the Polish Sejm after WW I, and came on aliya in 1933. His fellow Polish Jews were less fortunate. The basis of Zionist ideology was supposedly that faith in liberal progress would be disappointed in Europe and there was no future for the Jews there, so this political program, unlike the program of Zionist cultural work and organization, was simply a hypocritical concession to political reality.

The resolutions were based on a non-existent vision of Russia: a liberalized, democratic Russia with autonomous rights for its non-Russian peoples. This was in line with national ferment of other minority groups. This hypothetical utopia, which was a constant mirage in the disatance for Russian Jewry until after World War II, would include the Jewish people, which, through a comprehensive organizational framework, would exercise its political rights and its cultural, educational, and,  even administrative autonomy both in Hebrew and Yiddish. A bastardized parody of these ideas was implemented in Stalin's cynical nationalities policy, which liquidated whole peoples, and attempted at one point, to herd Jews into the desolation of the Birobidjan autonomous regionc, where Jews could speak Russified Yiddish, but not Hebrew.

On the one hand, the implementation of the gegenwartarbeit program, along with the adoption of Cultural Zionism would help to bring Zionism into direct political contact with the Jewish masses, and help to serve what they perceived as their needs - education and rights in the countries of the Diaspora. This also engendered modernized Hebrew secular education and participation in national political life in countries like Poland.

On the other hand, "gegenwartarbeit" became for many an excuse for procrastinating the wrenching step of aliya to Palestine.  In Poland in particular, a great deal of Zionist activity came to look somewhat like the "Doigkeit" (here-ness) doctrine of the Bund.  It was much more comfortable, convenient and "important" to pontificate about Zionism in Germany or Poland, to have political parties, to make fine speeches and "organize" masses of Jews in fairly comfortable circumstances, than to break rocks in barren farmland in the Jezreel valley. The Hechalutz movement which encouraged actual aliya had to fight against the complacency and inertia of local Zionist establishment leaders, who often hid their distaste for Aliya behind the slogan of Gegenswartarbeit. The tragic end of the Jews of Eastern Europe, including most of the Zionists who were "not opposed to the Diaspora" needs no elaboration - most perished in the Holocaust.

In Russia itself of course, nothing came of the fine and meticulous preparatory work and impeccably intellectual arguments of the Zionist intellectuals. The utopian vision danced across the screen of history for a few brief months in 1917 and thereafter, before Zionist political action - as well as Bundist organization - became impossible and only the nationalism of the Yevsektsia was still allowed to flourish for a time. 

Ami Isseroff

September 21, 2009


Synonyms and alternate spellings:

Further Information: 

Hebrew/Arabic pronunciation and transliteration conventions:

'H - ('het) a guttural sound made deep in the throat. To Western ears it may sound like the "ch" in loch. In Arabic there are several letters that have similar sounds. Examples: 'hanukah, 'hamas, 'haredi. Formerly, this sound was often represented by ch, especially in German transliterations of Hebrew. Thus, 'hanukah is often rendered as Chanuka for example.

ch - (chaf) a sound like "ch" in loch or the Russian Kh as in Khruschev or German Ach, made by putting the tongue against the roof of the mouth. In Hebrew, a chaf can never occur at the beginning of a word. At the beginning of a word, it has a dot in it and is pronounced "Kaf."

u - usually between oo as in spoon and u as in put.

a- sounded like a in arm

ah- used to represent an a sound made by the letter hey at the end of a word. It is the same sound as a. Haganah and Hagana are alternative acceptable transliterations.

'a-notation used for Hebrew and Arabic ayin, a guttural ah sound.

o - close to the French o as in homme.

th - (taf without a dot) - Th was formerly used to transliterate the Hebrew taf sound for taf without a dot. However in modern Hebrew there is no detectable difference in standard pronunciation of taf with or without a dot, and therefore Histadruth and Histadrut, Rehovoth and Rehovot are all acceptable.

q- (quf) - In transliteration of Hebrew and Arabic, it is best to consistently use the letter q for the quf, to avoid confusion with similar sounding words that might be spelled with a kaf, which should be transliterated as K. Thus, Hatiqva is preferable to Hatikva for example.

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This work and individual entries are copyright © 2005 by Ami Isseroff and Zionism and Israel Information Center and may not reproduced in any form without permission unless explicitly noted otherwise. Individual entries may be cited with credit to The Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Zionism and Israel