Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Zalman David HaCohen Levontin (1856-1940) was a businessman and banker who was a close associate of Theodor Herzl, the leading founding member of the Zionist settlement at Rishon LeZion, and served as the director of the Jewish Colonial Trust before moving to Eretz Yisrael, where he founded the Anglo-Palestine Bank (which later became the Bank Leumi L’Yisrael).

Born into a Chabad family in Belorussia, Levontin received a religious education and private secular tutoring before commencing work as a commercial banking clerk at a Kremenchug bank. One of the first members of Chovevei Zion – the amalgamation of Zionist organizations that promoted aliyah and began as a response to Russian pogroms – he was among the first modern writers to publish articles advocating the resettlement of Eretz Yisrael.

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In 1881, after the outbreak of pogroms in Russia, he took active steps to implement his Zionist idea by forming family groups willing to make aliyah. Toward that end, he established and directed the “Committee of Yesod Hama’ala Chalutzim” (1882), whose aim was to purchase land and settle it. A stirring figure astride a horse and carrying a gun, he went out himself to tour Eretz Yisrael searching for suitable land, quickly deciding on the site that would become Rishon LeZion.

In this rare July 1910 correspondence written on his Jaffa Hebrew letterhead, Levontin writes to Professor Boris Schatz in Jerusalem inquiring whether the inkwell he ordered for his brother in Russia was ever sent. (Schatz is best known for founding the Bezalel Academy of Arts and for developing an indigenous artistic tradition for Eretz Yisrael.)

Only a year after Rishon LeZion was founded, the new colony’s financial problems were such that Levontin was forced to sell the land, much of which he owned, to Baron Edmond de Rothschild and to return to his family in Russia, where he worked as a bank manager.

Continuing to devote himself to Zionist activities, he participated in the first Zionist Congress, was among the first to join the World Zionist Organization, and wrote a seminal memorandum to the leaders of Chovevei Zion urging the establishment of a Jewish bank in Eretz Yisrael.

Due in part to significant ideological differences with Herzl, leading Jewish bankers initially refused to cooperate with his plan to establish a Jewish financial institution. Seeking seed money for the “Jewish Colonial Trust,” which he wanted to commence operations in London, Herzl turned instead to common Jews who were ardent supporters of the Zionist dream, and he appointed Levontin to manage the Trust.

Levontin returned to Eretz Yisrael in 1903 to establish a bank under British auspices that quickly became the dominant financial and credit institution in the Yishuv. Under his leadership, the Anglo-Palestine Company did not operate with profitability as its only goal, as he involved it in important, but not necessarily profitable, activities, including financing and promoting Jewish settlement and Jewish education.

June 15, 1921 check drawn on the Jewish Colonial Trust in London – signed by Jabotinsky!

Among other things, he instituted an extensive network of credit unions in the moshavot; extended long-term loans to farmers in the colonies; and helped finance the original construction in Tel Aviv, all while emphasizing the maintenance of friendly relationships with the Ottoman government and the Arab population.

When Levontin opened the first branch of the bank in Jaffa (on August 2, 1903), the Turkish military governor ordered its closure and the confiscation of its funds on the alleged grounds that it lacked a proper Ottoman license, but that order was ultimately rejected by the Ottoman authorities as being inconsistent with its 1878 agreement with European nations rendering such license unnecessary.

He went on to open branches of the Anglo-Palestine Company in Jerusalem, Hebron, Tzefas, Tiberias, Gaza, and Beirut and, through the bank, he directed many land purchases in Eretz Yisrael. He served as manager of the bank for over 20 years (1903-24).

Levontin, who left for Egypt just prior to the outbreak of World War I, was not permitted by the Ottoman authorities, at war with Britain, to return to Eretz Yisrael. He nevertheless continued his activities on behalf of his fellow Jews, including risking his life by traveling to London and Paris to arrange for much-needed funding for the struggling Yishuv; opening a temporary bank branch in Alexandria to provide financial assistance to his fellow exiles from Eretz Yisrael; and assisting Jabotinsky in negotiations with the British authorities that ultimately led to the establishment of the Zion Mule Corps, the first Hebrew battalion in modern times, commanded by Joseph Trumpeldor.

After World War I, Levontin returned to Eretz Yisrael, where he devoted himself to various civic activities, including playing a leading role in the building of the famous Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv. To commemorate his 80th birthday, Rishon LeZion awarded him “honorary citizenship” (Tel Aviv bestowed a similar honor upon him) and named a road after him. His publications include Le-Eretz Avoteinu (“To the Land of Our Forefathers”), an important work in which he promoted capitalist agricultural methods and criticized the labor movement’s methods, and the respected History of the Work of Chovevei Zion, various newspaper articles, and numerous correspondence, records and memoranda.

Levontin was buried in the old cemetery in Rishon LeZion.

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Rishon LeZion was officially founded on July 31, 1882 when 18 Chovevei Zion pioneer families from Ukraine (then part of the Russian Empire) led by Levontin took possession of 835 acres of land near Jaffa, then part of the Arab village of Eyun Kara. The origin of the name – which was given by Levontin and literally means “First to Zion” – is from Isaiah 41:27, where the prophet announces, “First to Zion are they, and I shall give herald to Jerusalem.”

Although Rishon LeZion was ironically, in fact, the second Jewish farm settlement established in Eretz Yisrael during the 19th century (Petach Tikva was the first), it had the notable distinction of being the first settlement to be founded by Jews who had traveled from abroad (as part of the “First Aliyah”) for the specific purpose of settling the land of Eretz Yisrael.

After the purchase was completed – on Tisha B’Av, interestingly enough – the new settlers gathered beneath a large sycamore tree, the only tree in the area at the time, where Levontin, who delighted in leading prayer services, held an emotional Mincha minyan where all wept in recognition of the historical significance of their undertaking.

1907 postcard issued by “The Society of Cooperative Vine Growers of the Great Cellars of Rishon LeZion” beautifully depicting Rothschild surrounded by large grapes at Rishon LeZion.

While most of the settlers returned to Europe to wind up their affairs and prepare their families for aliyah, Levontin and a few others began the hard work of digging wells and planting vineyards. Yitzhak Leib Toporovski, a Rishon LeZion blacksmith, had created the first iron plow in Eretz Yisrael in 1883, but the new settlers lacked agricultural experience and faced immediate and significant agricultural problems, not the least of which were sandy soil and lack of water.

Levontin was forced to sell the land to Baron Rothschild who, taking full control, brought in experts who built wells 80 feet deep. After the joyful settlers found water in the wells on February 23, 1883, they decided to inscribe the village emblem with the words of Genesis 26:32: “We have found water.” Rothschild also sent in administrators, who essentially took over the entire operation at Rishon LeZion and facilitated great agricultural progress in the colony.

The Great Synagogue, which became a major focus of life in Rishon LeZion, was built between 1885 and 1889 and, under Rothschild’s patronage, the Carmel-Mizrachi Winery was established in 1886. With Rothschild’s support, further construction and developments were completed, including the medicine house, the baron’s stables (1888), and the building housing the winery (1889). Other developments included a phone in the winery (1891), electricity in the colony, and a water tower adjacent to the well.

By 1900, when Rothschild transferred the management of the colony to the village council and the Jewish Colonization Association, the population of Rishon LeZion had risen to 526. Ten years later, thousands of dunams of land were planted with grapes and other fruit orchards.

In this May 31, 1934 correspondence written from Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion writes to the Local Council in Rishon LeZion:

I regret very much the denial of my opportunity to accept – due to a nuisance commitment that cannot be postponed – your invitation to the celebration of the 70th birthday of Dov Haviv and Shimshon Belkind.

The 70th birthday of the first builders of Zion is a tribute not merely for a single colony and not only for the national Israel settlement but, rather, for every Jew proud of the work at the Nachashoni Factory of our First Pioneers upon whose shoulders we stand today, the second and third generations, and also all who will follow us.

My true and heartfelt blessings to the two birthday honorees, they who merited to lay the foundation. I only wish that they will merit to see the completion of the final report in our renewed homeland.

Ben-Gurion had moved at age 20 to Eretz Yisrael and worked in the orange groves of Petach Tikvah and the wine cellars of Rishon LeZion, where he served as head of the workers’ union at the winery. At the time of this letter, he was spending a few months in Tel Aviv before becoming chairman of the Jewish Agency’s management.

Born in White Russia, Boris Lubman (1864-1951) – he changed his name to Dov Haviv in 1904 – received a traditional Orthodox Jewish education before moving to Moscow to pursue a secular university education. He became active in Chibat Tzion and made aliyah in 1884, settling on a farm near Petach Tikva. Subsequently, he became a founding member of the Vintners Association and served on the board of the Carmel Oriental wineries.

In 1886, Rishon LeZion’s 300 residents included some 25 children and, to address their educational needs, the Haviv elementary school was established as the first modern school to teach exclusively in Hebrew. A devoted national idealist, Haviv fought for the use of the Hebrew language; he taught at the school alongside Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the “Father of Modern Hebrew” who almost single-handedly revived Hebrew as a modern language. The first Hebrew kindergarten in the world was established there soon after by Esther (Shapira) Ginzburg, a former student of the Haviv school.

During World War I, Haviv helped influence Jamal Pasha to transfer the area of the sand dunes to Rishon LeZion. Toward the end of the war, his expulsion to Damascus by the military government for the “crime” of being a Zionist was prevented by the Allied advance. As head of the village, he was given the honor to welcome and bless the victorious Allied army and, as chairman of the Rishon LeZion committee (a position he held for 14 years), he received dignitaries such as Lord Balfour, Chaim Weizmann, High Commissioner Herbert Samuel, and Thomas Massaryk, the president of Czechoslovakia, to the settlement. He was recognized as both a skilled orator and writer/publisher, including of books on Rishon LeZion.

Born in White Russia, Shimshon Belkind (1864-1937) was Jewishly educated by his father before he moved to St. Petersburg to study pharmacy, later working there as an apprentice in the Royal Pharmacy. Together with his brother, Israel, he established the pioneering BILU movement (an acronym based on Isaiah 2:5: “Beit Ya’akov Lechu Venelcha – House of Jacob, let us go up”) and, in 1882, he left for Eretz Yisrael, where he joined a group of BILU pioneers living near Jaffa and worked with them at Mikve Israel.

Two years later, Belkind moved to Jerusalem, where he joined the Shehu group, whose goal was to teach its members a trade. He studied carpentry and ironwork there but, when he fell ill, he left the group and moved to Rishon LeZion, where he served as a member of the first community center committee. After his expulsion from Rishon for joining in an unsuccessful revolt against Baron Rothschild’s administrators, he settled in Gedera, where he established his own farm.

During World War I, Belkin’s two sons, Naaman and Eitan, were sentenced to death by the Ottoman Turks for their Zionist activism, and Naaman was executed in Damascus (1918). Avraham Herzfeld, who later served in the first Knesset, bribed a Turkish guard to have Eitan released from incarceration and, after the war, Shimshon and Eitan brought Naaman’s remains back to Eretz Yisrael for re-interment in Rishon LeZion, where he was himself later buried. Today, there is a Shimshon Belkind Street in Rishon LeZion.

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