Philip Earl Steele

David Gordon? One of the three greats of early Zionism!

The participants of the famous Hovevei Zion conference, Nov. 1884, Katowice
The participants of the famed Hovevei Zion conference, Nov. 1884, Katowice. (Wikipaedia)

The key to the mid-19th-century development of Ełk (then the Prussian town of Lyck) was the railway. The rather large, for its time, rail station connected the town with the rest of Prussia and, importantly, with the village of Prostki, located only 20 km away on the border with the Russian Empire.

“We need to go back in time a bit, to 1868. That December the first train departed from Ełk. The railway brought a complete revolution to Masuria in all spheres of life,” says Rafał Żytyniec, the Director of Ełk’s Historical Museum, located in a building long belonging to the railway complex. “This meant that Ełk, which had previously been growing along the main street winding around the lake, would also develop in the direction of the railway station. By the turn of the century beautiful buildings drawing upon Arte Nouveau appeared and trade was invigorated. Ełk became an important hub connecting communication routes and train lines.”

This makes for quite the irony as the first Hebrew-language weekly in the world, Ha-Magid, published here in Ełk, had enjoyed smooth distribution throughout Europe – and even to Palestine and Persia – for over ten years before the appearance of the railway.

“We’re used to viewing Masurian issues primarily through the lens of the mutual interactions between Poles and Germans,” Żytyniec explains. “This is reasonable, but only as far as it goes. After all, the trajectory of Jewish life was totally different. It was more open to the world, and led beyond what was a regional backwater.

It is in Ełk that Rabbi Eliezer Lipman Silberman (1819-1881) published Ha-Magid (meaning ‘the preacher’ in Hebrew). The first edition was out in June of 1856. This moderately conservative (in relation to orthodoxy) journal had a pioneering role in resurrecting Hebrew as a modern language, and not one used primarily for liturgical purposes. Rabbi Silberman had an ambitious goal. As he himself described, he wanted Ha-Magid to become “a common denominator uniting the scattered children of Israel.” He would soon make this a reality. “During its reign in the years 1856-1886, Ha-Magid was the most important Hebrew language periodical in the world,” writes Yosef Salmon, a scholar who has researched Ha-Magid. Indeed, in the academic literature one can read that Ha-Magid created a paper territory for klal Israel – all Jews.

Silberman and Gordon

Rabbi Silberman from Kaunas, Lithuania knew from the beginning that he would need help in running the kind of periodical he dreamt of. This is why he invited to his home David Gordon in an attempt to recruit the somewhat younger Lithuanian Jew born near Vilnius. In the early 1850s, when Gordon was somewhere between 20 and 25 years old (the sources do not agree on the year of his birth – 1826? 1831? 1832?), he had tried his luck abroad in Liverpool, where he spent a few years teaching Hebrew and German. In 1856, despite Silberman’s efforts to persuade him, Gordon (who was then on his way back to England from Seirijai, Lithuania) did not agree to the rabbi’s proposal to jointly create a new publication – though he later admitted that the offer had affected him so deeply that he could not sleep afterwards. Nonetheless, the two men did come to an agreement that David would be Ha-Magid’s correspondent in England. This form of cooperation was short lived, however, as Gordon returned to Ełk two years later – in 1858. This time for good.

Thanks to the experience he had gained in Britain and his fluent knowledge of English, German, and French, Gordon brought to his role as the deputy editor-in-chief a breath of fresh air and a deeper understanding of the modern world. And he went on to convey this in Hebrew, which he knew much better than Rabbi Silberman. Gordon created a new column in Ha-Magid as early as in January 1859, entitled ‘General History’, where he would report on global political events and the world of science. A year later it was renamed ‘It will be said about the nations’ (Al medinot bo ye-amer), which became widely borrowed in the burgeoning Hebrew language press of the time. Gordon also coined important new terminology in Hebrew, including the adjectives medini (political) and leumi (national). This shows Silberman and Gordon’s acceptance of the Jewish enlightenment or Haskala, which called for greater openness to the non-Jewish world and to the development of various fields of science.

There are two quite yellowed volumes of Ha-Magid located at Ełk’s Historical Museum. On the brittle page 39 of an issue published in 1878 is an article a few paragraphs-long written by David Gordon about… carnivorous plants – Tsmahim ohlei basar. The titles and words in bold were printed using a Hebrew font still in use today. However, the typeface of the text itself is rather archaic.

Upon taking up his post with Ha-Magid, Gordon became the de facto editor-in-chief. Rabbi Silberman focused above all on financial and political matters. Regarding the latter, the rabbi took care to maintain an acceptable tone vis-à-vis the Orthodox rabbis – and to conduct an appropriate policy towards the tsarist censors. Gordon, in turn, would have a relatively free hand in setting the weekly’s ideological thrusts. And this is what would earn him lasting fame.

An editor – and a Zionist

Gordon was a fierce Zionist. On the pages of Ha-Magid he began virtually at once to promote the idea of a Jewish return to Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state. One of the earliest examples is from 1860, when he enthusiastically praised the new Jewish initiative from Frankfurt – the Society for the Settlement of Palestine. Over the years, this messaging was more or less urgent in Ha-Magid depending on the political reality. Nonetheless, Zionism was a central idea of the magazine until Gordon’s death in 1886 – and later, when his son Dov Gordon took the helm.

Over his years as editor David Gordon would write articles promoting Zionism, widely known to both Jews and Christians then as ‘Restorationism’. He also wrote a whole series of articles. As an example, in April of 1863 Ha-Magid ran a series in which “Gordon now contended the Jewish settlement of Palestine should be envisioned as the cornerstone to the national-political redemption of the Jewish people in his time” (Yosef Salmon). Gordon would also often convey the Zionist works of other authors. Examples of this can be seen in the early 1860s, when he used Ha-Magid to promote such important Zionist thinkers as the socialist Moses Hess, the author of Rome and Jerusalem, and Rabbi Tsevi Hirsch Kalischer from Toruń. Indeed, it was in Ełk in 1862 that Rabbi Kalischer published the founding treatise for religious Zionism – Derishat Tsiyon (Seeking Zion). Why in Ełk? Because Silberman and Gordon had also founded a Hebrew publishing house there in the early 1860s – Mekitze Nirdamim.

As an aside, it is only too easy to picture such a modern man as David Gordon, who was able to reconcile the nationalist arguments of Hess with the messianic thinking of Kalischer, traveling the 300 km to Toruń to discuss these matters with the sage he held in such high regard. Though it’s known that they corresponded with each other, we have found no evidence that two men ever spoke face to face.

The idea of Jewish settlement in Palestine and the Jewish national awakening promoted by Gordon reflect the 19th-century development of nationalist movements in Europe. It was an age when many peoples would dream about statehood – including the Poles. And so it is no surprise that David Gordon’s sympathies lay with the Poles during the January Uprising of 1863 against tsarist rule. He even went so far as to express his support for the Poles in Ha-Magid. This he did in April 1863, having managed to evade the censors by deftly quoting the letter of the French, British, and Austrian governments to the tsar. In that letter the three powers voiced their fears of a wider conflict and enunciated their hopes that the tsar would decide to honor the rights of Poles recognized at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-15. “It is obvious here that Gordon manipulated the cables,” writes Carol Diament, “to express his own opinion.”

Ełk in the 19th century

Jews were thus a leading story in the ongoing development of nationalism. 19th-century Lyck, today’s Ełk, was inhabited by over ten thousand people and had several different nationalist currents. Director Żytyniec explains that most of the people in Ełk were Masurians – Polish-speaking Protestants who were subjects of the king of Prussia. The second largest group was that of Catholics, while the Jewish community numbered some 200-300 families.

“This was an assimilated community, as with most of the Jews in Prussia,” notes Director Żytyniec. “They rejected the typical appearance of eastern Jews – that is, beards and the chalat. They simply looked like Germans. During the first World War they even supported the German emperor, which was not the case with Polish Jews. If we take a look at the last rabbi from Ełk, he does not meet expectations. He has no beard, nor a hat. He looks like a German citizen. It was Adolf Hitler who insisted that they were different,” he adds.

The great Ełk synagogue and the editorial office of Ha-Magid operating beside it were located on the main street (today’s Armia Krajowa), just a few hundred meters from the railway station. The buildings were set alight by the Nazis during the infamous Kristallnacht of November 9/10, 1938. The masonry walls of the synagogue did survive the war, but they were soon torn down by the newly-installed communist authorities in Poland. Today there is a large, greyish modern building with a popular drugstore and an advert for a notary. It stands right beside a small, but pretty wooded park – just beyond which are blocks of flats typical for the period either side of the year 2000. Nothing at all suggests that it was here where David Gordon wrote and developed ideas for creating a Jewish state in Ottoman Palestine and where he created new Hebrew words to describe a non-biblical reality – just as he did concerning carnivorous plants.

Gordon’s prominence in early Zionism

The Israeli Pulitzer Prize, so to speak, is the Nahum Sokolow Prize, named after the Polish Jew who is considered the father of Hebrew-language journalism. This is despite the fact that Sokolow started his truly remarkable career some twenty years after Gordon had. Nevertheless, this titan of the Hebrew-language press (to give Sokolow a more appropriate title) stated that Ha-Magid had offered a space upon which the Jewish state could actually be envisaged. In fact, both the ideas and words disseminated by Gordon would inspire Jews all over Europe, from the United Kingdom to the Ottoman Empire and farther beyond. Indeed, copies of the weekly printed in Ełk reached as far as Yemen and even China.

During his life, David Gordon was known as one of the most important Zionists of the times. This is also how Karpel Lippe, the outstanding Romanian Zionist and member of Hovevei Zion in the early 1880s, would describe Gordon ten years after his death in 1886. Lippe was the honored, opening speaker at the First Zionist Congress in Basel in 1897, convened by Theodor Herzl. A year earlier, in a review of Herzl’s The Jewish State, Lippe had written that before Herzl there were three great Zionists, a triumvirate of David Gordon, Laurence Oliphant (a Christian Zionist from England) and… himself.

As soon as the early 1860s, when Rabbi Kalischer and Moses Hess published their Zionist masterpieces, David Gordon took part in the broad debate seeking to bring about the return of the Jews to Palestine. He adopted Kalischer’s attitude of “active messianism”, as described by Prof. Jody Myers. This attitude rejects passively awaiting the messiah in line with the verse found in Psalm 127, and long repeated among the Jews: “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labour in vain.” Just like Kalischer, Gordon understood and monitored Christian Zionism – that is, the Restorationism he had come to know in England. He would often report on Christian Zionist activities, arguing that they were conducive to “seeking Zion.” Hence his decision to publish important fragments of the Zionist novel Daniel Deronda written by George Eliot, doing so at once in 1876, the very year the novel came out. He would also make contact with another British Christian Zionist – namely, Laurence Oliphant, when Oliphant traveled to Habsburg eastern Galicia during the pogroms in the spring of 1882 on a mission to direct Jewish refugees in Brody and Lviv to Palestine. That April, Gordon published an interview with Oliphant, wherein the Scot claimed that Jews could count on significant financial involvement from British and American Protestants in building a Jewish state in the Holy Land.

Hovevei Zion and the First Aliyah

The pogroms in the eastern provinces of tsarist Russia in 1881 and the year that followed would change the character of Gordon’s Zionism. Up until then, his Zionism was positive, brimming with hope and pride. While in 1869 and 1870 he had been strident in his criticism of Reform Judaism (and the leader of this new current, Abraham Geiger) for rejecting messianism and for their push for assimilation – now, because of the pogroms, he was afraid not only of internal foes, but external ones, as well. Thus, he became energetically involved with Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion), which was the first real Zionist movement. Gordon widely disseminated these ideas in Ha-Magid, both through his own writing and that of other Zionists such as Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the famous pioneer of spoken, modern Hebrew. In so doing, Gordon became one of the leaders of the movement, alongside Rabbi Samuel Mohilever, serving in Radom at the time, and Leon Pinsker in Odessa.

The idea to organize the international Hovevei Zion conference of 1884 in Katowice belonged to Gordon. Thus, he can be seen in the centre of the famous portrait showing the participants of the summit. Seated dead-centre are the two chairmen, Leon Pinsker and Rabbi Mohilever – Gordon is seated on the rabbi’s right. Because of political constraints, the meeting was organized under the guise of celebrating the centenary of Moses Montefiore, the great English philanthropist and patron of the Jews in the Levant and across Europe. When it turned out that various obstacles would prevent the meeting from taking place in late October, which is when Montefiore was to turn 100, Gordon packed the commemorative album with over 1,300 signatures gathered from among the Lovers of Zion and journeyed to Montefiore’s residence in Ramsgate (Kent), where he gave him the gift in person. A couple weeks later he was in Katowice.

David Gordon passed away two years after the conference. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Ełk, which was destroyed by the Nazis at the same time as the synagogue in 1938. The Jewish community in Ełk ceased to exist following the Holocaust. On the location of the cemetery today is a park named after Pope John Paul II and a little rise called ‘the Jerusalem hillock’. The sole reminder in Ełk of the existence of the community to which people such as Eliezer Lipman Silberman and David Gordon made such a significant contribution in spreading the Zionist idea, is in the form of a symbolic matzevah (gravestone) in Polish and Hebrew. And thus it is the copies of Ha-Magid – both the two presented to us by Rafał Żytyniec, along with others located in libraries and research archives around the world – that are the lasting treasures commemorating Silberman and Gordon.


When Nahum Sokolow was 18 years old (and had already written his first text in the Hebrew-language newspaper Ha-Tsefira published in Warsaw) he went on a pilgrimage to Ełk from Maków Mazowiecki, where he had been living with his wife for a year (sic!). His aim was to meet “David ben Baer Gordon,” as he wrote in his book from 1935 about Hovevei Zion – Hibbath Zion. This is how the elderly Sokolow, who had then resided in London for twenty years, remembered Gordon:

David Gordon was one of the first Jewish Nationalists, with the endurance and ardor of a real pioneer […]. An omnivorous reader with a tenacious memory […] he felt the force and truth of the Jewish national idea and saw the evil of assimilation long before Smolenskin.

[…] Most men […] could not make a bold and unequivocal statement about the connection of the Jewish people with Palestine. Everything they said had to be qualified, hedged about with words and designed to be all things to all readers. Not so David Gordon. His articles […] bristled with the most explicit and daring assertions. […] He stated frankly and honestly that the Jews are not only a religious group, but also a nation.

[…] The whole journalistic activity of this man – at least as far as Hibbath Zion is concerned – is marked by such a force and frankness […] that Hovevey Zion of his time, particularly in Warsaw, considered him the worthiest candidate to be delegated to represent them at the Moses Montefiore Centenary Celebration in London, 1884. The writer, who had been in correspondence with this excellent man for many years before, met him on that occasion and admired his devotion to the cause, expressed in a series of conversations.”

Jarosław Kociszewski and Philip Earl Steele

[This is the second in a series of six articles on ‘fathers of modern Israel’ from the lands of today’s Poland]

The article was produced as part of the Jan Nowak-Jeziorański Eastern Europe College project funded by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Public task financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland within the grant competition “Public Diplomacy 2021”. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the official positions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.

About the Author
Philip Earl Steele is an American historian based in Poland, specializing in the history of early Zionism. His recent book on Theodor Herzl, published by the Polish Academy of Sciences, is available in Open Access:
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