JOSEPH VITKIN (1876-1912)
Vitkin was an educator, one of the earliest members of the worker’s movement and a key figure of the period between the two major waves of immigration, the First Aliyah and Second Aliyah.
He was born in 1876 in the city of Mohilev, in Russia and emigrated to Palestine in 1897. For a short time, he worked as a laborer and then, due to his scholarship and skill, became a teacher. He began teaching in Gedera and was soon appointed principal. He was then appointed the principal of the Rishon L’Zion school and thereafter in 1904, in Kfar Tabor. Joseph Vitkin in his educational work, emphasized a love for Jewish values and a veneration for the country’s landscapes.
As a dedicated Zionist, he gave expression to many of the ideals which led to the Second Aliyah. In 1905, he authored and distributed a pamphlet entitled: “A Call to Jewish Youth who Love their People and Zion”, in which he encouraged immigration to the Land of Israel based on the principles of agricultural work in the motherland. He admitted that the pioneers would encounter enormous physical difficulties, hardships which would undoubtedly take all their strength to overcome and perhaps even many lives. Despite all this, he claimed, despair and fear must give way to hope, commitment and belief that the goal would in the end would be achieved. The people in the Land of Israel must be prepared to sacrifice for the sake of their country, as all other nations do for the sake of their countries.
Vitkin said further: “Heroes of Israel, hasten and hurry forward, renew the days of the Bilu movement with a greater force, otherwise we shall most certainly and irrevocably lose.” Vitkin’s pamphlet, which he signed as “A youth group in the Land of Israel”, influenced the renewal of Zionist efforts and idealism in Europe.
His father died in 1905 after immigrating to Palestine. In 1907 Joseph Vitkin contracted throat cancer and went for medical treatment to Vienna. Six months later he was sent by the “Hovevey Zion” group as an emissary to Russia. In 1909 he returned to his post as principal of the Rishon L’Zion school and to his struggle with the farmers. As a result of the farmers’ complaints, Vitkin was dismissed as principal but continued to teach at the school.
In May 1911 the cancer in Vitkin’s body grew more acute. He returned to Vienna for medical treatment but this failed and he returned to the country totally exhausted and weak and settled in Tel Aviv, the first modern Hebrew city. In 1912, at the age of 36, he was buried, celebate, in Rishon L’Zion. Vitkin Village as well as many streets in the country are named after him. Vitkin is considered today, as one of the most significant factors which motivated the Second Aliyah.
Vitkin was one of the founders and leaders of the “Young Workers” Party. In addition to his insistence on Jewish manual work he stressed the “conquest of agriculture”, that is to say, the establishment of Jewish settlements in the Land of Israel.