1903 brought with it a dangerous crisis to the Zionist movement. Herzl finally despaired of waiting for the “Charter” which he believed he would receive from the Sultan and received from the British Government a proposal to colonize Uganda which at that time was a deserted British colony devoid of white inhabitants. Herzl brought this proposal up at the 6th Zionist Congress at Basel and it caused a huge riot. Going to Uganda meant forgetting the Zionist dream, to abandon the land of our forefathers and the Holy City of Jerusalem and become colonialists of a foreign Empire struggling against blacks instead of struggling against Arabs. Most members of the Zionist organization rose violently against it. The minority, including Moritz Schönberg, followed Herzl blindly.
Herzl had many legitimate political antagonists but he also had some who were just mean and envied him. There were those who envied his position as President of the Zionist Movement and wanted to replace him. One of those was Usishkin who was strongly against the Uganda proposal not because of his love for Zion but for his hate of Herzl. He could not tolerate Herzl and his regal behaviour and therefore kept looking for ways to beat him within the movement. In order to do so he had to form a wide political party. He found the appropriate material for such a party in the masses of Jewish laborers and workers.
In the summer of 1903 Usishkin arrived in Israel and decided to hold a conference in Zichron-Yaakov which he named “The Israeli Assembly” and in it he tried to convene all the representatives of the Jewish residents who were divided and unorganized and form all of them into an “Organization” which will be called: “The Israeli Organization”. Nobody, not even Usishkin himself knew what the purpose of this organization would be but he knew that if he succeeds in forming it he will obtain a political instrument with immense strength to fight Herzl. Herzl knew nothing about Usishkin’s operations. Usishkin knew that Herzl, if he finds out about it, will be strongly opposed to it, so he made sure that none of it is divulged to Herzl. However, in Israel he sort of let out and enforced the impression that all this was done according to the implicit instructions of Herzl.
The organizers of the “Organization” decided that in order to become a member and be represented by a delegate one had to pay 1/2 a Medjedieh (Turkish coin). This was a very large sum for the poor workers of Jaffa. My grandfather who believed that Usishkin was operating on Herzl’s orders convinced them of the importance of this “Organization”. The laborers and workers of Jaffa knew Moritz Schönberg well and trusted him and so 80 of them gave him their 1/2 Medjediehs and elected him as their delegate to the conference, giving him their power of attorney to represent them and vote for them at the conference. On August 20, 1903 grandfather traveled to Zichron-Yaakov together with other delegates from Jaffa such as Shimeon Rokach, Bezalel Lapin, Moyal, Barzilai, Yaakov Goldman and others. The opening ceremony took place at the office-building of Baron Rothschild on the 22. Grandfather produced the President’s hammer and presented it personally when he arrived at Zichron. There were three individual sessions: The first being the one of the workers, the second being the one of the teachers and the last being the one of the laborers. They lasted a full week. The teachers session was very successful and produced the Teachers Labor Union which exists to this day. Each delegate handed the 1/2 Medjediehs which he brought with a list of the contributors to the organizers and directors of the Conference.
This whole business was organized and carried out without the permission of the Turkish authorities, who did not like it at all. The authorities started investigating and following Usishkin (who was a Russian citizen) and informed the Pasha in Jerusalem (who was appointed by the Turkish Sultan to be Supreme-Governor of Israel.) The Pasha who was not an ally of the Jews issued orders to watch closely all Jewish enterprises. The Kaimakam (City Governor) of Jaffa who was not one of the 36 just men was happy for the occasion given him to abuse the Jews and among many “good deeds” which he hurried to carry out he also ordered several severe restrictions on the Anglo-Palestine Company bank (which was opened in Jaffa in 1903). Z.D.Levontin who was the Director of the bank got very worried. He,too, believed that everything Usishkin did was ordered by Herzl. He wrote Herzl a letter in which he told him all of Usishkin’s operations and the troubles which befell the Israeli Jews due to these operations as well as the severe restrictions imposed on the Zionist Bank by the Turkish authorities. Finally Levontin asked Herzl to turn to Britain and ask the British to calm the Turks and convince them to cancel the restrictions. Before he mailed the letter Levontin went to grandfather’s shop and let him read the letter.
Early in September Usishkin heard that the Turkish authorities are looking for a valid excuse to put him in prison. Hearing this he hurried to board the first ship which sailed out of Jaffa and left behind him his friends: Doctor Hillel Yaffe, Z.G. Sochovolsky and Yehiel-Michel Pinnes to watch whatever remained from the “Organization” and the Medjediehs.
Several days later Levontin returned to grandfather’s shop with Herzl’s reply dated September 11,1903 in which Herzl writes that he knew nothing about Usishkin’s visit to Israel and nothing at all about what he did there. Usishkin’s operations were unauthrized and endangered the whole Zionist complex. The restrictions which the Jews of Israel are enduring now, especially the Anglo-Palestine Company bank are a direct result of what Usishkin did. It will now be very difficult to pacify the Turkish authorities.
Reading this letter Levontin and grandfather remained speachless. The cat was out of the bag. It was clear now that Usishkin took all of them for a ride and that everything he did was unknown and contrary to Herzl’s will. By this time Herzl was a sick man and Usishkin’s deceit weakened him further. He sent another letter to Levontin who showed it to grandfather. In this letter of September 23, 1903 and in another which he wrote on October 2, 1903, Herzl who knew that Levontin was a friend of Usishkin as far back as the days of “Hibbat Zion” (Love of Zion movement) suspected Levontin of helping Usishkin and therefore wrote to him using very hard language and demanding from him to do his duty and report truly and in detail all of Usishkin’s deeds in Israel. The truth was that Levantine, who was familiar with the situation in Israel far better than Usishkin, was not part of Usishkin’s antics in any way whatsoever, and stood on the sidelines, watching. He replied to all of Herzl’s letters and gave him a full, detailed and truthful report.
Meanwhile whatever Levontin and my grandfather knew became the knowledge of every Jew in Israel. Most of those who paid Usishkin and his band the 1/2 Medjedieh were quite disgusted with the whole story and for the pain which it caused Herzl who was ill. Most of them turned to their delegates and asked to be reimbursed. Those were not only the poor laborers and workers of Jaffa which were represented by my grandfather but the well-to-do and mostly the farmers. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda wrote a long article in his newspaper “Hahashkafa” (The Outlook) number 36 0f the year 1903 in which he strips Usishkin bare and presents him as a swindler. Before printing it Ben-Yehuda came to my grandfather’s shop and read the article to him.
It did not take long before the poor workmen who gave grandfather their 1/2 Medjdieh which he, in turn, handed to Doctor Hillel Yaffe with a full list of the payees’ names as soon as he reached Zichron-Yaakov, came asking for their money. My grandfather wrote a letter to Doctor Yaffe explaining the problem and the dire situation of the donors and requested that their money be returned to them. He received no answer and therefore wrote two more letters which remained unanswered.
Eighty of these workmen who were really going hungry continued coming to grandfather. They also wrote a letter to the “Committee” of the “Organization” saying that they were leaving the “Organization” and requesting their money as well as the money which cost their delegates to travel to Zichron-Yaakov to attend the conference. They warned the Committee that they were not allowed to represent them anymore and noted that they chose three delegates: Moritz Schönberg, Yehuda Levi and Nathanel Markovitch to deal with their claims and if required to sue whoever they find necessary at the “High Court in Jerusalem.”
This letter must have worried Dr. Yaffe who replied that the Committee was not authorized to grant their request and therefore one should wait until April 1904 when the meeting of the executive committee will decide upon it. This did not satisfy these poor people who went on requesting my grandfather to give them their money back. April passed without any meeting. The “Organization” did not exist at all and never operated so that Dr. Yaffe’s letter was null and void. My grandfather then asked David Yudilovitch, Yehuda Grazovsky and Shimeon Rokach to speak with Dr. Yaffe and try to end this shameful case. All three expressed their opinion that those who gave their money for that event had no right to claim it back, however they approached Dr. Yaffe and received no answer from him. Finally grandfather told the poor fellows to go directly to Dr. Yaffe.
Eighty miserable men came to Doctor Yaffe and told him that they were actually starving and were therefore requesting their money back. Yaffe pulled open the drawer of his desk and drew out a gun, pointing it at those who stood at the head of the group, he said: “Here is my gun and it will soon decide if your request is right or not: We did not take your money, Moritz Schönberg took it, go to him.”
The group returned to my grandfather and told him that if he will not hand them back their money they will return to Dr. Yaffe so as to see how a man who is a leader of his people will use a gun against men who are literally starving. Grandfather succeeded in calming them and went immediately to the Directors of the Jewish Community of Jaffa: Bezalel Lapin and Shimeon Rokach and told them what happened. As soon as they heard they came out and distributed bread to the poor fellows. On April 13, 1904 one of these poor fellows who paid 1/2 a Medjedie in Jerusalem as well as 1/2 a Medjedie in Jaffa, and who was seriously ill, asked my grandfather to help him. Grandfather sent him to Dr. Yaffe as he sent the others and the latter sent him back to grandfather saying that he is the one who took the money. Grandfather asked the man to give him the receipt which he got when he paid-out and as soon as the man produced it he gave him his money.