|Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a Jewish-German financier and philanthropist dedicated his fortune to the welfare of Eastern European Jews at a time when worsening conditions in Russia made mass emigration a necessity. Hirsch's estate, estimated at $100 million by 1890, resulted from his pioneer enterprises in the sugar and copper industries and management of the Turkish railway, which linked Constantinople to Europe. |
His experiences in the Ottoman Empire alerted him to the plight of Middle Eastern Jewry. Convinced that modern secular education would alleviate the miserable conditions faced by Jews, he gave one million francs ($200,000) to the Alliance Israelite Universelle for the creation of schools. In 1891, the czarist government of Russia had refused Hirsch's offer of 50 million francs ($10,000,000) to establish a modern educational system for Jews, because it was not given complete control over the allocation of the funds.
Hirsch was approached by Theodor Herzl to request his support for the Zionist movement, but he regarded the creation of a Jewish state as a fantasy and refused any assistance. At the same time, he had become convinced that Jews were fated to suffer as long as they remained in Eastern Europe. He believed that emigration to nations without a history of antisemitism, where Jews would be treated as equal citizens, would lead to both a physical and moral rebirth of Jewry.
Therefore, Hirsch envisioned the transformation of Eastern European Jewry into a class of independent farmers and handicraftsmen in the New World. He established the New York based Baron de Hirsch Fund in 1891 facilitate this goal. Hirsch recruited Mayer Sulzberger, William B. Hackenburg, Jacob H. Schiff, Myer S. Isaacs, Oscar S. Straus and other American Jewish leaders to serve as officers and trustees. Later that same year, Hirsch created the Jewish Colonization Association to facilitate mass emigration of Jews from Russia to agricultural colonies particularly in Argentina and Brazil.
The desire of Hirsch and his Fund's leadership to recast Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the image of "biblical farmers" was shaped by a mix of attitudes. The trustees wanted to reverse the historic discrimination that banned their Eastern European brethren from farming. At the same time, they shared a negative Western European stereotype of Eastern European Jews as unskilled workers, beggers and peddlers. Therefore the goal of the Fund's leadership was to improve the lot of Eastern European Jews and transform them into a socio-economic class acceptable to the tastes of the 19th century Jewish elite.