Hebrew newspaper. Ha-Melits (The Advocate) was the first Hebrew-language weekly to appear in tsarist Russia. Between 1860 and 1870 it was published in Odessa, and in 1871 it was relocated to Saint Petersburg where it remained until its last issue in 1904. From 1883, the paper was printed twice weekly, and in 1886—to compete with the new Ha-Yom newspaper—it became a daily. Throughout its history it was forced to contend with a number of interruptions in its production, the longest of which lasted from 1873 to 1878.
The founder of Ha-Melits, and its editor in chief during most of its years, was Aleksander Zederbaum. From 1880 to 1888, Yehudah Leib Gordon was coopted onto the editorial board but found himself in constant conflict with Zederbaum. After Zederbaum died in 1893, Leon Rabinovich was appointed editor, a position he held until the paper ceased publication. For much of its existence, Ha-Melits was financially supported by the Ḥevrat Mefitse Haskalah (Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia).
Three basic aspirations guided Zederbaum in his editorial policies: enhancing Jewish integration into Russian society in accordance with the vision of the Haskalah movement; linking Jewish factions according to his belief that no contradictions existed between religion and Haskalah; and serving as the central platform for Jewish affairs and as a means of communication among Jewish communities in Russia and beyond.
Indeed, throughout its existence Ha-Melits sought to preserve a mainstream conciliatory position on public issues discussed in its pages. When, for example, religious reforms were debated between 1868 and 1870, Ha-Melits published Mosheh Leib Lilienblum’s and Yehudah Leib Gordon’s radical critiques of the rabbinic establishment, but also permitted moderate maskilim—and even some rabbis—to articulate conservative opposing views. At the end of the 1870s, the paper distanced itself from the socialist trends that had begun to infiltrate the Hebrew press and instead maintained that Jews should take up agriculture in Russia, which the government would fund and which could potentially solve the severe economic crisis affecting Russian Jewry. The paper also published harsh protests against manifestations of antisemitism in Russia; these strong pieces were usually the work of Zederbaum, a staunch advocate of Jewish rights who wrote bravely about feelings of national pride.
In 1889, the paper gave attention to a lively debate on the status of both the Yiddish language and Yiddish literature. There were those who opposed it (Elḥanan Leib Lewinsky, Zalman Epstein, and Yisra’el Ḥayim Tawiów), those who supported it (Sholem Aleichem, Yehoshu‘a Ḥana Ravnitski, and Yehudah Leib Gamzu), and those who sought a compromise (Yehudah Leib Levin and Yehudah Leib Ben-David).
From the beginning of the 1880s, the newspaper covered the division between supporters of Ḥibat Tsiyon and those who expressed reservations about Zionism (including Yehudah Leib Gordon). Ha-Melits never became an official Zionist organ, yet it devoted an increasing amount of space to reports about new settlements in Palestine, and to discussions about the future of Zionism. Most notable in this debate were two series of articles by Ahad Ha-Am, titled Emet me-erets Yisra’el (Truth from the Land of Israel; 1891, 1893). During Rabinovich’s tenure as editor, the newspaper’s inclination toward Zionism became more pronounced, so that detailed reports from the first Zionist congresses and internal arguments between the various Zionist factions were given broad coverage, as was the debate over the so-called Uganda Plan (1903).
In addition to its role as a forum for discussion of public affairs, Ha-Melits was an important source of information for events relevant to Jews, especially for its many reports culled primarily from the foreign press; on the situation of Russian Jewry; on actions of the Russian government; and on news relating to the business world. It also contained articles about scientific innovations, on Jewish educational matters, and on Jewish and world history.
Zederbaum, who was not a literary man, gave emphasis to the newspaper’s political stance, news, and more practical sections, assigning a secondary role to literary columns and even asking contributors not to send him their poetry. Nonetheless, Ha-Melits played a prominent role in the development of Hebrew literary criticism. In its first year, substantial space was devoted to the controversy surrounding Mendele Moykher-Sforim’s Mishpet Sholem (The Sholem Trial), an issue that spurred the growth of aesthetic consciousness in modern Hebrew literature. During the 1860s, Avraham Uri Kovner and Avraham Ya‘akov Paperna, pioneers of systematic criticism of Hebrew literature, were contributors; and the newspaper regularly featured reviews of new books. Ha-Melits was the first Hebrew newspaper to feature editorials reflecting the views of its editorial board, and it also nurtured the popular and lively feuilleton.
The literary section of Ha-Melits was substantially enhanced after Gordon joined its editorial board. Not only did he contribute stories, poems, and feuilletons, but he also nurtured young writers by publishing their short stories and investing a great deal of energy into editing and polishing them. His efforts raised the overall level and writing style of the newspaper, and he devoted particular attention to the book review section.
Contributors to Ha-Melits included virtually all the Hebrew writers active in Russia during the period of its publication. Ha-Melits was most important and influential during the first 30 years of its existence when it was under the stewardship of Zederbaum and Gordon. By the 1890s, with the end of the Haskalah period, its significance diminished.
Menuḥah Gilbo‘a, “Ha-Melits,” in Leksikon ha-‘itonut ha-‘ivrit ba-me’ot ha-shemoneh ‘esreh veha-tesha‘ ‘esreh, pp. 137–157 (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1992); Ornah Golan, “Y. L. Gordon ke-‘orekh Ha-Melits,” Bikoret u-farshanut 13–14 (June 1979): 73–92; Ḥanah Lok, “Giluye ha-ide’ologyah ha-maskilit be-Rusyah ha-ts’arit bi-re’i ketav-ha-‘et Ha-Melits ba-shanim 1860–1870” (M.A. thesis, Tel Aviv University, 1987); Alexander Orbach, New Voices of Russian Jewry: A Study of the Russian Jewish Press of Odessa in the Era of the Great Reforms, 1860–1871 (Leiden, 1980).
Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler