Hovevei Zion (Hebrew: חובבי ציון, lit. [Those who are] Lovers of Zion), also known as Hibbat Zion (Hebrew: חיבת ציון), refers to organizations that are now considered the forerunners and foundation-builders of modern Zionism.
Many of these first groups were established in Eastern European countries in the early 1880s with the aim to promote Jewish immigration to Palestine, and advance Jewish settlement there, particularly agricultural. Most of them stayed away from politics.
Since the first centuries of the Common Era most Jews have lived outside the Land of Israel (Eretz Israel, known also as Palestine), although there has been a constant presence of Jews. According to the Bible and Judaism, Eretz Israel is a land promised to the Jews by God. The Diaspora began in 586 BCE during the Babylonian occupation of Israel.
In 1854, Judah Touro bequeathed money to fund Jewish residential settlement in Palestine. Sir Moses Montefiore was appointed executor of his will, and used the funds for a variety of projects, including building the first Jewish residential settlement and almshouse outside of the old walled city of Jerusalem in 1860, which is known today as Mishkenot Sha'ananim. Laurence Oliphant failed in a like attempt to bring to Palestine the Jewish proletariat of Poland, Lithuania, Romania, and the Turkish Empire (1879 and 1882).
In the Russian Empire, waves of pogroms of 1881-1884 (some allegedly state-sponsored), as well as the anti-Semitic May Laws of 1882 introduced by Tsar Alexander III of Russia, deeply affected Jewish communities. More than 2 million Jews fled Russia between 1880 and 1920. The vast majority of them emigrated to the United States, but some decided to form an aliyah.
In 1882, a group of Hovevei Zion enthusiasts which included noted philanthropist Isaac Leib Goldberg founded Rishon LeZion, the first Zionist settlement in the Land of Israel. Later on they were reinforced by Bilu pioneers who strengthened the settlement and enlarged it. For many years, textbooks gave Bilu the credit for the establishment of Rishon, but in the last decades — after a campaign by the veterans of Rishon and their descendants — Hovevei Zion were given the credit as the founders of the city.
The Hovevei Zion tract Aruchas bas-ami was authored by Isaac Rülf in 1883, and in 1884, 34 delegates met in Kattowitz, Germany (today Katowice, Poland). Rabbi Samuel Mohilever was elected the president and Leon Pinsker the chairman of the organization they named Hovevei Zion. The group tried to secure financial help from Baron Edmond James de Rothschild and other philanthropists to aid Jewish settlements and to organize educational courses.
The Warsaw chapter was founded by L. L. Zamenhof, who was working on the first grammar of Yiddish ever written, published under the pseudonym "Dr. X" only in 1909, in Lebn un visnshaft, in the article "Vegn a yidisher gramatik un reform in der yidisher shprakh".
In order to attain legal recognition by the authorities, the Russian branch of Hovevei Zion had to meet a demand to be registered as a charity. Early in 1890 its establishment was approved by the Russian government as "The Society for the Support of Jewish Farmers and Artisans in Syria and Eretz Israel," which came to be known as The Odessa Committee. It was dedicated to the practical aspects in establishing agricultural settlements and its projects in 1890–1891 included help in the founding of Rehovot and Hadera and rehabilitation of Mishmar HaYarden. One of the major funders of Hovevei Zion was the famous tea merchant, Kalonimus Wolf Wissotzky, who founded the largest tea company in Russia, Wissotzky Tea.