The year the pogroms began in Russia, 1881, is the year Russian Jews started emigrating in large numbers to the
United States. A smaller number of them, however, turned their eyes toward Zion; in 1882, several thousand
Russian Jews emigrated to Palestine. Prior to this, most Jews who made aliyah to Israel did so for religious
reasons; it was considered meritorious, for example, to die in the Holy Land. Living in Palestine, however, was
considerably harder. It was an impoverished land, many if not most of whose Jewish inhabitants
depended on worldwide Jewish charitable contributions.
In 1882 also, a new Jewish organization
was founded that had a very different scenario
in mind for Jewish life in Israel. The group
was called BILU, an acronym based on a verse
from Isaiah (2:5), "Beit Ya'akov Lekhu
Ve-nelkha/Let the house of Jacob go!"
BILU's founders believed that the time had
come for Jews not only to live in Israel,
but to make their living there as well.
The Bilu'im were influenced
by Marx as well as the Bible, and hoped to
establish farming cooperatives in Palestine.
For the fourteen ex-university students who
comprised the first group of Bilu'im, farming
represented a complete change of lifestyle.
(Because Jews had been forbidden to own land
in Russia, the country had almost no Jewish
farmers.) Arriving in Palestine with enormous
"funds" of good will and energy,
but with little money and experience, the
Bilu'im found life very difficult. Two Palestinian
Jews who had already raised money to buy land
gave the group a tract to set up a farm in
the settlement of Rishon
Le-Zion. Within a few months, the Bilu'im
faced starvation, and most had to leave.
A few years later, the eight members of the group who had remained in Palestine were offered land in G'dera.
Here they struggled against both difficult farming conditions meals eventually consisted only of radishes
and potatoes and Arab marauders. "They violated our boundaries," one of the Bilu'im recorded in his
diaries, "and dispossessed us of whole tracts of our land and we were helpless." Ironically, the G'dera
outpost was eventually saved through the philanthropic efforts of one of the archcapitalists of the Jewish world, Baron Edmund de Rothschild of France. The dispirited, and by now demoralized, Bilu'im soon left the
settlement. Some went to other parts of Palestine, others returned to Europe.
Although the BILU movement, failed
completely its vision of Jewish cooperative
farms was carried out very successfully a
few decades later by the kibbutz and moshav movements. Ever since, the BILU
dream of Jews living and supporting themselves
in their own homeland has been regarded as
one of the important forerunners of the international
Zionist movement which Theodor
Herzl organized fifteen years later.