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Ahad Ha’am

(1856 - 1927)

Ahad Ha’am was the pen name of Asher Hirsch Ginsberg, and one of the central literary figures of Cultural or Spiritual Zionism.

Asher Ginsberg was born on August 18, 1856, in Skvira, near Kiev in the Ukraine. He received a traditional Jewish education in the home of his father, a Hasid who was a wealthy village merchant. He studied Talmud and medieval philosophy with a private teacher and was deeply influenced by Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed. He read the literature of the Haskalah, and studied Russian, German, French, English, and Latin – independently.

After his marriage in 1873, he continued his studies, particularly philosophy and science, at home. He tried several times to enter a university, but family obligations and his unwillingness to meet certain formal requirements disrupted his academic plans and he remained self-taught. As a result of powerful rationalist tendencies, he first gave up Hasidism and then abandoned all religious faith.

In 1884, while in his early thirties, Ginsberg returned to Odessa where he was influenced by Leon Pinsker, a leader of the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) movement whose goal was settlement of Jews in Palestine. He joined the group but soon became a severe critic of its settlement activities, preferring instead cultural work for a Jewish regeneration.

His first article criticizing practical Zionism, called “Lo zu haderekh” (This is not the way) published in 1888 appeared in HaMelitz. In it, he wrote that the Land of Israel will not be capable of absorbing the Jewish Diaspora, not even a majority of them. Ahad Ha’am also argued that establishing a “national home” in Zion will not solve the “Jewish problem”; furthermore, the physical conditions in Eretz Israel will discourage Aliyah, and thus Hibbat Zion must educate and strengthen Zionist values among the Jewish people enough that they will want to settle the land despite the greatest difficulties.

Written under the pseudonym Ahad Ha-Am (“One of the People”), the controversial essay made its author famous and unintentionally propelled him into intensive literary activity. His articles, most of which were published in Ha-Meliẓ, all dealt with subjects connected with Judaism, the settlement of Eretz Israel, and Hibbat Zion.

The ideas in this article became the platform for the elitist Benai Moshe (sons of Moses), a secret society he founded that year to transform the Hovevei Zion group into a movement to promote the Hebrew language and cultural revival. Benai Moshe, active until 1897, helped found Rehovot as a model for self-sufficiency, and established Achiasaf, a Hebrew publishing company.

In 1891, Ahad Ha-Am visited Eretz Israel for the first time and summed up his impressions in Emet me-Eretz Yisrael (“Truth from Eretz Israel”), a strongly critical survey of the economic, social, and spiritual aspects of the Jewish settlements. He wrote:

We who live abroad are accustomed to believe that almost all Eretz Israel is now uninhabited desert and whoever wishes can buy land there as he pleases. But this is not true. It is very difficult to find in the land cultivated fields that are not used for planting. Only those sand fields or stone mountains that would require the investment of hard labor and great expense to make them good for planting remain uncultivated and that’s because the Arabs do not like working too much in the present for a distant future. Therefore, it is very difficult to find good land for cattle. And not only peasants, but also rich landowners, are not selling good land so easily...We who live abroad are accustomed to believing that the Arabs are all wild desert people who, like donkeys, neither see nor understand what is happening around them. But this is a grave mistake. The Arab, like all the Semites, is sharp minded and shrewd. All the townships of Syria and Eretz Israel are full of Arab merchants who know how to exploit the masses and keep track of everyone with whom they deal – the same as in Europe. The Arabs, especially the urban elite, see and understand what we are doing and what we wish to do on the land, but they keep quiet and pretend not to notice anything. For now, they do not consider our actions as presenting a future danger to them. … But, if the time comes that our people’s life in Eretz Israel will develop to a point where we are taking their place, either slightly or significantly, the natives are not going to just step aside so easily.

In 1893, he paid a second visit, and published similar criticisms. To foster the educational work which he considered a prior condition for settlement, he planned an encyclopedia on Jews and Judaism (Oẓar ha-Yahadut) which he hoped would encourage Jewish studies and revitalize Jewish thought.

The trips convinced him that the Zionist movement would face an uphill struggle in its attempt to create a Jewish National Home. He warned of the difficulties associated with land purchase and cultivation, the problems with the Turkish authorities and the impending conflict with the Arabs. He criticized Herzl for his quasi-messianic schemes and warned of the disillusionment that would follow Herzl’s failure.

In 1896, Ahad Ha’am founded the Hebrew monthly Hashiloah, the leading Hebrew language literary journal in the early twentieth century. It was published in Warsaw by Achiasaf. It was a vehicle to promote Jewish nationalism and a platform for discussion of past and present issues relevant to Judaism. After the magazine was founded, a debate broke out between himself and “the young men” (M.J. Berdyczewski, O. Thon, and M. Ehrenpreis), who sought to encourage the writing of Hebrew literature in all phases of life and bring about a transformation of values in Jewish culture. Ahad Ha-Am, however, feared that writing that was not specifically Jewish was premature and might lead to the severance of Jewish cultural continuity. He instead advocated concentration on Jewish problems and Jewish scholarship (Li-She’elat ha-Sifrut ha-Ivrit; “On the Question of Hebrew Literature”).

In 1897, following the Basel Zionist Congress calling for a Jewish national home “recognized in international law” (Volkerrechtlich), Ahad Ha’am wrote an article (“Jewish State Jewish Problem”) ridiculing the idea of a Volkerrechtlich state given the pitiful plight of the Jewish settlements in Palestine at the time. He had no faith in the efficacy of Herzlian diplomacy and was troubled by the estrangement of Herzl and Nordau from Jewish values and culture. He accused them of neglecting cultural work which he regarded as paramount, and through which he hoped to prepare the people for Zionism and protect them against cultural sterility and assimilation (Ha-Ẓiyyonut ha-Medinit; “Political Zionism”). He emphasized that without a Jewish nationalist revival abroad, it would be impossible to mobilize genuine support for a Jewish national home. Even if the national home were created and recognized in international law, it would be weak and unsustainable.

In 1900, after visiting Eretz Israel again, he took part in the Hovevei Zion delegation to Baron Edmond de Rothschild in Paris. His articles severely criticized the Baron’s officials in Palestine, their dictatorial attitude, the ensuing degeneration among the settlers, and the neglect of national values in the education system of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (Battei ha-Sefer be-Yafo (“The Schools in Jaffa”) and Ha-Yishuv ve-Epitropsav (“The Yishuv and its Patrons”). The question of Hebrew national education and assimilation in the West also occupied much of his attention at the time.

In his book “Wrestling with Zion,” he urged the Jews “not to provoke the anger of the native people by doing them handle these people with love and respect and, needless to say, with justice and good judgment.” He said, instead, “they deal with the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly, beat them shamefully for no sufficient reason, and even boast about their actions. There is no one to stop the flood and put an end to this despicable and dangerous tendency.” He added, “Our brothers indeed were right when they said that the Arab only respects he who exhibits bravery and courage,” but warned the Arabs would “keep their anger in their hearts” and “be revengeful like no other.” Ahad Ha’am believed that the creation in Eretz-Israel of a Jewish cultural center would act to reinforce Jewish life in the Diaspora. His hope was that in this center a new Jewish national identity based on Jewish ethics and values might resolve the crisis of Judaism. Only then would the Jewish people be strong enough to assume the mantle of building a nation state.

In 1903, Ahad Ha-Am retired from the time-consuming editorship of Ha-Shilo’aḥ, moved to London and took up a post with the Wissotzky tea firm in 1907, intending to devote himself to his neglected literary pursuits. However, he continued his public activities. Following the Kishinev pogroms, he encouraged Jewish self-defense and after the Sixth Zionist Congress, intervened vigorously in the debate on the Uganda Plan, which he regarded as a natural consequence of the detachment of political Zionism from Jewish values. At the conclusion of this debate, he devoted himself to writing on subjects not directly connected with current events. He apparently hoped to expound his theories in a comprehensive and systematic form and wrote several essays on these lines (Moshe, Basar va-Ruaḥ, Shilton ha-Sekhel; Eng. ed. 1962), but failing health and perhaps inner obstacles prevented him from achieving his aim.

He continued his Zionist work, playing a part in the securing of the Balfour Declaration, though he understood its limitations, especially in connection with the Arab population. During this period, his literary work was much diminished.

In 1922, he arrived in Eretz Israel to spend the last five years of his life in Tel Aviv where he served as a member of the Executive Committee of the city council until 1926. He completed his four-volume collected essays started in 1895, Al Parashat Derakhim, dictated several chapters of memoirs, and edited his letters (6 vols. (1923–25), and in a more comprehensive edition, edited by L. Simon and Y. Pogravinsky (1957–60). He died there in 1927.

A self-confessed stranger to literature, Ahad Ha-Am entered it by chance; in time, however, he developed a carefully chiseled, lucid, and precise style, a desire for consistency, and a profound sense of responsibility. His failure to systemize his teachings in a comprehensive work may have been the result of lack of time, or of his reluctance to undertake a great task. His natural skepticism and his lack of confidence, governed to a considerable extent by the limitations of education and character, also led him to recoil in the face of the audacity of the “young authors” and the daring of political Zionism. His estimation of himself, then, as an occasional writer, was correct. His articles, including even those based on an all-embracing world outlook, are the responsible reactions to contemporary problems of a pragmatic thinker, deeply devoted to his aims, but influenced in his arguments by varying conditions and circumstances. This was largely the consequence of the fact that Ahad Ha-Am owed his ideas to incompatible sources: positivism and idealism, but never succeeded in working out systematically the relation between the two. Nevertheless, they are historically significant and express the self-questioning of the generation that brought about a momentous change of direction in Jewish history. Ahad Ha-Am’s reservations concerning political Zionism, the immediate settlement of Eretz Israel, and the Zionist movement’s elation regarding the Balfour Declaration were primarily based upon his misgivings about the tendency to haste which is characteristic of every mass messianic awakening. Ahad Ha-Am feared that Zionism might have the same end as other such movements in Jewish history that led to despair and disastrous disintegration (Ha-Bokhim; “They Who Weep”). He may never have believed wholeheartedly in the reality of the Zionist solution, even on the limited scale of his own definition. He clearly saw the political and economic problems and felt that they could not be overcome.

In his very first article Lo Zeh ha-Derekh he ascribed the difficulties of Jewish settlement in Eretz Israel to the weakness of the national consciousness among the Jews. A great enterprise demands a readiness on the part of the masses to sacrifice their private advantage for the sake of the community, but because of dispersion and the distress of exile, the Jews had not grown accustomed to such altruism. When they came to the homeland, they expected rapid economic success and immediately gave way to despair when this was not forthcoming. Hence, he believed, the pace of settlement should be slowed down, and be preceded by intensive education to prepare the people for self-sacrifice and to strengthen its national consciousness. In other words, the decisive test should be postponed indefinitely, on the implied assumption that the work of preparation for the realization of the aim would constitute a partial solution. It would not, indeed, solve what Ahad Ha-Am defined as “the question of the Jews,” namely, the economic, social, and political problems of the Jewish masses. In any case, he felt that Zionism would not solve these problems. On the other hand, it could solve what he defined as “the question of Judaism;” that is, it could create a new type of Jew, proud of his Jewishness and deeply rooted in it, thus ensuring the continuation of the spiritual creativity of Judaism and the Jews’ devotion to their people.

These pragmatic considerations are the starting point for a first theoretical analysis of the question: What is the nature and the source of the national consciousness? How is it weakened and how can it be strengthened? It is characteristic, again, of Ahad Ha-Am’s pragmatic method that, despite his sensitivity to the weak national consciousness among the Jews, he did not study the cultural and historical bases for such national consciousness but assumed its existence as a natural fact. When the Jews of Germany, France, and Britain asked, “Why do we have to remain Jews?” Ahad Ha-Am replied that the question was not legitimate. Just as a man does not ask why he must be a particular individual, so the Jew cannot ask why he must remain a Jew; this is a given fact that cannot be changed by volition. On the assumption that nationality is naturally acquired, he builds a characteristic analogy between the “individual ego” and the “national ego,” which represents the nation’s collective identity and embraces all individuals throughout the generations. He did not systematically explain this concept, but his intention is suggested in his distinction between a person’s attitude toward his people and toward humanity. The latter is “abstract;” a person rationally understands the unity of all men, recognizes his bonds with them, and his moral duty toward them. But this abstraction is not sufficient to arouse his love for the individual as such. The attitude to the nation is “tangible,” that is, emotional. It is not derived from thought, but from a natural, biological impulse. Every individual carries from birth a sense of belonging to the group into which he was born; the family, tribe, or nationality, which is the foundation of his existence (Ha-Adam ba-Ohel; “Man in his Tent”). The “national ego” is, therefore, anchored in the “individual ego.”

This leads to a second analogy, found in many of Ahad Ha-Am’s essays (Ḥeshbon ha-Nefesh (Summa Summartum, 1962)). The individual acts, as Darwin taught, in obedience to the “will to live.” This is an elemental impulse that needs no justification; it is a given fact. The nation also acts through its own “will to live.” However, this means that each individual aspires to exist with his nation and to maintain its existence; in this sense the “national will to live” is an outcome of the individual will to live.” Moreover, under natural conditions the individual regards the survival of the nation as taking precedence over his own survival, because the nation is his biological base and will continue to exist even after the death of the individual. Hence, the individual naturally regards himself as an ephemeral cell in an organism that existed before him and will continue to exist after he is gone. In his desire to survive, he wishes to perpetuate his people, and through the same impulse he will be prepared, in time of need, to sacrifice his personal survival for that of the nation.

Ahad Ha-Am asked how this natural feeling has been weakened among the Jews. How have they arrived at a situation in which they prefer their personal survival to the survival of their people? And he responded that this is a result of the unnatural conditions of exile. On the one hand, it is apparently caused by social, political, and economic distress, factors not deeply probed by Ahad Ha-Am, no doubt because he did not regard Zionism as a solution for such problems. On the other hand, he analyzed the spiritual situation of Judaism in modern times, which he presented without enquiry or proof, as an independent cause of the weakening of the Jews’ national consciousness. This weakening he ascribed to two causes: first, the paralysis of the spiritual creative powers of traditional Judaism in the Diaspora, which had become enslaved to the written word (Ha-Torah she-ba-Lev; “Torah of the Heart”) and second, the tremendous force of Europe’s vibrant and creative culture. While the educated young Jew admired and identified with European culture, he despised the heritage of his fathers and could not identify with it. If Jews wished to halt this process, they must revive the creative power of traditional Judaism and combat the Jewish intellectual’s self-deprecation in the face of European culture, to revive his identification with his pride in his heritage (Ha-Musar ha-Le’ummi; “National Morality”).

Ahad Ha-Am did not probe why such an effort should be made. He assumed the existence of the national feeling, if only in a weak and distorted form, both in the souls of the zealots of a petrified tradition and in those of the assimilationists. In denying this national feeling, or its obligations, he felt that assimilationists denied themselves and were living in “slavery in the midst of freedom,” as well as in moral and spiritual distress. Only when they returned to a complete life amid their people would they return to themselves (Avdut be-Tokh Ḥerut; “Slavery in Freedom,” 1962). But what was it that really bound the Jewish intellectual to his heritage? Ahad Ha-Am tried to discover this bond in the primary impulse of “the national will to existence.” This will not only demands loyalty to the heritage of Judaism but directly molds its specific content. Thus, Ahad Ha-Am thought he could arouse the devotees of tradition to adapt it to the new conditions, as a duty derived from these values themselves, and persuade those Jews who had assimilationist tendencies to recognize the vital bond between themselves and their people’s heritage. In general, he argued (as in Avar ve-Atid; “Past and Future,” 1962) that since the “ego” is a combination of past and future, and the suppression of one of these dimensions suppresses the “ego,” therefore every Jew, if he is loyal to himself, must keep faith with the past but adapt its values to the needs of survival in the future. He tried to show in detail (in Mukdam u-Me’uḥar ba-Ḥayyim; “Precession and Succession in Life”) that even the specific values of the Jewish faith, such as monotheism or the messianic vision, are only functions of the national will to existence, for they can be cherished in an existential attachment to the past and concurrently adapted to the thought ways of an adherent of modern European culture, in an attempt to perpetuate the national existence.

In this way, Ahad Ha-Am expressed his ambivalent attitude to tradition, an attitude characteristic of the generation that received a traditional education in childhood but discarded tradition upon reaching maturity. He identified himself with the tradition as an inseparable part of his cultural personality; that is, his memories. But he could no longer define his world outlook and his way of life in its terms. He therefore exchanged the belief that certain values were absolute imperatives for an emotional attachment to such values and sought in them a reflection of his attitude to them. At the same time, Ahad Ha-Am did not ignore the difficulties caused by this ambivalence. Asserting that certain values are part of the ancient heritage which maintained the nation in the past, he realized, was insufficient to ensure a positive attitude to them in the present. If we seek to guarantee the nation’s survival in the future, we must identify ourselves with the values of its heritage for their own sake. Thus, Ahad Ha-Am sought those values with which the Jewish intellectual could directly identify himself. While in some essays he based the national bond on the “will to live” of the “national ego” in terms drawn from positivism, in others (such as Moshe and Ha-Musar ha-Le’ummi), he based the national bond with Judaism on a specific ideal in terms drawn from idealist philosophy. The ideal of Judaism is the ideal of absolute justice, which is “the quest for truth in action,” and which was revealed in prophecy. The inner content of the Jewish faith is pure morality, which Judaism bequeathed to European culture and to which it remained faithful in all its historical metamorphoses.

The contradiction between this concept and the previous one is obvious, and they have only one common denominator, the pragmatic considerations which underlie both. Ahad Ha-Am’s purpose in these essays was not to define the essence of Judaism in general, but to seek those values with which the Jewish intellectual could identify and of which he could be proud. He was therefore able, as it were, to go back on his own statements and in several essays (such as Al Shetei ha-Se’ipim; “Two Domains”) declare that the essence of Judaism is absolute monotheism, and not undiluted morality. He adopted this attitude during his dispute with Liberal Judaism, which displayed tendencies to assimilation on the assumption of an identity between the ethical ideal of Judaism and that of modern European humanism. To the extent that this identity did not lead to the preservation of the national uniqueness but blurred its identity, he repudiated it and made a new start in his search for the characteristic values of Judaism.

The same degree of ambivalence is revealed in Ahad Ha-Am’s attitude to the halakha. For pragmatic reasons he found it convenient not to deal with this question, but his general statements about the petrified tradition aroused strong reactions even from rabbis who were favorable to Hibbat Zion. He therefore had to consider the question of halakha in the hope of maintaining a modus vivendi between the religious and secular wings of Judaism (Divrei Shalom; “Words of Peace”). This modus vivendi was based, of course, on the assumption that both sides were concerned for the continued existence of the Jewish people as a people with a distinct spiritual identity and regarded the return to Zion as the solution. On this basis the debate on the content of Judaism could be postponed to the distant future. But it was clear that the secular and religious wings had certain expectations of each other. Ahad Ha-Am’s problem was to formulate these expectations without immediately destroying the basis common to both wings. Hence, he rejected Reform by an unqualified acceptance of the Orthodox view, without examining the arguments of the reformers on their merits, arguing that the words of the Torah could not be taken as divine commands and then corrected according to human understanding; the correction undermined the fundamental assumption of religion and thus made itself superfluous. On the other hand, however, Ahad Ha-Am could not abandon his demand for changes in the halakhah to adapt it to the way of life of the modern Jew; nor could he conceal the fact that changes in the halakhah had indeed taken place in the past. He found the solution in a historical formula: religion is subject not to reform but to development. In other words, those who introduce changes in it do not do so deliberately, as reformers. Instead, after their world view has changed and under the influence of contemporary conditions, they interpret tradition as if they had planned to uphold those things they consider true and obligatory. Ahad Ha-Am therefore believed that the influence of life in Eretz Israel would lead to the development of religion, and there would no longer be any need to directly demand changes in the halakhah.

In their new framework Jewish social and cultural life would be enriched and broadened and the very existence of the Jews as members of one nation would not be endangered.

There were several foundations for Ahad Ha-Am’s version of practical Zionism: his distrust of an impetuous and premature attempt to carry out a great enterprise; his disbelief in the reality of the Zionist program as a solution to the Jewish problem; and the aspiration to solve the problem of Judaism by reviving its unfettered spiritual creativity and strengthening the Jews’ identification with their reinvigorated heritage (Dr. Pinsker u-Maḥbarto; “Pinsker and his Brochure” in: Federation of American Zionists, 1911, and Teḥiyyat ha-Ru’aḥ; “The Spiritual Revival,” 1962). He did not present the vision of the ingathering of the exiles in Eretz Israel even as an ultimate long-term goal. Most of the Jewish people would continue to exist in exile, on the assumption that its social and economic situation would ultimately improve, and it would achieve equality of civic rights. In any case, the solution to the “question of the Jews” should be sought, in his view, in the lands of the Diaspora. Those who were troubled by “the question of Judaism” would settle in Eretz Israel, where they would maintain a Jewish State which would serve as a “spiritual center” for the Diaspora. Its independent society, which would be entirely Jewish, would constitute a focus of emotional identification with Judaism, and the spiritual values that would be created in Eretz Israel would nourish all parts of the people and ensure its continued existence and unity. After the Balfour Declaration, Ahad Ha-Am presented another argument for his limited program, consideration for the national rights of the Palestine Arabs.

Ahad Ha’am influenced a generation of young Zionists, most particularly in Eastern Europe that included Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Chaim Weizmann, and Micha Josef Berdyczewski. After the establishment of the State of Israel, his doctrines, both political and theoretical, were submitted to renewed criticism, but his essays are still studied and are an influential factor in Jewish thought both in the Diaspora and Israel. One of the most influential authors and thinkers of his generation, his articles and essays constitute one of the major achievements of modern Hebrew literature.

Many cities in Israel have streets named after Ahad Ha’am. In Petah Tikva there is a high school named after him, Ahad Ha’am High School.

See the complete texts of the following works:

The Wrong Way
Anticipations and Survivals
The Jewish State and Jewish Problem 



L. Simon (tr. and ed.), Aḥad Ha-Am, Essays, Letters, Memoirs (1946); idem, Aḥad Ha-Am Asher Ginzberg; a Biography (1960), idem, Aḥad Ha-Am, the Lover of Zion (1961); idem (tr. and ed.), Selected Essays by Aḥad Ha-Am (1962), N. Bentwich, Aḥad Ha-Am and his Philosophy (1927); A. (Leon) Simon and J.A. Heller, Aḥad Ha-Am, ha-Ish. Po'olo ve-Torato (1955); Kressel, Leksikon, 1 (1956), 60–71; J. Fraenkel, Dubnow, Herzl, and Aḥad Ha-Am (1963).

Sources: The Jewish Agency for Israel.
The World Zionist Organization.

“Ahad Ha’am,” Wikipedia.
Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

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