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Ahad Ha’am

(1856 - 1927)

Ahad Ha’am, the pen name of Asher Ginsberg, was one of the central literary figures of Zionism.

Born in Skvira, near Kiev in the Ukraine, Asher Ginsberg became the central figure in the movement for Cultural or Spiritual Zionism. Although raised in a Hasidic family, Ahad Ha’am was soon exposed to secular studies. The impact of modern philosophy and the sciences led him to abandon his religious faith and observance. Nonetheless he remained deeply committed to the Jewish people. It was his attempt to find a synthesis between Judaism and European philosophy.

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 Yisrael 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.

The ideas in this article became the platform for the elitist Bnai 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. Bnai Moshe, active until 1897, helped found Rehovot as a model for self-sufficiency, and established Achiasaf, a Hebrew publishing company.

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 Ahiasaf. It was a vehicle to promote Jewish nationalism and a platform for discussion of past and present issues relevant to Judaism.

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 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.

His visits to Eretz-Israel in 1891 and 1892 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.

After his first trip in 1891, he wrote:

We who live abroad are accustomed to believe that almost all Eretz Yisrael 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 Yisrael 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 Yisrael 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 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.

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. Although he moved to London in 1907 to serve as the agent for the Wissotzky tea company, he continued his Zionist work, playing a part in the securing of the Balfour Declaration.

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 died there in 1927.

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 

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

“Ahad Ha’am,” Wikipedia.

Photo: Public Domain.