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Texts Concerning Zionism: "The Wrong Way"

by Ahad Ha'am (1889)

For many centuries the Jewish people, sunk in poverty and degradation, has been sustained by faith and hope in the divine mercy. The present generation has seen the birth of a new and far-reaching idea, which promises to bring down our faith and hope from heaven, and transform both into living and active forces, making our land the goal of hope, and our people the anchor of faith.

Historic ideas of this kind spring forth suddenly, as though of their own accord, when the time is ripe. They at once establish their sway over the minds which respond to them, and from these they spread abroad and make their way through the world -- as a spark first sets fire to the most inflammable material, and then spreads to the framework of the building. It was in this way that a idea came to birth, without our being able to say who discovered it, and won adherents among those who halted half-way: among those, that is, whose faith had weakened, and who had no longer the patience to wait for miracles, but who, on the other hand, were still attached to their people by bonds which had not lost their strength, and had not yet abandoned belief in its right to exist as a single people. These first "nationalists" raised the banner of the new idea, and went out to fight its battle full of confidence. The sincerity of their own conviction gradually awoke conviction in others, and daily fresh recruits joined them from Left and Right: so that one might have expected them in a short time to be numbered by tens of thousands.

But meanwhile the movement underwent a fundamental change. The idea took practical shape in the work of Palestinian colonisation. This unlooked-for development surprised friends and foes alike. The friends of the idea raised a shout of victory, and cried in exultation : Is not this a thing unheard-of, that an idea so young has strength to force its way into the world of action ? Does not this prove clearly that we were not mere dreamers? The foes of the movement, on their side, who had hitherto despised it and mocked it, as an idle fancy of dreamers and visionaries, now began grudgingly to admit that after all it showed signs of life and was worthy of attention .

From that time dates a new period in the history of the idea; and if we glance at the whole course of its development from that time to the present, we shall find once again matter for surprise. Whereas previously the idea grew ever stronger and stronger and spread more and more widely among all sections of the people, while its sponsors looked to the future with exultation and high hopes, now, after its victory, it has ceased to win new adherents, and even its old adherents seem to lose their energy, and ask for nothing more than the well-being of the few poor colonies already in existence, which are what remains of all their pleasant visions of an earlier day. But even this modest demand remains unfulfilled; the land is full of intrigues and quarrels and pettiness -- all for the sake and for the glory of the great idea -- which give them no peace and endless worry; and who knows what will be the end of it all?

If, as a philosopher has said, it is melancholy to witness the death from old age of a religion which brought comfort to men in the past, how much more sad is it when an idea full of youthful vigour -- the hope of the passing generation and the salvation of that which is coming -- stumbles and falls at the outset of its career! Add to this that the idea in question is one which we ace exercising so profound an influence over many peoples, and surely we are bound to ask ourselves the old question: Why are we so different from any other race or nation? Or are those of our people really right, who say that we have ceased to be a nation and are held together only by the bond of religion? But, after all, those who take that view can speak only for themselves. It is true that between them and us there is no longer any bond except that of a common religion and the hatred which our enemies have for us ; but we ourselves, who feel our Jewish nationality in our own hearts, very properly deride anybody who tries to argue out of existence something of which we have an intuitive conviction. If this is so, why has not the idea of the national rebirth succeeded in taking root even among ourselves and in making that progress for which we hoped?

The idea which we are here discussing is not new in the sense of setting up a new object of endeavour; but the methods which it suggests for the attainment of its object demand a great expenditure of effort, and it cannot prove the adequacy of its methods so conclusively as to compel reason to assent to the truth of its judgments. What it needs, therefore, is to make of the devotion and the desire which are felt for its ideal an instrument for the strengthening of faith and the sharpening of resolution. Now the devotion of the individual to the well-being of the community, which is the ideal here in question, is a sentiment to which we Jews are no strangers. But if we would estimate aright its capacity to produce the faith and the resolution that are needed for the realisation of our idea, we must first of all study the vicissitudes through which it has passed, and examine its present condition.

All the laws and ordinances, all the blessings and curses of the Law of Moses have but one unvarying object: the well-being of the nation as a whole in the land of its inheritance -the happiness of the individual is not regarded. The individual Israelite is treated as standing to the people of Israel in the relation of a single limb to the whole body: the actions of the individual have their reward in the good of the community. One long chain unites all the generations, from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to the end of time; the covenant which God made with the Patriarchs he keeps with their descendants, and if the fathers eat sour grapes, the teeth of the children will be set on edge. For the people is one people throughout all its generations, and the individuals, who come and go in each generation are but as those minute parts of the living body which change every day, without affecting in any degree the character of that organic unity which is the whole body.

 It is difficult to say definitely whether at any period our people as a whole really entertained the sentiment of national loyalty in this high degree, or whether it was only a moral ideal cherished by the most important section of the people. Rut at any rate it is clear that after the destruction of the first Temple, when the nation's star had almost set, and its well-being was so nearly shattered that even its best sons despaired, and when the elders of Israel sat before Ezekiel and said: "We will be as the heathen, as the families of the countries," and " Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost" -- it is clear that at that time our people began to be more concerned about the fate of the righteous individual who perishes despite his righteousness. From that time date the familiar speculations about the relation between goodness and happiness which we find in Ezekiel, in Ecclesiastes, and in many of the Psalms (and in Job some would add, holding that book also to have been written in this period); and many men, not satisfied by any of the solutions which were propounded, came to the conclusion that " it is vain to serve God," and that "to serve the Master without expectation of reward" is a fruitless proceeding. It would seem that then, and not till then, when the well-being of the community could no longer inspire enthusiasm and idealism, did our people suddenly remember the individual, remember that besides the life of the body corporate the individual has a life peculiarly his own, and that in this life of his own he wants pleasure and happiness, and demands a personal reward for his personal righteousness.

The effect of this discovery on the selfish thought of that epoch is found in such pronouncements as this: "The present life is like an entrance-hall to the future life." The happiness which the individual desires will he come his when he enters the banqueting-hall, if only he qualifies for it by his conduct in the ante-room. The national ideal having ceased to satisfy, the religious ordinances are endowed instead with a meaning and a purpose for the individual, as the spirit of the age demands, and are put outside the domain of the national sentiment. Despite this change, the national sentiment continued for a long time to live on and to play its part in the political life of the people: witness the whole history of the long period which ended with the wars of Titus and Hadrian. But since on the political side there was a continuous decline, the religious life grew correspondingly stronger, and concurrently the individualist element in the individual members of the nation prevailed more and more over the nationalist element, and drove it ultimately from its last stronghold -- the hope for a future redemption. That hope, the heartfelt yearning of a nation seeking in a distant future what the present could not give, ceased in time to satisfy people in its original form, which looked forward to a Messianic Age "differing from the life of to-day in nothing except the emancipation of Israel from servitude." For living men and women no longer found any comfort for themselves in the abundance of good which was to come to their nation in the latter end of days, when they would be dead and gone. Each individual demanded his own private and personal share of the expected general happiness. And religion went so far as to satisfy even this demand, by laying less emphasis on the redemption than on the resurrection of the dead.

Thus the national ideal was completely changed. No longer is patriotism a pure, unselfish devotion; no longer is the common good the highest of all aims, over- riding the personal aims of each individual. On the contrary: henceforward the summum bonum is for each individual his personal well-being, in time or in eternity, and the individual cares about the common good only in so far as he himself participates in it. To realise how complete the change of attitude: became in course of time, we need only recall the surprise expressed by the Tannaim because the Pentateuch speaks of "the land which the Lord swore to your ancestors to give to them." In fact, the land was given not to them, but only to their descendants, and so the Tannaim find in this passage an allusion to the resurrection of the dead (Sifre). This shows that in their time that deep- rooted consciousness of the union of all ages in the body corporate of the people, which pervades tie whole of the Pentateuch, had become so weak that they could not understand the words "to them" except as referring to the actual individuals to whom they were addressed.

Subsequent events -- the terrible oppressions and frequent migrations, which intensified immeasurably the personal anxiety of every Jew for his own safety and that of his family -- contributed still further to the enfeebling of the already weakened national sentiment, and to the concentration of interest primarily in the life' of the family, secondarily in that of the congregation (in which the individual finds satisfaction for his needs). The national life of the people as a whole practically ceased to matter to the individual. Even those Jeffs who are still capable of feeling occasionally an impulse to work for the nation cannot as a rule so far transcend their individualism as to subordinate their own love of self and their own ambition, or their immediate family or communal interests, to the requirements of the nation. The demon of egoism -- individual or congregational -- haunts us in all that we do for our people, and suppresses the rare manifestations of national feeling, being the stronger of the two.

This, then, was the state of feeling to which we had to appeal, by means of which we had to create the invincible faith and the indomitable will that are needed for a great, constructive national effort.

What ought we to have done?

It follows from what has been said above that we ought to have made it our first object to bring about a revival -- to inspire men with a deeper attachment to the national life, and a more ardent desire for the national well-being. By these means we should have aroused the necessary determination, and we should have obtained devoted adherents. No doubt such work is very difficult and takes a long time, not one year or one decade; and, I repeat, it is not to be accomplished by speeches alone, but demands the employment of all means by which men's hearts can be won. Hence it is probable -- in fact almost certain -- that if we had chosen this method we should not yet have had time to produce concrete results in Palestine itself: lacking the resources necessary to do things well, we should have been too prudent to do things badly. But, on the other side, we should have made strenuous endeavours to train up Jews who would work for their people. We should have striven gradually to extend the empire of our ideal in Jewry, till at last it could find genuine, whole-hearted devotees, with all the qualities needed to enable them to work for its practical realisation.

But such was not the policy of the first champions of our ideal. As Jews, they had a spice of individualism in their nationalism, and were not capable of planting a tree so that others might eat its fruit after they themselves were dead and gone. Not satisfied with working among the people to train up those who would ultimately work in the land, they wanted to see with their own eyes the actual work in the land and its results. When, therefore, they found that their first rallying-cry, in which they based their appeal on the general good, did not at once rouse the national determination to take up Palestinian work, they summoned to their aid -- like our teachers of old -- the individualistic motive, and rested their appeal on economic want, which is always sure of sympathy. To this end they began to publish favourable reports, and to make optimistic calculations, which plainly showed that so many dunams of land, so many head of cattle and so much equipment, costing so-and- so much, were sufficient in Palestine to keep a whole family in comfort and affluence: so that anybody who wanted to do well and had the necessary capital should betake him to the goodly land, where he and his family would prosper, while the nation too would benefit. An appeal on these lines did really induce some people to go to Palestine in order to win comfort and affluence; whereat the promoters of the idea were mightily pleased, and did not examine very closely what kind of people the emigrants to Palestine were, and why they sent. But these people, most of whom were by no means prepared to submit cheerfully to discomfort for the sake of a national ideal, found when they reached Palestine that they had been taken in by imaginative reports and estimate; and they set up -- and are still keeping up --a loud and bitter outcry, seeking to gain their individual ends by all means in their power, and regardless of any distinction between what is legitimate and what is not, or of the fair name of the ideal which they dishonour. The details of the story are public property.

What wonder, then, that so great an ideal, presented in so unworthy a form, can no longer gain adherents; that a national building founded on the expectation of profit and self-interest falls to ruins when it becomes generally known that the expectation has not been realised, and self-interest bids men keep away?

This, then, is the wrong way. Certainly, seeing that these ruins are already there, we are not at liberty to neglect the task of mending and improving so far as we can. But at the same tie we must remember that it is not on these that we must base our nope of ultimate success. The heart of the people -- that is the foundation on which the land will be regenerated. And the people is broken into fragments.

So let us return to the road on which we started when our idea first arose. Instead of adding yet more ruins, let us endeavour to give the idea itself strong roots and to strengthn and deepen its hold on the Jewish people, not by force, but by the spirit. Then we shall in time have the possibility of doing actual work.

"I shall see it, but not now: I shall behold it, but not nigh."

Sources: Translated from the Hebrew by Leon Simon c 1912, Jewish Publication Society of America, Essential Texts of Zionism