Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg (18 August 1856 – 2 January 1927), primarily known by his Hebrew name and pen name, Ahad Ha'am (Hebrew: אחד העם, lit. one of the people, Genesis 26:10), was a Hebrew essayist, and one of the foremost pre-state Zionist thinkers. He is known as the founder of cultural Zionism. With his secular vision of a Jewish "spiritual center" in Israel, he confronted Theodor Herzl. Unlike Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, Ha'am strived for "a Jewish state and not merely a state of Jews".
Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg (Ahad Ha'am) was born in Skvyra, in the Kiev Governorate of the Russian Empire (present-day Ukraine) to pious well-to-do Hasidic parents. At eight years old, he began to teach himself to read Russian. His father, Isaiah, sent him to heder until he was 12. When Isaiah became the administrator of a large estate in a village in the Kiev district, he moved the family there and took private tutors for his son, who excelled at his studies. Ginsberg was critical of the dogmatic nature of Orthodox Judaism but remained loyal to his cultural heritage, especially the ethical ideals of Judaism.
In 1908, following a trip to Palestine, Ginsberg moved to London to manage the office of the Wissotzky Tea company. He settled in Tel Aviv in early 1922, where he served as a member of the Executive Committee of the city council until 1926. Plagued by ill health, Ginsberg died there in 1927.
In his early thirties, Ginzberg 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. Unlike Pinsker, Ginsberg did not believe in political Zionism, which he fought, 'with a vehemence and austerity which embittered that whole period'. Instead he hailed the spiritual value of the Hebrew renaissance to counter the debilitating fragmentation (hitpardut) in the diaspora, he believed that the ingathering of Jews in Palestine was not an answer. Kibbutz galuyoth was a messianic ideal rather than a feasible contemporary project. The real answer lay in achieving a spiritual centre, or 'central domicile', within Palestine, that of Eretz Israel, which would form an exemplary model for the dispersed world of Jewry in exile to imitate; a spiritual focus for the circumferential world of the Jewish diaspora. He split from the Zionist movement after the First Zionist Congress, because he felt that Theodor Herzl's program was impractical. From 1889 to 1906, Ginzberg flourished as a preeminent intellectual in Zionist politics.
In 1896, Ahad Ha'am founded the Hebrew monthly. Ha-Shiloaḥ, 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. The name was taken from a river mentioned in Isaiah 8:6, “The waters of Shiloaḥ flow slowly,” alluding to the moderate stance of the paper.
Visits to Palestine
Ahad Ha'am travelled frequently to Palestine and published reports about the progress of Jewish settlement there. They were generally glum. They reported on hunger, on Arab dissatisfaction and unrest, on unemployment, and on people leaving Palestine. In an essay soon after his 1891 journey to the area he warned against the 'great error', noticeable among Jewish settlers, of treating the fellahin with contempt, of regarding 'all Arabs a(s) savages of the desert, a people similar to a donkey'.
Ahad Ha'am made his first trip to Palestine in 1891. The trip was prompted by concern that the Jaffa members of B'nai Moshe were mishandling land purchases for prospective immigrants and contributing to soaring land prices. His reputation as Zionism's major internal critic has its roots in the essay "A Truth from Eretz Yisrael" published in pamphlet form shortly after his visit in 1891.
In 1891, Ahad Ha'am wrote about his perceptions of Palestine: "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 [ha'aretz] cultivated fields that are not used for planting. Only those sand fields or stone mountains that would require the investment of hard labour 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 wrong...we should be cautious in our dealings with a foreign people among whom we returned to live, to handle these people with love and respect and, needless to say, with justice and good judgment. And what do our brothers do? Exactly the opposite! They were slaves in their Diasporas, and suddenly they find themselves with unlimited freedom, wild freedom that only a country like Turkey [the Ottoman Empire] can offer. This sudden change has planted despotic tendencies in their hearts, as always happens to former slaves ['eved ki yimlokh – when a slave becomes king – Proverbs 30:22]. 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. Our brothers indeed were right when they said that the Arab only respects he who exhibits bravery and courage. But when these people feel that the law is on their rival's side and, even more so, if they are right to think their rival's actions are unjust and oppressive, then, even if they are silent and endlessly reserved, they keep their anger in their hearts. And these people will be revengeful like no other.
Ahad Ha'am believed that Zionism must bring Jews to Palestine gradually, while turning it into a cultural centre. At the same time, it was incumbent upon Zionism to inspire a revival of Jewish national life in the Diaspora. Only then would the Jewish people be strong enough to assume the mantle of building a nation state. He did not believe that the impoverished settlers of his day would ever build a Jewish homeland. He saw the Hovevei Zion movement of which he was a member as a failure because the new villages were dependent on the largess of outside benefactors.
Importance of Hebrew and Jewish culture
Ahad Ha'am's ideas were popular at a very difficult time for Zionism, beginning after the failures of the first Aliya. His unique contribution was to emphasise the importance of reviving Hebrew and Jewish culture both in Palestine and throughout the Diaspora, something that was recognised only belatedly, when it became part of the Zionist program after 1898. Herzl did not have much use for Hebrew, and many wanted German to be the language of the Jewish state. Ahad Ha'am played an important role in the revival of the Hebrew language and Jewish culture, and in cementing a link between the proposed Jewish state and Hebrew culture.
His first article criticising 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 all of 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 Benei Moshe (sons of Moses), a group he founded that year. Benei Moshe, active until 1897, worked to improve Hebrew education, build up a wider audience for Hebrew literature, and assist the Jewish settlements. Perhaps more significant was Derekh Kehayim (1889), Ha'am's attempt to launch a unique movement from a fundamentalist perspective incorporating all the elements of a national revival, but driven by force of intellect.
He eclipsed nationalists like Peretz Smolenskin arguing assimilative individualism in the west further alienated Russified Jewry, who were seeking to reduce migration: isolating it beggared Eastern European Jewry. Even those in Hovevei seeking to restrict emigration would, he feared, bring the extinguishment of national consciousness; and atomisation of Jewish identity. Only anti-Semitism had made Jews of us.Derekh argued that nations had waxed and wanted throughout history, but nationalism had all but vanished from Jewish consciousness. Only a small group of nobles kept it going.
Throughout the 1890s Ahad Ha'am worked to keep the flame of nationalism alive. Emphasis fell on moral concepts, honour of the flag, self-improvement, national revitalisation. He modernised the language of the Hasidic Court being held in reverence by Benei Moshe, who regarded his work with awe and respect. A departure occurred in Avdut betokh herut discussing pessimism about the future for independent Jewishness. Critic Simon Dubnov alluded to this but was compromised by his westernised idealizing of French Jewry. For the movement, the preoccupation with assimilation at Odessa was fatal for Ha'am's progressive Zionism. The requirement arose in 1891 for a "spiritual centre" in Palestine; Benei Moshe's implacable opposition to his support for Vladimir (Zeev] Tiomkin's ideal community at Jaffa compounded the controversy in Emet me'eretz Yisrael (The Truth from the Land of Israel.)
In 1896, Ginsberg became editor of Hashiloah, a Hebrew monthly, a position he held for six years. After stepping down as editor in 1903, he went back to the business world with the Wissotzky Tea Company.
In 1897, following the Basel Zionist Congress calling for a Jewish national home "recognized in international law" (Volkerrechtlich), Ahad Ha'am wrote an article called 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 emphasised that without a Jewish nationalist revival abroad, it would be impossible to mobilise genuine support for a Jewish national home. Even if the national home were created and recognised in international law, it would be weak and unsustainable. In 1898, the Zionist Congress adopted the idea of disseminating Jewish culture in the Diaspora as a tool for furthering the goals of the Zionist movement and bringing about a revival of the Jewish people. Benei Moshe founded Rehovot, hoping it would become a model of self-sufficiency, and opened Achiasaf, a Hebrew publishing company.
Ahad Ha'am's influence in the political realm can be ascribed to his charismatic personality and spiritual authority rather than his official functions. For the "Democratic Faction", the party that propagated cultural Zionism (founded in 1901 by Chaim Weizmann), he served "as a symbol for the movement's culturalists, the faction's most coherent totem. He was, however, not – certainly not to the extent to which members of this group, especially Chaim Weizmann, would later contend – its chief ideological influence."
Ahad Ha'am was a talented negotiator. In this role he was engaged during the "language controversy" that accompanied the founding of the Haifa Technikum (today: the Technion) and in the negotiations culminating in the Balfour Declaration.
Legacy and commemoration
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. There is also a room named after him at the Beit Ariela Library, Ahad Ha'am Room.
- Ten Essays on Zionism and Judaism, Translated from the Hebrew by Leon Simon, Arno Press, 1973 (reprint of 1922 ed.). ISBN 0-405-05267-7
- Essays, Letters, Memoirs, Translated from the Hebrew and edited by Leon Simon. East and West Library, 1946.
- Selected Essays, Translated from the Hebrew by Leon Simon. The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1912.
- Nationalism and the Jewish Ethic; Basic Writings of Ahad Ha'am, Edited and Introduced by Hans Kohn. Schocken Books, 1962
- Frankell, J; Zipperstein, J (1992). Assimilation and Community. Cambridge University Press.
- Kipen, Israel (2013). Ahad Ha-am: The Zionism of the Future. Hybrid Publishers. ISBN 9781742982441.
- ^Zipperstein, Steven J. "Ahad Ha-Am". YIVO. Retrieved 30 January 2018.
- ^Ha'am, Ahad (1897), translated by Leon Simon, 1912, "The Jewish State and Jewish Problem", Jewish Virtual Library, Jewish Publication Society of America
- ^ abEncyclopedia of Zionism and Israel, vol. 1, Ahad Ha'am, New York, 1971, pp. 13–14
- ^Shalom Spiegel, Hebrew Reborn,(1939) Meridian Books, Cleveland, New York 1962 p.271
- ^Shalom Spiegel, Hebrew Reborn, ibid. pp.286–289
- ^S J Zipperstein, "Ahad Ha'am and the Politics of Assimilation, p.350
- ^'Truth from Eretz Yisrael',
- ^Anita Shapira, Land and power: The Zionist resort to force, 1881–1948, Oxford University Press, 1992 p.42
- ^variant translation in Tom Segev, One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate,Metropolitan Books, 2000 p.104
- ^Kol Kitve Ahad Ha'am, The Jerusalem Publishing House, 1953
- ^Wrestling with Zion, Grove Press, 2003 PB, pp. 14–15
- ^Wrestling with Zion, Grove Press, 2003 PB, p. 15
- ^אחד העם Ha'am, Ahad (Asher Zvi Ginzberg), על פרשת דרכים At the Crossroads (Selected Essays) (February 19, 2009) LibriVox recording of at the Crossroads (Selected Essays), by Ahad Ha'am. Read by Omri Lernau (in Hebrew)
- ^Benei Moshe,Jewish Virtual Library
- ^Herzl to Nordau; Zipperstein, p.344
- ^Vital, The People Apart, p.348
- ^(Slavery in Freedom) published in 1891
- ^Who's who in Jewish History. David McKay. p. 15. ISBN 0-415-26030-2.
- ^Steven J. Zipperstein, Elusive Prophet: Ahad Ha'am and the Origins of Zionism, London: Peter Halban 1993, p. 144
- ^Zipperstein, Elusive Prophet, 269, 296–301
Ahad Ha'am (1856-1927) began writing in 1887 in the Jewish intellectual center of Odessa, where he immediately became famous among those who read modern Hebrew, the language in which he wrote. His very first essay, "This Is Not the Way," created a stir and a scandal. Ahad Ha'am chided the Hovevei Zion ("Lovers of Zion"), the first Russian Zionists, who were busy raising a few rubles to help the handful of Jewish farming settlements that they had founded in Palestine. Ahad Ha'am maintained that the Lovers of Zion offered the persecuted six million or seven million Jews of Russia no vision that could sustain them. He did not believe that even a Jewish state would bring a permanent end to anti-Semitism; he offered, instead, the vision of a revived Jewish national culture in which all Jews, everywhere, would find pride and meaning.
Ahad Ha'am was deeply ambivalent about political power, even as he knew that the Jews had to acquire some in order to survive. He was a modern intellectual, a Rabbinic scholar who had turned agnostic, and yet he insisted that Jewish ethical values were absolute, that they could not be changed or flouted. His ultimate faith was his sense of belonging to the Jewish people, but the most strident expressions of Jewish nationalism evoked his anger.
From the very beginning of his career until his death in Tel Aviv in 1927, Ahad Ha'am was unavoidable. He was different from all his contemporaries in Hebrew letters. Everyone, both admirers and enemies, knew it. His very style and use of language compelled attention. The attempt to make the Hebrew language into a modern instrument had begun a century earlier in Berlin, in the circle of Moses Mendelssohn, the founding father, among the Jews, of the Haskalah, or Hebrew Enlightenment. This effort produced its greatest resonance in the next century in Eastern Europe, where novelists, poets and essayists demonstrated that Hebrew could be used to express the concerns of modern men. But almost all of these authors employed a language that was largely archaic and arcane. Their Orthodox fathers and grandfathers had written, or were still writing, medieval Hebrew, in which a writer was judged by how many allusions to the Bible and the Talmud he could weave into his text. The new Hebraists wrote not about the Talmud but about love and war, and about the conflict between science and religion, but their language and style were still half-medieval.
Ahad Ha'am was himself deeply learned in all the traditional sources, but he wrote in an unadorned Hebrew. He used no pyrotechnics of style to hide his thought. A self-taught polyglot who read voraciously and wrote easily in Yiddish, Russian, German and English, he refused to publish in any of these languages. His aim was to raise modern Hebrew literature to the level of the best writing in Europe. And in his hands, the language of Hebrew prose finally, and irrevocably, left the Middle Ages.
Ahad Ha'am became a writer while believing he was only a temporary sojourner in the "temple of literature." He expected to make his living as a businessman. But by 1895 he had lost his money and turned to editing, pouring his energies a few years later into a new monthly published in Warsaw, which he called Hashiloah, after the biblical river that "flows quietly." The name was chosen to suggest that the journal would not be strident in tone but firm in direction. In the six years that he edited Hashiloah, Ahad Ha'am rewrote every article, insisting, often in vehement exchanges with authors, that their style had to be uncluttered and their intellectual content precise. To appear in Ahad Ha'am's monthly meant a writer had arrived; he had satisfied the severest taskmaster, its editor. At Hashiloah, Ahad Ha'am made his clear Hebrew the norm for modern Hebrew prose.
Ahad Ha'am was the most modern of Hebrew writers, not only in language but also in thought. He accepted Darwin's account of the evolution of mankind, and was deeply influenced by the ideas of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. He no longer believed the Book of Genesis, nor that God had created the Jews and then set them apart; on the contrary, the Jewish people, in his view, had given authority to their unique moral values by inventing the God who commanded them. For Ahad Ha'am, Moses may never have existed, and even if he had, the quest for the historical Moses was irrelevant. He said that the Jews, in the biblical writings, had constructed a hero who represented their image of themselves at their best. Moses was no builder of empires. He did not even lead his people across the Jordan to begin the conquest of the promised land. He was a human being and not a demigod. He knew anger and rage. To the very end of his days, at the age of 120, he was still sexually potent. Moses was the supreme representation of Jewish virtue, because he was undaunted by failure and defeat and because he never compromised a principle. There is, of course, more than a hint of autobiography in Ahad Ha'am's version of Moses.
These heresies were instantly challenged by the Orthodox rabbis in Eastern Europe. But even followers of Ahad Ha'am found themselves in disagreement with him. Judah Leon Magnes, who was the rabbi of the Reform Temple Emanu-El in New York City during the early years of the century, left that pulpit in order to establish a "reconstructed" synagogue. Magnes wrote to explain his ideas to Ahad Ha'am. The master replied by agreeing that such a synagogue should be "a haven of Jewish knowledge" and not the purveyor of "phrases of unctuous piety," but he insisted that religion was of secondary value for Jews. "It is possible to be a Jew in the national sense," he wrote, "without accepting many things in which religion requires belief."
At the very core of Ahad Ha'am's thought was a metaphor borrowed from Darwin and Spencer: peoples are to be compared to individual biological entities; nations, like individuals, are organisms that have wills to live and that adapt to new circumstances, or die if they do not. The Jewish people had survived in the Diaspora, Ahad Ha'am contended, by using religious law as the binding tie of community. Because that force was weakening in the modern era of disbelief, he said, religion no longer was preserving the Jewish people. Jews needed to find some other source of communal energy.
Ahad Ha'am's solution was a "spiritual center" in Palestine -- an elite community to be established not as a haven for refugees, but as the laboratory within which the Jewish spirit would make itself contemporary. He did not envisage this elite community as an academy divorced from life. On the contrary, the high-minded members would be farmers and businessmen. Their lives would demonstrate the spiritual and moral values of the reviving Jewish national culture. Ahad Ha'am's center would be the place where Jewish life would be lived at its most intense. Incandescence would radiate out from it to all the Jews of the world, and the Jewish people would use national culture as they had once used religion, to insure their life everywhere.
This analysis of the "question of Judaism" justified far more radical ideas than Ahad Ha'am was willing to countenance. Arguably, if the Jewish soul was weakening, Ahad Ha'am's secular, national culture was not necessarily the only medicine. Some younger writers, disciples of Nietzsche, proposed the superman to replace the prophet or scholar as the form in which to cast the new Jews. The Jewish people might rejuvenate themselves, they claimed, by turning to physical prowess and to reawakened joy in all that the senses could experience. Ahad Ha'am printed the most talented of the Jewish Nietzscheans, Micah Joseph Berdyczewski, in Hashiloah, but he answered in the tone of an offended rabbi. The Jewish people did need new forms, Ahad Ha'am conceded, but these could not be antithetical to the nature of the Jews. Ahad Ha'am knew, without feeling any need to defend this knowledge, that the Jews were inherently and irretrievably the bearers of the prophetic moral teaching and they had no right to betray their nature. "The secret of our peoples' persistence is that at a very early period, the Prophets taught us to respect only the power of the spirit and not to worship material power."
Judaism, Ahad Ha'am kept insisting, was unique. The central theme of its history, he said, was "that Judaism was born in a corner and has always lived in a corner. . . . History has not yet satisfactorily explained how it came about that a tiny nation in a corner of Asia produced a unique religious and ethical outlook, which, though it has had so profound an influence on the rest of the world, has yet remained so foreign to the rest of the world, and to this day has been unable either to master it or to be mastered by it."
Ahad Ha'am was thus rooting the doctrine of the chosen people in the mystery of Jewish history. This agnostic's passion reminds the reader of George Santayana's respect for the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and his love for the beauty of its forms, even after he had lost the faith. Similarly, I once gave some essays by Ahad Ha'am to Paul Tillich, the Protestant theologian, after I heard him identify God with man's "ultimate concern," and then insist that though he, Tillich, did not believe in the doctrine of the Incarnation, Jesus was the prime symbol of the highest human values. Tillich recognized the parallelism between himself and Ahad Ha'am; they were both former believers who wanted to preserve the values of their youth, even if they no longer believed with their heads. "Cultural Christians" like Tillich have become ever more prevalent in the Western world. Ahad Ha'am is the founding figure of cultural Judaism.
Ahad Ha'am's passion for Hebrew culture and tradition made it impossible for him to welcome the father of political Zionism, Theodor Herzl. A case for Herzl's Zionism could be made on Ahad Ha'am's own premises: if the Jewish people required new verve and forms, Herzl's demand to turn all Jewish energies into re-establishing a state could evoke a renaissance of the tired Jewish spirit of the kind Ahad Ha'am was calling for. Ahad Ha'am did, reluctantly, attend the First Zionist Congress that Herzl convened in 1897, but he pronounced himself to be "a mourner at a wedding." In the essay that he wrote about that event, Ahad Ha'am argued, as a realist, that the millions of Eastern European Jews could simply not be moved as a whole to Palestine. In that undeveloped land, there could be space for no more than a minority of those who wanted to flee poverty and persecution. Most of those who were running from Russia would, and should, go west, and especially to the United States, to better their personal circumstances. Only a selected elite, he said, should move to Palestine to establish the spiritual center.
Every one of Ahad Ha'am's major disciples disagreed with him. Chaim Weizmann, the future first President of Israel, had, at 17, adopted Ahad Ha'am as a spiritual master. Nonetheless, Weizmann understood that the weakening of religious faith was not the only crisis confronting the Jews. Most Jews, learned or illiterate, resented their powerlessness in the face of persecution and pogroms, of living in a world where they depended on the good will of others for their survival. Herzl had offered the dream of a nation-state in Jewish hands. It was a transforming vision.
But Ahad Ha'am did succeed in grafting his views about power and about the nature of Jewish culture onto the Zionist movement and the state it created. Herzl insisted that Zionism should have only one purpose, the establishment of a state for the victims of anti-Semitism. He refused to link the political effort for a Jewish state with the question of culture, even a renascent culture in Hebrew. Herzl lost that battle to a group of Russian Zionists who were, almost without exception, friends and disciples of Ahad Ha'am. They kept pressing, ultimately successfully, to make the revival of the Hebrew language a central aim of Zionism; they prevailed in 1901 at the Fourth Zionist Congress, three years before Herzl's death, in adopting the founding of a university in Jerusalem as a major project.
When the Hebrew University was opened in a solemn ceremony in 1925, Hayyim Nahman Bialik, the most important Hebrew poet of the time and an ardent disciple of Ahad Ha'am, spoke in the spirit of his master: "We have come to the conclusion that a people that aspires to a dignified existence must create a culture; it is not enough merely to make use of a culture -- a people must create its own, with its own hand and its own implements and materials, and impress it with its own seal. . . . We must therefore hasten to light the first lamp of learning and science and of every sort of intellectual activity in Israel, ere the last lamp has grown dark for us in foreign lands. And this we propose to do in the house whose doors have been opened this day upon Mount Scopus."
Classrooms for teaching all branches of culture and laboratories for all the sciences were valid successors, Bialik asserted, to the academies for the study of Talmud. But, Bialik said, the new national culture had to contain, and to remember, the Jewish past, and especially its classic religious literature.
Bialik and Ahad Ha'am have prevailed in Israel. The final examination that all Israeli high school students must pass in order to be given their diplomas requires knowledge of the entire Bible and an acquaintance with ancient and medieval religious literature. Ahad Ha'am's formulation of Israel's culture continues to be challenged and even defied, but his outlook is bred into the bones of the large majority of Israelis.
Yet despite his impact on Israel's culture, Ahad Ha'am is almost totally unknown in the West. Perhaps 15 essays have been translated into English from the four volumes in Hebrew into which his work was collected some 75 years ago. Many of his letters (a six-volume collection was published in Hebrew in the 1920's) are first-rate essays, but only a few pages have ever appeared in English. The last biography in English, by Leon Simon, was published in 1960. The only scholarly conference about him that resulted in published papers in English took place in 1980 at the University of Toronto. Meanwhile, Herzl continues to be the subject of new major biographies, most recently by Amos Elon in 1975 and Ernst Pawel in 1989.
The situation is all the more remarkable because many American Jews, when they are challenged to explain their relationship to Israel, often invoke the spirit of Ahad Ha'am, not that of Herzl. They maintain that Israel is their spiritual center and that it gives meaning to their lives in the Diaspora. The few who have actually read Ahad Ha'am know that he intended the spiritual center in Zion to provide the rest of the Jews not with the reason for political activity but with knowledge of a renascent Hebrew culture. The memory of Herzl shuttling among the Kaiser in Berlin, the Sultan in Constantinople and the Cabinet in London in search of a political patron for the Zionist movement is comforting to political activists. Ahad Ha'am is a more difficult role model, for he presupposes the need for a contemporary Jew to be learned in both Jewish and European culture.
Above all, Ahad Ha'am was a moralist. He argued that the Jews had devised a morality that was different from everyone else's. In his one essay on Judaism and Christianity he maintained that Judaism was concerned less with the individual than with the moral stature of the people, whereas Christianity was centered on the individual. He was even willing to admit that "individual salvation certainly makes a stronger appeal to most men, and is more likely to kindle their imagination and to inspire them to strive after religious and moral perfection" than Judaism, which strives to make the Jewish people into a spiritual elite on the way to perfecting all of mankind.
This distinction is, of course, debatable. Judaism does not ever forget the individual, while much of Christianity continues to seek the evangelization of the whole world so that, in the age of the Second Coming, all of the ills of society would disappear. Ahad Ha'am seemed to know that he could not easily sustain his thesis about the uniqueness of Jewish ethics. In 1906, when his 50th birthday was being celebrated, he was asked to come to the United States to teach at Dropsie College in Philadelphia, a newly established institution of Jewish learning, and to write the book on Jewish ethics that he had long wanted to do; but he refused. His metier was not the theory of ethics, but its application.
Thus, in the spring of 1891, writing from Jerusalem, Ahad Ha'am was the first Zionist intellectual to raise the question of the Arabs. There were 3,000 Jews then in the farming settlements of Palestine and perhaps 10,000 more in the cities, among half a million Arabs. And yet, Ahad Ha'am predicted that conflict between Jews and Arabs was probable and perhaps inevitable. The Arabs, he insisted, were not "wild men of the desert" who would remain inert and uncomprehending while the Zionists built their community. "If in the course of time," he wrote, "the Jewish holding in the country should develop significantly and encroach in some degree on the Arabs, they will not easily give up their position." The clear meaning of this warning was that Palestine was not, as some early slogans proclaimed, "a land without a people" waiting for a "people without a land." All his life he kept insisting that both prudence and justice commanded the Zionists to make peace with the Arabs.
A century later, such views are dominant among the Israeli intelligentsia. One representative figure, the novelist Shulamith Hareven, wrote in this spirit on March 15 in Yediot Ahronot, the mass-circulation Tel Aviv daily: "The boundaries which will determine our future are not geographic. . . . The true boundary is, rather, the knowledge that there is a limit to power. The respect which we need will not come through conquest by the sword: it can be obtained only through respect for others. Our ultimate hope is not for the undivided land of Israel, but for an Israel which is undivided in spirit and at peace with itself." Ms. Hareven shares such rhetoric with even younger writers, like the novelist David Grossman, and with many other voices. They speak the language of Ahad Ha'am.
Such views are disconcerting to the Jewish establishment both in Israel and in the United States. Practical people know that intellectuals, everywhere, are usually to the left of the government in power. In Israel, however, the intellectuals matter to the politicians, for even the pragmatists there must keep asking themselves questions about fundamental values: Is Israel a state like all other states, or must it make unique demands on itself? What is the place of the Jewish religion in a largely secular, modern society? What shared values, aside from the defense of the state, bind together all the Jews of the world, wherever they might be? Issues like these erupt into public debate in the United States only occasionally, when an immediate interest is involved, as with the repeated downgrading of the liberal forms of Judaism by the Orthodox in Israel. The continuing struggle to define a modern Jewish culture is largely avoided here, perhaps for the very reason that upset the Lovers of Zion in Russia when Ahad Ha'am began the debate a hundred years ago. To talk of problems, and to export differences of opinion to the Diaspora, is supposed to be bad for the unity of the Jews.
Ahad Ha'am did not think it was. He was not remote, in an ivory tower, uninvolved in the real world. On the contrary, he knew the spiritual center that he affirmed would need political power and a productive economy. He said many times that the spiritual center would exist only when the Jews became a majority in Palestine. In fact, during the negotiations with the British from 1915 to 1917 to support Zionist aims, Ahad Ha'am advised Weizmann to fight for maximalist guarantees for the Jews. The formula he preferred for the Balfour Declaration was "Palestine as a Jewish national home," and not the more ambiguous statement that was finally issued favoring "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people." But he always contended that Zionist needs had to be realized while maintaining respect for the feelings and rights of the region's Arabs. He kept insisting that power could be squandered unless a people understood and abided by their values.
On this point, the question of faith, Ahad Ha'am was at both his strongest and his weakest. The author and scholar Gershom Scholem was among those who understood him best, and disagreed with him. Scholem shared with Ahad Ha'am an ultimate mysticism about the meaning of the Zionist endeavor. In Scholem's words in the 1960's, "there are those who see in the secularism of our lives and in the building of the Zionist state the expression of the mystical meaning of the secret of the Universe." But Scholem could not accept Ahad Ha'am's agnosticism: "So long as the belief in God is a faith which cannot be destroyed by any ideology, it appears to me that the absolute secularization of Israel is inconceivable. The continued wrestling with this process of secularization, with both its positives and its limitations, seems to me to be creative and determining."
Every significant Jewish thinker of the last century has argued with Ahad Ha'am. He defined, for them, the fundamental human questions: the source of community, the meaning of faith in a disbelieving world and the relationship of morality to power. The translation of all his work into English is long overdue. This essay is adapted from a lecture given this month for the Humanities Council at New York University.Continue reading the main story