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Biography of Achad Haam (Asher Ginsberg

Biography - Achad Ha'am (Asher Ginsberg) and Cultural Zionism

Achad Ha'am (1856-1927) (Ahad Ha'am, Ehad Ha'am or Echad Ha'am according to various spellings) meaning "one of the people" is the pen name of Asher Ginzberg, an ardent Russian Zionist who was the founder of Cultural Zionism. Ginzberg was a friend and  supporter of Leon Pinsker, and a leader of the 'Hovevei Tzion (lovers of Zion) movement. Their practical aim was settlement of Jews in Palestine, and they produced the settlements of the first Aliya (immigration wave). See also - History of Zionism and the Creation of Israel . The Zionist settlement program of those days was, however, beset by nearly insurmountable practical difficulties, so that many of these settlements failed or were failing.

Zionism: Achad_Haam (Asher Ginsberg)

The generation of Russian Jews that include Achad Ha'am, his friend  Eliezer Ben Yehuda and Pinsker were influenced by Haskalah, which hoped to revive Jewish culture and the Hebrew language in Russia, and by the Pogroms of the 1880s, which dashed the hopes of the Russian Haskalah and stimulated Zionist activity in Russia.

Unlike Pinsker, however, Echad Ha'am did not believe in political Zionism or in settlement of Palestine before conditions were ripe.  Jews were not ready for a national revival, because there was no suitable organic Jewish culture, separate from religion, as he believed.  Conditions would ripen, he thought, by spreading enthusiasm for the idea of returning to the Land and nationalist sentiment and culture among Jews in the Diaspora. He split from the Zionist movement after the first Zionist congress, because he did not believe that Herzl's program was practical. He would have laughed had he known that Herzl wrote in his diary after the  first Zionist Congress in Basle, Switzerland, in August, 1897:

Were I to sum up the Basle Congress in a word- which I shall guard against pronouncing publicly- it would be this: ‘At Basle, I founded the Jewish State. If I said this out loud today, I would be answered by universal laughter. If not in 5 years, certainly in 50, everyone will know it.’

Achad Ha'am  visited Palestine several times in those years, and he published reports about the progress of Jewish settlement there. They were generally glum and pessimistic. They reported on hunger, on Arab dissatisfaction and unrest, on unemployment, and on Jews  leaving Palestine. He believed that rather than aspiring to establish a "National Home" or state immediately, Zionism must aspire to bring Jews to Palestine gradually, making it a cultural center. At the same time, Zionism must inspire a revival of Jewish national life abroad; that would help to bring about a Jewish majority in Palestine. Then and only then will the Jewish people be strong enough to assume the mantle of building a nation state, according to Achad Ha'am. He simply could not believe that the impoverished settlers of his time, ignored by the majority of Jews, would every lead to a Jewish homeland. He saw that the Hovevei Tzion movement of which he was a member, was a failure, in that the new villages created in Israel were dependent on the largess of outside benefactors.

Achad 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 emphasize the importance of reviving Hebrew and Jewish culture both in Palestine and in the Diaspora, and this was recognized only belatedly and became part of the Zionist program after 1898.

The fight for cultural Zionism and the adoption of its education program was bitter and it reflected several different splits in the Zionist movement. Herzl and his friends did not have much use for Hebrew, and many wanted German to be the language of the Jewish state. The orthodox rabbis were also, in the main, largely opposed to the cultural Zionist program, because the main thrust of the program was to modernize the Heder teaching methods and syllabus, where little Jewish children were taught only Yiddish and religious studies. Cultural Zionist education would include not only teaching of Hebrew as a secular tongue, but also secular practical subjects that would be required for a people returning to his homeland. The battle was fought both in Europe and in the tiny Yishuv in the Land of Israel.

Achad Ha'am is partly responsible for the revival of Hebrew and Jewish culture, and for cementing the link between the Jewish state in the making  and the Diaspora through  Hebrew culture. He helped to create modern Jewish culture, along with Ben Yehudah and others. In the Diaspora, this resulted in the Hebrew and Jewish education movement, which made it possible for Jews to learn to live in a secular world while at the same time maintaining a link with their Jewish identity.    However, Achad Ha'am's historical view both of the settlement movement and of the future of political Zionism were incorrect:

It needs not an independent State, but only the creation in its native land of conditions favorable to its development: a good-sized settlement of Jews working without hindrance [1] in every branch of culture, from agriculture and handicrafts to science and literature. This Jewish settlement, which will be a gradual growth, will become in course of time the centre of the nation, wherein its spirit will find pure expression and develop in all its aspects up to the highest degree of perfection of which it is capable.

Achad Ha'am did not understand that no Jewish settlement in Palestine could be secure without political independence. The British Mandate ban on Jewish immigration and settlement in 1939 was to prove precisely that only an independent state could provide the the Jews with the ability to work without hindrance in Palestine. Theodor Herzl too was proven wrong, since the ban on immigration and settlement was imposed despite the very völkerrechtlich, legally recognized mandate to create a Jewish national home. However,  it was not Achad Ha'am whose ideas were vindicated but rather the practical Zionists  who believed in settling the land, regardless of laws.

Achad Ha'am saw what was in front of him - the impoverished settlements and the pitiful conditions in Palestine. Herzl looked down from the high perspective of his utopian mountain and saw the promised land. Achad Ha'am did not foresee the tragedy looming for European Jews, that was understood and predicted by other Zionists such as Ber Borochov. He can be forgiven for not foreseeing he first World War or the Balfour Declaration, nor the Holocaust. He thought that the Jews had an infinity of time in which to bring about this cultural revival. But European Jews had only a few years. Time was running out.

Achad Ha'am should have understood however, that while few Jews would come to Palestine as long as conditions were what they were under the Ottoman Empire,  increasing numbers of immigrants would be attracted by improving conditions and by statehood. Like Herzl, Achad Ha'am was apparently blind to the potential of Jews of the Arab countries. For him, and for everyone else at the Zionist congress, "the East" was Russia.

Achad Ha'am's "cultural Zionism" and his writings have been widely distorted however, or misunderstood and quoted out of context to imply that he thought Jews should not settle in their land, or that he thought it was impossible to ever establish a Jewish state. This is clearly not supported by the record, since he supported both settlement and the  The Balfour Declaration  in practical ways. 

In 1908 Achad Ha'am moved to London, where he managed the office of the Wissotzky tea company.  

The proof that Achad Ha'am's cultural Zionism was not meant to keep Jews in the Diaspora indefinitely lies in his own actions.    He settled in Tel Aviv in early 1922. He was already ill then, and he died in Tel Aviv in 1927.

Ami Isseroff

See Also

 Achad Ha'am - An Open Letter to my Brethren: Pinsker and his Pamphlet, Auto-Emancipation

1897 - Achad Ha'am - Jewish State, Jewish Problem

1889 - Achad Ha'am - This is not the way ("The wrong way")

More Israeli and Zionist Biographies The Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Zionism and Israel


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