The two things without which the Jews would not have become a nation are the land and the language.
As Herzl was writing in German in the last decade of the nineteenth century, the best-known Jew in the English-speaking world was Israel Zangwill. A novelist and a playwright (and deeply involved in the women’s rights movement), he, too, had left the traditional household in which he had been raised and became a Zionist.
Early in his career, Zangwill wrote a series of articles in which he described Palestine as “a wilderness . . . a stony desolation . . . a deserted home” and a land that had “gone to ruin.”2 The popular rendition of his view was that Palestine was a “land without a people, waiting for a people without a land.”3
That, of course, was not entirely accurate. Neither, though, was it entirely wrong. While there were people in Palestine, they were not organized in any way approximating what Europeans would have expected. The Ottomans (Turkish Empire) had controlled Palestine since 1517, yet had done virtually nothing to develop it:
Loosely divided between the provinces of Beirut and Syria, the Palestine of the early 1800s was hardly less than an administrative shambles. Centuries of Turkish indifference and misgovernment had encouraged recurrent warfare between local pashas and had permitted Bedouin robber bands to terrorize the country’s 400,000 inhabitants (by 1840). Trade was minimal.4
Yet, though poor, badly organized, and without any cohesive identity, there were people living there; the land was not empty. There were several hundred thousand people in Palestine, the majority of whom were Arabs.5 For the most part, they led rural lives, dispersed over seven or eight hundred villages throughout the area. Most lived as tenant farmers in a somewhat feudal system with landowners, but some lived in towns like Gaza, Hebron, Haifa, and elsewhere. While Arab national identity during this period had not yet developed, its early stirrings could already be felt. As early as 1891, some of the wealthier Palestinian Arabs began to urge the Turkish authorities not to allow Jewish refugees to settle in Palestine; they understood, with great clarity, that the “‘Arab’ character” of the region was about to change.6
By the late 1870s, there were also about twenty-seven thousand Jews already living in Palestine, concentrated primarily in Jerusalem, where they constituted a majority. These Jews were almost exclusively poor, deeply religious, and committed to having as little to do as possible with people outside their community; they lived off the financial support of a halukka (distribution) system that collected money from Jews outside Palestine for scholars, widows and orphans, and other needy Jews. It was a simple way of life, virtually untouched by modernity, one to which the Jewish and Arab inhabitants had long been accustomed.
Ironically, it was European anti-Semitism that would change Palestine. As Jewish life in Europe became increasingly intolerable, a massive Jewish exodus from Europe began. So, too, did renewed Jewish immigration to Palestine.
In his undeniably utopian Altneuland, Herzl had described a future in which the Jews brought significant progress to Palestine. As a result, he believed, the Arabs would welcome them with open arms. Zangwill, as well, whether idealist or naive, imagined that the influx of Jews from Europe would be good for everyone. In an article from 1903, entitled “Zion, Whence Cometh My Help?,” he said that the Jews would redeem the land and lead it to modernity. European Jews would find a home, at last, and local residents would benefit from an improved economy.
But European Jews were about to encounter a culture that they essentially did not understand:
What was more than a little unreal, then, was the claim that the Sultan and his government ruled their domains in the sense in which Europeans understood government and administration. What was real in the Ottoman Empire tended to be local: a tribe, a clan, a sect, or a town was the true political unit to which loyalties adhered. This confused European observers, whose modern notions of citizenship and nationality were inapplicable to the crazy quilt of Ottoman politics.7
European notions of nations and citizenship, which Zionists from Europe would bring with them, were about to clash with the tribal, clannish, local system of the Palestinian Arabs. European Jews, in turn, would find themselves in tension with the insular Jews of Palestine, who remained opposed both to modernity as well as to the Jews from Europe who were importing it into the Middle East. To no small degree, those differing conceptions of nation and society, competing sensibilities regarding honor and memory, and many other missed cues would fuel the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the years to come.
THE FIRST WAVES OF Jewish immigration to the New Yishuv were for the most part not hardened ideologues. They were Jews who fled to Palestine in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for the very same reasons that millions of other Jews had fled to North America. Largely Russian, these immigrants had set out looking to escape the dangers of a darkening Europe, seeking a place where they could lead simple lives in relative security.
Some, though, were passionate about creating a different Jewish future. They came to Palestine with a vision of a renewed Jewish society, many of them hoping that that new society would embody the socialist ideals then in vogue in Russia. (Karl Marx, the father of socialism, had died in 1883; the Bolshevik Revolution would follow in 1917.) That renewed Jewish life, they felt, could be realized only in their ancestral homeland, Palestine.
The first wave of Jewish immigration, known as the First Aliyah, began in 1882 and continued, with breaks, until 1903.* This was the period in which Diaspora organizations designed to foster the growth of Jewish life in Palestine (and later, in Israel) also began to develop. Two organizations critical to the First Aliyah got their start in 1882. The first was Hovevei Zion (“Lovers of Zion”), which Pinsker had helped create. The second, known as Bilu,* was composed of a tiny group of university students (called Biluim), who in spite of their small numbers—and relatively minimal accomplishments—became legendary for their passion and fervor and for the settlement they helped establish, Gedera.
The influx of European Zionists alarmed the Jews already living in Palestine, commonly known as the Old Yishuv. The Old Yishuv Jews were pious to the core and deeply loyal to their rabbinic authorities. To them, the new, ideologically ultrasecular Yishuv seemed alien, even blasphemous.
AT LEAST ONE CENTRAL figure in the Yishuv hoped that he might bridge the gap between the two communities. Born in 1865, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook moved to Palestine in 1904 (the year Herzl died), already a widely venerated scholar. Orthodox to his core, Rav Kook (Hebrew for Rabbi Kook, and the name by which he was universally known) was not about to sanction the antireligious, avowedly secular lifestyle and philosophy of the New Yishuv. But neither was he willing to write them off. While he certainly disagreed with Bialik and others who savagely attacked traditional Judaism and what it had done to the Jewish people, he was not beyond acknowledging that something had, indeed, gone wrong in Jewish life. He believed that “many young people disrespected authority because they had somehow risen above it, and the absence of an intellectual program to match their undoubted moral passion was the source of their confusion, bitterness and cynicism. Their rebellion was itself a sign of their ‘thirst for thought, and reason, and with it for richer, more drenched feeling, fresh and alive.’”8 Unlike most rabbinic authorities of the era, Rav Kook was unwilling to simplistically see the New Yishuv as apostates. The pioneers, he believed, “were filled with love, justice and power; the task of rabbis was to bring them to self-awareness. Rather than seeking to stifle these young people, spiritual leaders should be empowering them, precisely via the Torah that they earnestly—and even justifiably—despised.”9
Rav Kook was thus a blend of passions in whom some sought a bridge between two seemingly utterly disconnected worlds. Exceedingly traditional in his appearance, Kook looked precisely like those Jews of the old guard who repudiated everything about Zionism. But unlike those rabbis, Kook was smitten with the ideological fervor of the pioneers and the New Yishuv. “Passing through the fields, he pointed and said, ‘Look! A Jewish cow!’ Once, on the way to Rishon Le-Zion, he told a traveling companion, ‘I could kiss every stone in this land—and even the mules on the way.’”10
When he died in 1935, Rav Kook left a profound legacy of ideas that some people hoped might form bridges between communities—with most of the bridging still undone. A generation later, his son, Zvi Yehudah Kook, would become one of Israel’s most impassioned ideologues, and—some would say—a deeply divisive figure, as well.
THE REBIRTH OF HEBREW was yet another of Zionism’s early revolutions. If Theodor Herzl was the father of political Zionism and Ahad Ha’am was the progenitor of the spiritual side of the Zionist movement, Eliezer Perlman—who later changed his name to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (which means Eliezer the Son of Judah)—is the father of modern Hebrew. Zionism was a revolution in many respects. It restored the Jewish people’s role as actors on the stage of history, it reestablished an ancient commonwealth, and, thanks to Ben-Yehuda, revived the language of the Bible, the language in which the Jewish people had first defined itself.
Ben-Yehuda had an upbringing similar to that of many of Zionism’s leaders and the haskalah’s men and women of letters. Reared in an Orthodox home, he found himself more drawn toward the secular Zionist world. But instead of turning to poetry as did Bialik, Ben-Yehuda began to focus on how the ancient Hebrew language might support modern-day prose and everyday conversation. As a student at the Sorbonne, he witnessed the profound effect of the French language on French nationalism and decided that Jewish nationalism needed nothing less. He wrote to his future wife, Devorah, in 1880, “I have decided . . . that in order to have our own land and political life it is also necessary that we have a language to hold us together. That language is Hebrew, but not the Hebrew of the rabbis and scholars. We must have a Hebrew language in which we can conduct the business of life.”11
Once Ben-Yehuda and his wife had settled in the Land of Israel in 1881, they spoke only Hebrew to each other and to their children. They would not permit their children to speak to anyone else in any language other than Hebrew. Since there were, essentially, no other Hebrew speakers, their children could speak only to their family. In his own way, Ben-Yehuda was no less the impassioned revolutionary than Herzl or anyone else in the Zionist leadership.
With time, Ben-Yehuda found partners in the battle. He and a small group of other Hebrew enthusiasts penned Hebrew literature at an extraordinary pace. Writers represented an unusually high proportion of the society; in that milieu, they were seen not only as artists, but as voices of the revolutionary national Jewish revival, as well.
That revolutionary zeal was reflected in Ben-Yehuda’s inviting numerous women to publish in his various journals. Women, he argued, would be uniquely able to “insert emotion, tenderness, flexibility and subtlety into the dead, forgotten, old, dry and hardened Hebrew language.”12 The Yishuv was far from an egalitarian society, but just as the Second Zionist Congress had granted women the right to vote and to run for office, there were early feminist leanings in the Yishuv, as well.
Despite the revolutionary zeal of the Yishuv’s intellectual elite, Hebrew was not a top priority for the average Jewish immigrant. (Even Herzl himself had doubted that Hebrew would be the language of the Jewish state.13) Given all the challenges they had to endure after moving to Palestine, the early pioneers were understandably not keen on speaking a language in which they could not fully express themselves. For many, the preferred language was Yiddish, the language of eastern European Jewish communities. Yiddish plays, regularly staged in Jaffa, drew large audiences who were anxious to be entertained in a language they could understand with ease. It was the classic revolutionary elite versus the rank and file. The Hebrew writers were determined to create high culture, but the immigrants were equally desperate to relax, to not work their minds as hard as they had to work their bodies.
Ben-Yehuda and his partners had other obstacles beyond a population that was not terribly enthusiastic about reviving a language. For religious Jews, the revival of Hebrew was no less problematic than Zionism itself. Hebrew was the sacred language of the Bible, the Mishnah (the first major work of rabbinic literature), and the liturgy, and they insisted that Jews must not sully it by using it for purely ordinary matters. They relentlessly attacked Ben-Yehuda’s efforts to create a Hebrew lexicon. They stoned his office and reported him to the Ottomans, who jailed him briefly. Then the religious leadership excommunicated him. When Ben-Yehuda’s first wife, Devorah, died of tuberculosis in 1891, they would not allow her to be buried in the Ashkenazi* cemetery. After Devorah’s death, Ben-Yehuda married her younger sister, Hemda.
The religious community was not entirely wrong about Ben-Yehuda. He made no secret of the fact that, like Bialik and others, he saw Zionism as a rebellion against the very world of those other religious residents of Jerusalem. Following the Uganda controversy, Ben-Yehuda wrote:
Another great and terrible argument of the “Zion Zionists,” is that “they, the Ugandists” are turning their back on our entire history. How much cynicism in this argument?! Men who have turned their back on the past accusing others of doing the same thing! For let there be no illusions. The only ones who haven’t turned their backs on the past are the “committee for the investigation of sins” [his religious opponents in Jerusalem]. All of us, all of us, have turned our backs on the past, that is our glory and splendor!14
A loner in many ways, Ben-Yehuda aroused the scorn not only of the religious, but even of some of those who were deeply committed to the revival of Hebrew. Even “[t]he other leading cultural nationalists—Ahad Ha’am, Bialik—disdained him as a soulless linguistic mechanic, though none of them could compete with his ability to create, from scratch, Hebrew words.”15
Yet slowly but surely, Ben-Yehuda earned himself a broad following in the Yishuv. The Orthodox establishment had first failed in their attempt to convince European Jews not to join the Zionist movement, and now they failed to derail the revival of Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda became recognized as a key player in the revitalization not only of the language, but of the entire people that spoke it. When he died in Jerusalem in December 1922, some thirty thousand people attended his funeral, and the Yishuv observed three official days of mourning.
IN PALESTINE, JUST AS had been the case in Europe, literature would be one of the settings in which Jews would set forth competing visions of what the Jew could, and should, be. Quickly, Hebrew literature became a vehicle for imagining a Jewish national home reconstituted, and at the same time, a medium for expressing the conflicts and divisions in Zionist life. Authors and poets would play a central role in shaping the movement, both in the Yishuv and after Israel’s establishment.
The first book of modern Hebrew literature in the Yishuv was written by Ze’ev Yavetz, who moved to Palestine in 1887. Deeply unsettled by those immigrants who seemed insufficiently committed to re-creating the Jew, he used his sharp pen to attack those who he felt failed to appreciate that the decision to come to Palestine ought to flow from a passion for revolution. In one of his stories, he compares two types of Jews, which he frames as opposites: the Diaspora Jew, who is “the Tourist,” and the Pioneer, who is “the Resident.”16 His preference was obvious. Overdressed and physically weak, solely concerned with his own comfort and appearance, the Diaspora Jew had “his beard shaved, his mustache made up. . . . [H]is bag was on his thigh and his cane and parasol were in his hand, curved and ruffled . . . but his appearance was very pale and his face deficient.”17
In Yavetz’s story, the Diaspora Jew refuses to join the pioneer men, women, and children sitting on the ground and taking pleasure in the view since it would mean getting his trousers wet. Unlike the “Tourist,” the “Resident” is earthy and active; he is dressed simply in Arabic style clothing, holds a weapon for self-defense (instead of a parasol), and rides a white horse. He embodies health, confidence, and a passion for life. He is Bialik’s new Jew who would not hide behind a cask during a pogrom, a new Jew who is determined to break with his victimlike past, the new Jew intent on taking control of his destiny. Now, thanks to Yavetz, that literary discussion of the new Jew had moved from Europe to Palestine, from exile to the budding Yishuv.
Yavetz was but one of a number of writers shaping the Yishuv. Another, who became a leading writer not only of the Yishuv but of the Western world, was Shmuel Yosef (Shai) Czaczkes, who became a frequent visitor to Rav Kook’s home. Like many members of the New Yishuv, he was infuriated with the Judaism of the Diaspora; like many, though, he also harbored a lifelong love for its texts and was loath to leave that entire heritage behind. To Czaczkes, Rav Kook offered the possibility of that synthesis. Not long after meeting Kook, Czaczkes published his short story “Agunot,” about women locked in broken marriages whose husbands could use Jewish law to hold them captive by refusing to grant them a religious divorce. He published the work under his recently adopted pseudonym, Shai Agnon.18 In 1966, he would win Israel’s first Nobel Prize.
IT WAS ONE THING for people like Yavetz to write about the “earthy” pioneers, utterly comfortable in the dirt of their new home, but entirely another matter to actually live that life. The young, somewhat hotheaded ideologues came to Palestine with an abundance of ideals, but they had virtually no agricultural experience. Their utopian socialist agricultural settlements failed almost immediately, and they found themselves forced to scavenge for financial assistance anywhere they could find it.
As would be the case even after the State of Israel’s founding decades later, much of the assistance that the Yishuv needed came in the form of support from Diaspora Jews. Key among these philanthropists was Baron Edmond de Rothschild. Soon known as “The Benefactor,” the baron poured part of his fortune into providing the settlements with everything from housing to equipment to livestock. By the turn of the century, his monetary assistance totaled $6 million, equivalent today to almost $150 million.
Sometimes also called the “godfather of the moshavot,”* Rothschild sent European agricultural experts to Palestine to advise the newly arrived immigrants, and he acquired extensive land holdings there. All told, he purchased about two hundred square miles of land, on which some forty villages were established. The communities he supported stretched from Metulla, situated at the very north, to Mazkeret Batya (Ekron) in the south, as well as other now significant towns such as Rishon Lezion, Rosh Pina, and Zichron Yaakov. He supported agricultural communities of all sorts (moshavim and kibbutzim) as well as towns. With his financial assistance, more than thirty such communities were founded between 1880 and 1895 alone. Given that there were roughly 160 villages in Palestine by 1937, Rothschild contributed to about a third of them. (See Map 2.)
The Jewish purchase of land, while entirely legal, aroused the concern of both the Ottomans and the local Arabs. Fully aware of the Jews’ growing interest in establishing a foothold in Palestine, the empire began to push back. Even before the Biluim set out for Palestine, local Turkish officials announced that Palestine would be closed to the Jews of Odessa (a pronouncement very pointedly intended for the Biluim, as Odessa was where they were based). In 1856 the Ottomans had passed a law allowing foreigners to buy land in the empire, but by 1881, the Ottomans began banning land purchases by Jews and Christians and, in what was a very clear message, declared that year that Jews were still permitted to immigrate to the Ottoman Empire, with the exception of Palestine. The ban on the sale of lands in Palestine to Jews lasted for the duration of Ottoman rule.
The ban, though, did little to prevent Jewish acquisition of land in Palestine. “The central authorities were ambivalent and inconstant in their attitudes to land acquisition by foreigners, the formulation of the laws and regulations were unclear and open to different interpretations, and corruption and openness to bribery was widespread at all levels in the Ottoman bureaucracy.” The legal path to Jewish acquisition of land in Palestine remained open,19 and the Yishuv made the most of the opportunity. With the help of Old Yishuv Jews who spoke Arabic and were already familiar with Ottoman culture and government, the Zionists deftly navigated the back channels of the convoluted and corrupt Ottoman bureaucracy. Even Herzl, when he wished to meet the sultan, had to secure the meeting through bribery.
WHILE THESE NEW COMMUNITIES in the Yishuv could probably not have survived without Rothschild’s beneficence, Rothschild and the pioneers were often at odds. The young, idealistic immigrants felt that making use of his abundant wealth was compromising the socialist utopia they had hoped to create. Rothschild, in turn, was dismayed by what struck him as an attitude of entitlement among the workers, and had his local administrators keep a watchful eye on them, which only reinforced youthful immigrants’ sense that the capitalist hierarchy that they had sought to escape had followed them to their new home.
It was a pattern that would repeat decades later, in relations between Israel and its Diaspora supporters. Especially with regard to matters of Israeli foreign policy and religious pluralism in Israel, Diaspora Jews (and particularly American Jews) would act out of the best of intentions, while Israelis at times resented what they saw as the “rich Diaspora Jews meddling.”
ALL TOLD, THE FIRST Aliyah brought twenty to thirty thousand Jews to Palestine. Yet some 60 to 90 percent of these early immigrants ended up leaving just a few years after they arrived.
Returning to their ancestral homeland was both an exhilarating and frustrating experience for these new, ideologically impassioned immigrants. They had come as idealistic visionaries, but found themselves dependent on the largesse of others. For many immigrants, the radical disparity between the idealized image of the sun-soaked, tranquil land that had animated them and the reality of the Jaffa port—filthy and fetid, clogged with people pushing, shoving, and spitting on the ground—was the first indication that life in their new home was going to be unlike anything they had anticipated. Many left. Those who stayed discovered a chasm between what they had dreamed of building and what they were actually able to accomplish. Some even felt undermined by developments in Europe, and in particular, the Uganda Plan of 1903. If the Zionist ideologues of Europe were giving up on Palestine, why should they toil endlessly for a land in which they were not wanted and about which the world Zionist movement seemed not to care?
Still, these early pioneers were successful far beyond what their self-criticism allowed them to appreciate. They could not know it with certainty then, but they had paved the road for future waves of immigration. They had laid the groundwork of communities that would become Israeli villages and cities. Most important, perhaps, they were the first to model what it would take to translate Herzl’s vision into the beginning of a reality.
SHORTLY AFTER THE KISHINEV POGROM and then the rapid rise and fall of the Uganda Plan, the Second Aliyah (1904–1914) began. During this period, approximately forty thousand Jewish immigrants made their way to the Land of Israel, mostly from eastern Europe. This wave of immigration left an even more profound and lasting mark on the growing Jewish community in Palestine. It established the first kibbutz, Degania, just south of the Kinneret (Hebrew for the Sea of Galilee)*; the first Jewish self-defense organization; and the suburb of Jaffa that would become Tel Aviv. This was the wave of immigration that would become iconic, inspiring generations of Israelis who followed; it would also produce leaders for the Yishuv who would become some of the state’s early pivotal political and military figures.
Even for these pioneers, however, life was difficult and doubts abounded. As was the case with the First Aliyah, the most poignant expression of the hardships of this period appears in the literature that the Second Aliyah produced.
One of the greatest Hebrew writers of the period was Yosef Haim Brenner (1881–1921). Born to a poor traditional Jewish family in a shtetl in Ukraine, he studied at the yeshiva in Pochep but, like others in the Zionist world, became enamored of secular culture. In his case, it was Russian culture—particularly writers like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (whose work he later ended up translating into Hebrew)—that cast the spell. War, though, interrupted Brenner’s intellectual pursuits. From 1901 to 1904, he served in the czar’s army; with the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War, he escaped to London and lived there until 1908. London, though, also felt like exile, so in 1909, Brenner immigrated to Palestine, where he pioneered a new wave of modern Hebrew literature and became one of the leading intellectuals of the Yishuv.
Brenner was passionate but complex. In a way that would somehow characterize the Zionist movement in decades to come, he was both deeply dedicated to the movement and, at the same time, an unremitting pessimist. Intensely committed to creating a new form of Hebrew culture in Palestine, he sometimes felt that his ideals notwithstanding, there was nothing utopian about what the Zionists were building. Exile, he said, had simply relocated to the Land of Israel.20
He was, in many ways, “the tortured secular saint of Hebrew letters.”21 A product of the religious world of Europe who was enamored of the Enlightenment, he was precisely the sort of person that Rav Kook hoped to attract to his new religious worldview.
But in what was a telling manifestation of the deep heartbreak at the core of many of the Yishuv’s early writers and thinkers, Brenner did not fall under the rabbi’s spell. His “pitiless, nearly ascetic lucidity about the depth of Jewry’s predicaments and the spiritual crises of his time would not let him be drawn into the rabbi’s mystic theodicy of his and his generation’s rebellion and longing.” About Kook, Brenner had this to say: “At times one senses in . . . certain lines of Rav Kook—that we are dealing here with people of soul, storming, seething—a puddle, but with a tempest roiling its waves.”22
This, then, was the Zionist world of the time. Passionate souls desperate for a reborn Jewish people, torn between the world of tradition and a brave new—but uncharted—world. Ideologues determined to fashion a new society bumping up against the harsh realities of life in Palestine. Old Yishuv and New Yishuv. Searchers versus builders. It was a fascinating, tempestuous time, infectious with potential and rife with danger.
The state that Zionism would produce would reflect many of these tensions.
Brenner was at points rather pessimistic that the enterprise could even survive. In his short story “Atzabim” (“Nerves,” 1911), his fear for the future of Zionism is clear. A nameless protagonist tells the nameless narrator the saga of his voyage to Palestine, struggling with the question of whether it was worthwhile. The protagonist leaves Ukraine for New York, where he works in a sweatshop sewing buttons, but eventually sails to Palestine in hope of finding a better future. What he encounters, however, is a reality no less tedious than the one he had hoped to leave behind. The only difference is that now, instead of sewing buttons, he is picking oranges. If Zion had once been a dream, it now seemed to him nothing more than an irrational impulse—a fit of “Jewish nerves.”
Brenner was not alone in being worried about the ways in which the Zionist dream was unfolding. One Second Aliyah immigrant, David Ben-Gurion (who would later become Israel’s first prime minister), felt that it was the people of the First Aliyah who had capitulated. “The pioneers of the First Aliyah became speculators and shopkeepers trading in the hopes of their people and selling the aspirations of their youth for pennies. They introduced the idol of exile into the temple of rebirth,” he said, “and the creation of the homeland was sullied by ‘idolatry.’”23 It was a harsh, and not entirely fair accusation, but it reflected the profound introspection and self-criticism that would reflect both the Yishuv and the state that would follow.
Brenner, complex though he was, was perhaps the cultural icon of the Second Aliyah. His work, still considered brilliant, surfaced issues with which Israel continues to wrestle. He would have undoubtedly done even more than he managed in his brief life, but he was murdered by an Arab mob in the 1921 Jaffa riots.
THE SECOND ALIYAH BEQUEATHED two enduring legacies that influenced the Jewish state for decades to come: the revival and ultimate embrace of a renewed Hebrew language, and perhaps Zionism’s most iconic institution—the kibbutz.
Built largely on land the Jewish National Fund had purchased from the Ottomans, the kibbutz movement was rooted in strong socialist ideals, with an emphasis on collective responsibility and A. D. Gordon’s ideal of working the land. This collectivism, informed by the immigrants’ origins in Russia, eventually represented the single greatest contribution of these early aliyot to Israel’s ethos. Equality was emphasized above all. Everything was shared: food, profits, responsibility for protection of the land. Even the nuclear family was secondary to the kibbutz collective; children were raised not by their parents, but communally; they slept not in their parents’ homes, but in children’s houses.
It was a passionate, ideologically rich life that embodied the social and economic vision that many of the pioneers had brought with them. At night, all members of the kibbutz would gather in the common dining hall to discuss both matters of business and kibbutz ideology. Most of the kibbutzim were also explicitly secular; the members believed that through their manual labor they were transforming themselves into the new Jew of which Bialik, Gordon, and so many others had written decades earlier.
Yet the ideological intensity of the kibbutz often came with its costs, especially when those ideologies began to splinter. When the early kibbutzim, for example, largely influenced by the Russian Revolution, could not agree on how to respond to Stalin and Communism’s tarnished image, some split into two. When they did, it was not uncommon for couples to split permanently, one spouse living in each of the new communes, families torn asunder and children the unwitting victims of their parents’ principled feuding.
The early kibbutz movement unearthed yet another struggle with which Israeli society would later have to wrestle—the tension between building the collective and the significance of the individual. That was true of many revolutionary movements, no less so for Zionism. In Israeli lore, the iconic case that illustrates this tension is that of Rachel Bluwstein Sela, known by her pen name, Rachel HaMishoreret, or Rachel the Poetess.
Rachel, as everyone called her, immigrated to Palestine as a young woman. In 1919, age twenty-nine, she moved to Degania. Shortly after her arrival, though, she fell ill with tuberculosis, which she may have contracted when she traveled for a period to Russia. Concerned for the health of the rest of the community, the kibbutz forced her to leave.
For the rest of her very short life, Rachel wandered, barely eking out a living; she died in a sanatorium in 1931. Yet her poetry, studied in Israeli schools to this day and considered a national treasure, continued to reflect both her nostalgia for the kibbutz and her pain at having been so summarily discarded by the community she had joined.24 One of her most famous poems, “Perhaps,” still sung in Israel almost a century later, evokes that wistfulness.
Perhaps it was never so.
I never woke early and went to the fields
To labor in the sweat of my brow
Nor in the long blazing days
On top of the wagon laden with sheaves,
Made my voice ring with song
Nor bathed myself clean in the calm
Of my Kinneret. O, my Kinneret,
Were you there or did I only dream?25
Did those who gave everything for the cause not deserve more in return? Was the collective all that mattered? Did the new Jew not have some obligation to the individual, even if that meant some risk to the collective?
Though Rachel’s poetry raised painful questions about the richness and dangers of ideological passion, the kibbutz movement of the 1930s flourished because the kibbutz embodied a distinct pioneering state-building spirit. So intertwined were the collectivist and national ideologies that “a young pioneer who left the kibbutz in 1934 was betraying his friends and his movement, [while in] 1937–9, he would feel that he was also betraying his country.”26
The movement never attracted more than a small fraction of the Yishuv’s population, however. At its peak in 1947, the kibbutzim accounted for only 7 percent of the Jews living in the Yishuv. Yet it had an enormous impact on what would become Israeli society.27 The kibbutzim produced much of Israel’s early leadership, and even for those who did not live there, it was a symbol of the country’s pioneering ethos. By virtue of having been purposely established on the dangerous borders of Israel, the kibbutzim would also become critical to Israel’s ongoing defense. That, in turn, created a culture of patriotic devotion in these communities.
In the 1960s, when only 4 percent of Israelis lived on kibbutzim, some 15 percent of members of the Knesset hailed from those settlements. In the Six-Day War, “kibbutz members were represented among the war casualties at a rate almost five times higher than their proportion of the population as a whole. Almost a fifth of fallen soldiers came from a kibbutz. Almost every third officer killed in the war was a kibbutz member.”28 If Israel had a “factory” for passionate dedication to the new state in its first decades, that factory was the kibbutz.
WHILE MANY IMMIGRANTS WERE caught up in the excitement of creating a Jewish model of an ideal socialist society, others longed for a place to live that was reminiscent of the urban landscape they left behind in Europe. A few integrated into existing Arab cities, but found those communities uncomfortably Middle Eastern, dramatically different from the European norms to which they were accustomed. Some sixty modest professionals decided to create the first “Jewish suburb” in Palestine just north of Jaffa. In contrast to what Jaffa, an ancient port city, had to offer, these people were committed to building “‘something clean, beautiful and healthy.’ It seemed wrong—‘anti-Zionist’—to exchange the conditions of a European ghetto for a Middle Eastern one.”29
In 1909, Tel Aviv was born. “Tel Aviv” was the title of the Hebrew translation of Herzl’s utopian novel, Altneuland.* The new suburb, which would become a world-class city in a matter of decades, was not intended to be a “farming village but . . . a city that emulated a variety of European models with which they were familiar. For some it was to be a Palestinian Odessa. For others it was to be Vienna on the Mediterranean.”30 Tel Aviv was envisioned as a place where highbrow Zionist culture could flourish; Bialik and many other leading writers of the period made their homes there. The commitment to Hebrew worked; “by 1930 there were more than 13,000 Hebrew-speaking children in municipal schools.”31
That Tel Aviv ultimately became known as the “first Hebrew-speaking city” now sounds unremarkable. Yet the mere fact that any city, anywhere, could become a “Hebrew-speaking city” is itself another by-product of the sometimes radical Zionist revolution and was largely a product of the ideological fervor of the immigrants of the Second Aliyah. Ben-Yehuda’s success was
augmented by the iron willpower of the Zionist settlers themselves, and notably the immigrants of the Second Aliyah. Plainly it was an excruciating ordeal for Yiddish- and Russian-speaking Jews to employ Hebrew as their daily idiom at home and in the field, when every instinct cried out for relaxation. But they submitted to this discipline as tenaciously as they faced the other hardships of life in Palestine. Most of the Zionist farmers and workers by then had accepted fully Ben-Yehuda’s contention: a nation was its language, no less than its sweat and blood.32
The Yishuv cultivated a growing literature, an intellectual class, a world of publishing and avid readers, unlike anything the region had seen. And Tel Aviv, with its educated, elite literary circles quickly turned into “‘the second Leipzig,’ a Hebrew publishing center in Europe.”33 No longer was Hebrew the project of a small group of ideologues animated by revolutionary zeal. Menachem Ussishkin, one of the leaders of the Zionist movement and founder of the Hebrew Teachers’ Federation in Palestine, remarked:
Whether the children in the village school learn more or less of the rudiments of elementary grammar . . . more or less of history, more or less of science, does not matter. What they have to learn, though, is this: to be strong and healthy villagers, to be villagers who love their surroundings and physical work, and most of all to be villagers who love the Hebrew tongue and the Jewish nation with all their hearts and souls.34
The intellectual commitments of the Yishuv extended far beyond Hebrew and beyond the intellectual ferment of Tel Aviv. At the First Zionist Congress in 1897, Zvi Hermann Shapira had urged the creation of a university in Palestine, making education a central focus of the movement. By 1903, the Yishuv had founded the Teachers Association, a clear indication of the central role that education would play in the Yishuv and then in the Jewish state.
That Israel would, decades later, win numerous Nobel Prizes and become known as the “Start-Up Nation” was due in no small measure to the emphasis on education that had characterized Judaism for thousands of years and the Zionist revolution from its earliest days.
THE PASSIONATE IDEOLOGUES as well as the rank-and-file immigrants of the first two aliyot left an indelible stamp on the Yishuv. Though many left and for those who stayed life in Palestine was far from easy, those who remained built the first new Jewish settlements and established the kibbutz movement. They revived the Hebrew language, founded Tel Aviv, the first Hebrew-speaking city, and then both developed theater in their “new” language and produced numerous publications on a host of subjects.
These were the first steps of both Herzl’s and Ahad Ha’am’s dreams coming to life. The road to independence would still be a long one, but the Jews had begun to build the infrastructure that would ultimately create the state Herzl so desperately sought. At the same time, reminiscent of Ahad Ha’am’s belief that Palestine should become a cultural center for the Jews, for the first time in millennia, Jews were doing more than building infrastructure and laying the ground for political sovereignty. They could also see, hear, and feel what a Jewish society was about. It would have language, a literature, a distinct way of life.
For the first time since the Romans had exiled the Jews, Zionism was providing them a sense of what a renewed Jewish people might be.