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Photo: Ahad Ha'am

Ahad Ha’am (1856 – 1927)

Asher Hirsch Ginsberg, better known by his pen name “Ahad Ha’am”, was a journalist, a Hebraic “ethics philosopher”, and a visionary of a “spiritual center” in Palestine. He was born in the Ukraine in 1856 and passed away in Tel Aviv in 1927, five years after making Aliyah to Eretz Yisrael. In his younger years, he had studied at a “Cheder” and was praised for his knowledge in the Talmud. In later years, he taught himself Hebrew grammar, mathematics, literature, science, and the philosophy of Sephardic scholars.

In 1884, Ahad Ha’am began participating in the gatherings of the “Hibat Zion” movement in Odessa. In the Katowice Hibat Zion Convention, he asked that the movement emphasize its national aspirations, and following the First Zionist Congress (1897) he established himself as a leading opposition to Herzl and his political policy. He was of the opinion that the central problem of the Jewish nation was not the external anti-Semitism and violence against the Jews. Rather the problem lay within the modern view of Judaism – that it had lost its spiritual character and value.

Already in 1889 he published an article in “HaMelitz,” under the penname Ahad Ha’am, titled “This is not the way.” In this article he called for a change of approach within Hibat Zion regarding settlement of Eretz Yisrael. He wrote that the Land of Israel will not be capable of absorbing all of the Jewish Diaspora, not even a majority of them, and 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 Hibat Zion must educate and strengthen the Zionist values among the Jewish people enough that they will want to settle the land despite the great difficulties.

Within his discussion of a national renaissance, Ahad Ha’am presented his idea of “spiritual Zionism”: By creating a spiritual center for the Jewish people in Eretz Yisrael – with extensive physical labor together with cultural and educational efforts – the Jewish people will become unified and their national spirit renewed. And this sentiment will emanate from the spiritual center to all directions of the Diaspora, where assimilation was a very real danger. Ahad Ha’am believed that even if it were possible to absorb all Jews in Eretz Yisrael, its existence will not solve their political and financial troubles, but mainly the national-spiritual aspect. However, he did believe in a future growth of Jewish population assembled in Eretz Yisrael, bringing about the establishment of a Jewish state in which cultural and national freedom will be made possible.

The national renaissance, according to Ahad Ha’am, begins with the person’s Jewish identity, which was impaired during the nation’s years in exile. He contended that the practical side of the Jewish religion was no longer a unifying factor for the Jewish people. Jewish morality, however, was a moral ethic that was engulfed and shaped by the national spirit and was established by him as a cultural asset of utmost importance to the Jewish people.

Ahad Ha’am was among the first to point out to the Zionist movement the problems they would expect to face with the Arabs in Eretz Yisrael. In his article “Truths from Eretz Yisrael”, written following his first visit to the Land in 1891, he wrote that it was an error to dismiss the Arabs as “desert beasts” who “do not comprehend what is being done in their surroundings”, and predicted that if the Yishuv will try to force them out – they will object.

In 1889 Ahad Ha’am established the “Bnei Moshe” association. The association was active for eight years and achieved several of its goals: In the Second Zionist Congress (1898) it influenced the acceptance of a resolution calling to hold educational and cultural activities of national character in Eretz Yisrael and in the Diaspora. The association established a network of Hebraic schools promoting Ahad Ha’am’s belief that a Jewish person is not necessarily one who follows Jewish Law. Rather, it is one who identifies with Jewish nationalism and expresses it by making Aliyah and speaking the Hebrew language. Despite the fierce objection to this educational approach, especially among the older Yishuv inhabitants, educational institutions were established to give nationalistic Hebraic education. The Bnei Moshe association also took part in establishing Rehovot as an example of an independent Jewish settlement.

During the years 1915 – 1918 Ahad Ha’am worked with Chaim Weizmann to retrieve the Balfour Declaration. In 1922 he made Aliyah and settled in Tel Aviv, where he served until 1926 as a member of the Executive Committee of the city council.

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