10 Things You Need to Know About… Ahad Ha’am

Cultural Zionist

1. He was born Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsburg in Skvyra, near Kiev, in August 1856. His Hasidic parents were well-to-do, and he was raised and educated on a rural estate. Instructed only in religious subjects, he taught himself Russian, English, French and German.

Ahad_Haam2. At the age of 33, he adopted the name Ahad Ha’am (one of the people) as a pen name for his first published  article, “This is Not the Way,” an essay written in Hebrew.

3. As a Zionist thinker, he opposed the major streams of Zionism–religious, political and socialist–in favor of a cultural Zionism. That is, instead of promoting an ingathering of Jews, he focused on the revival of Jewish life in the Diaspora. The establishment of a Jewish national home, he thought, ought to proceed slowly, through a small core of dedicated, talented people who would make Palestine a cultural center by reviving Hebrew language, literature, art, music and Jewish study.

4. This emphasis on Hebrew and Jewish culture came about in the wake of the failure of the first aliyah, when the new and impoverished Jewish settlements in Palestine either went under or were propped up by benefactors–but in any case were mostly ignored by Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Ahad Ha’am argued for the revival of Hebrew and Jewish culture. For a time he was editor of Hashiloah, a monthly Hebrew literary journal. He worked to build an audience for Hebrew literature at a time when Herzl was promoting German as the language for a Jewish state.

5. He was the first Zionist of importance to emphasize the darker side of the relationship with the Arabs. As a result of his first trip to Palestine, in 1891, he wrote that the land was not unoccupied, that the Arabs were not “stupid donkeys,” as some settlers maintained, and that dealing with them hostilely and cruelly was both wrong and foolish. He warned that the brutal treatment of the native people would sooner or later be revenged; worse, it would rob Zionism of its moral standing and legitimacy.

6. Starting in 1902, he worked for the Wissotzky Tea Company in Russia. In 1908, following another trip to Palestine, he moved to London to manage the Wissotzky office there.

7. A talented negotiator, he was a close advisor to Chaim Weizmann during the discussions with the British that culminated in the Balfour Declaration, legitimizing the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

8. The clarity and precision of his language made him an important Hebrew stylist, influencing modern Hebrew literature. His writings, translated into German, Russian, English and French, were widely read and influenced the ideas of modern thinkers, including Mordecai Kaplan.

9.  He suffered from a debilitating insomnia. When, in 1922, he made aliyah and settled in Tel Aviv (on Ha’am Street, where else?) mayor Meir Dizengoff ordered the street closed off every afternoon so that Ha’am could nap without being disturbed by the noise of traffic.

10. He died in January 1927, and is buried in Tel Aviv’s Trumpeldor Cemetery.

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10 Things You Need to Know About… Meir Bar-Ilan

Rabbi, scholar, and leader of religious Zionism

1. He was born Meir Berlin in 1880 in Volozhin, Lithuania.

2. He had impeccable yikhes: The family claimed connection to the House of David as descendants of Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen, the “Maharam of Padua.” His father, known as “the Netziv” (for Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) was an orthodox rabbi, head of the Volozhin Yeshiva; his maternal grandfather was the famous rabbi Y.M. Epstein. He himself became a scholar of Talmud, studying at various yeshivas; he studied secular subjects at the University of Berlin.

3. In 1905, he joined Mizrachi, a religious Zionist movement that maintains the Torah is the center of Jewish nationalism. He represented Mizrachi at the 7th Zionist Congress, where, unlike most other Mizrachi delegates, he voted against the scheme to make Uganda the Jewish homeland.

Bar-Ilan.stamp4. By 1911, he’d become Secretary of the world Mizrachi movement. He relocated to the USA in 1913, where he developed local Mizrachi groups and in 1914 chaired the first US Mizrachi convention, in Cincinnati. From 1914-28 he was President of US Mizrachi. In 1917 he founded the Mizrachi Teachers Institute.

5. He coined the Mizrachi slogan, “The land of Israel for the people of Israel according to the Torah of Israel.”

6. During World War I, he was an active member of the Joint Distribution Committee and in 1916 served as Vice-President of the Central Relief Committee of New York City.

7. In the mid-1920s he moved to Jerusalem. 1925 saw him elected a member of the Jewish National Fund’s board of directors. He was founder and editor of Hatzofeh, a paper with a religious Zionist point of view that continued to be published until 2008. By the mid-1930s, Bar-Ilan had become a leading opponent of coöperation with the British authority. He opposed the partition plans put forth in 1937 and 1939, and he advocated active civil disobedience.

8. In all this political maneuvering, he did not forget scholarly pursuits. He was President of the Talmudic Encyclopedia and co-edited the first two volumes.

9. Upon the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, he organized a committee of scholars to examine legal problems of the new state in the light of Jewish law.

10. He died in 1949 in Jerusalem. In 1950, Bar-Ilan University was founded in Tel Aviv by the American Mizrachi movement.

10 Things You Need to Know About… Dov Ber Borochov

Borochov1. He was born in the Poltava region of the Ukraine on July 4, 1881. His father had progressive views, and his parents’ home was a gathering place for Jewish intellectuals and writers, including Zionists. The town of Poltava was a place of exile for dissidents and revolutionaries. Ber Borochov met and was influenced by many of them.

2. Though he was educated in government schools and not in Hebrew, at the tender age of eleven, he tried to run away from home and make aliyah.

3. He was a Jewish Marxist. That is, he interpreted the “Jewish Problem” in class terms. He believed that because Jews were guests in any country, they could never have a normal class structure in the Diaspora; but in a Jewish state, a proletariat would come into being and take part in the class struggle. The emancipation of the Jewish people, he said, would be brought about by Jewish labor.

4. He believed that Arab workers and Jewish workers, having a common proletarian interest, would work together in this struggle.

5. In 1901 he joined the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (which later split into the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks); two years later he was expelled from it when he formed a Zionist Socialist Workers Union in Yekaterinoslav.

6. He helped form and develop the Zionist labor party Poale Zion (Workers of Zion) and subsequently promoted it across Russia and Europe. From 1907-10 he edited the party’s newspaper, “The Free Words.” From 1914-17, now in the United States, he wrote for the Yiddish press and founded the World Union of Poale Zion.

7. In 1917, when the Social Democrats came to power in Russia, Borochov returned there to lead Poale Zion. His theories were widely influential in Eastern Europe, and he was on a speaking tour when, in December of the same year, he died of pneumonia in Kiev.

8. Along with Nachman Syrkin, he is considered the founder of socialist Zionism. His thinking formed the basis of the kibbutz movement.

9.  9 already! – and I haven’t even yet mentioned that Ber Borochov was a self-taught philologist, pioneering in the study of Yiddish. Unlike most of his fellow Zionists, he promoted the importance of the mother tongue, calling it “a unique living organism, unbound in its creative freedom.” He is considered the founder of modern Yiddish studies.

10. Father of both Labor Zionism and Yiddish studies – not bad for a guy who died at age 36!  In 1963, his remains were transferred from Russia to Kibbutz Kinneret in Israel.

12 Things You Need to Know About… Chaim Azriel Weizmann

1. He was born in November 1874 in a village near Pinsk, the third of fifteen children. He studied chemistry in Germany and Switzerland, receiving a doctorate with honors in 1899.

2. He taught at the University of Geneva and then, in 1904, became a lecturer at the University of Manchester, in England, where he remained for thirty years. He settled in England and became a British subject in 1910. The MP representing his district was Arthur Balfour.

3. A committed Zionist, he missed the first congress in 1897 because of travel difficulties, but made it to all the others. Beginning in 1901, he promoted the establishment of an institution of higher learning for Jews in Palestine. His efforts (among those of others, including Martin Buber) led to the founding of the Technion in 1912.

4. In 1907, Weizmann visited Palestine for the first time. While there, he helped organize the Palestine Land Development Company as a practical means to pursue Zionist dreams.

5. Weizmann worked throughout his life as a chemist. He developed a process to produce acetone through bacterial fermentation. Acetone was used in the manufacture of cordite explosive propellants, so when the Great War came, he was asked by Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George to develop an industrial process for its production. This he did, and speedily; and from 1916-19 he served as director of the laboratories of the British Admiralty. Offered a reward or title for this important work, which was vital to the Allied war effort, he is said to have replied, “There is only one thing I want – a national home for my people.”

weizmann6. When Arthur Balfour (then Foreign Secretary) asked him if there were many Zionists like him, he answered, “The roads of Pinsk are paved with them.” In 1917, as president of the British Zionist Federation, he negotiated with Balfour for what would become known as the Balfour Declaration, written in the form of a letter to Baron Walter Rothschild. It said the British government “views with favor the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people.” While the British had many reasons for making this declaration, there is no doubt about Weizmann’s key role in it.

7. In 1918 he headed a Zionist commission sent by the British government to Palestine to advise on future development. He was among the founders who laid the foundation stone for Hebrew University in July of that year. As if that weren’t enough, he met with Emir Feisal in Aqaba to discuss the founding of an independent Jewish state – and won his assent to Jewish immigration into Palestine, with protection of Arab rights.  In 1919 he represented Jewish interests at the Paris Peace Conference ending World War I.

8. In 1920 he became leader of the World Zionist movement, a position which he held until 1931 and again 1935-46. He promoted a Zionism based not on the suffering of Jews in Easter Europe and elsewhere, but instead on the yearning of the Jewish people everywhere for a national center and a national life in their homeland. He supported both grass-roots and high-level diplomatic efforts toward these ends.

9. He continued to work as a scientist. In 1934, his efforts led to creation of a research institute in Rehovot, eventually named in his honor. He settled in Rehovot in 1937 and did research there in organic chemistry. During the Second World War he worked with the British toward the establishment of the Jewish Brigade.

10. In 1936, along with David Ben-Gurion, Weizmann had accepted the idea of partitioning Palestine – establishing a Jewish state alongside an Arab state; he was instrumental in the adoption of the partition plan by the United Nations in November 1947 and in the recognition of Israel by the United States in May 1948.

11. In June 1949 he became a citizen of Israel. He was the first president of the State of Israel, serving until his death from respiratory inflammation in November 1952.

12. He said, “A state cannot be created by decree, but by the forces of a people and in the course of generations. Even if all the governments of the world gave us a country, it would only be a gift of words. But if the Jewish people will go build Palestine, the Jewish state will become a reality – a fact.”

Want to know more?

  • Read Weizmann’s autobiography, Trial and Error, written in 1949.
  • See the video “The Vision of Chaim Weizmann” in the Steven Spielberg Archive on YouTube.