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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