Ahad Ha-Am

Ahad Ha-Am
(Asher Hirsch Ginsberg)
   Hebrew writer and exponent of cultural Zionism. Among the important figures in the early Zionist movement, Ahad Ha-Am has a place unlike that of any other. He was not a leader, an organizer or an orator, but a critic with a sharp and rational mind and a lucid pen. Behind his cautious scepticism was a positive concept of Zionism that depended on neither political status nor mass settlement, but on a spiritual and cultural centre in the homeland. His influence was profound on two generations of Russian Zionists.
   Ahad Ha-Am (‘One of the People’) was the pen-name under which he became famous. His real name was Asher Hirsch Ginsberg. He was born in Skvira, in the Kiev province of the Ukraine. His father was a merchant and a chassidic Jew who gave his son a traditional education. As a youth Ahad Ha-Am taught himself Russian, German, French, English and Latin and read avidly in these languages. He was drawn into the Haskalah (‘Enlightenment’) movement that was opening to the Jews a window to European culture. While retaining a profound respect for the moral and intellectual values of Judaism, he became a religious agnostic.
   Ahad Ha-Am married at the age of seventeen and had three children. In 1884, he settled in Odessa, which had a vigorous Jewish life and was a centre of the Haskalah. Here he was active in a group of the Chovevei Zion (‘lovers of Zion’), a movement that had sprung up spontaneously in Russia to foster Jewish settlement in Palestine and Hebrew culture.
   In 1889, he published in the Hebrew periodical Ha-Melitz a challenging article called ‘The Wrong Way’ in which he exposed the meagre results of the colonization work in Palestine. The Chovevei Zion leaders should concentrate on fostering a true national consciousness among the Russian Jews. Education had to come before settlement. In 1891 and again in 1893, Ahad Ha-Am visited Palestine and was able to support his strictures by personal observation. In the meanwhile, he worked on an encyclopaedia of Judaism that was not completed, and became editor of a Hebrew periodical, Ha-Shiloach, making it the most influential organ of the Hebrew renaissance. His own style as a Hebrew essayist became a model for lucid and concise analysis of ideas.
   With the dramatic appearance of Dr HERZL on the Jewish scene, and the founding of the World Zionist Organization, Ahad Ha-Am’s critical powers were turned against the political aspirations voiced at the Basle Congress in 1897. The real task, he wrote, was ‘the emancipation of ourselves from inner slavery and spiritual degradation… Today as before, the enthusiasm is artificial and in the end it will lead to the despair that follows disillusionment… The salvation of Israel will be achieved by prophets, not by diplomats.’ For this reason, ‘at Basle I sat solitary among my friends, like a mourner at a wedding feast.’ This discordant note aroused indignation in Zionist circles. Ahad Ha-Am elaborated his initial reaction in a much fuller and more reasoned essay, ‘The Jewish State and the Jewish Problem’. Palestine could not provide a solution either for the insecurity and physical needs of the Eastern Jews, or for the frustrations of the emancipated Western Jews. What had to be rescued was Judaism itself - the great national culture that had lasted for thousands of years. That culture was ‘the fruit of the unham pered activity of a people living according to its own spirit’. The aim of Zionism should be gradually to create the conditions in Palestine that would make it the cultural and spiritual centre for all the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. The centre might develop into a sovereign state, but that was not an end in itself.
   In 1903, Ahad Ha-Am resigned as editor of Ha-Shiloach and took a job with the Wissotzky Tea Company, an important Jewish firm in Russia. But he continued to be involved in the Zionist issues of the day. In 1907, he moved to London as director of the Wissotzky office there. Four years later he visited Palestine again, and found that colonization work and Hebrew education had struck deeper roots than he had anticipated. In England Ahad Ha-Am became a friend and confidante of Dr Chaim WEIZMANN and one of his close associates in the wartime diplomatic effort that led up to the BALFOUR Declaration in 1917. Weizmann recorded that Ahad Ha-Am ‘at all times gave us the advantage of his valuable advice and his full moral support’. A few weeks before the declaration was finally issued by the British government, Weizmann fell out with practically all his Zionist colleagues over his support for JABOTINSKY’S proposal to form a Jewish Legion in the British army. Ahad Ha-Am called the idea an ‘empty demonstration’ which would antagonize the Turks and endanger the Jewish community in Palestine. Weizmann refused to retract, and offered his resignation. In his characteristically sharp way Ahad Ha-Am told Weizmann that a resignation at that point would be an act of treason and from a personal point of view, moral suicide. Weizmann gave in, but the atmosphere within the inner circle remained tense.
   Once more Ahad Ha-Am tried to deflate the exaggerated expectations aroused by the Balfour Declaration. He insisted that the declaration was not a promise to make Palestine Jewish, but merely to permit in Palestine a Jewish National Home with autonomy in internal affairs, side by side with the Palestinian Arab community.
   In his awareness of the Arab factor, Ahad Ha-Am was an exception among his Zionist contemporaries. As early as 1891, after his first visit to Palestine, he warned that it was a mistake to think of the Arabs as wild men of the desert. ‘If ever we develop in Palestine to such a degree as to encroach on the living space of the native population to any appreciable extent, they will not easily give up their place.’ Again in 1912 he reported after a visit that the national consciousness of the Palestine Arabs had begun to develop since the Young Turk revolution of 1907, and that they were combating the sale of land to Jews. These early premonitions of the conflict to come strengthened Ahad Ha-Am’s doubts about political Zionism and mass immigration, as opposed to his concept of a cultural centre.
   In 1922, Ahad Ha-Am, who had been in poor health for some years, settled in Tel Aviv, where he lived quietly until his death five years later. His son Shlomo (1889–1969), who later took the Hebrew surname of Ginossar, married into the well-known HACOHEN family. He became the administrator of the Hebrew University. One of Ahad Ha-Am’s daughters, Rachel (1885–1957), practised as a lawyer in Jerusalem.
   In retrospect, some of Ahad Ha-Am’s views and predictions now seem outdated and unduly pessimistic. When he penned his earlier essays, nobody could foresee the dramatic events that would radically change the destiny of the Jewish people: World War I, the Balfour Declaration, Hitler and the Holocaust, the emergence of the State of Israel. Yet much of what Ahad Ha-Am wrote remains valid today. Israel could not have come about only as a refuge from anti- Semitism or homelessness. It was accompanied by that awakened national consciousness for which Ahad Ha-Am had pleaded, and which inspired the ardent young pioneers of the Second and Third Aliyah. Moreover, Israel is becoming the centre of Jewish life, culture and creativeness for the Diaspora circumference, as Ahad Ha-Am had contemplated.

Who’s Who in Jewish History after the period of the Old Testament. . 2012.

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