From the Hebrew press: The truth about Israel

What would happen if the 19th century Zionist thinkers and visionaries could see us today? Well, it all depends.

Haggai Segal, | updated: 23:58

נפרד. חגי סגל
נפרד. חגי סגל
צילום: אלירן אהרון

In the spring of 1891, publicist and author Asher Ginsberg, already known throughout Jewish Europe by the pen name Ahad Ha'am, trod on the soil of the Land of Israel for the first time.  Even then, several years before Theodore Herzl, he was tremendously interested in the Zionist Idea.

Three months later, upon his return to Odessa, he published a beautifully written report in perfect Hebrew in the Melitz newspaper, writing: "After years of imagining and pondering the issue of the land of our forefathers and the rebirth of our people there, I have finally seen the subject of my dreams, this wonderful land that draws towards it tens of thousands of hearts from every nation and every country. I saw its ruins – the remnants of its past  – I observed its present wretched condition,  but I especially paid attention to its future, and wherever I went there was one question that accompanied me constantly: What hope is there here for the end of days (the future, ed.)? Can this land possibly return to life, and are the People of Israel talented enough to bring it back to life?"

His own answer to that historic question, the return to life of his generation, was a pessimistic one. Ahad Ha'am explained that his trip to the land dispelled all his hastily-conceived illusions: "I have just left the country of my soul's aspirations, leaving with a broken heart and in low spirits. My imagination is not free to soar upwards as it did beforehand, the land and its inhabitants are not a pleasant dream anymore and everything done there is now  tangible and real, separated in complex ways from hither known visions, both good and bad, that I cannot ignore. I wish to reveal here a small bit of this truth, the ugliest part…to awaken my brothers, whose love of Zion is like mine, from their sweet slumber, and portray to them, as an eyewitness can, the bad aspects of the steps taken by the Tnua (the  Zionist Chibbat Zion organization, ed.) so that they too can judge if those actions suit our goals, and whether we have any reason to worry about the future [of those efforts]."

(Ed. note: Ahad Ha'am believed in a secular and cultural Zionism, envisioned the creation of a Jewish spiritual center for a select group. On this he differed strongly from political Zionist Theodore Herzl who wanted a state that would serve as a refuge for all Jews.)

The Odessa writer and publicist settled the score with the Hebrew media of his time, claiming that they are purposely describing the situation in vivid colors and through rose-colored glasses: "In their excessive enthusiasm, they believe they are benefiting the settlement of the land of Israel with fabricated positive reports. They feel that the masses are far removed from the love of Zion, and that the bare truth will not touch their hearts, so they allow themselves to lie 'for the sake of heaven,' to praise and glorify the country and its fruits in overly exaggerated ways."

In contrast to those liars 'for the sake of heaven,' and those unfazed optimists, Ahad Ha'am expended great efforts in describing things as they really were. Under a somewhat grandiose headline "The Truth from the Land of Israel," he described at length the dangers lying in wait for the Zionist adventure that would minimize its chances of success. "The land of Israel is not as desolate as it seems from afar," he wrote in an article that made waves, "but settled with lazy, albeit clever, Arabs. They will not accept the return to Zion if it turns out to be a massive one, nor will the Turkish rulers allow it to take place." Turkish rule is more patriotic than it is corrupt, he declared, so there is no cause to hope that "for money we will be able to do whatever we wish there."

Ahad Ha'am did not believe that Jews are at all capable of making a living here, since they invested all they had in growing grapes in Hevron's vineyards. "The railroad from Jaffa  to Jerusalem will soon be completed" he reported to his readers as if a prophet of doom,  estimating that the sound of the train would draw other competitors of the Zionist enterprise, an imaginary enterprise to his mind at any rate. "There is no method and no order and no unity even in our opinions, everywhere we turn there is only confusion – of thoughts as well as actions."

"We are going out to a terrible war," he ended, on a note of despair.


It seems that the angel of Jewish history sometimes likes to improvise. From the minute the Jews decided to return home at last, things began snowballing almost of their own volition.
And he was right. It was a most terrible war.  The Arabs did not give up easily. Even the Turks caused much havoc before they finally left.  After them came the British who also coveted the land.  The land suffered more than one terrible economic crisis. There was never a meeting of the minds or deeds among the Jews residing here.

And despite all that, the state of the Jews took on a life of its own and grew to maturity in a comparatively short time, without having to suffer the organizational and spiritual bureaucracy Ahad Ha'am had laid in its path.

The vision of a return to Zion was in any case a phenomenon that transcended the ability of human beings to plan their moves in advance.

 It seems that the angel of Jewish history sometimes likes to improvise. From the minute the Jews decided to return home at last, things began snowballing almost of their own volition. It was not a slow process, as envisaged by Ahad Ha'am, but a rapid one, and a massively successful one at that.

71 years have passed since the Jewish state was established in a most fearsome state of confusion, and one can declare that the Zionist Dream was realized in full, way beyond Theodore Herzl's wildest imaginings.  The fascinating published debates between Herzl and Ahad Ha'am, however, did serve to earn a living for Ahad Ha'am for a time.

The Ingathering of the Exiles to Israel was more encompassing than anyone had imagined it could be.  It is sad that both men did not live to see it happen, but one can picture Ahad Ha'am continuing to complain about the disorganization and the obstacles had he seen them, and possibly refuse to light a torch at Mount Herzl's Independence Day celebrations in honor of the glorious State of Israel so as not to color the depressing national reality with too vivid colors. After all, there are rockets in the south, social welfare gaps, traffic jams, air pollution and idiotic Eurovision fans.

"What hope do we have for the future," he would ask plaintively over and over, until the notes of Hatikva drowned him out, filling the air with song while fireworks explode above his head.

Happy Israel Independence Day!

Translated with permission from the Makor Rishon Hebrew newspaper.




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