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Ahad Ha'am

Ahad Ha'am (Asher Ginsberg)

Asher Zvi Hirsch Ginsberg (18 August 1856 – 2 January 1927), primarily known by his Hebrew name and pen name, Ahad Ha'am (Hebrew: אחד העם‎, lit. one of the people, Genesis 26:10), was a Hebrew essayist, and one of the foremost pre-state Zionist thinkers. He is known as the founder of cultural Zionism. With his secular vision of a Jewish "spiritual center" in Israel, he confronted Theodor Herzl. Unlike Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, Ha'am strived for "a Jewish state and not merely a state of Jews".[1]


  • Early years 1
  • Hovevei Zion 2
  • Visits to Palestine 3
  • Importance of Hebrew and Jewish culture 4
  • Cultural Zionism 5
  • Later years 6
  • Political role 7
  • Commemoration 8
  • References 9
  • Bibliography 10
    • Works 10.1
    • Sources 10.2
  • External links 11

Early years

Ginsberg was born in Skvyra near Kiev in Imperial Russia, to pious well-to-do Hasidic parents. As early as eight years old, he began to secretly teach himself to read Russian. His father, Isaiah, sent him to heder until the age of 12. When Isaiah became the administrator of a large estate in a village in the Kiev district, he moved the family there and took private tutors for his son, who excelled at his studies. Ginsberg was critical of the dogmatic nature of Orthodox Judaism but remained loyal to his cultural heritage, and especially the ethical ideals of Judaism.[2]

Hovevei Zion

After unsuccessfully attempting to study in Vienna and Germany, he returned in his early thirties to Odessa where he was influenced by Leon Pinsker, a leader of the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) movement. Hovevei Zion began as independent study circles in the late 19th century, and formed a philanthropic confederation called Hibbat Zion (love for Zion). Their practical aim was settlement of Jews in Palestine, and they produced the settlements of the first Aliyah (immigration wave). The Zionist settlement program was beset by practical difficulties, and many settlements failed or were failing.

Unlike Pinsker, Ginsberg did not believe in political Zionism, which he fought, 'with a vehemence and austerity which embittered that whole period'.[3] Instead, from his very first article, he hailed the spiritual value of the Hebrew renaissance within the Zionist movement. To counter the debilitating fragmention (hitpardut) for the Jewish folk-soul of life throughout the diaspora, the idea of assuring unity through an ingathering of Jews into Palestine was not an answer. That is, kibbutz galuyoth was a messianic ideal rather than a feasible contemporary project. The real answer lay in achieving a spiritual centre, or 'central domicile', within Palestine, that of Eretz Israel, which would form an exemplary model for the dispersed world of Jewry in exile to imitate; a spiritual focus for the circumferential world of the Jewish diaspora.[4] He split from the Zionist movement after the First Zionist Congress, because he felt that Theodor Herzl's program was impractical. Despite this assimilation and fragmentation appeared only nine times inn four volume memoirs, but the themes persist throughout.[5] From 1889 to 1906, Ginzberg flourished as a pre-eminent intellectual in Zionist politics.

Visits to Palestine

Ahad Ha'am with Bezalel Art School founder Boris Schatz

Ahad Ha'am traveled frequently to Palestine and published reports about the progress of Jewish settlement there. They were generally glum. They reported on hunger, on Arab dissatisfaction and unrest, on unemployment, and on people leaving Palestine. In an essay[6] soon after his 1891 journey to the area he warned against the 'great error', noticeable among Jewish settlers, of treating the fellahin with contempt, of regarding 'all Arabs a(s) savages of the desert, a people similar to a donkey'.[7][8]

Ahad Ha'am made his first trip to Palestine in 1891. The trip was prompted by concern that the Jaffa members of B'nai Moshe were mishandling land purchases for prospective immigrants and contributing to soaring land prices. His reputation as Zionism's major internal critic has its roots in the essay "A Truth from Eretz Yisrael" published in pamphlet form shortly after his visit in 1891.[9]

Disturbed by what he saw in 1891, Ahad Ha'am wrote about external perceptions of Palestine:

We who live abroad are accustomed to believe that almost all Eretz Yisrael is now uninhabited desert and whoever wishes can buy land there as he pleases. But this is not true. It is very difficult to find in the land [ha'aretz] cultivated fields that are not used for planting. Only those sand fields or stone mountains that would require the investment of hard labor and great expense to make them good for planting remain uncultivated and that's because the Arabs do not like working too much in the present for a distant future. Therefore, it is very difficult to find good land for cattle. And not only peasants, but also rich landowners, are not selling good land so easily...
We who live abroad are accustomed to believing that the Arabs are all wild desert people who, like donkeys, neither see nor understand what is happening around them. But this is a grave mistake. The Arab, like all the Semites, is sharp minded and shrewd. All the townships of Syria and Eretz Yisrael are full of Arab merchants who know how to exploit the masses and keep track of everyone with whom they deal – the same as in Europe. The Arabs, especially the urban elite, see and understand what we are doing and what we wish to do on the land, but they keep quiet and pretend not to notice anything. For now, they do not consider our actions as presenting a future danger to them. … But, if the time comes that our people's life in Eretz Yisrael will develop to a point where we are taking their place, either slightly or significantly, the natives are not going to just step aside so easily.[10]

About Jewish relationships to the native Arabs, a disappointed Ha'am wrote

We must surely learn, from both our past and present history, how careful we must be not to provoke the anger of the native people by doing them wrong, how we should be cautious in our dealings with a foreign people among whom we returned to live, to handle these people with love and respect and, needless to say, with justice and good judgment. And what do our brothers do? Exactly the opposite! They were slaves in their Diasporas, and suddenly they find themselves with unlimited freedom, wild freedom that only a country like Turkey [the Ottoman Empire] can offer. This sudden change has planted despotic tendencies in their hearts, as always happens to former slaves ['eved ki yimlokh – when a slave becomes king – Proverbs 30:22]. They deal with the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly, beat them shamefully for no sufficient reason, and even boast about their actions. There is no one to stop the flood and put an end to this despicable and dangerous tendency. Our brothers indeed were right when they said that the Arab only respects he who exhibits bravery and courage. But when these people feel that the law is on their rival's side and, even more so, if they are right to think their rival's actions are unjust and oppressive, then, even if they are silent and endlessly reserved, they keep their anger in their hearts. And these people will be revengeful like no other.[11]

Ahad Ha'am also saw a bleak future for the nascent new state. He wrote:

[But if things continue the way they are] ...the society that I envision, if my dream is not just a false notion, this society will have to begin to create itself in the midst of fuss, noisiness and panic, and will have to face the prospects of both internal and external war...[12]
...we can't ignore the fact that ahead of us is a great war and this war is going to need significant preparation.[11]

Ahad Ha'am believed that rather than aspiring to establish a 'Jewish National Home' or state immediately, Zionism must bring Jews to Palestine gradually, while turning it into a cultural center. At the same time, it was incumbent upon Zionism to inspire a revival of Jewish national life in the Diaspora. Then and only then, he said, would the Jewish people be strong enough to assume the mantle of building a nation state. He did not believe that the impoverished settlers of his day, laboring in Palestine far from the minds of most Jews, would ever build a Jewish homeland. He saw that the Hovevei Tzion movement of which he was a member was a failure, since the new villages created in Israel were dependent on the largess of outside benefactors.

Importance of Hebrew and Jewish culture

Ahad Ha'am's ideas were popular at a very difficult time for Zionism, beginning after the failures of the first Aliya. His unique contribution was to emphasize the importance of reviving Hebrew and Jewish culture both in Palestine and throughout the Diaspora, something that was recognized only belatedly, when it became part of the Zionist program after 1898. Herzl did not have much use for Hebrew, and many wanted German to be the language of the Jewish state. Ahad Ha'am played an important role in the revival of the Hebrew language and Jewish culture, and in cementing a link between the proposed Jewish state and Hebrew culture.[13]

Cultural Zionism

His first article criticizing practical Zionism, called "Lo ze haderekh" (This is not the way) published in 1888 appeared in HaMelitz.[14] In it, he wrote that the Land of Israel will not be capable of absorbing all of the Jewish Diaspora, not even a majority of them. Ahad Ha'am also argued 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 Hibbat Zion must educate and strengthen Zionist values among the Jewish people enough that they will want to settle the land despite the greatest difficulties. The ideas in this article became the platform for Bnei Moshe Sor (sons of Moses), a group he founded that year. B'nei Moshe Sor,[15] active until 1897, worked to improve Hebrew education, build up a wider audience for Hebrew literature, and assist the Jewish settlements. Perhaps more significant was Derekh Kehayim (1889), Ha'am's attempt to launch a unique movement from a fundamentalist perspective incorporating all the elements of a national revival, but driven by force of intellect.

He eclipsed nationalists like, Peretz Smolenskin arguing assimilative individualism in the west further alienated Russified Jewry, who were seeking to reduce migration: isolating it beggared Eastern European Jewry. Even those in Hovevei seeking to restrict emigration, would he feared, bring the extinguishment of national consciousness; and atomization of Jewish identity. Only anti-Semitism had made Jews of us.[16] Derekh argued that nations had waxed and wanted throughout history, but had all but vanished from jewish consciousness. Only a small group of nobles kept it going.

Throughout 1890s Ahad Ha'am worked to keep the flame of nationalism alive.[17] Emphasis fell on moral concepts, honour of the flag, self-improvement, national revitalization. He modernized the language of the Hasidic Court being held in reverence by Bnai Moshe, who regarded his work with awe and respect. A departure occurred in Ardut betokh heicht[18] discussing a pessimism about the future for independent Jewishness. Critic Simon Dubnov alluded tho this but was compromised by his westernized idealizing of French Jewry. For the movement, the preoccupation with assimilation at Odessa was fatal for Ha'am's progressive Zionism. The requirement arose in 1891 for a "spiritual centre" in Palestine; Bnai Moshe's implacable opposition to his support for Vladimiar Tiomkin's ideal community at Jaffa compounded the controversy in Emet meren Yisrael

In 1896, Ginsberg became editor of Hashiloah, a Hebrew monthly, a position he held for six years. After stepping down as editor in 1903, he went back to the business world with the Wissotzky Tea Company.[19]

In 1897, following the Basel Zionist Congress that almost never was, calling for a Jewish national home "recognized in international law" (Volkerrechtlich), Ahad Ha'am wrote an article called Jewish State Jewish Problem ridiculing the idea of a Volkerrechtlich state given the pitiful plight of the Jewish settlements in Palestine at the time. He emphasized that without a Jewish nationalist revival abroad, it would be impossible to mobilize genuine support for a Jewish national home. Even if the national home were created and recognized in international law, it would be weak and unsustainable. In 1898, the Zionist Congress adopted the idea of disseminating Jewish culture in the Jewish Diaspora as a tool for furthering the goals of the Zionist movement and bringing about a revival of the Jewish people. Bnai Moshe founded Rehovot, hoping it would become a model of self-sufficiency, and opened Achiasaf, a Hebrew publishing company.

Later years

Ginsberg's tomb, labeled "Ahad Ha'am" on the tombstone, Trumpeldor cemetery, Tel Aviv

In 1908, following a trip to Palestine, Ginsberg moved to London to manage the office of the Wissotzky Tea company. He settled in Tel Aviv in early 1922 where he served as a member of the Executive Committee of the city council until 1926. Plagued by ill health, Ginsberg died there in 1927.[2]

Political role

Ahad Ha'am's influence in the political realm can be ascribed to his charismatic personality and spiritual authority rather than to his official functions he fulfilled. For the "Democratic Faction", the party that propagated cultural Zionism (founded in 1901 by Chaim Weizmann), he served in the words of his biographer, Steve Zipperstein, "as a symbol for the movement's culturalists, the faction's most coherent totem. He was, however, not – certainly not to the extent to which members of this group, especially Chaim Weizmann, would later contend – its chief ideological influence."[20] It is not widely known, that the rather shy Ahad Ha'am was a talented negotiator: In this role he was engaged during the "language controversy" that accompanied the founding of the Haifa Technikum (today: the Technion) and in the negotiations culminating in the Balfour Declaration.[21]


Many cities in Israel have streets named after Ahad Ha'am.

In Petah Tikva there is a high school named after Ahad Ha'am Ahad Ha'am High School.


  1. ^ Ahad Ha'am, The Jewish State and Jewish Problem, trans. from the Hebrew by Leon Simon c 1912, Jewish Publication Society of America, Essential Texts of Zionism [3]
  2. ^ a b Encyclopedia of Zionism and Israel, vol. 1, Ahad Ha'am, New York, 1971, pp. 13-14
  3. ^ Shalom Spiegel, Hebrew Reborn,(1939) Meridian Books, Cleveland, New York 1962 p.271
  4. ^ Shalom Spiegel, Hebrew Reborn, ibid. pp.286-289
  5. ^ S J Zipperstein, "Ahad Ha'am and the Politics of Assimilation, p.350
  6. ^ 'Truth from Eretz Yisrael',
  7. ^ Anita Shapira, Land and power: The Zionist resort to force, 1881-1948, Oxford University Press, 1992 p.42
  8. ^ variant translation in Tom Segev, One Palestine, Complete: Jews and Arabs Under the British Mandate,Metropolitan Books, 2000 p.104
  9. ^ Kol Kitve Ahad Ha'am, The Jerusalem Publishing House, 1953
  10. ^ Wrestling with Zion, Grove Press, 2003 PB, pp. 14–15
  11. ^ a b Wrestling with Zion, Grove Press, 2003 PB, p. 15
  12. ^ Wrestling with Zion, Grove Press, 2003 PB, p. 16
  13. ^
  14. ^ (Selected Essays) (February 19, 2009)At the Crossroadsאחד העם Ha'am, Ahad (Asher Zvi Ginzberg), על פרשת דרכים LibriVox recording of At the Crossroads (Selected Essays), by Ahad Ha'am. Read by Omri Lernau (in Hebrew)
  15. ^ Sons of Moses
  16. ^ Herzl to Nordau; Zipperstein, p.344
  17. ^ Vital, The People Apart, p.348
  18. ^ (Slavery in Freedom) published in 1891
  19. ^ Who's who in Jewish History. David McKay. p. 15.  
  20. ^ Steven J. Zipperstein, Elusive Prophet: Ahad Ha'am and the Origins of Zionism, London: Peter Halban 1993, p. 144
  21. ^ Zipperstein, Elusive Prophet, 269, 296–301



  • Ten Essays on Zionism and Judaism, Translated from the Hebrew by Leon Simon, Arno Press, 1973 (reprint of 1922 ed.). ISBN 0-405-05267-7
  • Essays, Letters, Memoirs, Translated from the Hebrew and edited by Leon Simon. East and West Library, 1946.
  • Selected Essays, Translated from the Hebrew by Leon Simon. The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1912.
  • Nationalism and the Jewish Ethic; Basic Writings of Ahad Ha’am, Edited and Introduced by Hans Kohn. Schocken Books, 1962


  • Frankell, J; Zipperstein, J (1992). Assimilation and Community. Cambridge University Press. 
  • Kipen, Israel (2013). Ahad Ha-am: The Zionism of the Future. Hybrid Publishers.  

External links

  • Ahad Ha'am's biography Knesset website (English)
  • Jewish Virtual Library: "Ahad Ha’am (Pen name of Asher Ginsberg)" [4]
  • Biography
  • "Anticipations and Survivals" (Archived 2009-10-24) (1891)
  • Ahad Ha'am (Asher Ginsburg)
  • Micha Goodman,Hillel the Elder meets Ahad Ha'am, Eretz Acheret Magazine
  • Works by or about Ahad Ha'am at Internet Archive
  • Works by Ahad Ha'am at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
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