«Jewish Observer»
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11/30
June 2002
5762 Sivan

AHAD HA-AM - ONE OF THE PEOPLE
TO 75 YEARS SINCE DEATH DATE
ALEXANDER NAIMAN
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Pogroms of 1881 and the situation around them changed world outlook of many Jewish educators (maskilim). L.Pinsker, M.Lilienlbum, P.Smolensky and other known proponents of emancipation of Jews through their introduction to the European culture came out for the creation of a Jewish state. Their opponent Asher Tsvi Gintsberg (1856-1927), who wrote under the pseudonym "Ahad ha-Am", came into literature at that very time. He was brought up in a rich orthodox family of Skvira hasids connected with the tsadik from Sadigora. Contrary to his parents' will, Asher himself learnt to read in Russian, then took to Jewish philosophers and later to maskilim. Brought up in an orthodox spirit he acquired vast knowledge in literature in Russian and German. Under the influence of a positivist world outlook by D.I. Pisarev Asher Tsvi parted with religion.

Ahad ha-Am advocated his own approach to solution of a Jewish question beginning with his first publication and in later detailed reports on the Jewish colonies in Palestine. He wrote that a true sense of love for Zion lies not in mass relocation championed by supporters of "Hovevey Tzion", "Bilu" and other Palestinophiles, but in cultural renaissance and renovation of the Jewry with the help of a thoroughly selected small group of people. Like God chose Moshe and Aaron as mediators to hand over Torah to the people of Israel, so Ahad ha-Am advocated creating groups of educators-intellectuals who would be able to raise a level of awareness of synagogue parishioners with the help of works of best Jewish minds. Over a century has passed and correctness of this position is obvious for those who now implement programs "Zegut yegudit" ("Jewish self-awareness"). Having met a person with similar views Iyehoshua Barzilai, who had a rather critical attitude towards Palestinian ishuv and created in 1889 an organization "Bnei - Moshe", Ahad ha-Am agreed to become the head of the latter. Members of "Bnei-Moshe" tried to realize a program of spiritual preparation of Jews for a further return to their historical motherland. Later T. Hertzl reiterated this idea having formulated it in the following way, "Zionism is, firstly, return to Jewry and only then to the Jewish country". Ahad ha-Am believed the necessity of spiritual preparation lied in the fact that the "people of the Book" is a Book's slave, the people whose soul has abandoned its heart and fully entered into dead letters of the Book. The purpose of the book for him is not to enrich one's heart with a new strength but, namely, on the contrary - to weaken and suppress it, not to let the heart dare to act and get inspired by "own power and according to own needs", to make it follow the Book". Leader of "Bnei - Moshe" dreamt "a new spirit of life would rush out of the essence of Judaism to renew hearts. This spirit would penetrate into children's hearts through upbringing and literature and unite with a spirit of human life, which results from Education, preventing the latter from washing out "Jewish features" ("Teaching of heart").

Unlike Zionists, Ahad ha-Am asserted creation of a Jewish state would not change material condition of Jews. He viewed spiritual needs of the people a real basis of Zionism. He noted only a national culture may help create a Jewish state in accordance with a will and demands of people ("State of Jews and "need of Jews"). Ahad ha-Am put before the leadership of Jewry the task that demanded considerable contributions for its realization, whereas its result might became feasible only past years. That's why he had to restrict himself to only journalism, which, though, exercised a considerable impact on the development of a Jewish idea in early XX century.

At that time scholars tried to solve a contradiction between orthodoxy and Zionism, looked for other ways of resolving a Jewish question. The main thing in this search was interpretation of interrelation between matter and spirit. Ahad ha-Am considered essence of Israel is spirit, not flesh. "Spirit" includes purpose and essence of people's "being", whereas flesh is not only something indifferent but a dangerous enemy that hampers spiritual development and blocks establishing its power on the earth. It is not surprising such tendency caused appearance of its antipode, and "we witnessed emergence of state materialists in whose opinion all existence of the Jewish people concentrated only on its "flesh" - "Jewish State" ("Matter and spirit"). In this way in 1904 Ahad ha-Am perceived Zionism, which he considered an obstacle on the way of development of a Jewish spirit. Ahad ha-Am believed this development also possible in synagogue but he advised, "You may reduce your prayers to your heart's content, but turn your synagogue into a center of Jewish teaching for children and adults, for educated and ordinary people". Alongside with this, the thinker noted if religion is a product of national spirit then the reverse is not true. In other words, if it is impossible to be a Jew in religious sense not recognizing our nationality, then it is possible to be a Jew in national sense not recognizing much of what religion demands to believe into... ("On nationalism and religion"). Ahad ha-Am's approach one hundred years ago, as is also the case nowadays, was called to solve a problem of supporting Jewish self-awareness of those who were dissatisfied with an only-within-Judaism culture. He was ready to suggest a cultural program to include historical, philosophical, literary and other aspects which implementation nowadays is more topical than in those times.

The problem, which is now called "Israel and Diaspora", one hundred years ago lied in the opposition of Zionists and autonomists. Zionists defied a perspective for Jews to live in Diaspora and judged it necessary to create a Jewish state. Autonomists tried to solve this problem introducing a cultural national autonomy, its further strengthening and development (in Ukraine the law on national personal autonomy was adopted in January 1918). Ahad ha-Am offered to take a broader look at the problem not recognizing the universality of either program. He sagaciously underlined exodus from alien countries shall always be, as it has always been, a hope, inspiring dream of a distant future, but the time to make it possible "is a mystery of Divine power, and our survival as a people does not depend on it" ("Defying Diaspora"). At the some time any autonomy by itself is also incapable of solving all problems of Jews. So, one hundred years ago Ahad ha-Am suggested his variant of relations between a Jewish state and diaspora.

He believed new settlers would turn the country of their forefathers into a spiritual center of the Jewry, which intellectual values would feed the entire Jewish people and protect its unity in Diaspora. In Ahad ha-Am's opinion such was the role Israel was destined to play. Adherents to Judaic traditions in diaspora should adapt their values to a new reality, and supporters of assimilation should well realize their link with the legacy of people they belong to. This link should not push people away by thorough observation of elements of the tradition, but attract them by cognition of Jewish history, literature, philosophy, art etc. Practical activity aimed at solving national problems is no less important in bringing up Jewish self-consciousness. Ahad ha - Am himself engaged into this activity. He directed "Bnei-Moshe", advocated creation of self-defense detachments after pogroms in Kishenev in 1903, participated in the activity of the "Union for full equality of Jews in Russia".

Five last years of his life Ahad ha-Am spent in Palestine doing his best to assist in creating the spiritual center future Jewish state, after him, should become for Jews in exile. He published his works including a 6-volume collection of letters and worked over memoirs. Nearly entire Tel - Aviv gathered to his funeral. Ahad ha-Am's works, causing at times heated arguments, played an enormous role in developing a Jewish idea, establishing literature in Hebrew and became one of key factors to promote renaissance of the Jewish culture and restoration of national statehood. Ahad ha-Am left after himself a program to be put to life both in Israel and diaspora.

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