Word of the Day / Halutzim

Before high-tech kid millionaires, the embodiment of Zionism’s pioneering spirit was Israel’s laborers.

Eran Wolkowski

Anyone familiar with Israeli iconography from the first half of the twentieth century knows those posters and state-issued banknotes emblazoned with rugged, labor-loving Hebrews.

Brave and progressively depicted as more muscled and tanned, halutzim -- "pioneers" - is a term of reverence used to describe the Jewish migrants-turned-farmers and laborers who settled the frontiers of the expanding New Yishuv.

Part of various waves and organized groups such as Hovevei Zion and Bilu, the halutzim represented the national archetype of a life of toil and commitment to building the Jewish state-in-the-making. The ideology that drove them – and the aura that surrounded them in the popular imagination – came to be known as “halutziut,” or "pioneerism."

Indeed, the term captures the zeitgeist of a nascent nation. The halutzim were adored, and tasked with outsized missions beyond the scope of an ordinary day laborer elsewhere – not only ploughing fields and drying swamps (which, in hindsight, caused great ecological damage) or manning factories, but also defending outposts.

As Israel’s Declaration of Independence narrates, they “made deserts bloom… built villages and towns, and created a thriving community controlling its own economy and culture… bringing the blessings of progress to all the country's inhabitants, and aspiring towards independent nationhood."

A pioneering lexicon

Just like a proliferation of other Zionist phrases and terms, the word halutzim harks back to the biblical period, specifically to the Israelite saga of conquering Canaan. It is used in the Torah to refer to those who led the military effort.

The secular Zionist vanguard deftly appropriated history by casting the generation of heroic, not-afraid-to-get-their-hands-dirty Zionist settlers as the direct descendants of their ancient forefathers.

As historian Tom Segev writes, the term and role of the halutzim was “charged with ecstasy such as never associated with the closest English or American equivalent ‘pioneer.’”

Whether a soldier, a sportsmen or a scout, halutz implies being at the forefront, breaking ground for others to follow.

Names based on the word are widespread, including the Halutza Sands along the Sinai border, and nearby Jewish localities called Halutzit 1 and Halutzit 4, in addition to the community of Har Halutz (Pioneer Mountain) in the Galilee, and a Halutzim neighbourhood in Beit Shean.

Then there’s the litany of Halutzim Streets – one in Tel Aviv's Florentin, and others in Bat Yam, Rishon LeTzion, Pardes Hanna, and even one in ultra-orthodox Bnei Brak. And if that’s not enough, consider "Halutzei HaTaasiya," or "Pioneers of Industry" streets in Haifa, Ashdod and Kiryat Malachi.

And don’t forget people - like former IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz. A simple Facebook search of Halutz, Haluts, Halutzi or Halutzy reveals a finger-fatiguing scroll of fellow pioneers. Suffice it to say that the imprint of the halutzim is well and truly stamped on the human geography of the nation.

Amid the glorification of the halutzim in Israeli national history, culture and education, critics of the Jewish national project would claim that the term is merely a euphemism for the early waves of expansionist Zionist settlers.

Still others would say that not only were the halutzim justified in cultivating territory for an independent Jewish state, but that they were also the audacious predecessors of the new generation of 21st-century Israeli pioneers.

Halutziut, it can be argued, is the source of the entrepreneurial spirit that has seen Israel invent marvels such as unmanned drones, novel methods of drip irrigation and solar water heating, the flash drive, and a whole bunch of other novelties. Conquering formidable frontiers – whether territorial, agricultural or technological – is cast as being in the Israeli DNA, and it was the halutzim that spearheaded the way.