On February 17, 1961, Manya Shochat, one of the most daring and imaginative pioneers of the Second Aliyah wave of immigration to prestate Israel, died.
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Shochat’s life story reads like fiction, but she is remembered most for being a key figure in the development of Jewish self-defense in Mandatory Palestine and for being the guiding spirit behind the first collective settlement here.
Manya Wilbuschewitz was born in 1878, `79 or `80 (depending on the source) at Lososna, her family’s farm, outside the city of Grodno, then part of the Russian empire, today in Belarus.
Her father, Ze’ev, owned a grain mill. He was newly religious and tried to instill his love for Judaism in his children, even as their mother preached a radical secularism. Manya had nine siblings.
When she was 15, Manya left home for Minsk, where her brother Gideon managed a carpentry workshop. There, she was exposed to the values of the labor movement, and, according to the Jewish Women’s Archive article on her, she took a leadership role in encouraging her fellow workers to go on strike against her brother.
In 1899, Manya was arrested for associating with members of the socialist Bund party. In prison she came under the influence of Sergei Zubatov, the head of the Okhrana, the czar’s secret police.
Zubatov convinced Shochat that a nonviolent labor movement would be more successful in attaining its goals - and in changing society in general - than a militant one.
With his encouragement, Shochat founded the Jewish Independent Labor Movement, an act that earned her the eternal enmity of more radical groups, such as the Bundists and the socialists.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the organization, with its secret government backing, had some initial successes in its labor actions, but after the Kishinev pogroms of 1903, Zubatov lost his position and the JILM fell apart.
One of those who was responsible for deposing Zubatov was the Russian interior minister, Viyacheslav von Plehve. Now, Shochat became involved in a conspiracy to assassinate Plehve (one of several such plots).
When word of her increasing militancy reached her brother Nachum, who had recently emigrated to Palestine, he wrote to her and said he was gravely ill, a ploy intended to get her out of the country before she was arrested.
In Israel, cultivating an idea
Manya arrived in Israel in 1904 and found her brother in good health. He invited her to join him on a expedition of potential agricultural lands in the region, on behalf of Baron Edmond de Rothschild.
Her visits to both Arab-owned and Jewish-owned farms led her to conclude that only collective ownership, with no hired labor, would work for the settlements being cultivated by young Jewish immigrants.
In the years 1905-1907, Shochat was in both Europe and the U.S., studying whatever she could about collectively based agriculture. At the same time, she began collecting money to buy arms to deliver to Jewish groups back in Russia for self-defense.
Back in Palestine in 1907, and disappointed at people’s lack of enthusiasm about her ideas for shared ownership, Shochat decided to prove her point by example. With 17 other socialist pioneers, she persuaded the manager of the Sejera farm, just west of Lake Kinneret, to allow them to spend a year running the farm collectively.
Sejera was not just where the first proto-kibbutz was established, it also was where the same group of Zionists established the Bar Giora self-defense group, which was headed by Israel Shochat, who became Manya’s husband in 1908.
In its one year as a collective, Sejera was a success, but the farm’s owners were not interested in continuing the experiment. Bar-Giora, however, expanded into the Hashomer organization, which evolved into the Haganah.
At the start of World War I, Manya and Israel, as non-Ottoman citizens, were exiled to Bursa, Turkey, and did not return to Palestine until 1919.
In subsequent years, the Shochats lived in Tel Aviv, and Manya continued to be involved in politics and defense matters, but also in efforts to advance Jewish-Arab dialogue.
She died in Tel Aviv and is buried at Kibbutz Kfar Giladi, north of Kiryat Shmona near the Lebanon border.