This Day in Jewish History / Members of proto-Zionist Group Bilu Land in Palestine

Fourteen members of group emigrate from Russia to escape progroms, the start of Zionism's First Aliyah period.

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On July 6, 1882, the first group of 14 members of the proto-Zionist group Bilu disembarked in Jaffa. They were not the first Russian Jews to emigrate to Palestine in the wake of the wave of pogroms that had begun the preceding autumn, but they were the first to do so in an organized manner.

Bilu – the name is an acronym for the Hebrew phrase from Isaiah 2:5, “Beit Ya’akov Lekhu Venelkhah”: “O House of Jacob, come ye and let us go” – had its origins in a meeting that took place on January 21, 1882, at the home of Israel Belkind, in Kharkiv (today in Ukraine). Belkind (1861-1929) was a young intellectual who invited a handful of fellow students to his home to discuss the violence to which Jews were then being subjected. They quickly came to the conclusion that the answer was to depart the Russian Empire for the Jews’ ancestral homeland.

Hayyim Hisin, an early member of Bilu, recorded in his diary the atmosphere that led him and his colleagues to contemplate such a radical move: “The recent pogroms have violently awakened the complacent Jews from their sweet slumbers. Until now, I was uninterested in my origin. I saw myself as a faithful son of Russia … I wanted to devote my whole strength to the good of my homeland, and happily to do my duty, and suddenly they come and show us the door, and openly declare that we are free to leave for the West.”

As many as 500 young people were affiliated with Bilu, which moved its center from Kharkiv to Odessa – the port from which members intended to depart, although in the end only a fraction actually made the journey. The organization did not have a well-articulated political manifesto, but some members definitely were thinking in terms of an independent state for the Jews. One of them, Ze’ev Dubnow, writing about that goal, declared, “If it is willed, it is no dream” – a sentiment very similar to one that would appear two decades later in Theodor Herzl’s “Altneuland.”

Some of the Biluim, as members of the group called themselves, believed it was prudent to wait for permission from the Ottoman sultan, who ruled Palestine at the time, and traveled to Constantinople to see about arranging that. The group led by Israel Belkind, however, decided to head directly to the Land of Israel. It is they who arrived on this day in 1882.

The day after they landed, the group headed to the Mikveh Israel agricultural school, near present-day Tel Aviv, which had been established by Charles Netter in 1870. They worked there as agricultural laborers, although not with great success. When they were dismissed from the school, some moved to Jerusalem, and others to Rishon Letzion. Finally, in December 1884, they settled on land that had been bought for them by Yechiel Pines, the leader of Hovevei Zion, south of the Arab village of Qatra. This was the beginning of the town of Gedera.

All in all, an estimated total of 53 Biluim immigrated to Palestine during this period. Some eventually returned to Russia or moved on to the United States, but others did remain, entering the annals of Zionism’s First Aliyah period.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen