Early Zionist Pioneers Adhered to the Same Founding Ethos as Today's Settlers

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Kibbutz members of Ein Herod in 1941.
Kibbutz members of Ein Herod in 1941.Credit: Government Press Office

I am a loyal reader of Haaretz editorials, and I am imbued with admiration over the audacity of those who write them. Not many of the world’s newspapers feature such consistent and courageous liberal positions, in concise and sharp columns, for years on end. So I felt uneasy reading the article “Bar-Lev Is Right” (Dec. 16).

The editorial writer notes that Interior Minister Ayalet Shaked is lying when she claims that “the settlers are the salt of the earth, the successors to the [early Zionist] pioneers,” decisively concluding instead that “the settlers are not the successors of the pioneers.”

I would very much like to join in this statement, but as a historian, as a matter of principle, I am supposed to seek historical truth, even if I know I’ll never attain it. So I will try to begin our little story, which is no fable, from the beginning.

In 1891, before the publication of Theodor Herzl’s “The Jewish State” and long before the Balfour Declaration, a loyal lover of Zion who for some reason preferred to be called Ahad Ha’am – one of the people – visited the country. A famous Zionist theoretician by then, he sought to check out the work of his admirers and disciples, whom he called colonists, as the Hebrew terms for pioneer and settler had not yet been invented. He made the arduous journey to the country to assess the pace of “imigratzia” (the use of the word aliyah had not yet become common), as well as progress in the establishment of Jewish “colonias” (as neither the Hebrew “moshava” nor the modern Hebrew word for settlement was yet in use).

Make no mistake. Ahad Ha’am was inventing and writing a marvelous Hebrew and some of our writing today owes him a great debt of gratitude. But a modern language is created slowly and in stages, and one of the fathers of modern Hebrew should be forgiven for using foreign terms – and even worse, insufficiently national ones.

On his return from his tour, this father of spiritual Zionism publishes his brilliant essay “Truth From Eretz Israel” in his own newspaper, Hashiloach. The truth that Ahad Ha’am reveals is rather shocking and unfortunately bears out some of Interior Minister Shaked’s comments.

The colonists, Ahad Ha’am states, “conduct themselves with the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, unjustifiably trespassing against them, shamefully beating them without sufficient reason and even boasting of doing so, and there was no one who would stem the tide of this despicable and dangerous tendency.”

We’re in 1891, at the very beginning of the Zionist redemption of the land, and the editor of Hashiloach writes what he does with great pain. “Slaves they were in the land of their exile and suddenly they find themselves in boundless freedom, a wild freedom that can only be found in a land such as Turkey,” Ahad Ha’am asserts, in reference to an area that was then part of the Ottoman Empire. “This sudden change bred a tendency in their hearts for despotism, as will always happen to ‘a slave who becomes a king’ ....”

The West Bank is no longer in the Ottoman Empire, but it is still the same land, the same hills, almost the same villages, and of course with the descendants of the same Arabs. The conflict with our neighbors didn’t begin in 1967 or in 1948. It began with the onset of Zionist settlement, at the end of the 19th century.

It’s not only today’s settlers who are certain all the land is theirs. The first pioneers also always adhered to that same founding ethos. But the major difference between the forebears and the contemporary settlers is what motivated them.

The early pioneers uprooted themselves and left their countries of origin as a result of Judophobia, massacres and pogroms. The newer version uprooted themselves from where they were born mainly as a result of a dizzying concept of power, with official encouragement and primarily to fulfill the dream of a house with a pristine view.

The writer is a historian and professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University.

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