Ahad Ha' am

Steven J. Zipperstein

in Jewish Studies

ISBN: 9780199840731
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Ahad Ha' am

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Ahad Ha’am is a pen name for the Russian Jewish essayist, editor, and Zionist thinker Asher Ginzberg (b. 1856–d. 1927), meaning in Hebrew “one of the people,” a consciously jarring choice for an intellectual whose central preoccupation was the need for Jewry to consolidate a new, postreligious elite; Ahad Ha’am consolidated around himself an entire school of Jewish nationalist thought called “cultural” or “spiritual” Zionism. In the form of essays, mostly brief, he savaged Zionism from within the movement—of which he was also in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the preeminent intellectual voice. He loathed (and was probably also jealous of) Theodor Herzl, the movement’s head until his death in 1904, and critical of his reliance on diplomacy, his understanding of culture, his secrecy, and the excitement that he engendered, which, as Ahad Ha’am saw it, encouraged a potentially lethal messianic fervor. Drawing eclectically on a wide range of thinkers in German, English, French, Russian, and, of course, Hebrew, he argued that culture, embodied for Jews first in statecraft, then in rabbinic law or philosophy, and now ever more frayed because of modernity’s assimilatory pressures, was what held Jews together or, potentially, undermined it. Jewish history was built out of successful accommodation with the larger world, creative integration whereby Jews drew on the best of what other cultures had to offer while making it their own. In modernity, this now required a geographical concentration of Jews in the Land of Israel where in a Hebrew-speaking milieu modern currents could more dexterously be blended into Jewish life. His primary theme centered on the prerequisites of leadership, prophetic in their origins, resolutely moral—he was the first major Zionist thinker to call attention to the corrosive impact on Jews of the oppression of Arabs—and gradualist in his approach to the building of the Land of Israel. He envisioned an enterprise with great cultural institutions at its core, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; the mainstay of Israel’s liberal press, Haaretz; its Federation of Hebrew Writers; the founding principle of the city of Tel Aviv, whose long-standing mayor, Meir Dizengoff, was a disciple of Ahad Ha’am—all owe their early inspiration to his teachings. He inspired (and sought) the loyalty of his followers, creating around him in the late 1880s a Masonic-like, semisecret group called the Bnei Moshe (Sons of Moses), whose devotion to him not infrequently morphed into fierce opposition. To varying degrees, his followers included Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann; Hebrew’s canonic poet, Hayyim Nahman Bialik; and founder of Reconstructionist Judaism in the United States, Mordecai Kaplan. Ahad Ha’am also emerged as a touchstone for binationalism. Ahad Ha’am lived much of his life in Odessa, moving to London in 1907 and to Tel Aviv in 1921, where he died.

Article.  5118 words. 

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies

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