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Israel Studies 5.2 (2000) 154-181

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Much Ado about Little: Ahad Ha'am's "Truth from Eretz Yisrael," Zionism, and the Arabs

Alan Dowty

Zionist Dialectics

The 1891 article "Emet m'eretz yisrael" [Truth from Eretz Israel] by Ahad Ha'am (Asher Ginzberg, 1856-1927) is one of early Zionism's most-cited references. It is regarded as a milestone in Zionist thought and in Ahad Ha'am's own role in the movement, and even, more notably, as the first serious analysis of "the Arab issue," which was eventually to dominate the history of Zionism and of the state of Israel. Remarkably, it appears that no full English translation has previously been published.

What follows is a complete and original translation of "Truth from Eretz Israel" as published in Ahad Ha'am's collected writings. 1 "Truth" originally appeared as a series of articles in the Hebrew daily newspaper Hamelitz (St. Petersburg), 13-24 Sivan, 5651 (19-30 June 1891), following Ahad Ha'am's first visit to Eretz Israel, 2 26 February-17 May 1891.

This was very early in Ahad Ha'am's career as one of Zionism's most influential thinkers. His first important publication, the article "This Is Not the Way," had appeared only two years earlier in the same newspaper, and established him as a severe critic of the prevailing mode of settlement during the first decade of Zionist (or proto-Zionist) activity. 3 In his view, the "Return to Zion" that began in 1882 was premature, disorganized, and inadequately conceived. His report of his 1891 trip belongs, first and foremost, to the general thrust of the critique first laid out two years earlier. Above all, in his view, the movement needed unity, better organization, better leadership, better preparation (both morally and materially), and the application of intelligence in both senses of the word; what he found in the ancestral land was a movement that, having developed from numerous centers at the grass roots level, consequently lacked any central direction: "a convulsion of withered limbs." [End Page 154]

Despite his previous criticism, Ahad Ha'am professed, in a letter sent soon after arriving in Jaffa, that "I live in the hope that . . . I will find an answer to all my doubts." 4 In fact, 1891 was considered a moment of renewed hopes for settlement of Eretz Israel; the Ottoman Empire had relaxed its entry restrictions just as new pressures in Russia had created masses of potential new immigrants, and a wave of newcomers had already begun. But given Ahad Ha'am's predilections, and the perhaps inevitable chaos accompanying any sudden mass movement of people, his hopes of finding matters to his liking were doomed to disappointment. His trip there was itself the result of allegations of mismanagement in the Jaffa office of Hovevei Zion, 5 which put him right in the middle of some of the uglier squabbles. 6 Not surprisingly, he was appalled by the vicious infighting among the Zionists themselves, the proliferation of profiteers both Jewish and non-Jewish, the skyrocketing price of land, various agricultural fiascoes, and, above all, by the inability of the new settlers to free themselves from dependence on outside charity (principally the support of Baron Edmond de Rothschild of Paris). "I was not able," he reports, "to locate a single person living from the fruit of his land alone."

This damning reality was juxtaposed in his mind with the scandalous activities of "charlatans" promoting the holy land as "a new California" with an easy life. What resulted was "a motley mixture of gold-diggers and indigent exiles" who were an easy target for Ahad Ha'am's scathing sarcasm. Describing one "Hebrew middleman" who declared that unsuccessful settlers can "go to hell," and another who bragged of tricking a settlement society out of a tract of land, he noted that "even the most sublime idea can be emptied of any integrity when molested by such hands." As an intellectual whose world view nevertheless put a premium on practicality, Ahad...