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4 The American Experience

The Russian pogroms of 1881 and 1882 had taken the world of liberal opinion by surprise. And in many quarters, especially in the West, the reaction was one of shock. “One is made to blush for the name of Christian when we see it mixed up with murder, plunder and ravishment,” declared the English preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon in 1882. “Jew-baiting,” asserted the Edinburgh Review a year later, “is an outrage on decency, a darkening of the fair face of Christendom.”

One effect the Judeophobic violence had upon East European Jews was flight from the czarist empire. Organized Western Jewry in the form of agencies like the AIU went into action in Europe. In America, chiefly in New York City, the leaders of the Jewish community similarly began stirring. The immediate task was to provide for the physical needs of the newcomers, food, clothing, shelter, in the burgeoning East Coast cities to which they were attracted. The challenge of providing immediate care to the seemingly endless numbers of immigrants appeared in itself beyond bounds. But, for those of utopian bent, perhaps even more formidable was the task of diverting as many as possible of the newcomers away from urban centers and settling them in farming colonies in the New World.

Settling Jewish Colonists as Farmers: Problems

The major problem was not settling individual Jews as farmers; it was the establishment of farming colonies. Settling individual immigrants would have been a simple task in the 1880s. The few who had been farmers in the Old World would have had only to request aid enabling them to resume their previous occupation. The various philanthropic committees in charge of relief would have welcomed such requests, for in granting them, they would not only have been aiding those who sought “useful” work; they would at the same time have been helping to relieve the congestion of overcrowded cities.1

In the 1880s Jewish farmers in the United States, while few in number, were not unknown, e.g., Emanuel Woodic, the guiding spirit of Michigan’s Palestine colony.2 But the problem confronting the philanthropic leadership of the Jewish community was larger than that of aiding individual Jewish immigrants to get a foothold in America. Rather, it was to find some means of settling entire colonies of immigrant Jews as farmers. The immigrants were motivated by a wish to throw off the stigma of parasitism which attached to their former commercial and proto-industrial life. They were eager to eliminate the tensions created by their predominance in commercial pursuits, a predominance which both they and their philanthropic sponsors interpreted—with at least some measure of Selbsthass (“self-hate”)—as the ultimate cause of anti-Semitism. Immigrants drawn to farming wished to integrate themselves into their new American environment by following what they considered the basic pursuit upon which all economic life depended.3 Philanthropists responsive to a utopian goal would have to devise ways of helping these newcomers.

To establish colonies, much detailed study was necessary. But the need for hasty action by the Jews of America militated against any careful planning. Lack of time to develop a degree of expertise was among the major reasons for the failure of the colonization schemes. The organizers of the schemes allowed themselves little if any opportunity to study the prospective farmers with a view to ascertaining their experience, their abilities, even their aims. As a consequence, immigrants with practically no experience as farmers, immigrants lacking an understanding of the hardships which inevitably lay ahead of them, immigrants without real financial ties to the venture, since they had little or no capital of their own to invest—these were the people who were sent out to found farming colonies.

Not only were the human materials all too often inadequate, but, in many cases, the sites of the colonies were ill-chosen. Natural disasters—floods, fire, epidemics—contributed to the collapse of colonization efforts which had been valiant in the extreme. The failure is not so hard to explain: the sponsors of the colonies were inexperienced, and just as insufficient time had been taken to study the capacities of the individuals participating in the venture of colonization, so insufficient time was devoted to a study of the sites selected with a view to ascertaining their natural properties, their adaptability to farming, their proximity to markets.4

If inadequate planning for agricultural colonization looms as a prime cause of failure, another major factor was reliance on the concept of colonies as an instrument for converting East European Jewish tradesmen into American Jewish farmers. A colony as a form of group life has many advantages, among them its ability to foster the economic mutuality of its members. For aliens, a colony has another special ad-vantage: it creates an island of refuge in a sea of strangeness; it promotes a feeling of belonging among those who are sharply different from their already established neighbors. Where there is a common, pervasive ideal which a group desires to translate into a living reality, the colony is a logical organizational form. It appeared that in the case of the East European Jew, alien that he always was and pauper and idealist that he may have been and was often at least assumed to be, the colony would be the most attractive medium through which he could realize his ideal. Possibly, this second factor of “colonism” may be designated a significant organizational defect, since to be successful a colony must exhibit either unity of purpose or, at the very least, some large measure of submission to the authority of one individual.5

There are instances in American history of successful colonization. One of the most notable examples is that of the Mormons, whose success appears to have resulted primarily from the complete subordination of all the members to the will of one powerful directorate or individual.6 In none of the Jewish colonies was this subordination of will to be witnessed. New Odessa came closest to it, but even there William Frey proved to be no Brigham Young. Indeed, it would be hard to reconcile what seems to have been the characteristic individuality of the immigrant American Jew, even of utopian inclination, with the Christian selflessness, if that is the proper way to describe it, which underlay the ideological propensities of, among others, the Mormons, the Hutterites, and the Moravians.

As for unity of goal, a common ideal pervaded the Jewish colonization schemes, but it was an ideal that grew out of the common experience of persecution. The memory of that adverse experience receded, however; the hardships of farm life became daily more patent, and in consequence there was an erosion of loyalty to the great ideal of proving the Jew capable of farming, capable, that is, of pursuing a “useful” instead of a “parasitic” career. Indeed, the struggle for existence during the two decades 1880–1900 became so sharp that the problem for the Jewish immigrant, as for most Americans, became one of eking out a bare subsistence rather than the selection of “useful” as against “parasitic” forms of livelihood.7 Failure after the grim struggle against overwhelming odds and the existence of opportunities for economic betterment in the industries of the city, both factors weakened the unity of goal so vital in a collective undertaking.8

Failures of Jewish Communal Farms: Causes

One reason for the failure of colonization or communitarianism is that it ran counter to the traditional spirit of American individualism. Such an assertion, however, denies the incontestable success of many of the Mormon colonies in the Far West and the impressive prosperity of such (often religiously motivated) schemes as cooperatives—the Amana enterprise in the Middle West, for example—which are not in the classical mode of American “rugged individualism.” If the Jewish colonists abandoned farming for industry, it was because opportunities existed in industry which did not exist in agriculture. The real American frontier, these colonists recognized, was now the industrialized or industrializing city. As one authority has pointed out: “The position of the Jewish farmer does not differ from that of other American farmers . . . and, not unlike their Christian neighbors, they continue in agriculture merely as long as it is profitable but exchange it for another occupation if that offers better prospects.”9 If to follow better prospects is to give evidence of individualism, then the Jew was as individualistic as his non-Jewish neighbor.

No period in American history was so ill-suited as the one, the late 1800s and early 1900s, in which Jewish immigrants sought to transform themselves into American farmer-colonists. The last two decades of the nineteenth century in the United States were marked by severe agricultural distress. (It is hardly coincidence that the United States was simultaneously undergoing a rapid expansion in industrialization and urbanization.) Indeed, Solon Buck has suggested that “agricultural unrest was not peculiar to the United States in the last quarter of the nineteenth century but existed in all the more advanced countries of the world.”10

General financial conditions for the farmer were extremely adverse.11 “Great Distress” characterized the 1880s, but the depression only deepened in the 1890s, reaching its climax in the panic of 1893, the worst America had ever experienced. Both industry and agriculture were affected, and even the well-favored colony of Woodbine, then in its formative period, knew intense suffering.

Ever since the Civil War, the United States had been going through a process of industrialization which brought about a resultant trend of migration from farm to city where greater opportunities existed.12 Colonists often enough had to confront the problem of trying to keep their young people on the farm. Even in Woodbine where social institutions for the young were more developed than in other colonies, the founders enjoyed limited success. But no colony could stem the tide of history. No matter how compelling the ideal, American Jewish youth, like the rest of American youth, would not remain on the farm while the economic and social lures of city life beckoned.

General industrialization inspired the overwhelming number of immigrants along with the great majority of Americans to by-pass agriculture for industry, where the returns appeared larger and more certain and even the work in many cases less hazardous and less exacting. A degree of agricultural industrialization was developing, too, but it automatically lessened the need for individual farm help and, in the case of the colonization of farmers, required the use of huge reserves of capital, far in excess of what the individual colonist possessed or the philanthropic societies could furnish.

Thus, agricultural colonization ran counter to the trend of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American life. A back-to-the-land movement undoubtedly had special significance for Jews who had been debarred from agriculture for centuries. But at the time that a number of Jewish pioneers were attempting their return to the land, the main current of American life was away-from-the-land. In 1860, less than one-fifth of the American population had been urban; forty years later, nearly a third was urban.13 The time element, therefore, is basic to an understanding of the failure of all the Jewish agricultural colonization schemes in America.

A fundamental misconception the utopian immigrant had brought with him from Russia was the belief that he had to normalize his position by going into farming in the United States. In Russia, with her still predominantly rural economy, agriculture was indeed the only way the Jew could normalize his position. But the reverse, if anything, was true in the United States. In America, by becoming a farmer after 1880, the Jew would not be normalizing his position; on the contrary, he would be making it abnormal. In Alliance and Woodbine, the two instances in which agricultural settlement enjoyed partial success, the reason has been given: industry was combined with agriculture since the directors of the two colonies had already had sufficient experience to attempt a remedy for the prime defect of reliance on agriculture alone.

Jewish Agricultural Utopias: An Assessment

For all their idealism and utopian enthusiasm, the attempts at colonization of Jewish farmers in America between the years 1880 and 1900 failed. A generation later, especially from 1933 on, the American Jewish community again had to face the problem of how to provide for victims of European persecution. As far as agriculture was concerned, the well-organized Jewish Agricultural Society stood ready to lend its invaluable aid to individual farmers. The policy of the Jewish Agricultural Society was not to colonize, but to extend aid and encouragement to individual Jewish farmers.14 During these years of the 1930s and 1940s, however, there was no need to prove the Jew capable of farming; that had already been amply demonstrated. Even in 1901 the New Jersey statistician William Stainsby had seen evidence of it:

Yes, the Jew can be made a very successful cultivator of the soil; he bears the elements of success in his quickness to learn; his ready adaptability to the circumstances by which he is surrounded; his untiring energy and close economy. To assert the contrary is to betray the effects of prejudice and not conviction brought about by a knowledge of facts.15

According to figures of the Jewish Agricultural Society, the number of Jewish farmers in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s was estimated at between 80,000 and 100,000, surely a striking testimony to the adaptability of Jews to farming. 16 In addition to these American figures exists, of course, the powerful example of late Ottoman and British Mandatory Palestine which “provided conclusive proof of the qualities of the Jew as a pioneer colonist and the possibility of large scale Jewish agricultural resettlement on economically productive foundations.” As early as 1921, one writer could assert: “from the reports of the Jewish agricultural colonies in the Holy Land to-day, one cannot help but conclude that [the Jew] can be a happy, progressive farmer.”17

Colonization in Palestine/Israel and America: A Comparison

Why did Jewish agricultural colonization in Eretz Israel (Palestine/Israel) succeed whereas in the United States it failed? Both experiences reflected utopian notions peculiar to the nineteenth century. Both reflected a desire to escape from the convulsions unleased in Eastern Europe by the decay there of feudal tradition and the often heartless transition to some form of capitalism and industrialism. Yet in America there was failure; in Eretz Israel, success.

If colonization efforts in the United States and Palestine in the same period, 1880–1900, are compared, the results show that colonization in Ottoman Palestine was as much a failure as it was in North America. But, though the agricultural colonization movements of the United States and Palestine in parallel periods suffered parallel fates, the causes for failure were not the same. Certainly industrialization as a major reason for agricultural colonization failures applied no more than minimally, if at all, in Ottoman Palestine. The years 1882–1900 were a period of “patriarchal” colonization financed, from afar, of course, by the French philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild. The early Zionists who established Rishon-le-Zion, Petach-Tikvah, and other colonies in Eretz Israel proved unequal to the task they had undertaken. People of middle-class background and Occidental culture, they were innocent of agricultural knowledge and of the hazards, political and sociological as well as economic, which awaited them in the Middle East, and so, not surprisingly, they achieved little on their own. If not for the financial, administrative, and moral guidance that Baron de Rothschild was willing to offer them, their efforts would have come to nothing; soon settlers came to depend for help and direction solely upon him. They understood well enough that the primary reason for their survival was the baron’s continuous fiscal and administrative support. Baron de Rothschild’s spirit of charity, however, killed the idealism that had inspired the “Lovers of Zion” to go back to the ancient homeland and attempt there to regenerate both themselves and the land by establishing agricultural colonies.18

A major obstacle to Jewish colonization in Palestine was, of course, Ottoman Turkish officialdom.19 After 1919, however—that is, with the collapse of the Ottoman empire, the issuance of Great Britain’s Balfour Declaration in support of Zionist objectives, and the granting of the League of Nations Mandate to the British who were now to help the Zionists develop a Jewish commonwealth in the country—Eretz Israel underwent an amazing transformation.20 The salient facet of the land’s development is the establishment of agricultural colonies (kvutzot), collectives which in the face of enormous difficulties have, unlike the American colonization attempts, more often than not survived and today continue, many of them, to operate in the form of kibbutzim.

The Palestinian colonist had greater difficulties to face in his efforts to establish a colony than did the American. Jews in Palestine before World War I had to overcome the hostility of the local Arab populace and of Turkish officials. They had to fight not only against diseases like trachoma and malaria, but also to attempt revival of a soil that had been neglected for centuries. Their capacities as farmers were as limited as those of their brethren who had migrated to America.21 True, Palestine was less industrialized in the early twentieth century than America in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Indeed, industrially and agriculturally, Palestine deserved to be rated among the more backward areas of the world. The Zionists not only had to revive agriculture; they had to develop an industrial foundation as well. The pioneer of Palestine who desired to rebuild the homeland through agriculture, and especially through agricultural colonies, had that real as well as apparent choice which was denied the American immigrant. In the United States, economic necessity tended to propel the Jew in an industrial direction. In undeveloped Palestine, the Jew would have the choice of devoting himself to modern agriculture or to modern industry. Both, if it can be said that they existed at all, had suffered equal neglect under the Turks and the Arabs. In physical terms, agriculture was surely the more demanding. If the chalutz, the Zionist pioneer, chose to found and to live in agrarian kvutzot, it was because he had the ideological drive, that very unity of purpose and that will to survive, needed to overcome seemingly insuperable obstacles. Arthur Ruppin, the authority on agricultural colonization in Palestine, understood well the role of ideology in the Palestinian ventures:

The success of the Palestinian settlements is not accidental. It has its roots in specific underlying factors which distinguish Palestinian settlements from similar ventures elsewhere. For one thing, it derives its motive power from the high national ideal of the reconstruction of a Jewish homeland, which has been the source of that inspiration and enthusiasm without which the initial difficulties, hardships and disappointments of pioneering could not have been surmounted. The Jewish pioneer in Palestine knew that toil and sacrifice, not profit or comfort, would be his lot. Fired by devotion to an ideal, he was determined to stick through thick and thin to his task, even if from the purely material point of view it represented the most difficult and least profitable of the occupations he might have chosen. This devotion continues to be the prime condition for progress in the future.22

An American could recognize it, too. Gabriel Davidson, the managing director of the Jewish Agricultural Society, added to Ruppin’s a tribute of his own:

It is true that much money has been spent in Palestine, but there is something besides money which keeps these colonies going, and that is the innate urge of the colonies to play a part in rebuilding a National Home. The spiritual drive does not exist anywhere but in Palestine.23

This ideal of Zionism or Jewish nationalism was reinforced by another ideological support, that of socialism. The earlier Palestinian settlers, those who became protégés of the Rothschild administration, had not been ideologically committed to socialism, but before long from the ranks of East European Jewry came pioneers who not only desired to establish in Palestine a Jewish Commonwealth, but who, most of them at least, wanted to establish a chevrat mofet, a model commonwealth in which the evils of capitalistic society would never take root. In the kvutzot, the agricultural communal settlements of the pre-Israeli decades, the ideals of Jewish national liberation and socialism found in a number of instances their finest expression. These twin ideals contributed immeasurably to the success of agricultural colonization in Palestine. 24

One pitfall which the kibbutzim, unlike collectives in America, could avoid, probably a major factor, was the lure of the city. Turn-of-the-century America was a land of accelerating urbanization, a process generated by America’s emergence as a center of industrial capitalism. Agricultural utopianism could not cope with such a pressure. By contrast, Ottoman Palestine was remote from industrialism and, hence, from any impressive measure of urbanization. The kibbutzim faced no formidable urban competition; there was no opulent urban promise to distract kibbutz members. Even during the three decades of the British Mandate, the early 1920s to the late 1940s, industrialization and urbanization, while not at all negligible, were not striking enough to be thought of as particularly distracting for kibbutzniks. Today, of course, when an independent Israeli state has achieved industrial significance, the kibbutzim must take seriously the seductions of city life. 25

Another factor of kibbutz success was, curiously enough, the history of Jewish colonization attempts in the United States. In 1907, when the World Zionist Organization decided to foster agricultural settlements in Palestine, it was able to plan its ventures by building on the experience of previous attempts. 26

This [American] experience . . . indicated the steps to be avoided rather than the positive measures to be taken. New methods, partly derived from the old, were developed; the result was a system based on (certain) administrative, juridical and economic principles:

        1)   Cooperation on the basis of mutual responsibilities.

        2)   A settler’s wife was to receive agricultural training in order to do her share of work on equal terms with her husband.

        3)   Mixed farming, including the growing of com, fodder, vegetables and orchids was to supplant the one-crop system. Moreover, semi-industrial undertakings were to be run by farms wherever feasible.

        4)   The size and nature of the farms were to be in keeping with the working capacity of the settler and his family alone.

        5)   The number of families in each settlement . . . were to be not less than sixty (in exceptional cases forty) to prevent monotony from stagnating the cultural and social life of the settlers and to reduce their share in the communal budget.

        6)   Cooperative societies were to be formed for purchase and sale.

 .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

        8)   As a rule each settler was to receive five–seven acres of irrigated land or twenty-two–thirty acres of unirrigated land . . . in most cases each settler received both.

        9)   From a technical-agricultural point of view, the following guiding principles in the establishment of a new settlement have been developed:

               a)    Town planning. A town planning expert is to prepare a layout of the settlement (roads, arrangement of living quarters and farm buildings, etc.) on the basis of a topographical map. Climatic conditions are to be taken into consideration.

               b)    Removal of natural obstacles. Natural obstacles likely to impede normal agricultural work excessively are to be removed. Swamps harboring malaria must be drained; scrub which prevents ploughing cleared; and stones removed.

               c)    Central water supply. A central water works is to be provided.

               d)    Suitable farming scheme. For every settlement a suitable scheme (with estimate of costs) is to be drawn up (by the Agricultural Experimental Station in Rehoboth) with the assistance of a special planning commission.

               e)    Settlement loan. The settlers are to receive from the Jewish Agency a promise that, as soon as its funds will allow, it will place the amounts required for the establishment of the settlement at their disposal in the form of a loan to be redeemed in forty-nine yearly installments, at an interest rate of 2 percent.

               f)    Selection of settlers. The choice of settlers for every new community is to be made by the Agricultural Department of the Jewish Agency in agreement with the Central Agricultural Organ of the General Federation of Jewish Labor or Mizrahi Labor Federation acting as representatives of all candidates for settlement.

               g)    Alternative sources of income. Opportunity must be found to help tide the settlers over their initial period on the farms. Work can sometimes be found for them outside the settlements; as a rule, however, they can be put to work erecting their own buildings and in drainage, afforestation and road building, for which they are paid. 27

Gabriel Davidson, director of the Jewish Agricultural Society and chronicler of American Jewish agrarianism. (Courtesy AJA, Cincinnati)

In conclusion, as Ruppin said, “it is noteworthy, that whenever these principles have not been followed either because of exceptional circumstances or undue haste the settlement has suffered.” Of course, some three decades after the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state in the Land of Israel, the kibbutzim which have succeeded have done so as agro-industrial, not exclusively agricultural, enterprises. Even so, significant as the kibbutzim are in Israeli life and in the Israeli economy, no more than 3 percent of the state’s entire population is made up of kibbutz members. In mid- and late twentieth-century Israel, as in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America, urbanization has been the norm. 28

Clearly, the principles adopted by the World Zionist Organization, principles of which Ruppin spoke in the early 1900s, had not been followed, at any rate, not consistently or systematically, in the American Jewish colonization schemes. Yet the thought remains that the attempts at American Jewish colonization were among the factors which helped pave the way for the success of one of the most significant movements in twentieth-century Jewish life: the agricultural-industrial communes which have been so basic to the survival of the Zionist experiment and of the “Hebrew renaissance” in the Land of Israel.

On a deeper level, both experiences, that of Jewish agricultural colonists in turn-of-the-century North America and that of the chalutzim in Palestine during the closing decades of Ottoman rule, constitute one and the same phenomenon. Both testify to a utopian quest, a messianic urgency, which captured the imagination and guided the energies of not a few, if never anything approaching a sizable minority, of the Russian czar’s Jewish subjects. An observation by the Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher on what motivated the revolutionary zeal of early converts to Soviet communism serves as a summation of Jewish agrarian utopias, too: they had all felt “the miseries of the old capitalist order to be unbearable” and had all known “experience of social injustice or degradation; a sense of insecurity bred by slumps and social crises”; and “the craving for a great ideal or purpose, or for a reliable intellectual guide through the shaky labyrinth of modern society.”29 This is the skeletal fact which stood at the base of impulses to cultivate the wilderness, whether in Oregon, in Kansas, in New Jersey, in Patagonia, or in the Valley of Jezreel.

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