We’re adding a branch to the Zionist redwood tree! We talked about Political Zionism — the political effort to establish a state for Jews. Now we’re talking about Cultural Zionism — the effort to make that state Jewish. Led by an exceptional thinker named Ahad Ha’Am, cultural Zionists sought to ensure that the future Jewish state would be a spiritual center to inspire Jews to embrace their secular culture and history. Ahad Ha’Am was sharply critical of Herzl and his ideology, and together these two branches formed the core of what the State of Israel is today.
Ahad Ha’Am, one of the major Zionist leaders even before Herzl came on the scene, famously wrote that he wanted “a Jewish state and not merely a state for Jews.” He meant that creating a state for Jews to live in wasn’t enough to revive Judaism, which he saw in a state of moral decline. The Jewish state also had to offer Jews access to their own secular culture, history, language, and traditions.
Rather than creating an entire Jewish state, Ahad Ha’Am thought that Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel/Palestine) could only support a small Jewish colony in the near-term. This colony of just a few thousand Jews living Jewishly would inspire Jews around the world to embrace Jewish culture. In 1892 Ahad Ha’Am wrote that when Jews came to visit the colony, “they would feel a deep love for the ancestral land and their brothers living in it, so that many of them would soon becomes Lovers of Zion themselves.” That “Israel glow” we feel after our Birthright trip is exactly what Ahad Ha’Am was aiming for!
The aim of Zionism for Ahad Ha’Am’s Cultural Zionists, then, wasn’t necessarily the creation of a Jewish state. Zionism was intended as a vehicle to revive Jewish culture and spirituality in a way that would ensure the Jews of Europe preserved Judaism. And while he wasn’t totally opposed to the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, he thought it was generations away from being viable; in contrast to Herzl, Ahad Ha’Am didn’t really see the urgency. But three events in rapid succession tilted the balance in favor of Herzl’s vision:
- The First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897. Herzl led the kickoff to the Political Zionist movement, which adopted a four-part platform to guide the Zionist project. Herzl wrote in his diary, “in Basel I created the Jewish state.”
- Herzl’s 1902 book Altneuland (“Old New Land”). A utopian novel about a Jewish traveler who finds himself in the Jewish state in Palestine, which has become a thoroughly modern Western nation, cosmopolitan, technologically-advanced, and with equal rights for Jews and non-Jews alike. The book inspired Jews around Europe to take up the Zionist cause, as they could envision how beneficial this future Jewish society would be. Ahad Ha’Am criticized Herzl for aspiring to create just another European state, rather than one with an explicitly Jewish character.
- The Kishinev Pogrom in April, 1903. Egged on by Christian authorities who accused Jews of the blood libel (murdering Christian children to use their blood in making matzah for Passover), locals murdered 49 Jews and destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses. The pogrom led to an increased sense of urgency regarding the precariousness of Jewish life in Europe, thus strengthening the Zionist Movement.
Ultimately, though, both Herzl and Ahad Ha’Am got things right, and got things wrong. Herzl didn’t get that the Jewish state needed to go beyond the political to embrace Jewish culture, tradition, history, and meaning in order to inspire the Jewish people. Ahad Ha’Am didn’t appreciate the urgency of the situation, or of the need to build practical steps towards creating a homeland.
- Ahad Ha’Am’s given name was Asher Ginsburg, but like many Zionists and early settlers he changed it to Hebrew. His name means “one of the people”.
- In 1898 Herzl visited Eretz Yisrael for the first and only time in his life. He went to Jerusalem to meet with Kaiser Wilhelm II to persuade the monarch to support the Zionist cause. Herzl later noted that the Kaiser didn’t say yes, but also didn’t say no.
- Herzl’s 1902 book Altneuland (“Old New Land”) was translated into Hebrew and given a new title: Tel Aviv. Tel (meaning an ancient hill) and aviv (meaning spring) conveyed an image of restoration and renaissance. Later a new city built along the beach would be given the same name.
- The 1903 Kishinev pogrom was so traumatic that the New York Times called it a “horror…beyond description.” President Theodore Roosevelt mentioned it in his 1904 State of the Union Address.
NAMES TO KNOW
- Ahad Ha’Am: early Zionist leader and thinker from Odessa, Ukraine. Ideological father of Cultural Zionism, which saw the Jewish state as being built on secular Jewish traditions, culture, and history. He believed that the future homeland should be a small colony whose function is to inspire the Jews to embrace their Judaism, thus preventing its moral decline.
KEY CONCEPTS TO KNOW
The idea that the future Jewish homeland should serve as a spiritual center for Jews and Judaism — and not just as a place for Jews to live — is what we call Cultural Zionism. In re-establishing the Jewish homeland, it ought to be specifically Jewish, that is, reflective of the secular traditions, history, and culture of the Jewish People so that Judaism itself can flourish. Zionism, then, is the opportunity to reconnect Jews to Judaism through language (Hebrew) and culture, and it requires only some small settlements in Palestine, not necessarily an entire state.
In what has been called the most significant gathering of Jews in nearly two millennia, the First Zionist Congress was held on August 29, 1897, in Basel, Switzerland. The Congress launched Zionism into the forefront of Jewish life (though many Jews were still opposed) and solidified Herzl’s leadership of the movement. Its agenda and subsequent “Basel Program” platform expressed the goals of Political Zionism, “to establish a home for the Jewish people in Palestine secured under public law”, and included efforts such as promoting Jewish settlement, strengthening Jewish awareness, and beginning the necessary diplomatic and political efforts. The Congress continued to meet; the World Zionist Organization which began in 1897 still exists today.
Political Zionism and Cultural Zionism are the two big branches of the Zionist tree at the turn of the century. Though Herzl and Ahad Ha’Am each got some things right and some things wrong, it was the integration of these two seemingly-competitive ideologies that formed the kind of nation and society that Israel is today. Herzl led the Zionist movement until his death in 1904, and was responsible for galvanizing public opinion, and political and financial support, for the drive to create a state. But Ahad Ha’Am understood that the long-term vision of a Jewish state had to include secular Jewish culture as a source of inspiration and meaning, and to arrest what he saw as the moral decline of Judaism in Europe.