Commentary Magazine


Elusive Prophet, by Steven J. Zipperstein

“One of the People”

Elusive Prophet: Ahad Ha’am and the Origins of Zionism.
by Steven J. Zipperstein.
University of California Press. 411 pp. $35.00.

Like other creations of the postwar era, Israel has recently been shaken by sweeping political changes. The decline of the socialist ethos, the retreat from state ownership of industry, the rise of militant religious parties, mass immigration from the former Soviet Union, the opening of direct negotiations with the Arab world—these and other factors have broken up the fragile national consensus forged in the generation of David Ben-Gurion, and have forced the opening of debate about national purpose and identity.

It is a time when a nation naturally looks back to the convictions of its founders in order to sort out its future. Yet, unhelpfully, the history of Zionism is long on ideology and short on ideas. There is no lack of the kind of absolute political positions over which controversies rage, commissions are formed, and parties endlessly splinter and recombine. Yet genuine political ideas which possess conceptual nuance and cultural depth, and which can be returned to periodically for perspective on the present moment, are in short supply.

It is unfortunate, then, that the name of Ahad Ha’am, the greatest purveyor of serious ideas in the Zionist tradition, should arise so infrequently in the current discussion. Ahad Ha’am, which in Hebrew means “one of the people”—a shrewd choice for one of the great aristocratic elitists of modern Jewish life—was the pen name of Asher Ginzberg (1856-1927), a Hebrew essayist whose legacy is called cultural or spiritual Zionism. He was distinguished from political Zionists (the followers of Theodor Herzl) and from the early socialist pioneers both in the depth of his background in Jewish classical learning and in his rootedness in the English political thought of Mill and Spencer rather than in the writings of Russian revolutionaries. In Israel today, Ahad Ha’am is one of those cultural monuments that gather more dust than readership.

That this neglect is regrettable is made abundantly clear in Steven J. Zipperstein’s new book. It has always been difficult to separate what Ahad Ha’am actually said from the small stock of slogans that came to caricature his thought. The essays in which he presented himself to the world are not systematic presentations but elliptical and allusive performances, polemical responses to controversies in the public arena. The essays are profound and elegant, but their inspiration is almost always occasional; without knowing the occasion it is often hard to get the message.

The linguistic obstacles are also formidable. Ahad Ha’am wrote in an original Hebrew style that distilled the many historical layers of the language; his work remains accessible to the educated Israeli but not without effort. But because Hebrew was not yet spoken at the time, Ahad Ha’am’s life, in all its public and private aspects, took place in Russian and Yiddish, and his intellectual horizons were shaped by reading in German and English.

Zipperstein does an excellent job in guiding us across this polyglot cultural map. Ahad Ha’am’s life spanned the formative stages of Zionism—the proto-Zionist Hovevei Zion movement, Herzlian diplomacy and mass-movement politics, and the behind-the-scenes negotiations leading up to the 1917 Balfour Declaration—and Zipperstein adroitly illuminates the controversies that provided the stimulus and context for the big ideas enunciated in the essays.

What were those ideas? Ahad Ha’am differed with his great antagonist Theodor Herzl not over tactics but over the fundamental analysis of the so-called “Jewish question.” For Herzl, the problem was the safety of European Jewry, and the solution was a territorial refuge. For Ahad Ha’am, it was the profound crisis provoked by Judaism’s encounter with modernity, which, by vitiating the inner coherence of Jewish life, had put the people’s survival in jeopardy.

Ahad Ha’am saw no solution to the demise of religious culture in the socialist Zionism propounded by the leaders of the Jewish settlement in Palestine. The wholesale negation of Diaspora Judaism and the creation of a new culture that was rooted in the this-worldly values of labor and land could not, to his mind, sustain the spiritual needs of the nation. Nor did it have anything vital to say to the great majority of Jews who would never live in the Land.

Instead, Ahad Ha’am argued for the development of a modern national Jewish culture which would be informed by the deep ethical insights of Judaism, with its allied traditions of learning and literary creativity as embodied in the Hebrew language. This national culture would be lived in its purest form by a vanguard in the land of Israel, and would serve as a model enriching the lives of Jewish communities throughout the world.

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There is much to be said about this vision, and about the question of its relevance today. But before addressing that issue I should point out that perhaps the major contribution of Zipperstein’s life of Ahad Ha’am is to elucidate not so much what the master said as what he did. Ahad Ha’am is usually pictured—and certainly pictured himself—as a retiring sage who periodically emerged from his study to make a statement of great import to the nation. Zipperstein convincingly demonstrates that he was in fact a political infighter of great acuity, who was never for a moment unengaged in the fractious national movement. Attending political meetings, he confessed in a letter written later in life, was an addiction from which he never managed to wean himself.

In the struggles for power in the Zionist movement Ahad Ha’am was at a disadvantage because he advocated a gradualist politics and an elitist cultural idiom. Lacking the mass base Herzl had won by appealing to the messianic sentiments of East European Jewry, he had to compete by different methods.

To leverage his power, he drew on his great strength: the production of ideas. In particular, his conception of Zionism as a higher stage in the development of Jewish civilization rather than as a revolutionary break with the past had special authority for the circles around Chaim Weizmann, whose work proved critical to the success of the nationalist cause. In Ahad Ha’am’s writings, Weizmann and his generation found a cultural vision they could obtain neither from the Herzlian politicians, whose Zionism was a response to post-emancipatory anti-Semitism in Western Europe, nor from the socialist worker-intellectuals.

Yet the reverential esteem in which Ahad Ha’am was held by many of his contemporaries cannot in the end be explained by the ideas alone, which were often vague and ill-suited to the actualities of the movement. To account for the phenomenon, Zipperstein invokes the model of the hasidic rebbe and his court, and suggests that the figure of Ahad Ha’am inspired the same kind of worshipful devotion in many of the nationalist intellectuals of the time.

Given the sternly rationalist tenor of Ahad Ha’am’s thought, this would seem to be an unlikely frame of reference. As a boy, however, Ahad Ha’am had in fact been deeply absorbed in the spiritual world of Hasidism. Although he later rejected it in favor of the Enlightenment, it was relatively easy for him, Zipperstein argues, to assume the role of the revered sage who believed utterly in the truth of his own teachings and who, while suffering himself to be admired by the many from afar, felt most at home among the small circle of disciples in his drawing room in Odessa. In Ahad Ha’am they for their part found their “rabbi,” and willingly made his utterances into a new scripture.

Finally, peeking out from behind the folds of this carefully cultivated mystique are glimpses of a man and his family who were at times deeply troubled. Throughout his life, Ahad Ha’am was visited by a mysterious “nervous illness” that robbed him of sleep and prevented him from working. During the final years of his life, which he spent much-honored in the new city of Tel Aviv, he was so debilitated by insomnia and the drugs he took to combat it that he could barely leave his bed. His wife was similarly afflicted, and one of his daughters ended up spending her life in a sanitarium.

Although Zipperstein resolutely refuses to become his subject’s psychoanalyst, he provides enough pathogenic material—what Ahad Ha’am’s parents did to him and what he went on to do to his own children—to sustain future biographers so inclined.

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What, then, of the relevance of Ahad Ha’am’s vision today? One problem with that vision, besides its studied fuzziness, is that it did not own up to the enormity of the painful discontinuities in Jewish life created by the collapse of religion, but rather sought to paper over them with vague appeals to an elusive “national spirit.” In the decades since Ahad Ha’am wrote, those disjunctions have, if anything, become more acute for many Jews, while for others the rise of a new and more militant religiosity has created fresh disjunctions of its own. Nonetheless, Ahad Ha’am’s approach had and still retains the huge advantage of taking the heritage of Jewish culture—including Jewish religious culture—seriously, and creating a Zionism which addresses the needs of the Jewish people as a whole.

Looking at Israel today, and considering the rich weave of cultures that have emerged after the breakup of Ben-Gurion’s assertive and monolithic statism, one is tempted to say that in some respects Ahad Ha’am, the forgotten “elusive prophet,” has had the last laugh. Certainly for many Jews around the world, Israel itself has come to serve as a spiritual center that informs their lives. Meanwhile, within Israel, there is a palpable yearning for a new articulation of Jewish national culture, one that might somehow bring together the fractious subcultures of the state. Perhaps the time has come, then, to give Ahad Ha’am another look.

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