Zionist thinker Ahad Ha-Am, Tel Aviv, ca. 1920s. Photograph by Avraham Susskin. (YIVO)

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Ahad Ha-Am

(1856–1927), Zionist thinker. Born in Skvira, Ukraine, Ahad Ha-Am (born Asher Ginzberg; Heb., more properly Aḥad ha-‘Am, a pen name that translates as “One of the People”) was a Hebrew essayist of singular power and authority, a Jewish nationalist leader who publicly eschewed politics while seeking to fundamentally change the priorities of Zionism and, more broadly, the Jewish people as a whole. Although his impact on Hebrew culture was extensive, his political imprint was equivocal.

Ahad Ha-Am’s essays, collected mostly in the four-volume ‘Al parashat derakhim (At the Crossroads; 1895–1914), remain among the most influential ever written by a modern Jewish intellectual. Generally regarded as the preeminent philosopher of Zionist thought, his influence was felt well beyond the movement itself. Many of the leading figures in twentieth-century Judaism credited him as a prime inspiration, including Israel’s first president Chaim Weizmann, Hebrew University chancellor Judah Magnes, poet Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik, Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem, and theologian Martin Buber.

Ahad Ha-Am was raised on a rural estate belonging to his wealthy Hasidic family. A child prodigy, he was self-taught in secular subjects and was able to read Russian, English, French, and German as a young adult. He broke with Hasidism in his adolescence, albeit discreetly at first. Gravitating toward the Haskalah, by the mid-1880s he had embraced the proto-Zionism of Ḥoveve Tsiyon, the central governing body of the Zionist movement. He married at the age of 17 (his wife, Rivke, was descended from distinguished Hasidic forbears), and in 1886 he, his wife, their children, and his parents settled in Odessa, where he remained in the family business with his father.

Ahad Ha-Am immediately assumed a leading position in Jewish nationalist affairs. He was elected to the executive committee of the Odessa Committee of Ḥoveve Tsiyon—chaired at the time by Leon (Lev) Pinsker—and emerged as the intellectual mentor of a small but ambitious group of young maskilim intent on gaining control of the organization and redirecting it toward cultural rather than philanthropic concerns in Palestine. To promote this agenda, Ahad Ha-Am wrote his first significant essay, “Lo zeh ha-derekh” (This Is Not the Way) in 1889. Immediately he was recognized as an original, even commanding, voice in Hebrew letters. It was in this essay that he first used his pen name.

This first essay was soon followed by other widely circulated pieces—deceptively spare, often quite brief writings that spoke with authority and reflected a mesmerizing clarity of thought. These included “‘Avdut be-tokh ḥerut” (Slavery in Freedom; 1891) and “Emet me-erets Yisra’el” (Truth from the Land of Israel; published in installments in 1891 and 1893). Ahad Ha-Am was indisputably the outstanding intellectual and also the prime critic of Ḥoveve Tsiyon. When Theodor Herzl captured center stage in the Zionist movement in 1896, Ahad Ha-Am was responsible for much of the dissent directed at Herzl. The Democratic Faction, which represented the locus of opposition against him within the Zionist movement, was deeply influenced by Ahad Ha-Am.

Ahad Ha-Am worked his influence—especially in the 1890s, when he was at his height as a political figure in the Zionist movement—in three different yet overlapping spheres. First, he acted in open political opposition as leader of Ḥoveve Tsiyon (following Pinsker’s death in 1891, for a short period Ahad Ha-Am was the presumed head of the movement). Second, he served as the sequestered leader of the semi-secret society Bene Mosheh (Sons of Moses)—launched in 1889 and disbanded in 1898—which sought to recast Zionism in a fundamental manner. Third, he was a preeminent Hebrew writer and (as of 1896) the editor of Ha-Shiloaḥ, the leading Hebrew journal of the day. By the time he assumed editorial responsibility for Ha-Shiloaḥ, he had lost his fortune. Stepping down in 1902, he was hired by the Wissotzky tea company, first in Russia and then in 1907 in London, where he remained until his move to Tel Aviv in 1921.

Ahad Ha-Am led a mostly sedentary existence. After having lost his bid for leadership of Ḥoveve Tsiyon, he made his public impact felt primarily through the work of a small, intimately connected entourage—essentially the same group of devotees (Elḥanan Leib Lewinsky, Yehoshu‘a Ravnitski, Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik) he had met and befriended in Odessa. In appearance Ahad Ha-Am was slight, with reddish hair and a large head. He spoke softly in a calm, often sardonic voice. Often giving the impression of being shy, he was easily offended and avoided most opportunities to speak in public. On the whole, his public presence as a speaker was not mesmerizing, but he had the ability to persuade listeners—as well as many readers over the course of several decades—of his rare, even singular, Jewish authenticity, akin (in the minds of his most devoted followers) to that of an ancient prophet.

Ahad Ha-Am’s intellectual influences were eclectic and included Naḥman Krochmal, Herbert Spencer, John Locke, Perets Smolenskin, and Piotr Lavrov, among others. He drew on them in ways that were not systematic from a philosophical standpoint but were nevertheless deeply compelling to an eager, generally unschooled yet intellectually voracious constituency. He formulated a philosophy of history that constituted an agenda for Judaism’s future, one that, with minor alterations, was already in place by the early 1890s. Inspired by the Jewish Enlightenment and the social optimism of European liberalism, it promised Jewish authenticity shorn of theology, yet animated, as he saw it, by features even more enduring.

Termed cultural or spiritual Zionism, Ahad Ha-Am made the case that it was culture (as first embodied in statecraft in ancient Israel and later in rabbinic law or Jewish philosophy) that had held the Jewish people together throughout a complex, peripatetic history. Certain features remained paramount: a firm belief in leadership based on intellect, uncompromising honesty, and a commitment to justice. Central was an abiding preoccupation with the land of Israel as the focal point of Jewish life. Also crucial was Judaism’s belief in the centrality of ethics. Jewish history reflected a dexterous, principled series of accommodations, a successful exercise in creative integration, in which Jews absorbed the best from other cultures while emphatically making one of their own.

As was true of Zionism as a whole, cultural Zionism was motivated by crisis, with assimilation, not antisemitism, looming largest. Overwhelmed as Jews now were in the West—and, increasingly, elsewhere as well—by the reality or prospect of political emancipation and its promise of integration, what needed to be addressed was this challenge without, however, rejecting modernity. However, the latter had to be absorbed in ways that would not undermine Judaism, and therefore had to be experienced in a Jewish land and a Hebrew-speaking milieu, in which the values of modernity would be absorbed into a Jewish framework. Initially intellectuals or, at the very least, culturally alert Jews, would come to Palestine to build its cities and cultural institutions. Soon other Jews would settle there, too, constructing an economically viable community and eventually a political entity. This community, in turn, would have a vigorous, salutary influence on Jews elsewhere; it would constitute a “spiritual center,” transforming Judaism from a moribund faith into a vibrant national culture.

Ahad Ha-Am arguably wielded his greatest impact in the 1890s and the first years of the twentieth century. In one of his more influential essays dating from 1904, “Shilton ha-sekhel” (Supremacy of Reason), he utilized his understanding of the teachings of medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides to highlight how at the core of work and at the center of Judaism down through the ages were ongoing, persistent values: spirituality over materialism; genius over political dexterousness; a hierarchy of learning, not a leadership of the wealthy.

Such arguments became increasingly less persuasive. Younger Jews in Eastern Europe and Palestine found Ahad Ha-Am’s prescriptions narrow and even arbitrary. Important writers such as Mikhah Yosef Berdyczewski and Yosef Ḥayim Brenner criticized his insistence on stark distinctions between what was and was not Jewish, as well as his preferences for nonfiction over fiction and rationalism over irrationalism. His distant, often condescending stance toward Yiddish; his open disdain for socialism; his disparagement of the prospect of serious, longstanding political cooperation in Russia between Jews and non-Jews of the sort embraced by many Jews in 1905; and his continuing criticism of the priorities pursued by those favoring colonization in Palestine—all garnered him much opposition as well.

To the extent to which Ahad Ha-Am’s work continued to exert political influence, it was largely with reference to Arab–Jewish relations in Palestine. He was the first Zionist of importance to emphasize the darker side of this relationship, a theme that became increasingly central to his work in the last two decades of his life. Arguing that what others saw as mere skirmishes between Jews and Arabs were threats to the nationalist enterprise launched by Zionists, he maintained that this resistance had to be taken into account when formulating realistic goals. In “Emet me-erets Yisra’el,” Ahad Ha-Am had made the case that the brutal treatment of Arabs as meted out by some Jews could, if not stopped, ruin the prospects of Zionism and rob it of its moral standing and legitimacy. The significance he gave to the issue placed it, at least tentatively, on the Zionist agenda. He would later serve as an inspiration for the binationalist movement—headed by Judah Magnes, Gershom Scholem, and others—who no doubt overemphasized their indebtedness to him to lend their radical ideas a respectable pedigree.

Ahad Ha-Am’s personal life was uneventful. Except for his active years in Bene Mosheh in the late 1880s and early 1890s—when his closest friends were also his most trusted allies and their involvement with one another was truly intense—he lived a rather isolated existence despite his hunger for an ongoing, substantial public role in Jewish life. He relationship with his wife was outwardly correct and distantly affectionate; his relationship with his son, Shelomoh (later a senior administrator at the Hebrew University) was, by all accounts, chilly, and he cut off all relations for decades with his daughter, Raḥel, when she married a non-Jew. Perhaps his closest, most trusted friend was the distinguished Jewish historian Simon Dubnow, who shared Ahad Ha-Am’s deep commitment to Jewish nationalism (itself influenced by their many discussions), but who was never a Zionist. Once Ahad Ha-Am had abandoned Odessa for London in 1907, his routine became increasingly more restricted. His most vigorous period of political activity was in the years leading up to the Balfour Declaration of 1917, when he was a confidant of Chaim Weizmann.

Ahad Ha-Am suffered from nervous disorders for many years. His insomnia was persistent and often debilitating (when he had moved to Tel Aviv, the mayor—devotee Me’ir Dizengoff—closed his street to traffic so Ahad Ha-Am could take his afternoon nap). Despite his residence in the country for a decade and a half, his relationship with English Jews was limited to a small group of young followers including Norman Bentwich and Leon Simon, who later wrote Ahad Ha-Am’s biography.

Ahad Ha-Am never completed a much-anticipated book on Jewish ethics (it is uncertain whether he even actually began it). His teachings were consolidated in ‘Al parashat derakhim and in a six-volume collection of his letters, edited by Yoḥanan Pograbinsky, titled Igrot Aḥad-ha-‘am, which appeared between 1923 and 1925. During his lifetime his works were widely translated into German, Russian, English, French, and other languages. He had a major impact on some of the most creative Jewish religious and communal thinkers in the United States (Mordecai M. Kaplan, Samson Benderly), on public and cultural discourse in Palestine and Israel (Mosheh Glickson, the founding editor of Ha-Arets, the leading liberal newspaper, was a devotee and his first biographer), on the Federation of Hebrew Writers, and, perhaps most resolutely, on generations of schoolchildren in Israel, where he became best known as an exemplary craftsman of Hebrew.

Ahad Ha-Am was most persuasive as a critic. At the same time, he provided a lucid, compelling framework for a self-consciously ethical, postliberal Jewish political terminology. His insights on the prospects for a modern Jewish culture were primarily not predicated on religion but rather on a deep, candid relationship to the past in its religious as well as secular aspects. Ahad Ha-Am’s ideas continue to exert a disquieting influence.

Suggested Reading

Yosi Goldshtain, Aḥad ha-‘Am: Biografyah (Jerusalem, 1992); Yosef Gorni, Zionism and the Arabs, 1882–1948, trans. Chaya Galai (Oxford and New York, 1987); Arthur Hertzberg, ed., The Zionist Idea (Philadelphia, 1997); Dan Miron, Bodedim be-mo‘adam (Tel Aviv, 1987); Shalom Ratsabi, Between Zionism and Judaism: The Radical Circle in Brith Shalom, 1925–1933 (Leiden, 2002); Yosef Salmon, Religion and Zionism: First Encounters (Jerusalem, 2002); Mel Scult, ed., Communings of the Spirit, vol. 1, The Journals of Mordecai M. Kaplan, 1913–1934 (Detroit, 2001); Leon Simon, Ahad Ha-am, Asher Ginzberg: A Biography (Philadelphia, 1960); Steven J. Zipperstein, Elusive Prophet: Ahad Ha’am and the Origins of Zionism (Berkeley, 1993).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 713, Herman Bernstein, Papers, 1897-1935 (finding aid).