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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Guest Post: "Israel's Early Pioneers" by Leah Bat-Chaim

"Israel's Early Pioneers" by Leah Bat-Chaim

Batya recently posted an old video from 1913, showing Jewish pioneers farming the land.  I will admit, I've watched the video repeatedly; their enthusiasm is heart-warming.  The first song in the background begins: "With my plow have I earned my happiness," and goes on to describe the joy of growing and harvesting crops "here in our land".  The second song is "Rejoice day and night, heroic Galileans!"

One of the pioneers, seen at 28-33 seconds, and also at the end of the video, is Joseph Trumpeldor, one of the more famous pioneers.  He is seen here helping to push the plow even though he had only one arm.  (He had lost an arm in the Tzar's army in 1904, before coming to Israel).  Trumpeldor and seven other kibbutz members lost their lives while defending the village of Tel Hai in northern Israel in 1920.  Kiryat Shemona - "Town of the Eight" - is named in memory of these eight defenders.

Many of the Israeli pioneers at the beginning of the 20th century were socialists, and it is customary to think of that period of Israeli history ("The Second Aliyah") as the "socialist aliyah".  However, the truth is that most of the Jews who came to Israel, at that time and other times, were not socialists.  Most were middle-class tradesmen (merchants, craftsmen, etc) who concentrated on building a family and making a living (and while doing so - they built Israel's economy too). They weren't "politically active" like the socialists, and therefore the arena was open for the socialists to rewrite history.  The non-socialist majority of the "Second Aliyah" was described a few years ago in an enlightening article (in Hebrew) in the Israeli newspaper "Makor Rishon".

On the other hand, even the socialists were patriotic in those days, unlike today's leftists.  It is interesting to read the memoirs of Rachel Yanait Ben Zvipublished in Hebrew in 1959 as "Anu Olim", and in English translation in 1963 as "Coming Home".  (The book is available used from Amazon for about $15, and might also be available in Jewish libraries.)  She describes her arrival in Israel at the beginning of the 20th century; her travels throughout the Land of Israel, in most cases accompanied by Yitzhak Ben Zvi (whom she later married, and who eventually became Israel's second president); the pioneering Jewish villages that she visited, and the agricultural school that she founded.  There are a few mistranslations in the English version of the book (one of the more glaring ones:  the translator rendered "moshavot", which actually means a type of farming village, as "colonies").   Also, it is written from a somewhat socialist point of view, and in one part is very critical of the "Nili" underground and the Aharonson family who were behind it.  But in general the love of Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) and respect for Jewish tradition and history (even though Rachel was not observant by the time she came to Israel) is felt throughout the book.

But before the "Second Aliyah" there was also the "First Aliyah" (in the 1880's), and before that there was the "Yishuv Hayashan", "the Old Yishuv" i.e "old community", who prepared the infrastructure in the 19th century.  People who concentrate on Israel's recent history, usually beginning in the mid-20th century, are often not aware that there were Jews actively living in the Land of Israel throughout the centuries of exile.  This is described in detail in the book "Twenty Centuries of Jewish Life in the Holy Land" by Dan Bahat.  The book is summarized here; it is available used from Amazon for about $10, and might also be available in Jewish libraries.

There is an excellent book, unfortunately available only in Hebrew, called "Kach Zeh Haya" ("That's How It Was") by Eitan Belkind, whose parents were among the founders of Rishon L'Tzion during the 1880's.  His cousin, Avshalom Feinberg, was one of the founders of Nili.  Avshalom lost his life in the Sinai desert in 1917 while on a mission for Nili.  His bones were found in Sinai, after the Six-Day War, beneath a date tree that the Arabs referred to as "The Jew's Tree", and which apparently had grown from some dates that Avshalom had in his pocket when he died.  Avshalom's bones were reinterred in Israel, with the original date tree transplanted to the new site; and a young palm tree was recently planted at a memorial service for Avshalom.

Belkind describes the Jewish pioneers of the 19th century who established farming villages, including Rishon L'Tzion, Zichron Yaakov, and Petach Tikva.  Today these are flourishing towns in Israel; but the pioneers who built them, purchased empty land at exorbitant prices from absentee Arab landlords (who had mostly received the land as grants from the Turkish sultan).  The land that these Arabs were willing to sell was either malarial swamps (as described in this song, written for Petach Tikva's centennial, and based on a true story), or land where little could be grown (as described in Belkind's book).  It took many years of hard work by the Jewish pioneers, and enormous investment from Jewish philanthropists and from ordinary Jews around the world, to make Israel what it is today.

The Links:
your article of course: http://shilohmusings.blogspot.com/2011/08/land-of-israel-then-1913-and-now.html
Trumpeldor's bio: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/trumpeldor.html
Second Aliyah: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Immigration/Second_Aliyah.html
Rachel Yanait Ben Zvi: http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/ben-zvi-rahel-yanait
Yitzhak Ben Zvi: http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Facts+About+Israel/State/Yitzhak+Ben-Zvi.htm
Nili: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/nili.html
Aharon Aharonson: http://www.zionism-israel.com/bio/biography_aaron_aronson.htm
Yishuv yashan: http://zionism-israel.com/dic/Old_Yishuv.htm
First Aliyah: http://www.moia.gov.il/Moia_en/AboutIsrael/aliya1.htm
Jewish history in Eretz Yisrael:
Eitan Belkind: http://www.gen-mus.co.il/en/person/?id=2493
Avshalom Feinberg: http://www.think-israel.org/pollack.lonepalmtree.html
Winkie's article about the memorial service for Avshalom: http://myrightword.blogspot.com/2009/05/memorial-ceremony-for-avshalom-feinberg.html
Rishon L'Tzion: http://www.rishonlezion.muni.il/eng/Pages/HistoryofRishonLeZion.aspx
Zichron Yaakov: http://www.zy1882.co.il/eng/index.asp?id=1238
Petach Tikva: http://www.zionism-israel.com/photos/PetahTiqva.htm
Yoel Moshe Salomon:
Israel then and now
Israel's accomplishments
Leah Bat-Chaim, from Maaleh Adumim


sara g said...

While testing for the oral English bagrut this year, in a school in Rhishon leTzion, I tested a young man with the last name of Belkind. I asked him if he was from the family of the halutzim. He was, and we had an interesting conversation. He said that most people (his age and even older) do not recognize the name.

Leah, Maaleh Adumim said...

@Sara - how interesting!

Sara Layah said...

fascinating and informative - thanks Leah!

Leah, Maaleh Adumim said...

thanks Sara Layah, glad you liked it!