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10 Years in Kfar Blum

Eretz Yisrael: In the Past and Present

David Ben-Gurion in Jewish History

The Most Important Jew of the 20th Century

David Ben-Gurion
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Jewish-Greek Tragedy During the Holocaust

In Memoriam: Moshe Kerem

Why Does Habonim Dror Still Matter?




Vol. LXVI, No. 6 (638)

Eretz Yisrael
in the Past and Present

Geography, History, Legal Status, Population, Agriculture, Commerce and Industry
by D. Ben-Gurion and Y. Ben-Zvi
with three maps and 80 photos of Eretz Yisrael
Published by POALE-ZION PALESTINE COMMITTEE, New York, 1918.

Reviewed by David Rosenthal

In 1918, a Yiddish book by David BenGurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Eretz Yisrael in the Past and Present, was published in New York by the Poale Zion Palestine Committee.

In 1979 — long after Ben-Gurion served as Israel's first prime minister and six years after his death — a Hebrew translation of this scholarly work was published in Israel. Its publication in Israel at that time was no accident.

Eretz Yisrael B'Avar u'Behoveh, as the book is titled in Hebrew, is a central text of the Labor Zionist movement, focusing on the history, geography, legal relationships, population, economy, trade, and industry of Eretz Yisrael. Translated from the Yiddish by David Niv and edited by M. Eliav and Y. Ben-Arieh, it expresses the basic ideas underlying all of Ben-Gurion's and Ben-Zvi's activities from the time they settled there. They then believed that Zionism could be understood only in a two-tiered context: as part of the contemporary Jewish situation and against the backdrop of Jewish history.

For the authors, Zionism meant that the Jewish people would return to Eretz Yisrael and root themselves in a life of work and creativity. In the realization of this historic process, rare opportunities would reveal themselves in the fields of economics, science, and social relationships. The main source and inspiration of this national Jewish consciousness was the Tanakh.

For that reason, the authors showed their readers Eretz Yisrael through the prism of the past; the more complete our knowledge of the biblical past, the deeper would be our connection to the land. Many years later, Ben-Gurion spoke of this connection to the past in relation to two famous statements of political Zionism — Autoemancipation, written in 1882 by the Polish-born Leon Pinsker, and Der Judenstaat, published in 1896 by Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism.

Said Ben-Gurion: "I do not underestimate the value of Autoemancipation and Der Judenstaat. But this source," he said (referring to a connection with the land), "was not awakened by Pinker's brochure, in which Eretz Yisrael is not even mentioned, nor by Herzl's Judenstaat, which was not necessarily based on Eretz Yisrael."

Continuing the same train of thought, BenGurion said he always loved the great Hebrew poet and storyteller Chaim Nachman Bialik, following him since childhood "like a fanatic."

But he added that young people born in Israel no longer found in Bialik "what they find in the Bible.... The Bible speaks to their heart from every field.... If you are in the Negev, you know father Abraham walked there." This idea runs like a basic thread through all six parts of the book, which depicts — on a wide canvas of almost 500 pages — the developments that took place in Eretz Yisrael: life in all its phases and all its interconnections with ancient Jewish history.

A bit of history is necessary to understand the genesis of this important book. When World War I broke out, Ben-Gurion and BenZvi appealed to those Jews in Eretz Yisrael who had come from Russia to adopt Ottoman nationality. The leaders of the young Israeli community hoped that, by doing so, these Jews could avoid the harassment that would befall people "suspected of cooperating with the enemy."

The advice failed to protect them, however, from the wartime decree of Ahmed Jamal Pasha, commander of the Turkish military forces in Syria and Palestine. Pasha ordered them deported permanently for "security reasons," forcing these "condemned enemies" of Turkey to leave for the United States.

In May 1915, they arrived on American shores after a monthlong journey aboard a decrepit Greek ship. In their shabby clothes, Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi went through the interrogation common to all new immigrants.

Upon their arrival, they were welcomed by members of Poale Zion, who, nevertheless, were taken aback by the red Turkish fezzes these new comrades were wearing and immediately removed the conical hats from their heads. It would have been politically unwise for two Zionist leaders from Palestine to appear in the streets of New York looking like Turks. The hats eventually found a more suitable place in the Poale Zion store that sold costumes for the annual masked balls sponsored by the organization.

Very soon after their arrival, Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi divided up the territory between them, each choosing to visit a number of states for the purpose of organizing Hechalutz (Zionist pioneer) groups. The results were disappointing. For months, Ben-Gurion traveled from citv to city. speaking to near-empty meeting halls and collecting negligible sums for Poale Zion's weekly publication. Here and there, candidates signed up for the pioneer groups, but their numbers were small. One of them was a young woman from Milwaukee named Golde Mabovitz, later to be known as Golda Meir.

The Poale Zion Party and the shlichim (emissaries) from Eretz Yisrael tried various ways of spreading the Zionist message, a task that became especially urgent with the publication of Britain's Balfour Declaration, when political necessity demanded a mass Jewish response. For Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi, the realization of their dream seemed connected to the printed word; thus, they struck upon the idea of publishing a book about the history of Eretz Yisrael.

Having decided on that course, Ben-Gurion began spending 13 hours a day in the New York Public Library. He was also a frequent visitor to the Library of Congress and other centers of documentation. Poale Zion's Central Committee allocated the munificent sum of $10 a week for Ben-Gurion to accomplish his work.

After more than a year of intensive research, the book was published. In the foreword, the authors state:
"The Jews have sung the praises of their country, but they didn't actually know it too well. Jewish scholars, savants, researchers, and learned men spent very little time studying and writing about Eretz Yisrael. All the significant books about the Land of Israel, with the exception of a few older works which now have no more historical value, are the fruit of Christian scholars who wrote mainly for Christian readers.

"They were primarily interested in Palestine as the birthplace of Christianity — and they treat Eretz Yisrael from a theological point of view. All of post-Biblical Jewish literature — the Talmud, the midrash, the commentaries and the responsa, which contain invaluable treasures of raw material for the history and geography of Eretz Yisrael — is, for 99 percent of the Christian scholars, a closed book."

The authors of Eretz Yisrael in the Past and Present set themselves the task of filling this gap. The great virtue of the work is that it has no trace of polemic, no attempt at ready-made answers, no recipes for solving troublesome problems. Instead, the authors give us facts based on historical background and statistics, often with comparative tables, as they reflect real life.

It is amazing that two people could collect and arrange such a wealth of material under such difficult circumstances. Even in normal conditions, such an undertaking is customarily carried out not only by authors and editors, but by a staff of research assistants. The bibliography lists about 200 references, and the book also includes a glossary of Arabic-Turkish words used throughout the text.

Love of Eretz Yisrael and the dream of the return to Zion radiate from the factual material in this book. Also given eloquent expression are the ideals of Labor, the emphasis on agriculture and the farming population. The authors note that long after the destruction of the Second Temple — and even after the defeat of Shimon Bar Kokhba, leader of the Jewish revolt against the Romans in the second century C.E. — large masses of Jews still tilled the soil of Eretz Yisrael.

In the wars and uprisings, many cities were ruined and many communities destroyed, but the farm population could not be wiped out so easily. Under foreign oppression, city dwellers — the propertied and educated classes — chose to leave their homes and migrate to freer countries such as Babylonia. The Jewish peasant, however, like peasants the world over, would not leave his land so quickly, for it was land developed by his sweat and that of his parents.

The conclusion of the book contains historical facts that establish the "denationalizing" of Eretz Yisrael. The authors ask us to remember that after Bar Kokhba's fall, "Rome and Byzantium held on to Palestine for 500 years (136 C.E. to 636 C.E.), but neither the Romans nor the Byzantines made Palestine their national homeland, an organic part of their national existence."

Likewise, the book says, the Arabs and Egyptians, who reigned over Palestine for about 880 years — from 637 to 1517 — "never had organic ties to the land." During their rule, it continues, the cradle of Arab nationality remained in the great expanse of the Arab peninsula.

And when it came to the Turks, who ruled from 1517 to 1917, the authors tell us that they "were even less integrated into the country than the Arabs." After a 400-year reign, Turkish culture and the Turkish language remained as foreign in Palestine as they were 400 years earlier.

"The denationalization of Eretz Yisrael resulted in a state of affairs where the country lay in ruins and desolation," the book says. "And the land waits for the Jewish people to come and repair and restore its old home."

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