Rebels in the Holy Land


Rebels in the Holy Land
By Sam Finkel
460 pages
Reviewed by Toby Klein Greenwald

Sam Finkel, inspired by what he learned when visiting the Eran Shamir Village Museum of Mazkeret Batya during a tour guides course, spent five years researching and writing a work of nonfiction that reads like a historical novel—the stuff that epic films are made of, with personalities larger than life, where religion, power, conflict and struggle against the elements all figure into the plot.

It is an encyclopedic work. One is tempted to just read the main text, so as not to stop the flow of adventure, but some of the most succulent details are in the sidebars in the margins, the 521 footnotes, the 435 photographs and illustrations and ten appendices with captivating behind-the-scenes stories.

Most people are accustomed to thinking that Israel’s earliest pioneers were secular socialists, but that was not the case. This extraordinary book describes in vivid detail the saga of Mazkeret Batya’s pious founders and their religious struggles.

In 1882, thirteen years before Herzl wrote about the concept of Zionism, and fifteen years before the First Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland, a group of ten successful farmers (and one melamed) left their families in the White Russian village of Pavlovka and traveled 1,520 miles to create a new agricultural community in the Holy Land.

Pogroms had swept Russia in 1881, but anti-Semitism was not new, and as early as 1871, Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, the chief rabbi of Radom, Poland, wrote, “Don’t you see the hand of God in all that has occurred to us?. . . A voice calls out and proclaims, ‘Children, return to your homeland!’”

Rabbi Mohilever put his words into action. In 1882 he organized the first local chapter of the Chovevei Zion movement in Warsaw. While traveling in Europe to raise support for the movement, he met Yechiel Brill, editor of the Hebrew-language newspaper Ha-Levanon, who shared his vision. Brill introduced Rabbi Mohilever to Rabbi Zadok Kahn, chief rabbi of France and the spiritual advisor to Baron Edmond de Rothschild.

The two of them, joined by Michel Erlanger, a leader of the Alliance Israelite Universelle who had attempted previous colonization activities in Palestine, walked for three hours on Sukkot to the Baron’s palace on the outskirts of Paris; it was the only time he would meet with them.

Everyone, including the women and children, worked hard in the fields; home furnishings and food were simple and sparse. There was malaria and trachoma; people died. Others went blind.

Rabbi Mohilever’s impassioned pleas caused the Baron to shift his thinking regarding Palestine, but he wanted to know that the Russian farmers would eventually be able to support their families without his help. He decided to start with a small group known as the Mikveh Israel colony; it would be the test case for future colonies.

These are the bare bones of the beginning of the settlement in Mazkeret Batya (originally called Ekron), but it was wrought with uncertainty and risks. Two previous attempts, in Petach Tikva and Gei Oni (Rosh Pina), were floundering.

Eleven men, representing families of 101 people, were interviewed and chosen for the mission. Deeply religious, they saw this as an opportunity to perform the mitzvot associated with the Land of Israel.

But the relationship between the settlers of Ekron and the Baron was not an easy one. There were postponements, misunderstandings and an unfriendly host, as the Turks were not interested in an influx of Russian Jewish immigrants. It appears that many of the misunderstandings between the colonists and the Baron were the result of a lack of timely communication.

A clause in the contract between the settlers and the Alliance stated that on the homestead, “Alliance officials in Mikveh Israel may intervene in our personal affairs only when it comes to matters between man and his fellow man. But in matters between man and God, they have no right to intervene . . . We will abide only by the directive of those who are halachic authorities . . .” But who would those “halachic authorities” be?

That question would arise in the future.

The difficulties of the journey, the harsh conditions at Mikveh Israel, the near-death of one of their members, the wait for farmable land and finally, the Baron’s instructions to help the men find land, as promised, so as to prevent their return to Russia (which would have deterred others from coming), were all part of the drama.

Simcha and Mina Kurchevsky, heads of the hachnasat orchim society in Mazkeret Batya. Photo courtesy of Eran Shamir Village Museum, Mazkeret Batya

Simcha and Mina Kurchevsky, heads of the hachnasat orchim society in Mazkeret Batya. Photo courtesy of Eran Shamir Village Museum, Mazkeret Batya

After many disappointments, the farmers found fields near the Arab village of Aqir, hence the name Ekron. There were more hurdles due to the Turkish ban on European Jewish immigration and land purchase. It was finally purchased through a Paris-based charity, approved by the Ottoman authorities and later transferred to Rothschild.

A joyful telegram dated November 6, 1883, announced that the Russian farmers finally began plowing the land. Only in 1885 did the rest of their families relocate from Russia to Ekron. Since it was difficult to obtain licenses for human housing, the early settler families lived in barns.

The settlers of Ekron were passionate about everything they did—their farming, their religion, their dedication to becoming and remaining independent and self-sustaining. Everyone, including the women and children, worked hard in the fields; home furnishings and food were simple and sparse. There was malaria and trachoma; people died. Others went blind.

Kalonymus Ze’ev Wissotzky, an Orthodox Jew who was a tea merchant active in the Chovevei Zion movement, visited them in 1884 and wrote, “A beauty and trembling grandeur hover over wheat stalks robed in majesty—for they realize that they are the product of sons [the settlers] whose souls yearned to eat of the table of their Father in Heaven . . .”

They prayed. They had two Mishnah study groups. When they had a siyum, “their joyous sounds could be heard for miles.” They were proud to perform the Blessing of the Kohanim every day, as is the halachah in the Land of Israel.

Ultimately, the farmers prevailed over Bloch. “But they had paid a heavy price—in poverty, illness and the loss of the good will of the Benefactor [the Baron].”

But the religious Russian farmers and the semi-assimilated administrators of the Baron did not always see eye to eye. The administrators would complain, for example, that the farmers were taking too much time for prayers. The Baron would reply, “Serve the Lord, our God, with all your hearts’ desire, and take as much time with your prayers as you wish . . .”

These and other conflicts between the settlers and the Baron’s administrators among the colonies grew with time. There was a rebellion in Rishon L’Tzion, which was resolved when the Baron paid a visit to Palestine. Then the Baron came to Ekron, whose settlers turned out in holiday clothing and received him like a head of state. He kissed the Torah scroll they held, went to the synagogue and said Kaddish for his mother there. He examined the fields, which gave him great joy. Ultimately, he renamed Ekron “Mazkeret Batya,” in memory of his mother.

Serious trouble began in 1887 when the Baron appointed Alphonse Bloch to be his chief colony administrator for the district of Yehudah, which included Mazkeret Batya. Dr. Yisrael Klausner, in his book From Kattowitz to Basel, describes Bloch as, “a tough, brazen man—a man of limited education, contentious and a liar.” Finkel describes the degrading agreement Bloch tried to impose on the farmers of his district, in which they would have to sign all their possessions over to the Baron, giving them the status of hired laborers and making them subservient to the authority of his administrators. The farmers refused to sign, believing it would absolve all the previous commitments to them.

What ensued was a battle of wills between Bloch and the farmers.

Mazkeret Batya and Shemittah
There was bitter dissent over the shemittah issue that evolved beyond a halachic question into a struggle between worldviews; Finkel describes the pioneers as “trapped in the crosshairs of history.” At first, the Baron seemed to support their desire to keep shemittah. The previous shemittah, there were religious settlers in Petach Tikvah who planned on keeping it, but due to malaria most of them had to abandon their land. The Mazkeret Batya shemittah was the first real test case.

In May of 1888, the Baron visited Rabbi Shmuel Salant, the head Ashkenazic rabbi of Jerusalem, who ruled that shemittah should be properly observed.

By October, the Baron, apparently fearful that all of their hard agricultural work would be for naught, tried to convince Rav Salant to change his mind. He didn’t, and the Baron enlisted the help of Rav Zadok Kahn, who turned to Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor of Kovno, Lithuania. Rabbi Mohilever also met with great rabbinic authorities in Warsaw, Rav Yehoshua Trunk and Rav Shmuel Zanvil Klapfish, who disagreed on the extent to which selling the land to gentiles released the land and its produce from shemittah laws. They reached a compromise: land sold to gentiles could be worked on by Jews, but only agricultural labors that were rabbinically forbidden during shemittah (as opposed to those prohibited by the Torah) could be performed. A few days later, Rabbi Spektor issued a historic, more restrictive decision, stating that only non-Jewish laborers could perform rabbinically prohibited labors. This became known as heter mechirah. The ambiguity in the first ruling, and the lack of definitiveness in Rabbi Spektor’s, only caused more confusion among the farmers. In addition, the Baron now appeared to have reversed his earlier agreement pertaining to the laws of shemittah. Members of the Old Yishuv rumored that he had been misled by his anti-religious administrators. Later, a letter from one of the Baron’s associates led people to think that a rabbinic carte blanche had been given to continue working the fields, whereas Rabbi Spektor had specified that they should be worked by non-Jews. The issue caused friction among the farmers, who hotly debated among themselves.

The religious settlers of Mazkeret Batya. Photo courtesy of Eran Shamir Village Museum, Mazkeret Batya

The religious settlers of Mazkeret Batya.
Photo courtesy of Eran Shamir Village Museum, Mazkeret Batya

Finkel writes, Unlike most of the pioneers of the First Aliyah, the farmers from Pavlovka were hybrids. On the one hand, they were involved in agriculture and development of the Land of Israel. On the other hand, they did not share the nationalistic agenda of the Chovevei Zion movement and were not attracted to Haskalah thought . . . They weren’t interested in creating a new Jewish society; they were content to recreate the Lithuanian shtetl they had left behind, albeit in the Holy Land, with all its religious requirements.

Ironically, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, secular editor of the Ha-Zvi newspaper, had supported keeping shemittah in 1882, hoping that would help him gain support among the Orthodox for his nationalistic ideas. But in 1889, he urged his readers to support the heter mechirah and called Rav Salant the “enemy of the New Yishuv,” sinister foreshadowing to the mix of politics and religion that exists in Israel today.

The shemittah controversy “galvanized many Orthodox European Jews against the aliyah movement,” writes Finkel, thus morphing a halachic issue into an ideological flashpoint. The Jerusalem rabbis promised the Mazkeret Batya settlers a year’s supply of bread if they did not rely on the heter and issued a call to Jews throughout the world to help the settlers financially. Many of the Jews of Palestine were already barely existing on the monies brought in through the halukah. Would requests for more funding sabotage the goal of creating a self-sustaining society in the Holy Land on the cusp of the twentieth century?

Finkel writes, “The Baron made it clear he had no intention of coercing the Ekronians into working the fields during shemittah against their religious beliefs. Yet Bloch kept telling them—in the Baron’s name—that they had to go back to work.”

Ultimately, the farmers prevailed over Bloch. “But they had paid a heavy price—in poverty, illness and the loss of the good will of the Benefactor [the Baron].”

“The complicated legacy of Mazkeret Batya’s stand would fuel controversy over the shemittah issue for generations to come,” writes Finkel.

Finkel cites all sides of the shemittah controversy—and all the conflicts—through a copious record of the rabbinic opinions. This evenhandedness results in a book that is not demagogic, but a valuable historical resource.

Later, there were major conflicts over schooling. The Baron believed in a spiritual renaissance in the Land of Israel, but his administrators transformed the cheder into a modern school. There was a vast gulf between the philosophies of the parents and those of the dedicated, modern teachers, hired by the administrators, who contributed to the secularization of the children.

The question regarding whether or not the Pavlovka farmers and their families would have left White Russia for the Holy Land had they known what awaited them—including some of their children leaving the religious fold—is rendered moot by history. On November 2, 1942, the Jews of Pavlovka were all murdered by the Nazis. “Many of them shared family names with the pioneers of Mazkeret Batya,” writes Finkel.

Look up “Mazkeret Batya” on YouTube. You will find a documentary clip of pioneers in 1913, and a 63rd Israel Independence Day clip of young gymnasts who live in Mazkeret Batya today. It is unlikely that they are descendants of the founding families, and the original pioneers would have undoubtedly been disappointed by their revealing gymnast outfits. But these young people are alive and well and living in the Holy Land. Someday, they will discover their own reasons to rebel.

Listen to Sam Finkel on Israel’s early religious pioneers at ou.org/rebels.

Toby Klein Greenwald is an educator, a journalist, award-winning director of Raise Your Spirits Theatre and the editor-in-chief of WholeFamily.com.

This article was featured in the Fall 2013 issue of Jewish Action.
We'd like to hear what you think about this article. Post a comment or email us at ja@ou.org.