Zionism for the people


Asher Ginsberg, the influential Zionist thinker better known by his pen name Ahad Ha'am ("One of the people"), died in 1927, long before the state of Israel had come into being. No one can know what he would have said about the nature of the political Zionism that triumphed in 1948 and about the state that it built.

That is convenient, as it allows Ahad Ha'am to be admired and even claimed as a supporter by a swathe of people across the Jewish political spectrum. As a "cultural" Zionist whose vision was to build not a state but a kind of cultural hub, and as someone who had harsh things to say about the Zionist movement's ignorance of Palestine's Arabs, his work attracts today's post-Zionists and critics of Israel.

But he was nonetheless a Zionist who upheld the land of Israel as the Jews' ancestral home and, as such, there are streets named after him in Israel today.

Reading the beautiful Words of Fire: Selected Essays of Ahad Ha'am, (Notting Hill Editions, £14.99) we can at least understand why those who hold a wide range of views on Zionism would wish to embrace him as one of their own.

Even reprinted from decades-old translations into English, as these essays are, Ahad Ha'am's prose sparkles with clarity and insight.

He had harsh things to say about the Zionist ignorance of Palestine's Arabs

His love for both the Jewish people and for humanity as a whole shines through. Who wouldn't want him on one's side?

As a critic of today's Israel, Brian Klug, who introduces and edited the collection, emphasises Ahad Ha'am's commitment to justice and his "prophetic" criticisms of political Zionism.

But he also wishes to "release" Ha'am from the label of "cultural Zionist" in order to highlight the breadth of his vision and his writing.

It is indeed a very special essayist who can make now obsolete controversies seem vivid and relevant to our day. One example of this is the essay Nationalists and the Diaspora, which contests the "Diaspora nationalism" of Simon Dubnow in a manner that reveals fresh ways of thinking about today's Diaspora-Israel relationship.

This collection is part of specialist essay publisher Notting Hill Editions' series entitled The Classic Collection. Others in the series include William Hazlitt and Oscar Wilde.

It is a fitting tribute to Ahad Ha'am that someone who wrote for a tiny audience in a language that, at the time, very few people spoke, should be elevated to this pantheon.

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