||A biography of Achad Ha'am by Nathan Birnbaum (1864-1937), who used the pseudonym Mathias Acher. Nathan Birnbaum was born in Vienna, and lived there from 1864-1908, and again from 1914-21. In 1882, together with two other students in the University of Vienna, he founded “Kadimah,” the first organization of Jewish nationalist students in the West. In 1884, he published his first pamphlet, Die Assimilationsucht (“The Assimilation Disease/Mania”). He founded, published and edited Selbst-Emancipation! (“Self-Emancipation!”) (1884-1894), a periodical promoting “the idea of a Jewish renaissance and the resettlement of Palestine,” which incorporated and developed the ideas of Leon Pinsker. In 1890, Birnbaum coined the terms “Zionist” and “Zionism,” and, in 1892, “Political Zionism.” In 1893, he published a brochure entitled Die Nationale Wiedergeburt des Juedischen Volkes in seinem Lande als Mittel zur Loesung der Judenfrage (“The National Rebirth of the Jewish People in its Homeland as a Means of Solving the Jewish Question”), in which he expounded ideas similar to those that Herzl was to promote subsequently.
Birnbaum played a prominent part in the First Zionist Congress (1897) and was elected Secretary General of the Zionist Organization. However, he and Herzl developed ideological differences. Birnbaum had begun to question the political aims of Zionism and to attach increasing importance to the national-cultural content of Judaism.
Birnbaum eventually left the Zionist movement and later became a leading spokesman for Jewish cultural autonomy in the Diaspora. He stressed the Yiddish language as the basis of Ashkenazi Jewish culture and was chief convenor of the Conference on Yiddish held in Czernowitz, Bukovina, in 1908. This was attended by leading Yiddish writers, and proclaimed Yiddish as a national Jewish language. Birnbaum propagated his ideas in writing and by lecturing in many Jewish communities.
In the years preceding World War I he gradually abandoned his materialistic and secular outlook, eventually embracing full traditional Judaism. He may be seen as the forerunner of the modern Baal Teshuvah movement. His most famous book of this period was Gottesvolk (“God’s People”) first published in German and Yiddish in 1917 (translated into English in a shortened form by J. Elias in 1947 titled "Confession"). In 1919, he became the first Secretary General of the new Agudath Yisrael Organization.
Dissatisfied with the spiritual complacency of the religious masses, he initiated a movement, the Order of the Olim (“[Spiritual] Ascenders”), to consist of small groups of people dedicated by their way of living to raising spiritual awareness within the larger Jewish society, thus leading toward a Jewish spiritual renaissance. (See Divrei Ha-Olim: “The words of the Olim,” 1918, in Hebrew, Yiddish and German). Disturbed by the urbanized focus of Jewish life, he promoted the establishment of agricultural communities and other groups living a style of Jewish life more in conformity with nature. Settlement in Eretz Israel was to be for the prime purpose of fulfilling the spiritual role of the Jewish people. (See Im Dienste der Verheissung: “In the Service of the Promise,” 1927).
He lived in Berlin from 1912-1914, and again from 1921-1933. After the rise of Nazism, he left Germany for Scheveningen, Netherlands, where he edited Der Ruf ("The Call"), a platform for his ideas. He died there in 1937.
Ahad Ha'am (the pen name of Asher Ginsberg) was born in Skvira, near Kiev in the Ukrainein 1864. Asher Ginsberg became the central figure in the movement for Cultural or Spiritual Zionism. Although raised in a hasidic family, Ahad Ha’am was soon exposed to secular studies. The impact of modern philosophy and the sciences led him to abandon his religious faith and observance. Nonetheless he remained deeply committed to the Jewish people. It was his attempt to find a synthesis between Judaism and European philosophy.
He joined the Hovevei Zion Movement but he soon became a severe critic of its settlement activities preferring instead cultural work for a Jewish regeneration. He established the elitist Bnei Moshe, a sort of secret society which he proposed should focus on transforming the Hovevei Zion group into a movement for the Hebrew language and cultural revival.
His visits to Eretz-Israel in 1891 and 1892 convinced him that the Zionist movement would face an uphill struggle in its attempt to create a Jewish National Home. In particular he warned of the difficulties associated with land purchase and cultivation, the problems with the Turkish authorities and the impending conflict with the Arabs. He criticized Herzl for his quasimessianic schemes and warned of the disillusionment that would follow Herzl’s failure.
Ahad Ha’am believed that the creation in Eretz-Israel of a Jewish cultural center would act to reinforce Jewish life in the Diaspora. His hope was that in this center a new Jewish national identity based on Jewish ethics and values might resolve the crisis of Judaism.
Ahad Ha’am influenced a generation of young Zionists, most particularly in Eastern Europe that included Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Chaim Weizmann, and Micha Josef Berdyczewski. Although he moved to London in 1907 to serve as the agent for the Wissotzky tea company, he continued his Zionist work, playing a part in the securing of the The Balfour Declaration. In 1922, he arrived in Eretz-Israel to spend the last five years of his life in Tel Aviv. He died in 1927.