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Arthur Ruppin (1876-1943): The Early Zionist Land Purchaser

There are many streets named “Ruppin” in Israel. There are also many buildings named after him, such as one at Hebrew University. Who was he?

He was born in Germany, but in 1908, became the director of the “Palestine Office” of the Zionist Organization—in charge of the organization’s land purchases in Eretz Yisrael in its critical early decades. He is widely recognized as the founding father of Zionist settlement.

In Germany, his family was very poor. At fifteen, his family’s poverty forced him to leave school and work in the grain trade for several years. He succeeded there. He was later able to study law, philosophy and economics at the university level in Germany. He was very gifted intellectually. From 1902 to 1907, he worked in the court system. He then became interested in the sociology and demography of the Jews. In 1904, he published a study on this topic. This work based its conclusions on demographic and statistical analysis, instead of the propaganda that had governed previous views of the Jews.

Beginning in the early 1900s, while in Germany, he began to think of himself as a Jew and decided that the Jews needed to reconstitute themselves as a nation elsewhere. As he confided in his diary at this time, there were only two choices: “Zionism or complete assimilation.” In 1905, while still in Germany, he joined the Zionist Organization.

1907 was the year of the Eighth Zionist Congress, where a key decision was made. It was decided that it was not enough for the organized Zionist movement to proceed only with “Political Zionism,” with international efforts to obtain a charter for the Jews to settle in Eretz Yisrael. To give further background, “Political Zionism” had been the approach of Herzl, who died in 1904. Herzl had rejected the idea of the organization buying land and settling people in the land without a “charter.” He characterized such immigration as “infiltration.” Of course, there were Jewish individuals buying land in Eretz Yisrael. Our issue is how the Zionist Organization was going to spend its money.

At the Eighth Congress, it was decided that “Practical Zionism” (land purchase and settlement) needed to be undertaken as well and would further the goal of “Political Zionism.” The new philosophy was “Synthetic Zionism,” with concurrent action on both tracks. The movement realized that this was a good plan because the “practical” settlement would help achieve the “political” results, i.e., you need to show the world positive agricultural work that you have accomplished in order to convince them that you deserve more rights. Moreover, the settlement of your population helps define your future borders.

Accordingly after the Eighth Congress, the Zionist Organization hired the young sociologist Ruppin to go to the land of Israel and investigate the possibilities for development of agriculture and industry there. After his time in the land in 1907, he decided to move there. No matter how successful he had been in Germany, he always felt like an outsider. In Eretz Yisrael, he could create and shape something new.

In 1908, he opened the “Palestine Office” of the Zionist Organization in Jaffa to direct the purchasing of the land and the establishment of the settlements. His work shaped the direction of the various waves of Jewish immigration over the next several decades. A leading scholar on Zionism has written: “No better man could have been selected. For more than three decades, he showed an astonishing measure of foresight, initiative and humanity in all his actions … Jewish settlement in Palestine owes more to him than to anyone else.”

Ruppin chose Jaffa for the office for a variety of reasons. It was closer to the settlements that had already been set up in the northern section of the country. It was also where some of the wealthiest Arab landowners came to enjoy the nightlife, and potentially to make land deals.

As Amy Marcus has written: “When Ruppin needed to check out the site of some land he wanted to buy or drop in on one of the settlements he was supporting, or quietly meet a prospective landowner who he heard might be willing to sell some of his properties to Jews … it was easier to get a train, hire a horse or secure a berth on a small ship headed to Beirut from Jaffa than from virtually any other city in Palestine,” (see Amy Dockser Marcus, “Jerusalem 1913”).

Marcus also explained: “Ruppin had made a point almost from the very beginning of staffing the Palestine Office mainly with Jews who were Ottoman citizens and native Arabic speakers … He firmly believed that … it was almost always better to send a native Arabic speaker to negotiate on behalf of the Palestine Office. So many of the tensions between Jews and Arabs, Ruppin was convinced, grew out of simple miscommunication … (Native Arabic speakers) knew how to get along with their neighbors; they were usually able to close a deal, or—if not—to leave matters in a cordial way to be discussed another day.”

When Ruppin realized that it would be impossible for him to travel to the far-flung Jewish settlements except by horse, he taught himself how to ride. His long trips on horseback throughout the country helped him learn the terrain.

Ruppin became the chief Zionist land agent. Among his many accomplishments, he helped to get a loan for Ahuzat Bayit (which later became Tel Aviv), and acquired land in Haifa on Mount Carmel, in Afula, in the Jezreel Valley and in Jerusalem.

Ruppin changed the paradigm of settlement to be the collective and cooperative kibbutzim and moshavim that became the backbone of the state. He came up with this idea after a workers’ strike at a private settlement. He was not a socialist but this type of structure helped maintain the goodwill of the workers. Ruppin was involved with the planning of the first kibbutz, Degania, as well as helping to organize Kinneret, Merchavia and many other settlements. Later, he worked with Yehoshua Henkin in the purchases of large tracts of land in the Galilee.

Ruppin foresaw earlier than others did that it would be the Arabs—and not the Turks—that would be the main obstacle to the Jewish plans. It was Ruppin’s idea to focus Jewish land-buying in areas that were close together—rather than scattered—so that they would be easier to defend. Ruppin was among the founders of the Brit Shalom movement in 1926, which supported a binational state, but he changed his mind after the 1929 Hebron massacre. He headed the Jewish Agency from 1933 to 1935, and helped settle the large numbers of Jewish immigrants from Germany, who began to come at this time and in the years thereafter.

In 1926, Ruppin began to teach at the Hebrew University and, eventually, founded the Department for the Sociology of the Jews. Ruppin died in 1943. He is buried in Degania Alef. Much of his writing survives: e.g., speeches, diaries and letters, giving us clear expressions of his views and their evolution. (Some of his views were controversial.)

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. Unlike Ruppin, he has not trained himself to ride horses.

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