Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Reviewing: Rebels in the Holy Land: Mazkeret Batya-An Early Battleground for the Soul of Israel by Sam Finkel (2012) Hardcover. 460 pages. Philipp Feldheim. ISBN-10: 1598268619. $24.99.

The modern Jewish settlements are always in the news today. But I would like to tell the story of an early Jewish settlement founded in 1883.

The background to the early Jewish settlements was a wave of pogroms in Russia in 1881, which made most of Russian Jewry realize they had no future there. Of the two million Russian Jews that left Russia over the next few decades, 90 percent came to America. But a small portion went to Palestine.

Historians characterize the first wave of these Russian Jewish settlements in Palestine as “The First Aliyah.” These settlements spanned the years 1882-1903. The settlements from 1904-14 are referred to as “The Second Aliyah.”

A tremendous misconception is that all the early settlements were founded by secular Jews. It is true that the Second Aliyah was mainly a secular one, and this aliyah formed the basis of Israel’s secular, socialist character. But with regard to the First Aliyah, almost all of the settlements were established by Orthodox Jews. A fascinating book came out in 2012, entitled “Rebels in the Holy Land: Mazkeret Batya—An Early Battleground for the Soul of Israel,” by Sam Finkel. This book tells the story of one of these early settlements founded by Orthodox Jews from Russia. As this book stresses, these were Orthodox Jews with beards and payot!

This is a must-read book. It is both easy to read and extremely well-documented with extensive photographs. I am now going to summarize its story.

In 1882, a few Orthodox Jews in a small town in Russia were presented with a proposal. Baron Edmond de Rothschild in Paris was willing to support their establishment of a farming colony in Palestine. These Jews were already farmers in Russia. These men agreed to separate from their families for an extended period, and make the arduous trek to Palestine and start from scratch. They ended up establishing the sixth Jewish agricultural settlement in Israel. It was initially named Ekron, but a few years later, Rothschild renamed the settlement Mazkeret Batya, in memory of his mother.

Like all books, this book has heroes and villains. The heroes are Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, Yechiel Brill and Baron Rothschild.

Rabbi Mohilever was the chief rabbi of Radom (near Warsaw). He was deeply concerned about the mass exodus to America due to the lack of a Torah environment there. In 1882, he organized a society whose goal was for Jews to take concrete steps to establish a presence in Palestine.

In the summer of 1882, he traveled to Western Europe to garner support for his society. He first visited Vienna and Germany but failed to win over anyone of importance. His next destination was Paris. But being exhausted, he took some time off to relax at a spa in Germany.

Coincidentally, influential journalist Yechiel Brill happened to be at this spa. Brill had established the newspaper Ha-Levanon in Jerusalem in 1863. He later relocated to Mainz and was publishing the paper there. After the pogroms of 1881, Brill began writing about the idea of sending professional Jewish farmers to colonize Palestine. Brill urged Rabbi Mohilever to send a group of experienced Jewish farmers to Palestine to build farms and infrastructure and send for their families later.

Mohilever continued on to Paris but initially had no success at getting financial support. Coincidentally, he ran into Brill there. Brill then had the idea of meeting with the chief rabbi of Paris, who was close to Rothschild, and he convinced the chief rabbi to arrange a meeting between Rothschild and Rabbi Mohilever.

Mohilever wrote a detailed description of the meeting and the dvar Torah he gave. In my view, this was one of the most important divrei Torah ever given! (I will not reveal it, but it began with the question of why Moshe had a speech impediment.) The persuasive dvar Torah was able to break down the initial coldness of Rothschild, and Rothschild agreed that if a few farmers would be willing to come to Palestine, he would be willing to help them financially. This represented a major shift in Rothschild’s thinking. Prior to this, he had not been supportive of the idea of colonizing Palestine.

The author writes that the Mohilever-Rothschild meeting lasted only 30 minutes, half of which was consumed by the translator. But this meeting changed the course of Jewish history. Over the next several decades, Rothschild ended up providing significant financial support not only to this group, but also to many of the other early Jewish settlements.

The agreed-upon plan was for 10 Russian farmers to be selected and then trained at the Mikveh Israel agricultural school, which had opened in Palestine in 1870. After the training, Rothschild would help the farmers acquire their own land. The potential historic impact of the venture was obvious to all. If successful, it would serve as a model for future colonies in Palestine for the oppressed Jews of Russia. Shortly thereafter, 10 farmers from the town of Pavlovka were selected. On Parshat Lech Lecha in 1882, a contract was signed, outlining everyone’s obligations.

Brill agreed to accompany the men to Palestine, temporarily abandoning his family. He felt obligated to ensure that the 10 men made their transition safely. When he arrived at the train station, 11 men appeared! The added man was one who had left farming and had become a melamed. He was not someone Brill would have chosen. But the 10 needed him along so that they could correspond with their families, as they did not know how to write.

The journey was a long one, and many severe challenges arose along the way. When they finally arrived in Alexandria, Brill was able obtain papers that made it appear that the men were born within the Ottoman Empire. The Turkish government had recently issued a ban on Russian Jews settling in Palestine. Brill taught the men how to reply in Arabic when asked their names and city of origin. But when they arrived at the port in Jaffa, the inspectors realized that these were Jews from Russia and refused them entry! The men got back on board and attempted to enter again at the next stop, Haifa. After many complications, they were successful in entering there.

One villain in this book is a man named Shmuel Hirsch. He was the head of the Mikveh Israel agricultural school. He continually made things difficult for the farmers, including feeding them bread that was only fit for animals! He was from Western Europe and was not Orthodox. He could not relate to these Orthodox Jews from Russia and was not interested in the grand plans that Brill, Mohilever and Rothschild had for these men.

Brill eventually received a letter from his family in Mainz. His wife had not been able to pay the rent for six months. His creditors had confiscated his printing press and the housewares. His children had been expelled from school because of failure to pay tuition. His daughter and his wife were in need of medical care. Shortly thereafter, in 1883, he was forced to return to his family.

Meanwhile, the farmers needed a plot of land and Hirsch was not making proper efforts to find one. The men were threatening to return to Russia. Rothschild sent a telegram that he did not want these men to return to Russia under any circumstances. He realized that if these experienced farmers returned to Russia, no Jew from Russia would ever think of doing something like this in Palestine again.

Eventually, Hirsch let the Russians search for their land by themselves and they found a barren piece of land that was suitable for their needs near the Arab village of Aqir. Since they were not Ottoman citizens, the land could not be registered in their names. It was registered in the name of a French citizen and later transferred to Rothschild. In November of 1883, they finally began to plow on this land.

The book continues with the story of what happened in the Shemita year of 1888-1889. The settlers of Mazkeret Batya felt obliged to let the land rest. They were relying on the psak of the rabbis from the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem. But Rothschild and his men supervising the settlement had different ideas. They wanted the land to be worked in some way and wanted the settlers to rely on the heter granted by Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor of Lithuania. A large portion of the book deals with the conflict that ensued and the difficulties the settlers faced when they stood their ground.

I have only given a very brief summary, but it is very inspiring to learn about the hard work and struggles of these early Jewish pioneers. I highly recommend this book!

By Mitchell First

 Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected].



For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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