Book Review: Rebels in the Holy Land: Mazkeret Batya – An Early Battleground for the Soul of Israel by Sam Finkel (Feldheim Publishers, Second Edition 2015, 471 pages)
Reviewed by Devorah Talia Gordon
While little has been written about the First Aliyah period (1882-1903), most people assume the early pioneers in Israel were non-religious, eager to build a society based on the secular “Enlightenment” ideology. In Rebels in the Holy Land, author Sam Finkel introduces us to the real first settlers – deeply religious Jews.
“The settlers of Mazkeret Batya were made of unique material, combining great love for the Land of Israel, fear of Heaven, and an unyielding determination to settle the land. It is difficult to find any parallel to them anywhere else in the country,” writes Mordechai Naor, in Sefer le-Mazkeret Batya-Ekron – Me’ah Shanim ha-Rishonot (Rebels, p. 231).
These eleven Orthodox farmers, from the tiny hamlet of Pavlovka (in White Russia) were handpicked in 1882 to establish the sixth Jewish agricultural colony in the Land of Israel (initially named Ekron). Since Baron Edmond de Rothschild was a supporter of the colony, among many others, he renamed it Mazkeret Batya when he visited in 1887, in memory of his mother Batya Rothschild.
Part One of Rebels focuses on the founding of Mazkeret Batya, including the selection of the farmers, the difficult journey from White Russia to the Land of Israel, and the immigrant families getting acclimating to the Land. While packed with information, at times the details made the reading a little too slow, as I was eager for the farmers to arrive in the Land.
Part Two, and the crux of the book, “The Farmers Wage War Against the Baron,” deals with the decision of the settlers of Mazkeret Batya to keep shemittah in the year 1888-1889, which “sparked a passionate debate” throughout the Jewish world. Here the pace speeds up, in line with the story, and the controversy keeps the reader fully engaged. Even though heterim were available, these pioneers refused to rely on them. They chose instead to keep the mitzvah to the fullest, as determined by the Jerusalem Rabbinate, even at risk of angering their benefactor, Rothschild. “Shemittah without the Baron’s safety net would be a fearsome endeavor, notwithstanding the Torah’s assurance of God’s blessing. They had large families to feed and were just barely getting by, even with the added financial support of the Baron. (p. 175)”
Although they were simply trying to uphold the Torah law as they understood it, the farmers were scorned and ridiculed by some, yet supported and admired by others, such as Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, Rosh Yeshivah of Volozhin, and Rabbi Mordechai Gimpel Yaffe. Finkel does an outstanding job here – and throughout the book – of presenting diverse sides of arguments. Finkel does not wish to be dogmatic, but rather to appeal to a wider audience: secular, religious, and anyone in between.
Part Three chronicles the final years of Mazkeret Batya, including the struggle of the pioneers against the Baron’s anti-religious administrators, the maskilim making headway into the country and the modernization of the schools, and the resulting secularization of the colonies and Palestine. One also learns of the remaining years of the main players in the book, including their descendants and the legacy they left behind.
The book is rounded out with ten appendices of rich information, including more details of Pavlovka, how “shtetl Jews” became farmers, profiles of Ekron’s first rabbis, and a look at the early newspapers of the era, which were highly influential in shaping the opinions of tens of thousands of people about aliyah to Palestine.
History buffs will relish the jam-packed book, while laypeople will learn a tremendous amount about a little-known period. Author Sam Finkel writes in his disclaimer: “This book may have many references and endnotes, but don’t be fooled. I am not a historian…. I am really a storyteller and a collector.” Finkel explains that the endnotes (an impressive number: 521) are to clarify to the reader that he did not fabricate any of the information or leave things out, since this period of Israeli history is misunderstood and often distorted. But Finkel’s skill as a storyteller and collector is most pleasurable; the pages are chockfull of photographs, maps, letters, stamps, photos of documents, newspaper headlines, and the like, which bring the story to life. Most fascinating are the photographs of the settlers themselves juxtaposed to the modern-day photographs of their great-great grandchildren and their families.
In his afterword, Finkel poses the question – why did the farmers of Pavlovka settle in Palestine? After all, they had prosperous farms in Russia, and Palestine was a challenging place to be – undeveloped, plagued with disease like malaria, and other issues. While one historian posits that the Jews were idealistic, loved the Land of Israel and yearned to fulfill the agricultural mitzvos there, others disagree. According to Dr. Yerakh Tzur, the farmers were running from economic difficulties and anti-Semitism in Russia. Yet while most escaped to America, they chose Israel, and they left on short notice with no plan B to fall back on.
Finkel takes the side of idealism, but offers, “perhaps the truth is somewhere in between.” He leaves it to the reader to imbibe all he presents in this tome and make his own decision, the mark of a good book.