Founding Father

Arthur Ruppin: Memoirs, Diaries, Letters.
by Alex Bein.
Afterword by Moshe Dayan. Herzl Press. 332 pp. $6.95.

Alex Bein, the editor of this volume, holds that, in the roster of heroes who created Israel, Arthur Ruppin was one of four major personalities who were “the symbol or expression of an entire era.” He stands between Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann in a series that ended in victory with David Ben-Gurion. If so, Ruppin best expresses one cardinal characteristic of the Zionist enterprise: the obscurity and apparent insignificance of the efforts by which Israel was built.

Zionism is one of those movements that has been treated by liberal and cultured opinion with sovereign neglect, benign or otherwise. In the case of an undoubtedly charismatic personality like Herzl, a policy of Todtschweigen, of “ignoring to death,” was deliberately adopted by liberal Jews as a prophylactic method to stifle at birth an obnoxious and possibly dangerous, reactionary development. The leading Central European newspaper, Die Neue Freie Presse, systematically excluded any mention of Zionism during Herzl’s lifetime, even though the leader of the movement wrote a regular literary column for that journal. Other periodicals, not owned and edited by Jewish liberals and unconcerned about damage to the Jewish image, gave considerable publicity to Herzl and his organization—in lampoons and cartoons. Zionism was, indeed, newsworthy and deserved comment; it was an outstanding political joke.

But Zionism turned out to be no joke. It was not stifled at birth but survived, flashing ominously on the horizon from time to time, and always, obscurely and persistently, growing. It repeatedly compelled general attention, but at such odd intervals and in such extraordinary circumstances that hardly anyone whose word counted with the enlightened public had an adequate background for comment. There was, moreover, a special reluctance to deal with a subject where the debate seemed to many liberals to be a family quarrel between anti-Semites and Jewish chauvinists; and this feeling still persists among some contemporary cultural leaders who remain doggedly silent on the whole issue in spite of its significance in our own time.

Although tendentious elements like these contributed to the general neglect of Zionism, one must nevertheless recognize that, objectively speaking, the Jewish nationalist} movement was a minor movement among a small people. If physical scale serves as the measure, Zionism deserves even less notice than it received. There were certainly dramatic global-scale scenes in which modern Jews, including Zionists, played their part, yet these events, no matter what most interpreters might say, were far from being the decisive factors in the creation of Israel. The Zionist triumph was built up by the arduous, petty labors of small men, far removed from center stage in the history of our times.

Israel did not arise because Weizmann, as some disgruntled Britons used to complain, conned Lloyd George into overpaying him for his scientific contribution to the British war effort in World War I. Nor was Hitler’s maniacal Jewhatred the sufficient cause of the Jewish state. Not Herzl’s flair, nor Weizmann’s skill, nor Ben-Gurion’s daring, nor Begin’s harassment, but the labors of men like Arthur Ruppin and his associates built a structure so solid that it had to be recognized as a Jewish state when the chips were down.



If Israel compels all of us to seek to understand it, a task which some may find troublesome enough, it will prove even more trying to discover that a key to such understanding lies in the memorabilia of a modest, rather gray civil servant, technician, and administrator, a man whose major intellectual achievement was in the field of demography and statistics. Readers whose taste is formed by current literature will not be helped (unless they approach him as a study in Camp) by the fact that the hero is a paragon of passé virtues: patient, responsible, sober, incredibly systematic and diligent, humorously realistic and self-deprecating, and yet committed to goals which were not simply ambitious but lofty and humane. Any reader who does succeed in achieving empathy will gain more than an introduction, from an odd, oblique angle, to an understanding of Israel; he will discover a lost world of rational humanism authentically presented in its own inner light.



For Israelis what was most striking in the figure of Ruppin was the ability of a German Jew, a management expert, lawyer, and academic, to work with sensitive understanding alongside the slipshod, romantic, impulsive, raffish, and bohemian Russian types of the Second Aliyah. But their puzzlement reflected a misunderstanding of German Jewry that is equally prevalent in this country today. Ruppin, like a good many other German Jews, hardly fitted the usual stereotype that assumes a polar antithesis between them and Eastern European Jews, the Ostjuden. He was born, in 1876, in the southeastern German province of Posen, in a region with a majority population of Polish peasants. His childhood home was a small town dominated by German burghers but with a relatively dense Jewish population, large enough to produce the near-equivalent of an Eastern European shtetl.

Two or three generations removed from their Warsaw origins, his family had been local notables in a traditional style. His parents inherited wealth and status, but both were rapidly dissipated by Ruppin’s bankrupt father. From the age of six, Ruppin, together with the rest of the family, lived a hand-to-mouth existence of near-pauperism and near-vagrancy not far removed from the style of the impoverished Polish ghettos which he studied professionally in 1903. At fifteen he left school in order to help support his family; and he succeeded so well that after eight years he was able to leave them in comfortable circumstances, with enough to spare for his own support for three years at Berlin and Halle universities.

The Horatio Alger aspect of Ruppin’s life matched the typical experiences of Russian-Jewish immigrants of his time, in Germany no less than in London or New York. He, like many a Russian émigré, matriculated for entrance to the university by passing his exams as a self-taught “external student”; and like many a youth in the immigrant ghettos, he assumed the role of father to a large family of siblings, while his own hapless and dependent father was still alive. Like them he had to find models to identify with other than his own father; and in the circumstances of a young provincial Jew at the turn of the century, both his mother’s staunch traditionalism and the radical Jewishness of some German Orthodox and Russian nationalist Jewish students were highly available models.



Ruppin’s early schooling came at a time when youthful rebellion among Jewish students expressed itself in limited but quite distinct opposition to the Establishment liberalism of their parents. The sixteen-year-old Ruppin was echoing a common view among his peers when, in 1892, he proposed a separate Jewish athletic organization, to the dismay of his liberal rabbi; and his exercises in fencing were typical in a generation which considered it an obligation of honor, both as Germans and Jews, for Jews to defend themselves openly and directly against anti-Semites instead of pretending that this, like all other political matters, should be handled by liberals, not Jews.

The friends he made, who formed his identity, were men he admired for the clarity and firmness of their character as well as their broad culture. Among Jews he mentions most prominently young comrades of Orthodox parentage, although he himself shared the religious laxity of his father and remained essentially agnostic. His most admired models as a young man were Christian friends. One of them, Gustav Wyneken, was a minister’s son who later became famous as a progressive educator, the author of “youth-culture” theories adopted by the German Wandervogel and, following them, by radical Zionist youth groups in Central Europe. In the late 1890’s, when Ruppin was close to such youths, Wyneken like the others was still a student, highly moralistic and puritanical in his personal life, given to mystical moods and idealistic Hegelian philosophizing, and a devout Protestant.

Apart from strength of character, what attracted Ruppin to such pious types—and them to him—was a certain highflown idealism common to both sides. For all his sober, unquestioning acceptance of his father’s lapsed responsibilities, the teenage Ruppin was determined to build himself an ampler, freer life than that of a conventional bourgeois business executive. He intended, like many a romantic youth, to be eminent, and to serve the general good; but he harnessed these fantasies to an enormous capacity to act. He programmed himself with an iron will for larger, more creative tasks, whatever they might turn out to be. Friends like Wyneken cast him in the role of liberator of the Jewish nation or as a socialist leader.



Ruppin found his true vocation in 1904 through the Berlin group of young Zionists—Berthold Feiwel, Davis Trietsch, Martin Buber—who had united in opposition to Herzl. His own Zionism did not come out of a radical conversion, nor did he join them as an unquestioning enthusiast or without long and careful study and many reservations. But the decisive commitment to make his personal life in Zion, taken after a study trip commissioned by the Zionist Executive in 1907, was unreserved and complete. He found there at once the scene in which he could be free and creative, in his own sober, responsible, realistic yet flexibly experimental style.

Among the features of Ruppin’s career which have drawn the attention of readers, and form the main subject of Moshe Dayan’s “Afterword,” were his constant concern with, and changing views about, the proper Zionist policy toward the Arabs. It is a cliché which owes much to self-critical Zionists themselves (including Ruppin, in this book), that the Zionists naively, if not deliberately, overlooked the very existence of Arabs in Palestine. This supposition, considerably exaggerated in its application to any period of Zionist history, is clearly mistaken when it comes to the period after the Zionist Organization undertook seriously a program of practical colonization in Palestine. This development, coming at a time when the Young Turk revolution of 1908 had catalyzed the latent nationalism of the Arabs, forced anyone committed to practical Zionism as a serious strategy to recognize the real dimensions and critical implications of Arab hostility.



What is true about the policy of Zionists toward the Arabs, and most notably about Ruppin himself, is that it always sought to avoid the hard conclusions that had to follow from what was known. Ruppin says, in a letter to Hans Kohn dated May 30, 1928:

In founding the Brit Shalom [a society devoted to the fostering of amicable Jewish-Arab relations], I was guided by the consideration that there is no parallel in history to the aim of Zionism—to settle the Jews peaceably in a country which is already inhabited. Such an entry by one nation into the country of another is known in history only by means of conquest; so far, no nation has ever been willing to tolerate another nation settling beside it and claiming complete equality and rational autonomy. . . . The Brit Shalom was to become the forum to consider and discuss the problem.

But the Brit Shalom wanted to do more than consider and discuss; it wanted to move on to action. At this point Ruppin’s realism compelled him to recognize the unreality of assuming that the Arabs might do what no other nation had yet done.

The task of settling the Jews in Palestine and doing so peaceably remained an unresolved paradox. But it was precisely this paradox to which Zionist policy, long best represented by the humane and (as he notes himself) basically apolitical figure of Ruppin, remained for crucial decades essentially committed. What the Jews built peaceably had in the end to be defended in continual, escalating war. But if they had not built it peaceably it would never have been built; and only because it was built in this way was it in the end physically, not to mention ethically, defensible.



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