Aug 20, 2017

Book Review: Rebels in the Holy Land

NOTE: I was not paid to review this book. It is an unbiased and objective review. If you have a book with Jewish or Israel related content and would like me to write a review, contact me for details of where to send me a review copy of the book.

Book Review: Rebels in the Holy Land, by Sam Finkel
 

The premise of Rebels in the Holy Land is that the history of the First Aliyah of Jews to the Land of Israel largely ignores the contribution and participation of the religious element. The First Aliyah took place during the late 19th century and was agricultural in nature as Jewish farmers from Russia immigrated to the Land of Israel (called Palestine at the time under the rule of the Ottoman Turks) and established agricultural communities. The First Aliyah was largely funded and supported by Baron Edmond de Rothschild.

Finkel explores the history of the religious element of the First Aliyah through the story of the establishment of the farming community of Ekron, later renamed Mazkeret Batya (in memory of the mother of Rothschild), and produces a fascinating story. Rebels in the Holy Land begins with the search in Russia for Jewish farmers willing to move to Palestine and establish a community there. 11 Jewish farmers made the cut and the book follows their arduous journey and challenging experiences on the way to Palestine, and in Palestine in the founding of the community.

Rebels in the Holy Land is chock full of pictures of the various people involved, along with ancient maps and images of the relevant people and places. All the main Jewish newspapers of the time are described and reports from those papers are included. The history is researched thoroughly and we are given much detail about the day to day life of the farmers and their struggles; their successes and their failures.

As you read through this piece of history you will be amazed by the names of famous personalities that were somehow involved in this experiment in one way or another - from Rothschild to Rabbi Mohilever to Rabbi Shmuel Salant, to Rabbi Yitzchak Elchonon Spektor to Eliezer Ben Yehuda to Ahad Ha'Am and on and on.

The second half of Rebels in the Holy Land focuses on the struggle the community had with the approach of the first shemitta they would experience. The struggle focused on if and how to keep shemitta. The religious farmers intended to keep shemitta to the fullest, but found their benefactor  to be less interested despite previous agreements. In this recounting we learn how the famous hetter mechira came about and who supported it and who opposed it. It seems to shed some light as to why the issue of hetter mechira is such a fractious and heated issue even to this day. The community of Mazkeret Batya insisted on keeping shemitta to the fullest despite the opposition and the challenges they knew they would face, and the community was nearly decimated because of it. As much as I thought I knew about the hetter mechira previously, after reading this I now realize how little I really know.

The fighting between the community members and the representatives of the Baron left me with questions, such as how much did the Baron really know what was going on? were the reports given to him skewed by his administrators or did he get reports from other sources as well? How could the Baron, who had found such favor in Mazkeret Batya until then - it seemed this was his favorite among all the communities he had supported - suddenly do a 180 degree turn and consider Mazkeret Batya such a problem? Were the people of Mazkeret Batya "double crossed" by both the Baron and his people and by the rabbonim they followed and nearly lost everything because of?

Regardless of my questions, reading Rebels in the Holy Land left me with a sense that I was reading about heroes. These were people who gave up everything to settle the Holy Land and got little more than heartache from everyone around them. There is a certain sense of tragedy as by the end of the book we learn from brief biographies of each of the founding members how things turned out for them. So many of the children became secular as they fell to the influences of the maskilim. This happens all over, but it is particularly tragic to see that after reading about how the parents gave up so much to keep religion involved int heir lives. Alas, this too is a part of the history.

Rebels in the Holy Land is an amazing piece of history that seems to have largely been left out of, or ignored, from the story of Israel and the immigration to it, and the foundations of Israel, as it is is normally told. People interested in learnign about Jewish Palestine and the history of Israel would do well to read this book. People interested in the history of shemitta observance and the hetter mechira would also do well to read this book.

You can buy Rebels in the Holy Land on Feldheim

You can buy Rebels in the Holy Land on Amazon.com

NOTE: I was not paid to review this book. It is an unbiased and objective review. If you have a book with Jewish or Israel related content and would like me to write a review, contact me for details of where to send me a review copy of the book.


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