A Dangerous Idea

posted in: William Friedman | 0

“There is one thing stronger than all the armies of the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.” –Victor Hugo

“Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it’s the only one we have.” –Émile-Auguste Chartier

Quotation anthologies abound with quotes about the power of ideas. Fewer are those warning against their dangers. Ideas do have power, but their power can be harnessed for ill as well as good, for evil as well as virtue. Lebensraum was an idea. So was Aryan superiority. (Or, for that matter, Aryan.) Ideas have consequences. That we can agree upon, even when our judgment of those consequences differ.

Nineteenth century Russian Jews became enthralled by an idea. Its origins can be traced back at least to the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881when Jews were scapegoated and the so-called May Laws of the following year “decreed that the Jews be forbidden to settle anew outside of towns and boroughs, exceptions being admitted only in the case of existing Jewish agricultural colonies.” That adverb “anew” hints at an earlier time, when Jews could farm the land. The reference to “existing Jewish agricultural colonies” suggests some resettlement had taken place in recent years. In fact, Alexander II had been easing anti-Jewish laws for much of his reign. Two decades of liberalization made the pain of restriction that much more acute. Russian Jews’ desire for what they could not have grew concomitantly all the more intense.

Begun as an emotional longing, the idea was codified and proclaimed by a man of letters and a non-religious, Jewish nationalist. Peretz Smolenskin published the essay, Am Olam (“Eternal People”), in 1881, in which he proposed the creation of Jewish agricultural colonies in the United States and Palestine. He wrote of the “productivization” and “normalization” of the Jewish people through agricultural labor. [Weinstein 28] It was an idea whose time had come, as Hugo said, and it spread.

But ideas blow free on the wind, out of the control of their propounders. They morph, change shape, end up in unlikely places, espoused, sometimes, by the unlikeliest of supporters. That is to say, the emigrants who established agricultural colonies in the United States were by no means all socialists. Their goals, religious and secular, varied. Yet they all seem to have been impelled by the idea that there was dignity to be found in working the land.

That was the idea. The reality was often quite the contrary: humiliating dependency, degrading poverty.

The first group of Russian Jews to respond to the call of Am Olam found nothing ennobling about the swampland they settled forty miles north of Natchez. Their longevity fell far short of “eternal” when a devastating Mississippi flood drove them from Louisiana in their very first spring. Colonies in Kansas, the Dakotas, Colorado, and Oregon fared little better. Accounts include a litany of reasons for their premature demise: drought, scarce water, thunderstorms, flooding, poor land quality, crop failure, excessive mortgage interest rates, communal strife. Yet, the overarching cause of these failures is a lack of agricultural experience and know-how. The idea of going back to the land to live in communal harmony was an alluring one, but its actual achievement elusive.

In 1891, sixteen Jewish families founded the hopefully-named Palestine near the tip in the thumb of Michigan’s mitten. The name of the nearest town might have been more fitting: Bad Axe. Sixteen Russian Jewish families soon found themselves outmatched by the demands of Mother Nature. Infusions of cash from the Baron de Hirsch Fund and the Beth El Hebrew Society of Detroit may have only prolonged the misery. The population dwindled to less than half by the end of the decade and but one family in 1906. The truth is, most of the thirty-one colonies founded in these years, 1880 to 1900, were supported by Jewish philanthropy, a combination of wealthy individuals and philanthropic organizations. The latter were supported by Jewish congregations, also infected by an idea or ideas descended from Am Olam. Combined with emotion, too: they were moved by the plight of their persecuted brethren from the Pale. Both millionaires and the middle class threw good money after bad.

Alliance, New Jersey, was the first successful Jewish agricultural colony in the United States and the longest lasting. Supported financially by both the Alliance Israelite Universelle and the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society,  the colony was founded in 1882 by forty-three Russian families, primarily from Kiev, Odessa, and Elizabetgrad. Alliance Colony descendant Ruth Weinstein reports that the original colonists “spoke no English” and “possessed no knowledge of farming.” They were a mix of intellectuals, artisans, and pious Jews. Tilling the soil in the southern New Jersey Pine Barrens–after first felling the trees–these immigrants were hardly better off than they had been in the Pale of Settlement. None was used to “the long hours of back-breaking work in the fields.” They would not have survived without the philanthropic support of AIU and HEAS or the hired tutorial support of a German agriculturist (farmer) named Fred Schmitt.

Members of the Alliance colony (young women, mostly)  engaged in homespun industry–cigar-rolling (briefly) and clothes-sewing–to earn cash. Alliance, which accreted to include contiguous Norma and Brotmanville communities, built a synagogue by the end of their first decade. But forces of acculturation are ineluctable. Greater Alliance had a baseball field by the middle of its third decade. One second generation colonist recalled the significance of his Norma baseball team: “That, more than anything else, gripped our youthful imagination, which showed more than anything else that we were really Americans.” The power of an idea, indeed.

The story of Jewish agricultural colonies in America is both an inspiration and a cautionary tale. At least thirty different colonies in a dozen states were established (attempted) in the years between 1880 and 1900. Why aren’t they better known? That their median longevity was less than two years goes a long way in answering the question. Only a handful survived longer than five years, most of them in the East. The accounts I read document failure, but not so much death and tragedy. (There must have been some.) The idea of back-to-the-land redemption led to actions whose consequences were not catastrophic or irreversible. The colonists moved on to other locales, other opportunities, other ways of life.

Besides, a fairly direct line can be drawn from Am Olam to Der Judenstaat, Theodor Herzl’s watershed Zionist tract. For Palestine was as much a destination for back-to-the-land Jews as the United States. Palestine saw as many starry-eyed farmer wannabes who depended on philanthropy for their survival. As many failed colonial attempts. Yet, on the whole, we know they survived. The idea of Am Olam contributed to the creation of kibbutzim. The Zionism created a Jewish state. Ideas become reality.

But the reality continues to be fought over; the ideas that sustain them, likewise.


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