"I became interested in Arthur Ruppin and I started reading a lot about him," a student told me. The other night I visited the Tzion class in Baltimore. The group meets in an intimate library space at Beth El Synagogue, taught by Dr. Neil Rubin. That evening the class covered the phenomenon of European nationalism, what is was, its origins, and its impact upon European Jewish thought and life, as dealt with in a book written by the well known Marxist historian, the late E.J. Hobsbawm (himself a Viennese Jew and refugee from Hitler's Germany/Austria).
At a certain point Dr. Rubin broke the class up into small groups of two to three people, asking them to discuss amongst themselves what jumped out at them about nationalism. Joanna turned to me and a classmate and said, "Arthur Ruppin showed me something about Jewish nationalism I never knew," something she didn't expect. A planner as well as a theoretician of early Zionist activity in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Ruppin focused on what we might call "social capital" concerns in thinking about immigration to the land of Israel. Who wanted to come? Who did the Zionists want to come, need to come, to help build the land. Zionism spoke a meta-language about ingathering all of world Jewry, in reality it needed thinkers and planners and managers who could create and build a proto-state and society.
As Joanna wrote to me,
"Considering that he was THE "boots on the ground" representative of the ZO with money behind him and the authority to buy land, build institutions and influence/control the selection of immigrants, it seemed that he had almost unfettered freedom to create a master plan based on his sociological views, his prejudices and his imperatives."
"Ruppin championed VITALITY in all things. He insisted that only the strong, the virile immigrant, the opposite of the Jewish negative stereotypical male (puny, stooped shouldered, dirty, ugly, pious), was capable of the successful agricultural development of the land. The harsh conditions and this agricultural vision required "musclemen". He resisted intellectualism as a key building block and focused on what we have come to recognize today as "sabra" qualities. He appeared to prefer the western European man in all ways and disdained the eastern European man as inferior. He did not want eastern European or Russian political theory to contaminate the developing Yishuv and squelched agitation by eastern European immigrants demanding worker rights and improved conditions during the 2nd Aliyah. He appeared to hold the Mizrachi/Sephardic Jews in contempt as well and could not appreciate their unique contribution, especially as it related to their familiarity with and understanding of the local Arab culture.
"I grew up with such a simplistic notion about the creation of Israel as a Jewish homeland without any understanding of the complicated nuances regarding the creation of the Yishuv upon which it was founded. I did not realize all the careful and prejudicial planning that Ruppin masterminded for decades in order to create his Jewish state. I find the Tzion course not only enlightening but an exciting entry point into subsets of ideas and personalities which were never before on my radar."
A powerful idea about changing the trajectory of Jewish life wholesale, in the hands of thinkers and planners and builders harder necessities dictated certain choices about preferred and less preferred immigrants to build this new society. Zionism existed as ideas and arguments about those ideas and as social reality, building and changing over time. That's the best kind of historical study, understanding ideas and where they come from and their impact upon social change, and visa versa.