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Our (forgotten) Foremother: Manya Shohat (1880-1961)

In 1907 on the Sejera training farm in the Lower Galilee. Manya Wilbushewitz implemented a socio-economic plan on which she had been working for years. Her goal: to organize a group of Jewish workers in a way that would enable them to support themselves in agricultural labor, without exploiting anyone and without being dependent on charity. Her hope was that, if her project succeeded, it become a model for other groups of Jews in pre-State Israel (Palestine) and eventually a model for large-scale settlement and employment.

Whether or not her group at Sejera actually achieved that goal is a matter of continuous debate among historians. What is clear, however, is that Manya was the founder—both in terms of formulating the key ideas and in putting them into practice—of the kibbutz movement. For some reason her extraordinary accomplishment has become invisible, and thus Manya’s role as an early Founder of the Jewish state has been unforgivably overlooked.

Manya Wilbushewitz was born in 1880 on an estate near the town of Grodno, in Western Russia. Her father was wealthy, deeply religious, and, unlike many of his contemporaries, interested in technology. His land on the banks of the Neiman river included a grain mill that employed scores of peasants. Manya’s mother was not interested in religion, and fought her husband’s plan to have their sons educated as rabbis. Manya was the eighth child of this conflictual marriage. None of her older siblings remained on the estate in roles intended by either parent. Instead, they each pursued various ideological paths: joining the terrorist Social Revolutionaries, becoming a Tolstoyan peasant, emigrating as a farmer to Palestine with the Hibbat Zion, or obtaining professional expertise specifically to radicalize Palestine. Several eventually committed suicide when their feminist, romantic, or social ideals disappointed them.

Manya’s family mirrored the contradictions of Jewish life in late-19th century Russia. At the same time as restrictions on Jews were lifted, allowing for a certain amount of assimilation into both the educated and revolutionary Gentile groups, Jews also experienced a backlash of anti-Semitism which provoked religious retrenchment, emigration, Zionism and socialism. In her childhood, Manya first was profoundly religious and later committed to Russian peasants. At the age of 15 she ran away to the city of Minsk where, in her brother Gedaliahu’s factory, she organized a strike of the 500 workers against him, protesting the excessively long work day. This was to become the first of her numerous efforts to improve the working conditions of industrial and agricultural laborers.

Exposed to a whole range of radical political groups— from Bundists to socialist Zionists to terrorist Social Democrats—Manya chose to get involved in the clandestine establishment of evening study clubs where workers were taught basic literacy, history, economics and socialism. She also traveled to the faraway Tartar region to join a relief effort which brought medical aid to peasants suffering from the drought and cholera. One consequence of the latter experience was her encounter with the “mir” or Russian communal system. On her return to Minsk she set up an urban collective. Collectives, she believed, provide “the proletariat with the means of its struggle.”

Manya’s political activism led to her year-long imprisonment at the hands of the Russian secret police. There, influenced by the head of the Moscow secret police, Sergei Zubatov, she seems to have switched political strategies. Upon her release, Zubatov and Manya established a political party (the Jewish Independent Labor Party) which limited itself to labor issues and did not pursue revolution. Zubatov, however, ended up abandoned by his anti-Semitic superiors as a traitor. At the same time the Russian masses were agitated into enacting the traumatic Kishinev pogroms of 1903. Manya decided to become a terrorist, because peaceful political activism was ineffective and Jews were losing their lives.

When Manya left Russia to gather funds in Berlin for her terrorist group, her brother Nahum in Palestine, fearing for his 24-year-old sister’s safety, intervened with a ruse and brought Manya to Palestine. With her arrival she became one of the first members of the Second Aliyah, composed mostly of radicalized young Russians who came to Palestine between 1904 and 1914. Manya then learned that all of the members of her terrorist group back in Russia had been executed. With this tragedy in the background, she decided not to return to Russia and to commit her attention to labor issues in Palestine.

On a six-week study tour of Palestine by horseback to help conduct a survey of the geography and natural resources in order to lay a foundation for industrial development, Manya was transformed into a Zionist. “I became tied to the land with a deep love, an unusual love, which filled my entire soul, mind and emotions,” she wrote. “This love has remained with me always. It was as if a tie had been renewed between us that was 2,000 years old.”

Manya’s Zionism, unlike that of most Zionists of the time, had four special attributes: activism, large-scale dimensions, self labor, and collectivism. While the World Zionist Organization wanted negotiations with world powers for a charter permitting settlement, Manya favored immediate “infiltration” of Jewish settlers, because of the need for immediate refuge. Since the number of Jewish settlers at the time was small, Manya’s plan for hundreds in the Hauran region (now the Golan) was grandiose. Moreover, her idea that settlers would work the land themselves (rather then be landowners) and her promotion of self-sufficient collectives were viewed as extreme socialism. The settlers already in Palestine did not rely on their own labor, nor did they live collectively. Rather, they depended on Jewish philanthropy and Arab labor.

Manya presented her ideas about settling the Hauran to the officials of the Jewish Settlement Association [ICA—phonetic Hebrew abbreviation], who promptly rejected them. Not easily dissuaded, she then spent a year surveying First Aliyah settlements and putting together a statistical survey. Her findings were not surprising: “1 reached, in 1905, the firm conclusion that the system of agricultural settlement… was bankrupt in every sense of the word. As early as 1881-1882 a pioneering, wonderful, idealistic type of person came to Palestine, capable of minimal independent work. And now, after they spent 25 years in the country, we found them completely reliant on the ICA officials, lacking any faith in their enterprise, and employing Arab workers. They were all bitter and hopeless. They all believed in the Uganda option [a proposal made in 1903, to settle Jews in British East Africa]. Their sons did not continue in the farms and left the country because they could not stand the work regime that was established by the officials.”

Manya, indefatigable, next formed a carpenters’ cooperative in Jaffa, but when she left the group to fend for itself, internal dissension broke out and the cooperative disbanded. Manya realized from this experience that she needed to develop group relations and conflict resolution skills in order to put her Utopian ideas of collectives into solid practice, and she did so. She also traveled to Paris, Basel, Alexandria, Canada and the United States, seeking funds, and political support, and to educate herself further about agricultural collectives (studying, for example, the system that developed in Russia after the freeing of the serfs). Manya studied all she could—about French colonies, religious communes, Utopian experiments. She concluded that related models had all failed, and that there were no blueprints relevant to her special dream.

Virtually no one gave her money for her settlement plans (American Zionists being very small in number during those days); her ideas seemed absurd and fantastical to people. One important potential benefactor. Max Nordau, listened to Manya’s detailed presentation for one and a half hours; and when she was done—he did not speak. When Manya inquired why he was silent, he answered by saying that he was weighing whether or not to suggest she see a physician.

Meanwhile, however, Manya was also busy raising 200,000 rubles from wealthy individuals in order to purchase revolvers which she smuggled in her clothing into Russia for Jewish defense groups. When a member of the secret police cornered her and threatened to kill her, Manya murdered him instead, shipping his body in a trunk to a fictitious address. For three months Manya participated in defense and terrorist work in the town of Shedlitz during the pogrom of 1906, never sleeping in the same place twice.

Well-known Zionist figures—Henrietta Szold, Judah Magnes, Chaim Weizmann—were impressed by this charismatic, Tolstoyan woman who continually sharpened and refined the principles that would be the basis of her imagined agricultural collective. Radically opposed to private property, committed to Arab-Jewish cooperation (unusual during that time, but consistent with Manya’s commitment to Gentile peasants in Russia despite their hostility to Jews), Manya—her few influential supporters notwithstanding—received considerable rejection. One influential Zionist, Hillel Yaffe, told her baldly: “There is no hope whatsoever for your plan. You will not find people who believe in such a thing. The Keren Kayemet [Jewish National Fund] has no money for this type of experiment, nor would they understand it; and the Baron de Rothschild will under no circumstances agree to your idea.”

Still she persisted, until she honed in on a farm in the Lower Galilee called Sejera. She teamed up with a young radical named Yisrael Shohat who had a mission of his own—to train Jews in self-defense. She recruited his volunteers to work on her collective while they continued their activities, beginning the Jewish guard organization HaShomer. All the elements of her plan were finally in place: she had a site, a plan and a group of workers. The year was 1907.

When she first arrived in Sejera alone, Manya obtained the right from the director, Eliahu Krause, to form a one-year collective from among some of the trainees already on hand and from Yisrael’s group, which would soon be coming. The workers in the collective—18 in number—would pool their expenses, would make joint decisions about how their work was to be done, and would not hire others to work for them. They would also pool their wages in order to establish a fund to provide shelter, clothes and food for new workers who would go where work was needed for a period of two years. In this way the collective would begin to participate in the task of settling the land. Manya wrote that Sejera was also “the first place open to women’s work, and there the idea of the movement of women workers started to blossom.”

One of Manya’s first female recruits remembered that, “In those days there was no possibility for girls ‘of our type’ to find any kind of work [in Palestine]. Not even as a servant in a private home. In practice, [at Sejera] we were equal in all the work with the boys. Krause used to be proud of us, and when official visitors would come, he would bring them to the fields to show them the unforgettable picture of Jewish girls wearing pants, ploughing behind the oxen.”

Not only did the women of Sejera shock people by wearing pants, they also carried arms. In the evenings the men and women of the collective gathered to prepare the next day’s work and to study. Krause taught them about modern agriculture; Manya lectured on socialism; Yisrael Shohat discussed the affairs of the day; David Ben Gurion (not a member of the collective but a resident on the farm) gave Hebrew lessons, and a local Arab taught Arabic. The collective established committees with specific functions, such as setting up the work assignments, and created ad hoc groups to settle disputes.

The members of the collective admired Manya. Remembered one woman, “I became a good friend of Manya Wilbushewitz’s, who was very strong, and her idea was that all women should be strong and could thus take part in all the difficult and dangerous work which men do.” Another member, Esther Becker, recalls; “Manya was unlike the other women, both in her appearance and in her personality. She captivated me. Manya had enormous power of persuasion. She was the center of the life of the place. She approached everyone as a sister, as a mother. She was courageous in her nightly guard duty, and in riding on a wild horse. She had enormous initiative, she had a feel for new ideas, and actualized them in her life.”

Regardless of the collective’s success, its contract with the farm was not renewed after its year had expired. Group members moved on to other related experiments (including solidifying and continuing HaShomer), and Manya and Yisrael became lovers. In 1908 they married and she took his name, calling herself Manya Shohat. (Manya believed that only monogamous marriage complied with “the laws of nature.”) Needless to say, soon Manya developed forms of collective child rearing.

Just as Manya had predicted on the basis of her studies, the Sejera collective fulfilled the conditions of its contract, repaid what it owed, and made a small profit. Her experiment vindicated her belief that a collective agricultural economy was a viable means of Jewish settlement in Palestine. In addition, the collective model demonstrated that workers did not have to live in degrading conditions, and could sustain a cultural life. The group’s simultaneous success in establishing HaShomer would become a focal point for most of the members for decades to come. Finally, the collective supported Manya’s conviction that women were as capable of agricultural work as were men. For Manya, at age 27, the completion of the contract ended her search to identify the ideal socio-economic conditions for Jewish settlement in Palestine. She was to be a member of Kibbutz Kfar Giladi—which she also helped found—for the rest of her life, even though she spent many years abroad on military and fundraising missions.

It is not surprising that when looking back on that year, Manya wrote: “That was the happiest year of my life. For all of us, those were beautiful days . . . We sensed that in the future our experiment would be used as a landmark for many of the workers who would go to the land of the Jewish National Fund to work on their own responsibility; we felt that we were creating a basis for collective work for the future, for ourselves, and our children after us.”

When the group was transformed into HaShomer and some women went on to Um-Juni (later Kibbutz Degania), the women became extremely dissatisfied with their roles. In the next agricultural collectives (early kvutzot and kibbutzim) women were excluded or confined to kitchen and laundry work. Because of these problems, a woman named Hanna Meisel established, in 1911, a separate training farm for women at Kinneret, and women workers organized by holding national meetings in Merhavia starting in 1914.

Thus, Sejera has a unique place in the history of Jewish women in Palestine and in the history of socialist experiments. The ridicule of women by men was largely suppressed at Sejera during the collective period because of Manya Shohat’s personal charisma, Krause’s supportive values, and the sheer number of women: exactly one third of the group members. In the next collectives established by groups at Degania and Kinneret, these factors were missing.

Manya went on to accomplish many other ambitious and courageous goals before her death at the age of 81, but her creation of the first Jewish agricultural collective in Palestine became a key factor in the creation of a strong socialist component of Israeli society. The role of a woman in laying the foundation for the subsequent development of kibbutzim, and the special role of women in Sejera are two of the many overlooked aspects of this period.

It’s time to reclaim Manya Shohat as a Jewish foreparent of note, to make sure that study of her life and ideas are incorporated into all levels of Jewish education, and to integrate her into Women’s Studies curricula. She belongs in the growing pantheon of Jewish women role models—her face and deeds should be familiar to us all.

Shulamit Reinharz is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Women’s Studies Program at Brandeis University, which includes among its many options a graduate degree in Jewish Women’s Studies. Professor Reinharz has published scholarly articles on Manya Shohat and is currently preparing (with her husband, Jehuda Reinharz) an annotated collection of Manya Shohat’s writings.