Book Review: Rebels in the Holy Land

Mazkeret Batya
Mazkeret Batya, c. 1899
Rebels in the Holy Land

Sam Finkel is a good storyteller. In the book Rebels in the Holy Land: Mazkeret Batya – An Early Battleground for the Soul of Israel, he introduces us to several main characters: Yechiel Brill, the journalist who brought the initial eleven; Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever who believed, after viewing a pogrom in Brody, that God was signaling his people to leave Europe for the Holy Land; Baron Edmond de Rothschild who provided huge amounts of funding, and many of the original settlers of Ekron (later renamed Mazkeret Batya). Brill brings the eleven men who were originally from Pavlovka, White Russia to what was then Ottoman, Palestine. Will they get in? How do they get in? After a few years of farming in Ekron, the main controversy of the book arises. Will the farmers observe Shmittah (the seventh year of the agricultural farm cycle of the Torah in which land is left fallow) and not farm for one year? Or will they be convinced to follow the Heter Mechirah (selling one’s possessions to avoid transgressing a prohibition) as the supervisors hired by Baron Rothschild wish and Rabbi Mohilever suggests is OK?

We learn a lot about the difficulties of those early years. Indeed, though it was the Holy Land, it was challenging for these religious farmers to raise their children as observant Jews. The benefactors who ran the local schools had other ideas, and the children received strong secular educations. The cheder did not have teachers that motivated the students.

Regarding Shmittah (or is it shmita), I wonder if keeping that year at that time in those circumstances should really be considered pikuach nefesh (a person’s life is in danger so commandment should not be obeyed). The book does have a section on the many ailments suffered by the new settlers. Malaria is mild compared to some of the others, such as epidemic flu. Today many farmers observe Shmittah; however, to do so now in 2013 is not a danger to one’s life.

The author clearly sides with the farmers in the shmittah controversy. He does not paint a kind picture of the administrators hired by Rothschild. One does learn about Rothschild, his mother and wife in the book – their characters give clues to why this man dedicated so much money and energy to early Jewish (and in this case religious) farmers. Batya (as in Mazkeret Batya) is the name of Rothschild’s mother.

At the end of the book, there is an interesting juxtaposition of two histories of Arab Aqir (a village next to Mazkeret Batya). Which is closer to the truth? “Even with the best of intentions, details and emphases are tailored to create a particular impression, and the reader would do well to regard all histories — including this one of Mazkeret Batya — as a blend of fact, legend, conjecture, and the author’s perspective.”

On Good Reads, you can rate books from 1 to 5 stars. I often rate great books with a four – it takes me a while to decide if a book rates five stars. I might just go back and give this one 5 stars.

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16 thoughts on “Book Review: Rebels in the Holy Land

    • Batya, it is – I’m sure you would like it. I wonder what people who live there think of the book. The book would probably help with local tourism. The founders come off as real heroes.

    • I tend to love history books, and this one had a lot of characters and tales. I especially like learning more about Rothschild and about how they managed illnesses. There are a lot of appendices at the end of the book, such as the one on Aqir, that gave extra information. Not sure why he didn’t just include them as part of the main text, but maybe he loved sharing all the information he had gathered for the book. At the same time, the author seemed to want the shmittah controversy to be the main climax of the book so maybe that was why the other information became appendices.

    • Lorri, I was pleasantly surprised that the Highland Park Public Library had a copy of this book. I am wondering if someone local requested the library buy it.

      • That could very well be. My library does not have it, and the main branch does not show a listing. I could, and probably will, request they buy it, but funds are scarce, and two other books I requested have not been purchased.

  • Today many farmers observe Shmittah; however, to do so now in 2013 is not a danger to one’s life.
    IMHO, this is a very important point and one of the keys to understanding the magnitude of what is known in Hebrew as “Polmus HaShmitah” (literally, the shmitah dispute or debate). The original settlers of Mazkeret Batya risked their very lives to observe shmitah as they saw fit.

    • Mrs. S., so glad you commented on the post – I was hoping you would.

      In retrospect, I can understand why the original settlers did what they did, but it’s not good to give the impression that risking one’s life is OK according to halacha (except for those cases where one is supposed to, but shmittah is not one of them). Sounds like they could have used the extra food – food was scarce in those times.

      • Yes, I agree with you.

        I haven’t read this book and so I can’t comment on it specifically, but I hope the author showed that it certainly wasn’t a black-and-white issue and that there were many different sides and considerations.

  • Hi Leora.

    I am Sam Finkel, the author of the book Rebels in the Holy Land.

    I was very touched and appreciative of your review. Thank you! I would like to address the issue of pikuach nefesh, to the best of my limited knowledge. I am not an expert in halakha. I can only share with your readers some of Rabbi Salant’s and Rabbi Mordechai Gimpel Yaffe’s considerations.

    Shemittah in our time is at most only a rabbinic requirement. The colonists were just starting to get off the ground; Rothschild was not interested is subsidizing 2,500 colonists for a whole year to just sit and do nothing. What is the other side of the story?

    There was a culture and religious war that was starting to take shape over the religious nature of the new Yishuv. The pre-Zionist Chovevei Zion movement was being managed from its headquarters in Odessa, Russia – and the people in charge there were secular maskilim (Leon Pinsker, Moshe Lilienblum, etc.) The end goal of these maskilim was to turn Eretz Yisrael into a national – but secular, Jewish homeland. They had to work with the Orthodox, because the secular maskilim were a tiny minority in Russia at that time.

    The pressure they put on the rabbis of Chovevei Zion to issue a lenient ruling to allow a heter mechira, and the pressure they put on the settlers of Gedera to go back to work during Shemittah, was not lost to Rabbi Salant and the other Ashkenazi rabbis.

    They were also quite aware of the anti-religious attitudes of Rothschild’s onsite administrators, who told the colonists – in the Baron’s name – that they had to rely on the heter mechirah.

    This was setting a dangerous precedent. That is, people with money and power ‘have the right’ to dictate to their beneficiaries how to observe the commandments. And anything that gets in the way of productivity and ‘life’ – must be either reformed or discarded.

    In other words, Shemittah was a litmus test for a much bigger battle taking shape.

    There are many more points that can be found in the endnotes. I just mentioned one angle that was pointed out by Dr. Menachem Friedman, a sociologist from Bar Ilan University. And there were also a halakhic issues as well. Most of the leading Ashkenazi rabbis, including Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik of Brisk, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin ( Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin and a leading figure in Chovevei Zion), Rabbi Yosef Zecharia Shtern ( the “rabbis’ rabbi”) were opposed to the heter.

    What is most amazing is the enthusiasm and courage the Mazkeret Batya farmers had to perform this mitzva. Whether r they were right or wrong to be stringent is not something that I decided in the book.



    • Sam,

      Thank you so much for that lengthy comment! And giving us more background on what was going on at the time. I can now better appreciate how, as you say, shemittah was like a litmus test for bigger issues and pressures.

      I am honored to have you leave a comment on my post. And now I am reminded that I should go leave a link to this review on Good Reads.

      Hope you will write more books!

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