Ginsberg was born in Skvyra, near Kiev in what was then Russia, to pious well-to-do Hasidic parents. As early as eight years old, he began to secretly teach himself to read Russian. His father, Isaiah, sent him to heder until the age of 12. When Isaiah became the administrator of a large estate in a village in the Kiev district, he moved the family there and took private tutors for his son, who excelled at his studies. Ginsberg was critical of the dogmatic nature of Orthodox Judaism but remained loyal to his cultural heritage, and especially the ethical ideals of Judaism. 
After unsuccessfully attempting to study in Vienna and Germany, he returned in his early thirties to Odessa where he was influenced by Leon Pinsker, a leader of the Hovevei Zion (Lovers of Zion) movement. Hovevei Zion began as independent study circles in the late 19th century, and formed a philanthropic confederation called Hibbat Zion (love for Zion). Their practical aim was settlement of Jews in Palestine, and they produced the settlements of the first Aliyah (immigration wave). The Zionist settlement program was beset by practical difficulties, and many settlements failed or were failing.
Unlike Pinsker, Ginsberg did not believe in political Zionism, which he fought, 'with a vehemence and austerity which embittered that whole period'. Instead, from his very first article, he hailed the spiritual value of the Hebrew renaissance within the Zionist movement. To counter the debilitating fragmention for the Jewish folk-soul of life throughout the diaspora, the idea of assuring unity through an ingathering of Jews into Palestine was not an answer. That is, kibbutz galuyoth was a messianic ideal rather than a feasible contemporary project. The real answer lay in achieving a spiritual centre, or 'central domicile', within Palestine, that of Eretz Israel, which would form an exemplary model for the dispersed world of Jewry in exile to imitate, a spiritual focus for the circumferential world of the Jewish diaspora. He split from the Zionist movement after the First Zionist Congress, because he felt that Theodor Herzl's program was impractical.
Ahad Ha'am traveled frequently to Palestine and published reports about the progress of Jewish settlement there. They were generally glum. They reported on hunger, on Arab dissatisfaction and unrest, on unemployment, and on people leaving Palestine. In an essay soon after his 1891 journey to the area he warned against the 'great error', noticeable among Jewish settlers, of treating the fellahin with contempt, of regarding 'all Arabs a(s) savages of the desert, a people similar to a donkey.–.
Ha–am made his first trip to Palestine in 1891. The trip was prompted by concern that the Jaffa members of B–nai Moshe were mishandling land purchases for prospective immigrants and contributing to soaring land prices. Ha–am–s reputation as Zionism–s major internal critic has its roots in the essay –A Truth from Eretz Yisrael– published in pamphlet form shortly after his visit in 1891 (this essay can be found in Kol Kitve Ahad Ha–am, The Jerusalem Publishing House, 1953.)
Disturbed by what he saw in 1891, Ha–am wrote about external perceptions of Palestine:
–We who live abroad are accustomed to believe that almost all Eretz Yisrael is now uninhabited desert and whoever wishes can buy land there as he pleases. But this is not true. It is very difficult to find in the land [ha–aretz] cultivated fields that are not used for planting. Only those sand fields or stone mountains that would require the investment of hard labor and great expense to make them good for planting remain uncultivated and that–s because the Arabs do not like working too much in the present for a distant future. Therefore, it is very difficult to find good land for cattle. And not only peasants, but also rich landowners, are not selling good land so easily. [–]– (quoted in Wrestling with Zion, Grove Press, 2003 PB, p. 14)
–We who live abroad are accustomed to believing that the Arabs are all wild desert people who, like donkeys, neither see nor understand what is happening around them. But this is a grave mistake. The Arab, like all the Semites, is sharp minded and shrewd. All the townships of Syria and Eretz Yisrael are full of Arab merchants who know how to exploit the masses and keep track of everyone with whom they deal – the same as in Europe. The Arabs, especially the urban elite, see and understand what we are doing and what we wish to do on the land, but they keep quiet and pretend not to notice anything. For now, they do not consider our actions as presenting a future danger to them. – But, if the time comes that our people–s life in Eretz Yisrael will develop to a point where we are taking their place, either slightly or significantly, the natives are not going to just step aside so easily. [–]– (quoted in Wrestling with Zion, Grove Press, 2003 PB, pp. 14-15)
About Jewish relationships to the native Arabs, a disappointed Ha–am wrote
–We must surely learn, from both our past and present history, how careful we must be not to provoke the anger of the native people by doing them wrong, how we should be cautious in out dealings with a foreign people among whom we returned to live, to handle these people with love and respect and, needless to say, with justice and good judgment. And what do our brothers do? Exactly the opposite! They were slaves in their Diasporas, and suddenly they find themselves with unlimited freedom, wild freedom that only a country like Turkey [the Ottoman Empire] can offer. This sudden change has planted despotic tendencies in their hearts, as always happens to former slaves [–eved ki yimlokh – when a slave becomes king – Proverbs 30:22]. They deal with the Arabs with hostility and cruelty, trespass unjustly, beat them shamefully for no sufficient reason, and even boast about their actions. There is no one to stop the flood and put an end to this despicable and dangerous tendency. Our brothers indeed were right when they said that the Arab only respects he who exhibits bravery and courage. But when these people feel that the law is on their rival–s side and, even more so, if they are right to think their rival–s actions are unjust and oppressive, then, even if they are silent and endlessly reserved, they keep their anger in their hearts. And these people will be revengeful like no other. [–]– (quoted in Wrestling with Zion, Grove Press, 2003 PB, p. 15)
Ha–am also saw a bleak future for the nascent new state. He wrote:
[But if things continue the way they are] ––the society that I envision, if my dream is not just a false notion, this society will have to begin to create itself in the midst of fuss, noisiness and panic, and will have to face the prospects of both internal and external war–– (quoted in Wrestling with Zion, Grove Press, 2003 PB, p. 16)
–– we can–t ignore the fact that ahead of us is a great war and this war is going to need significant preparation. [–]– (quoted in Wrestling with Zion, Grove Press, 2003 PB, p. 15)
Ha'am believed that rather than aspiring to establish a 'Jewish National Home' or state immediately, Zionism must bring Jews to Palestine gradually, while turning it into a cultural center. At the same time, it was incumbent upon Zionism to inspire a revival of Jewish national life in the Diaspora. Then and only then, he said, would the Jewish people be strong enough to assume the mantle of building a nation state. Ahad Ha'am did not believe that the impoverished settlers of his day, laboring in Palestine far from the minds of most Jews, would ever build a Jewish homeland. He saw that the Hovevei Tzion movement of which he was a member was a failure, since the new villages created in Israel were dependent on the largess of outside benefactors.
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Ahad Ha'am's ideas were popular at a very difficult time for Zionism, beginning after the failures of the first Aliya. His unique contribution was to emphasize the importance of reviving Hebrew and Jewish culture both in Palestine and throughout the Diaspora, something that was recognized only belatedly, when it became part of the Zionist program after 1898. Herzl did not have much use for Hebrew, and many wanted German to be the language of the Jewish state. Ahad Ha'am played an important role in the revival of the Hebrew language and Jewish culture, and in cementing a link between the proposed Jewish state and Hebrew culture.
Ahad Ha'am's 'cultural Zionism' and his writings have been widely distorted however, or misunderstood and quoted out of context to imply that he thought Jews should not settle in the Land of Israel / Palestine, or that he thought it was impossible to ever establish a Jewish state. In 1889 his first article criticizing practical Zionism, called "Lo ze haddereckh" (This is not the way) appeared in HaMelitz. The ideas in this article became the platform for Bnai Moshe (sons of Moses), a group he founded that year. Bnai Moshe, active until 1897, worked to improve Hebrew education, build up a wider audience for Hebrew literature, and assist the Jewish settlements.
In 1896, Ginsberg became editor of Hashiloah, a Hebrew monthly, a position he held for six years. After stepping down as editor in 1903, he went back to the business world.
In 1897, following the Basel Zionist Congress, which called for a Jewish national home "recognized in international law" (Volkerrechtlich), Ahad Ha'am wrote an article called Jewish State Jewish Problem ridiculing the idea of a Volkerrechtlich state given the pitiful plight of the Jewish settlements in Palestine at the time. He emphasized that without a Jewish nationalist revival abroad, it would be impossible to mobilize genuine support for a Jewish national home. Even if the national home were created and recognized in international law, it would be weak and unsustainable. In 1898, the Zionist Congress adopted the idea of disseminating Jewish culture in the Diaspora as a tool for furthering the goals of the Zionist movement and bringing about a revival of the Jewish people. Bnai Moshe founded Rehovot, hoping it would become a model of self-sufficiency, and opened Achiasaf, a Hebrew publishing company.
In 1908, following a trip to Palestine, Ginsberg moved to London to manage the office of the Wissotzky Tea company. He settled in Tel Aviv in early 1922, plagued by ill health, and died there in 1927.
Ahad Ha'am's influence in the political realm can be ascribed to his charismatic personality and spiritual authority rather than to his official functions he fulfilled. For the "Democratic Faction", the party that propagated cultural Zionism (founded in 1901 by Chaim Weizmann), he served in the words of his biographer, Steve Zipperstein, "as a symbol for the movement's culturalists, the faction's most coherent totem. He was, however, not – certainly not to the extent to which members of this group, especially Chaim Weizmann, would later contend – its chief ideological influence." It is not widely known, that the rather shy Ahad Ha'am was a talented negotiator: In this role he was engaged during the "language controversy" that accompanied the founding of the Haifa Technikum (today: the Technion) and in the negotiations culminating in the Balfour Declaration.
Many cities in Israel have streets named after Ahad Ha'am.
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