• Issue: December 1952
  • Designer: G. Hamori
  • Plate no.: 64
  • Method of printing: Photolithography

As a reaction to the 1881 pogroms in southern Russia, young Russian Jews organised a group called "Bilu", the Hebrew initials of the passage "Beer Yaakov Lekhu ve-Nelkhah," "House of Jacob, come ye and let us go"(Isah:2.5). They pioneered the return to Erez Israel of contemporary times. Jewish nationalism became an ideal that began replacing assimilation which at the time was prevalent among the young generation. As a result of pogroms an increasing number of Jews emigrated and the Bilus ideology soon became associated with the ideal of returning to Israel. Most of the fugitives though were attracted to the U.S.A., so Jewish leaders had to device various solutions to attract immigrants to Israel. Some of the fugitives, indeed Bilu was initiated when a fast was held by the Jewish communities in Russia on Jan. 21, 1882, as a result of the pogroms. Israel Belkind, then a student, invited a group of young Kharkov Jews to his home to discuss the state of Russian Jewry. Unlike the Am Olam Group, which was organised for the purpose of emigration to the U.S., Belkind's group decided to settle in Erez Israel. It first called itself "Davio," Hebrew initials for Dabber el Benei Yisrael Ve-Yissa'u ("Speak unto the Children of Israel that they go forward," Ex. 14:15), but later changed the name to Bilu for, according to Belkind, "instead of advising the people to go to Erez Israel, we decided to go there ourselves."

Founded with only a handful of members, Bilu rapidly increased its membership to over 500 as a result of effective recruitment campaigns, though only a few were ready to leave for Erez Israel. Kharkov became the Bilu headquarters, and Belkind its leader. Bilu ideology was expressed in different and even contradictory ways. Of the many statutes formulated by the group, one defined the aim as the creation of "a political centre for the Jewish people," while another stated that the society pursues "an economic and national-spiritual aim" for the Jewish people "in Syria and Palestine." Ze'ev Dubnow, a member of Bilu, wrote: "The aim of our journey is rich in plans. We want to conquer Palestine and return to the Jews the political independence stolen from them two thousand years ago. And if it is willed, it is no dream. We must establish agricultural settlements, factories, and industry. We must develop industry and put it into Jewish hands. And above all, we must give young people military training and provide them with weapons. Then will the glorious day come, as prophesied by Isaiah in his promise of the restoration of Israel. With their weapons in their hands, the Jews will declare that they are the masters of their ancient homeland."

Eventually, headquarters were moved to Odessa, from where the pioneers intended to sail. The leaders of the Jewish national movement in Russia were generally opposed to the aliyah of the Bilu'im and urged them not to go. Among the Bilu'im themselves two trends emerged. One advocated immediate aliyah to Erez Israel in order to work there. The other contended that no practical settlement should be begun so long as Jews had no political guarantees from the Turks. The internal debate between the two trends in Bilu lasted for about two years, diminishing the strength of the group and hindering the first efforts of the group that went to Erez Israel. At first the Bilu'im hoped to receive support from wealthy Russian Jews. Disappointed by their lack of interest, they turned to Laurence Oliphant, then living in Constantinople and rumoured to have close relations with the sultan's court. However, they discovered that Oliphant could give them no practical help, and again split into divergent groups. Some advocated continuing political activity in Constantinople to gain recognition from the Ottoman authorities, while the rest, led by Belkind, decided to go to Erez Israel immediately.

The first to arrive in the country was Ya'akov Shertok (father of Moshe Sharett), who preceded the first group of 14 Bilu'im by a few weeks. The group, led by Belkind, reached Jaffa on July 6, 1882. The day after their arrival they began work at the Mikveh Israel agricultural school where they lived in a commune, the household being run by the only woman in the group. There they underwent great hardships, as they were unused to physical labor, received meagre wages, and were subject to oppression by the director of the school. However, they found a great friend in Charles Netter, the founder of Mikveh Israel, who adopted a paternal attitude to the Bilu'im, encouraged them, and openly identified himself with their aims. With Netter's death that same year (1882), the Bilu'im were again without a patron, until Yehiel Pines, a writer and public figure, came to their assistance. Elected by the Bilu'im as their leader and guide, he transferred some of them from Mikveh Israel to Jerusalem to become artisans. The Bilu group in Jerusalem called itself "Shehu" (vhS), the initial letters of Shivat he-Harash ve-ha-Masger ("Return of the Craftsman and the Smith," cf. II Kings 24:16), and they established a carpentry and woodcraft workshop. However, the scheme eventually failed because of lack of experience, and the Jerusalem members of Bilu dispersed elsewhere in Erez Israel.

In November 1882 some of the members of Bilu, under Belkind's leadership, moved to Rishon le-Zion, working as hired labourers, sharecroppers, and manual labourers for the village council. Poor yields and difficult relationships between the settlers and hired labourers in the village were greatly disappointing, especially as the Bilu'im hoped to found their own settlement eventually. They continued their search for satisfactory work between Rishon le-Zion and Mikveh Israel. Even the Russian Hovevei Zion disappointed them, for they failed to provide them with the means for settlement. After a steady decline in their number abroad, the Bilu association in Russia died out. In June of 1883, about a year after aliyah, Bilu numbered 28 members in Erez Israel, of whom 13 were at Rishon le-Zion, seven at Mikveh Israel as hired labourers, and three in Jerusalem. They met on festivals and holidays, organising a trip on Passover of 1884, together with Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, speaking Hebrew among themselves and singing Hebrew songs.

When the Bilu members who were in Constantinople realised that their political activities had failed, they also went to Erez Israel (1884). However, their economic situation deteriorated steadily. They worked for a while as laborers at Mikveh Israel, but were soon dismissed, and the director of the school even supplied them with means to emigrate to America. At the very last moment, Pines succeeded in saving them by acquiring the land of the Arab village Qatra in the Judean foothills, an area of 3,300 dunams (c. 800 acres). Borrowing the money, Pines sent an envoy abroad to sell the land parcels to Zionist associations, on condition that each of them hand over their parcel to the Bilu'im. The Bilu settlement of Gederah was thus founded, and the Bilu members who had worked at Mikveh Israel and Rishon le-Zion settled there in December of 1884. Although a few Bilu'im settled in Rishon le-Zion and elsewhere, Gederah became known historically as the Bilu settlement.

An estimated total of 53 Bilu members left Russia for Erez Israel during the early 1880s. Some returned to Russia or went on to the U.S., while others remained faithful to the ideal of settling Erez Israel, and some of them later became leaders in the public life of the country.

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70th Anniversary BILU-Immigration