BILU – a Forerunner of the Rebuilding of the Land of Israel

The year 1881 was the year pogroms against Jews began in Russia, later accompanied by anti-Semitic laws. Large numbers of Russian Jews started emigrating to the United States. A smaller number of them, however, turned their eyes toward Zion; and in 1882, several Russian Jews emigrated to then Ottoman-ruled Palestine.

The group was called BILU, an acronym based on a verse from Isaiah (2:5): “Beit Ya’akov Lechu Venelcha” (“House of Jacob, let us go [up]”).

Prior to this, most Jews who went to the land of Israel did so for religious reasons. Living there, however, was hard. It was an impoverished land, and many, if not most, of its Jewish inhabitants depended on worldwide Jewish charitable contributions.

BILU’s founders believed that the time had come for Jews not only to live in Israel, but to make their living there as well. The Bilu’im (plural form of Bilu) were influenced by Marx, as well as the Bible, and hoped to establish farming cooperatives in Palestine.

For the fourteen ex-university students who comprised the first group of Bilu’im, farming represented a complete change of lifestyle. Because Jews had been forbidden to own land in Russia, the country had almost no Jewish farmers.

Arriving in Palestine with enormous good will and energy, but with little money and experience, the Bilu’im found life very difficult. Two Palestinian Jews who had already raised money to buy land gave the group a tract to set up a farm in the settlement of Rishon Le-Zion. Within a few months, the Bilu’im faced starvation, and most had to leave.

A few years later, the eight members of the group who had remained in Palestine were offered land in Gedera. There they struggled against both difficult farming conditions and Arab marauders. The dispirited and by now demoralized Bilu’im soon left the settlement. Some went to other parts of Palestine, others returned to Europe.

Although the BILU movement, failed, its vision of Jewish cooperative farms was carried out very successfully a few decades later by the kibbutz and moshav movements. Ever since, the BILU dream of Jews living and supporting themselves in their own homeland has been regarded as one of the important forerunners of the international Zionist movement which Theodor Herzl organized fifteen years later.