How the Bilu pioneers built the beginnings of Gedera
Gedera is a town at the southern edge of the Shefelah, although for convenience it is listed on this website in the south of Tel Aviv section. One of Gedera’s claims to fame is that it was founded by members of the Bilu movement.
The Bilu movement initiated the First Aliya, in that it was the first large group of Jews to immigrate to Palestine. It succeeded in establishing a moshava in Gedera in 1884, although this was its only successful settlement. In many respects Bilu ideology was ahead of its time, in that its ideals accorded more with those of immigrants of the Second Aliya.
Gedera’s recent population was 27,000-28,000, including a large percentage of people of Yemenite background. It has a small-town atmosphere and the town is determined to keep it that way. Hence, look elsewhere if you want to live in a skyscraper.
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Who were the Bilu’im?
Other than its achievements in Gedera, the Bilu movement was unsuccessful. It had a surplus of ambitious ideas but lacked the financial resources and people to accomplish them. The Ottoman Empire was antagonistic to their settling in Palestine. Ideologically their members were not prepared to fit into the economic system devised by Baron Edmond de Rothschild for his new settlements and this is where the money was. The settlers of Gedera were prepared to lead religious lives to obtain finances but their ideology was not specifically religious. They succeeded in establishing only one settlement - in Gedera, with the financial support of the Chovevei Zion movement.
Bilu was initially named Davio, an acronym for the Hebrew words from Exodus “Speak unto the children of Israel that they will go forward.” However, its founder, Israel Belkind, appreciated that preaching alone would not accomplish much and he changed its name to Bilu, an acronym from a verse from the Book of Isaiah – “beit ya’akov lechu venelcha (House of Jacob, let us get going!” (2.25). The final phrase of this verse “in the light of the Lord’ was omitted.
Bilu was formed in response to a wave of pogroms in the Russian Empire between 1881 to 1884. These, together with antisemitic laws, were designed to persuade Jews to leave. Many Jews realized that assimilating into Russian society was not an option and left, mainly to America. However, a small percentage looked to Palestine.
Bilu dreamt of a political, economic and spiritual national renaissance and it encouraged young people without family ties and who were prepared for self-sacrifice and communal living to join them in establishing farming communities and industry in Palestine. They attempted to persuade the Ottoman authorities to sell them land for their movement, but they were unsuccessful and the Ottomans responded by forbidding Jewish settlement in Palestine alltogethe. There were 525 signed-up members, but only 14 were prepared to immigrate to Palestine. They bribed their way into Palestine in 1882, headed by their leader Israel Belkind. There had been a trickle of Russian Jews entering Palestine previously, but this was the first organized group. As such, it constituted the beginnings of the First Aliya.
These Bilu’im (members of Bilu) had no prior experience in agriculture, as Jews were not permitted to own land in Russia. They hired themselves out as laborers to Mikve Yisrael, the first agricultural settlement in Palestine, to gain agricultural experience and support themselves and then to the settlement of Rishon Le Zion. Their movement had insufficient funds to buy its own land, and Baron Edmund de Rothschild refused to back their political ambitions and communal ideals. In turn, the Bilu were not prepared to abandon their pan-Jewish aspirations and place themselves under his control.
Eventually, the bilu’im found someone influential to help them. Yehiel Michel Pines was a functionary of the committee founded in honor of Sir Moses Montefiore to promote Jewish settlement in Palestine. He agreed to become their leader and together they formed the Bilu Association in the Land of Israel. He arranged for some of them to move to Jerusalem to form a carpentry workshop, and he acquired land for those wishing to engage in agriculture on part of the lands of the Arab village of Qatra. He insisted, though, that members had to observe religious traditions. They were supported from funds from the Russian Zionist movement Hovevei Zion which was able to encompass both messianic and more liberal Jews such as the Bilu’im.
In the winter of 1884, on the second day of Chanuka, two members of Bilu arrived to a barren hillside near the Arab village of Qatra, in the area which would eventually become part of Gedera. They lit two bonfires in honor of the festival. (The second day of Chanuka is observed as a holiday in the moshava to this day). They were joined by seven more of their colleagues, and they lived together in a wooden shed. Their conditions were miserable. When they obtained two horses, they built the stable beneath the ground as their regular stable was destroyed by the Ottomans for being built without permission. They had to guard their fields at night because of Muslim marauders and had a poor relationship with the Arabs of Qatra. Eventually, they found it necessary to accept largesse from the ultimate bourgeoise, Baron Edmund de Rothschild, but on his conditions. Their first stone house was built 4 years later.
Not surprisingly, given the ideals of its inhabitants, Gedera became a secret base for the Haganah during the British Mandate. During the War of Independence, a front-line command headquarters and field hospital was set up here.
Although Gedera succeeded, the vision of Bilu was too grandiose without the people and money to support it and the movement eventually folded. Interestingly, many immigrants to Palestine during the Second Aliya had the same type of vision as the bilu’im. However, they also had the people to accomplish it. Bilu was just too ahead of its time.
Looking from Ruth's Garden towards HaBiluim St.
A good place to start your visit is at the Gedera Museum. This was established in a colonial house built in 1924 and which was donated to the town, and it tells the history of the Gedera colony and the Bilu members who established it. A movie is shown. All the displays are also in English. Also displayed are implements used by the settlers. Then take a walk along HaBiluim St.
Directions: The museum is on HaBiluyim St, 29. Enter into Waze “המוזיאון לתולדות גדרה והביל״ויים.”
Admission: The museum is open 9.00 a.m. to 1.00 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, and 9.00 a.m. to 12.00 p.m. on Friday. It is closed on Shabbat. Visits and tours have to be pre-arranged by calling 08 859 3316.
One of the original huts built by the pioneers on HaBiluim St.
A walk along the main street HaBiluim St.
A walk down HaBilium St. nicely complements the material in the museum, in that it tells the story of the moshava and then town. This was the road on which the Bilu pioneers settled and from where early development of the town occurred. Of importance to the pioneers was that the road is on a slight elevation and was therefore away from the view of the Arabs of Qatra. Signs on the historic buildings are mainly in Hebrew but there are some in English too. It is still the main road of Gedera and also has stores and restaurants.
First cross the road from the museum to Ruth’s Garden.
Conditions were very difficult for the pioneers and America was beckoning. It is not surprising, therefore, that some of the original bilu’im gave up and went to the goldene medina, the land of opportunity. Moshe Mintz was one of them. Clearly, though, his early years in Gedera were still very much in his thoughts. After 40 years, at age 63, he was the last of the Bilu to return to Israel and settle in Gedera. He established a community center in the town. At the passing away of his wife Ruth, he dedicated this garden to her memory. The photographs displayed in the garden seem rather amateurish, but this is after all small-town Gedera. Note the Bereishit statue in the garden.
Cross Shachevich St. and look at the third house on the same side of the road as Ruth’s Garden. This was one of three brick houses built for the bilu’im.
For five years the pioneers lived in a shack near the “pit.” In 1187, they got fed up of waiting for Ottoman permission to build. They dismantled the wooden structures in the pit and built 6 huts out of the wood. Eventually they got permission from the Turks to build permanent housing, and Binyamin Fuchs and his family was one of those who received a brick home.
On the other side of HaBiluim St., three buildings along, is a wooden home. It belonged to the Sverdlov family. In its courtyard is the community alarm bell which was hung at the top of a wooden tower.
The alarm bell was rung to announce the start and end of the workday, to summon the inhabitants to meetings and in time of danger.
On the other side of the road is the Yeshurun Synagogue.
This synagogue was built in 1912 and also functioned as a communal center and school. During the 1st World War, Jews hid in the attic in order that they not be enlisted in the Turkish army. During the Mandate period there as an arms cache (slick in Hebrew) in the basement.
There is an alley to the right of the synagogue. Go down Hana Kotin Lane. You will soon come to a water tower and the first school building.
This three-story water-tower was built in 1935. The ground floor was used as a classroom and later as the teacher's lounge for the nearby school, the second floor as a weapons room for the Notrim, the Jewish police force under the Mandate, the third floor for water storage, and the roof as a lookout and guard post. Education of the children was regarded as extremely important by the bilu’im for imparting their ideals, and initially they gave their own instruction until teachers were employed. Lessons were in Hebrew. Initially a wooden shack, this permanent school structure was built in 1900.
Continue down this lane, cross the road and just past the playground is an enclosed area with the reconstructed “pit.” Unless you come with a guide, it will probably be locked, but you can see enough through the enclosure to get the gist of the place.
The Biulim obtained two horses and built a stable for them, but this was destroyed by the Ottomans as being built without permission. They therefore built it beneath the ground and put a roof on top. By the pit was a shared hut where they lived, tents and a chicken coop.
Gan Hapsalim (Sculptures Garden) is a fascinating place to visit. Yoma Segev is a self-taught sculpture who worked in iron scrap and other recycled material and created a garden full of his creations. He was inspired by Inca and African sculpture. The garden is open to the public without an appointment. The garden is on Faybel St. For Waze directions enter “Gan Hapsalim” and click on “Gan Hapsalim Yoma Segev.”