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Shochat, Manya (1878–1961)

Shochat, Manya (1878–1961)

Jewish socialist and revolutionary who founded the first kibbutz in Israel. Name variations: Mania Shochat; Manya Wilbushevitz; Manya Shochat-Vilbushevich. Born in 1878 in Lososna, Russia; died in 1961; married Yisrael Shochat, in 1908; children: Geda and Anna.

Helped settle Eretz Israel, the area of Palestine that would eventually become the state of Israel; was instrumental in arming Jews to protect them from Arab aggression; founded kibbutz (collective farm) movement; campaigned for the Zionist cause and worked to improve Arab-Jewish relations.

Manya Shochat was born on her father's estate in Lososna, Russia, in 1878 into a family of ten children. Her wealthy grandfather, a supplier to the Russian army, had abandoned Jewish traditions and customs to become more accepted in the landowning class. Shochat's father, however, clung to Judaism, and made sure his children received a Jewish education. As a young teenager, Shochat became aware of the hard conditions faced by laborers and fully committed herself, despite her own privileged background, to bringing about change through labor movements.

At age 15, Shochat ran away from home and worked in a Polish factory until she was retrieved by the police. Undeterred, she convinced her brother, Gedaliah, to let her work in his carpentry shop in Minsk. There she earnestly devoted herself to the cause of the worker, visiting factories and advocating the education of laborers as a means to transform them into activists. She also established ties with the Jewish community, having had little contact with Jews in Lososna.

Shochat's association with the Bundists made the most sense initially, as the Jewish socialist labor group seemed a happy alliance of her twin interests in labor reform and the Jewish people. Their demands were simple: the right to form labor unions, the right to free speech, and the right to strike. However, the Bundists were primarily interested in orchestrating mass demonstrations of Jewish workers rather than educating them and attending to their needs individually, and neither did they favor Jewish emigration to Palestine. Several of Shochat's brothers had emigrated to Eretz Israel, a part of Palestine that was home to many Jewish settlers, and Shochat soon aligned herself more with the Poale Zion Party (Workers of Zion), from which sprung the Labor Zionist movement.

Her activities did not escape the notice of governmental authorities, who arrested her in 1899 for inciting the workers. Shochat's year-long stay in prison only made her more determined to accomplish her goal of organizing Jewish workers, but there were forces at work equally set on crushing the movement. Anti-Semitic sentiment in Russia had occasionally erupted into "pogroms," or organized massacres of Jews, since 1881, and in 1903 one occurred in Kishinev in which 47 were killed and hundreds more injured. The slaughter only served to further fuel the Zionist movement. It also inspired Shochat to conspire with others to murder the man they considered responsible for much of the killing: Count Vyacheslav Konstantinovich Plehve, minister of the interior. An informer revealed the assassination plot before it could be carried out, however, and Shochat fled the country for Eretz Israel, arriving on January 2, 1904.

Shochat continued her fight for workers' rights in her new country. After traveling around the territory for several months, she found that many Jews lived in conditions of terrible poverty, unable to find jobs, while wealthy Jewish farmers hired Arabs to work their land for low wages. The plight of the starving Jews inspired Shochat in her campaign for collective farms run by the Jewish workers themselves. This, she felt, was the only way for Israel to truly become a Jewish nation. In the course of stirring up support for her idea, she met and married Yisrael Shochat, who joined with her to launch the idea of collective farming.

In 1907, Shochat traveled to Europe and the United States to gain financial support for the collective farms and to study Communist settlements. She faced skepticism from Zionist supporters, but nonetheless the first collective farm, or kibbutz, was established in Sejera that year. Its 18 members shared the work equally, an equality that extended to the 6 female members who farmed alongside the men. They also stood watch against aggression from hostile Circassian neighbors, and this need for guards became as integral to the idea of a successful collective as did the farming. To this end, a Jewish armed force known as Hashomer was organized in 1909, the first of its kind. The goal of Hashomer, in which Manya and Yisrael were central figures, was purely protective rather than for the purposes of war, as its members hoped to co-exist peacefully with their Arab neighbors.

Hashomer decided to send the Shochats to Turkey so that they might become better acquainted with Turkish law in the mediation of disputes with the surrounding Arabs. In 1913, they returned to Eretz Israel, but the war between Turkey and the Balkans—the latter from which most of the Jews in Palestine derived—caused Turkish authorities who ruled Palestine to look on the Jewish settlements with hostility. Turkish agents demanded that the settlements hand over their weapons, orders which members of Hashomer defied by hiding their arsenals. In 1914, Turkish authorities arrested Shochat, accusing her of hiding weapons. Both she and Yisrael were deported to Turkey, where they remained for three years.

The Shochats finally returned to Eretz Israel in 1919, and Manya continued her efforts to arm Hashomer. In the face of increasing Arab violence and pogroms in Jerusalem, the leaders of Hashomer decided that a broader-based defense network was necessary. On June 13, 1920, the secretive, intimate framework of Hashomer expanded into the Haganah. As a member of this group, Shochat assisted in all aspects of the construction of a rudimentary army, including the smuggling of weapons and illegal Jewish immigrants into Eretz Israel; the establishment of the first arms factory (it fronted as a factory for the repair of farm equipment); the birth of an infant air force (gliders used for surveillance); and the direction of the first military academy. Under her leadership, most of the Jewish settlements had the protection of Haganah units by 1927.

Despite the constant tension between the Arabs and the Jews, Shochat still hoped for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Even though the Zionists expended much of their energy in acquiring land for future settlements, Shochat believed that this goal should not be accomplished at the cost of dispossessing Arabs. To this end, she pushed for the establishment of the Jewish-Arab League, a joint association of Arabs and Jews, in 1931. Throughout her life, she worked for good relations with the Arabs. She supported education for Arabs and shared facilities (such as hospitals) for Arabs and Jews, and encouraged contact between the two groups so that they could learn about each other.

During World War II, Shochat turned her attention to the enormous influx of Jewish refugees fleeing the European Holocaust. She campaigned for better conditions for the refugees, as many lived in squalid conditions in transit camps. Often living among the refugees in the camps, she exhausted her weakening physical resources in providing relief to the starving and distressed. Her energies were divided further by the Israeli War for Independence in 1947, efforts which were rewarded by the official declaration of the Israeli state on May 14, 1948. Israel's independence spurred Shochat on in her work towards the betterment of Arab-Jewish relations. However, her health began to fail, and she developed severe eye problems that caused her great pain for the remainder of her life. She died in 1961.

sources:

Ben-Zvi, Rachel Yanait. Before Golda: Manya Shochat. Biblio Press, 1989.

Ruth Savitz , freelance writer, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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