The National Day of Mourning… and Fundraising?

In the early 20th century, Zionists rallied around Tisha B’Av

Zack Rothbart

Both Jewish Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed on the same date, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, or “Tisha B’Av“. Besides destroying the national religious and spiritual center – the very home of the divine presence on Earth, according to Jewish tradition – each destruction was accompanied by mass carnage, unspeakable violence and forced expulsion still mourned thousands of years later.

The Destruction of the Temple, as depicted in an early 18th century Dutch prayer book. From Seder Hamisha Taaniot, printed in Amsterdam by Abraham Attias, ca. 1727. Click image to enlarge

The Biblical “Sin of the Spies” over three millennia ago; the disastrous end of the Bar Kokhva Revolt in the year 135 CE; the beginning of the First Crusade and its murderous destruction of Jewish communities across Europe; the Medieval expulsions of Jews from England, France and Spain; and the bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994 are just a few of the events that have also occurred on or around Tisha B’Av over the centuries.

To this day, Tisha B’Av is a day for mourning these national tragedies. Traditionally observant Jews mark it by fasting and refraining from worldly pleasures. Somber poetry, written across the generations, is read while community members sit on the floor, morning the destruction of the Temples and the other national calamities associated with the day.

Yet, in the early 20th century, there was a major effort to turn this day of grief and sadness into one of hope, renewal and redemption.  In fact, the Jewish National Fund (JNF) made Tisha B’Av into a major fundraising day, soliciting contributions from around the world to support the renewal of Jewish life in the Land of Israel.

An early 20th century Jewish National Fund postcard showing founder Theodor Herzl, Zionist pioneers and the Old City of Jerusalem. Publisher: “Lebanon” publishing company, Warsaw; From the Postcard Collection, National Library of Israel archives.

According to Dr. Hezi Amiur, curator of the Israel Collection at the National Library of Israel, “Tisha B’Av is considered a national day of mourning and the JNF would often utilize ‘national days’ such as Hannukah and Tu B’Shvat for fundraising purposes. These were called ‘Ribbon Days’, and they presented a major source of income for the young Zionist movement.”

While fundraising is not generally associated with this most somber day, JNF would use it to raise serious funds from thousands of communities across the globe. In fact, from the organization’s founding in 1901 by Theodor Herzl, Tisha B’Av was commemorated by asking Jews across the world for money to help rebuild the common ancestral homeland.

Within just a few decades, the calls for support declared that there was no more free land left to accommodate the burgeoning Zionist enterprise. Contributions were needed to buy more land in Palestine, and to continue building infrastructure to support the courageous halutzim (pioneers).

One call to action published in 1926 under the banner “Remember Jewish National Fund on Tisha B’Av” asked “every true Jew to donate on the Ninth of Av, the day of national mourning, a piece of land in Palestine for the Jewish people.”

All were implored to be generous according to their means, with everyone asked to give at least enough to purchase 1/4 of a dunam (roughly 1/16 of an acre, or 250 square meters) of land. After all, continued the cry, “Fellow Jews! The sacrifice we ask of you is insignificantly small in comparison with the sacrifices of our brave Halutzim who are giving their all for the restoration of the homeland.”

Excerpt from an article urging international contributions to JNF on Tisha B’Av, published in The B’Nai B’Rith Messenger on July 16, 1926. Click for the full article

A mixture of Jewish guilt and Biblical inspiration was employed to encourage donors to open their wallets:

“Consult your own conscience, your Jewish heart, your racial pride and do your duty to your People. Claim no exception, attempt not to evade your own sense of duty, bring your brick towards the great structure, help redeem Erez Israel! From the grief over the Desolation, onward to the joy of Restoration!”

While different years had slightly different styles and themes, often relating to current events, it was generally the same call to action: Brave Jews in the Land of Israel need your support!

In 1924, donors were enticed with commemorative illustrated receipt booklets, a visual reminder of their help rebuilding the Land. Three years later, Tisha B’Av came just a few weeks after a devastating earthquake rattled the Levant. Jews were forbidden from praying at the Western Wall, after the authorities forbade it as a precaution following massive damage caused to many of Jerusalem’s structures. Nonetheless, instead of lamenting this additional point of sadness on the national day of mourning, the JNF encouraged donors around the globe to “shake to the core the indifference… of the many who could aid mightily in the speedy up-building of a Jewish Palestine”, and turn the day into “a splendid beginning… by swelling the coffers of the Jewish National Fund this Tisha B’Ab.”

Jerusalem following the 1927 earthquake. From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel. Click image to enlarge

In 1939, Biblical verses and powerful imagery were used to gather contributions and rally opposition to the recently published White Paper, which severely limited Jewish immigration to British Mandatory Palestine. Less than a decade later, the State of Israel was born, largely thanks to decades of financial and political support from Jews across the world.

“If I forget you Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning.” This image, published in The Sentinel on July 20, 1939, appeared as part of JNF efforts to raise funds and opposition to the White Paper. Click for the full article

It may seem strange or even inappropriate to use the saddest day on the Jewish calendar – one commemorating destruction, slaughter and expulsion – to fundraise. Yet, in a way, turning mourning into hope and action is a reflection of the resilient Jewish spirit over the centuries, and even more so of the Zionist dream to rebuild and resettle the very land from which the Jewish people were exiled millennia ago.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

If you liked this article, try these:

Rare Images: When the Land of Israel Shook in 1927

The Beautiful Postcards Theodor Herzl Sent to His Daughter

The Epidemic That Brought Jews Back to Jerusalem


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