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Once Forgotten But Always a Legend: Israeli Pioneer, Manya Shochat

Randy Pinsky 

When one thinks of a powerful and influential woman in Israel’s history, former Prime Minister Golda Meir inevitably comes to mind. However, there are countless others who have remained largely unnamed, yet who had an indelible impact in the creation of Israel.

Prime among these obscured giants was the fierce and bespeckled Manya Shochat, founder of Israel’s iconic kibbutz (communal farming) system and promoter of Jewish self-defense.

In honor of International Women’s Day, we explore the fascinating past of this dynamic powerhouse of social justice, to raise her to the legend Manya Shochat truly was[1].

Before Golda, There Was Manya

“[Manya] Shochat’s life story reads like fiction,” noted Ha’Aretz in honor of the 54th anniversary of her passing, yet her achievements in shaping the distinctive nature of Israel makes her as deserving of recognition as other Israeli leaders. A true visionary, Manya was “one of the most daring and imaginative pioneers of the Second Aliyah wave of immigration to pre-state Israel.”

Indeed, Manya was “a figure of extreme complexity who might have come out of a nineteenth century Russian novel,” noted Amos Elon of The Israeli: Founders and Sons. “She was incredibly tough and unbelievably charitable, sentimental and fearless.” 

Fighting for Rights in Russia

Though she was brought up in a wealthy Jewish household near Belarus, Manya Wilbushewitz (1880-1961) was a revolutionary idealist. Immersed in the “turbulent years of Russian political and ideological turmoil,” she was intrigued by worker rights movements, even setting up secret evening sessions where laborers were taught basic literacy, history, economics and socialism. She joined various activist groups, where she resolved to commit her life to empowering the downtrodden.

In 1902, she led a strike in her brother’s factory in Minsk, mobilizing 500 workers; the first of many efforts to improve working conditions for industrial and agricultural laborers.

Manya’s activism however, did not escape notice, and she was arrested by the authorities. 

"Social Change...and Devastation"

While in prison, she was befriended by Sergei Zubatov, head of the czar’s secret police, who shared her desire for better workers’ rights. Cognizant of what would work with the regime, he advised her that a non-political labor movement would be more successful than the military overthrow avowed by the revolutionaries.

Upon her release, Manya founded the Jewish Independent Labor Movement (1901-1903). Her liaison with the secret police gained protection for the Jewish community and improved worker rights, however was disapproved by Jewish socialist groups such as the Bund who did not trust this association.

Their suspicions would prove correct with the firing of Zubatov and the mobilization of anti-Semitic and anti-revolutionary sentiment, resulting in the horrific 1903 pogrom of Kishinev.

This experience reinforced Manya’s belief that the Jewish people needed to be able to defend themselves. In affiliation with underground movements, she smuggled weapons and was part of a conspiracy to assassinate the Minister of the Interior who had instigated the pogrom.

Escape to Israel

Fearing for his sister, Nahum Wilbushewitz feigned illness to compel her to visit him in pre-state Israel in 1904. His foresight saved her life as the assassination plot would be exposed by an informant and all the members of the operation, murdered.

Reeling from the shock, Manya toured the country, trying to find inspiration. Her keen eye noticed the inefficient and struggling agricultural settlements and in a six-week tour on horseback, compiled an in-depth statistical survey. “I became tied to the land with a deep love, an unusual love, which filled my entire soul, mind and emotions,” she wrote.“It was as if a tie had been renewed between us that was 2,000 years old.”

Her conclusion? Communal agricultural collectives; the model for future kibbutzim.

Manya challenged the status quo of Jewish landowners employing Arab laborers and relying on wealthy philanthropists like Baron Rothschild as there was no incentive for commitment or profit. With the high unemployment and starvation of the recently arrived Second Aliyah immigrants, Manya argued, “Jewish self-sufficiency was critical to the development of Ere[t]z Israel.”  

? What’s a Kibbutz?

In order to sell this idea, she extensively studied communal farming collectives, evaluating options for Israel.

She struggled to convince individuals of the merits of her idea. One influential Zionist and physician, Hillel Yaffe, even flatly told her, “There is no hope whatsoever for your plan. You will not find people who believe in such a thing.”

In spite of this discouragement, Manya somehow managed to convince Rothschild to allow her to lead a socio-economic farming experiment at Sejera in the lower Galilee, west of Lake Kinneret. Seventeen other pioneers would join her in working and defending the land. 

“All the Elements…Were Finally in Place”

Sejera would be the home of many of the great builders and leaders of Israel, including future Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel's second president.

Through the socio-economic experiment, the team was able to “prove[ ] that Jewish laborers had the ability and the incentive to make the Land of Israel bloom [as well as] the tenacity to stand guard over their own fields.” 

“That was the happiest year of my life,” shared Manya. “We felt that we were creating a basis for collective work for the future."

Women as Partners

Sejera would also be revolutionary in the equal roles and responsibilities for men and women. “In those days, there was no possibility for girls ‘of our type’ to find any kind of work,” noted one female recruit. “[At Sejera], we were equal in all the work…the unforgettable picture of Jewish girls wearing pants, ploughing behind the oxen.”

Beyond farming and building, they were also obliged to take guard duty.

Manya was very strong, and her idea was that all women should be strong and could thus take part in all the difficult and dangerous work which men do.” 


While at Sejera, Manya met the fiery Yisrael Shochat. Intrigued by his energy and push for Jewish self-reliance, in 1908, she helped co-found the Bar-Giora secret society to protect against Arab bandits. It would later be renamed HaShomer (‘the guardians’) and be the precursor to the Haganah and then the Israel Defense Forces.[2]

“Dressed in Bedouin clothing, a rifle on her shoulder, [Manya] took her turn to ride out on horseback and defend the settlement.

The two were undefeatable in their energy and inexhaustible commitment for change, and soon got married. They would also lead the movement for the Histadrut (Jewish Labor Union) political party in 1921, helping guide the state towards independence[3].

With World War l looming, HaShomer sent the couple to Turkey to study Turkish law; imperative due to the Ottoman control of the land, and for future interactions with neighboring Arab countries. When war broke out, Turkey became increasingly suspicious of Jewish settlement activities and ordered them to give up all arms[4].

Thus started a campaign for raising funds for the movement as well as needed weapons. Manya would also purchase arms for those struggling in anti-Semitic Russia. 

Courage and Daring

In defiance of the orders to disarm, Manya smuggled in grenades, hiding them in baskets of fruits and vegetables. Once stopped by a convoy of Indian soldiers, she distracted them by requesting assistance for her truck mired in mud, cautioning them to be careful of her freshly collected eggs. Nothing was suspected, and the desperately needed arms were safely delivered.

Manya was revolutionary in her stamina, forthrightness, and commitment to Israel.[5] Friend Esther Becker shared, “Manya captivated me. [She] had enormous power of persuasion…She was courageous in her nightly guard duty…had enormous initiative, she had a feel for new ideas, and actualized them in her life.”

A woman of incredible inner strength and conviction, Manya Shochat was “both idealistic and pragmatic.” Though her name has not garnered the prestige of those like Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan, the legacy of her impact was reinforced in the aptly named biography, Before Golda, written by her long-time friend and co-patriot, Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi.[6]


[1] She is among those featured in A Voice Called: Stories of Jewish Heroes (2010, Gefen Publishing). 

[2] The HaShomer motto was, “In blood and fire, Judea fell; in blood and fire, she shall rise again

[3] In spite of her demonstrated commitment, Shochat was not given a post in the new government once the state of Israel was established in 1948. 

[4] They smuggled in weapons and created the first arms factory, fronting as a farm equipment repair shop.

[5] She would also be at the forefront of Jewish-Arab dialogue, founding the League for Arab-Jewish Friendship in 1930. 

[6] Israel’s second First Lady, wife of President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi.

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