At the turn of the last century, a group of German or German-trained Zionists around Otto Warburg (1859-1900) decided to take charge of the creation of a Jewish wonderland in Palestine. Otto Warburg is nowadays mainly forgotten. Even though he shaped, literally, the face of the Yishuv and Israel. Today’s Israel, this (at least partially) green, lush, somehow European, and agriculture-wise extremely productive country is a result that traces back to the days of Warburg and his fellows. Palestine’s botanical transformation was an endeavor fostered by a part of this group: The main protagonists of this “Botanical Zionism” were German or German-educated scientists (agronomists, botanists, scholars, entomologists, cartographers, and adventurers) who were gathering around Otto Warburg.
Warburg regarded the creation of a healthy, productive, and green Palestinian landscape as crucial for the establishment of a Jewish state. Zionism was a European political movement that traced back to the late 19th century and envisioned the establishment of a Jewish national state in the Holy Land, Palestine. The longing for Palestine was mostly related to a symbolic or cultural relationship with the land rather than being connected to its economical or strategic meaning. Zionism soon split into two major branches: the so-called political Zionism relied on diplomacy in order to realize a charter for Palestine. The second branch, so called practical Zionism, believed in “creating facts” as a means to establish a Jewish homeland. Warburg and the plant researchers that surrounded him were part of the second branch – they regarded plants and science as powerful tools to create facts in Zion.
This is hardly surprising, if one has a closer look at Warburg’s biography.
Warburg was born in 1859 into a very wealthy, well-known family of Jewish bankers (other Warburgs such as Aby or the homonymous plant physiologist were relatives of his). Warburg was raised in a secular, humanist tradition. Later on, when he was already a famous Zionist, people would be astonished about how little he in fact knew about Judaism.
In his youth, Warburg fell madly in love with science. After his Abitur in 1879, Warburg decided to study Botany, Zoology and Chemistry. His professors were part of the scientific elite of his time: Anton de Bary, Wilhelm Pfeffer, Adolf von Bayer. Botany was a rather unusual occupation for a young Jew at that time, as Warburg’s collegue Michael Evenari reminds us: “Botany was a hardly a suitable occupation for a good Jewish boy.”
Warburg traveled from 1885 to 1896. He stayed for almost a year at the Dutch botanical station of Buitenzorg in Java, but he also visited Kew Gardens and Dahlem, India and Ceylon, Japan, China, and Australia. Otto Warburg was about becoming Germany’s most respected colonial botanist.
But Warburg’s life took a different direction when he approached his 40’s. Even though he was rather indifferent towards Judaism, Warburg discovered Zionism. This might be connected to the fact that he was married to Gustav Gabriel Cohen’s daughter Anna. Cohen was an early advocate of Zionism. Maybe Anna und Gustav Gabriel were the ones to blame for Wabrug’s conversion to Zionism. Maybe Warburg also feared a deadlock in his professional career because of his Jewish origin.
However, Herzl’s ethos of political Zionism never convinced Warburg fully, even though he recognized the importance of the “awakening of the consciousness, the mood of the practically sometimes undefined but necessary, the atmosphere, the great coaction of the diaspora, the ideal”. Warburg yearned for practical work in Palestine and for creating facts. He did not believe in the means of diplomacy as Herzl and the so-called political Zionists did. His hands were tied. He continued donating the Shekel, but it was only in 1901, when Herzl declared “groundwork” in Palestine as possible, Warburg decided to become an active Zionist.
Even though Warburg never settled in Palestine, he was indeed responsible for the creation of a plenty of facts on Palestinian ground within 30 years: Warburg established the first research institutions in Palestine such as the botanical experiment station of Atlith in 1910, he organized scientific expeditions in Palestine and other parts that seemed appetizing to the Zionists. Warburg also helped creating Bezalel, an art and craft academy, he furnished Herzl’s books with beautiful botanical descriptions, he planted forests such as the Herzlwald, and he managed institutionalizing botany and natural history at the Hebrew University.
For Warburg, botany and agronomy were means to consolidate Palestine economically or, in other terms, strategies for gaining the charter and establishing a Jewish state. It is only slightly exaggerated to state that these scientific disciplines were, in Warburg’s eyes, strategies to compensate a lack of political, economic, and military power.
Dana von Suffrin is currently finishing her PhD at the department for the history of science at LMU Munich. In her thesis she investigates the history of plants and "botanical zionism" in the Yishuv.