The initiative behind the creation of ha-ʿAm (Heb. ‘The Nation’) came from the journalist and writer Bentsiyon Katz (1875–1958) and the publication of the newspaper was one of the major Hebrew endeavours that took place in Moscow from 1915 to 1918. Already during his stay in St Petersburg in 1916, Katz had succeeded in producing four pamphlets bearing the title ha-ʿAm or Ḥayyey ha-ʿAm (Heb. ‘The Life of the nation’), dedicated ‘to the questions of life, to literature, and to science’. As a result of a ban on the publication of these pamphlets, Katz decided to shift the printing of the Hebrew publications to Moscow, which was further away from the battlefields of the Great War. Following great efforts, he received a license in 1916 to print a literary and commentary weekly called ha-ʿAm in Moscow. Katz forwarded the license to the Zionist Organisation headquarters in Russia, which bankrolled the official publisher of the weekly, Eliezer Tcherikover (1868–1928), one of the leading Zionist figures in Moscow. In this manner, Katz was able to circumvent the Tsarist 1915 ban on Hebrew press in the Russian Empire and revive the Hebrew-language press in the country.
One can divide the lifespan of ha-ʿAm into three periods: that of the Tsarist Empire (November 1916–February 1917), that of the Russian Republic (March 1917–October 1917), and that of Soviet Russia (November 1917–June 1918).
The first issue of the weekly appeared on 13/26 November 1916 (Old Style/New Style), three months before the revolution of February 1917. The event was not simply a literary one, but also a national and public occasion of the first degree. The weekly contained about twenty pages and its circulation exceeded seven thousand copies. The first issues of ha-ʿAm included political articles by Max Nordau (1849–1923) and Yitzhak Gruenbaum (1879–1970), while the literary section of the newspaper contained works by Mendele Mokher Sefarim (Sholem Yankev Abramovitsch, 1835–1917), Ḥayyim Naḥman Bialik (1873–1934), and others.
A special addition to ha-ʿAm entitled ‘The Revolution’ appeared in issue no. 15 (24 February/09 March 1917), heralding the February 1917 Revolution in Russia. In its aftermath, the nature of the newspaper changed entirely, now dealing with urgent issues on the agenda: the promotion of the national rights of the Jews in Russia following the Revolution, the activity of the Zionist movement, Hebrew and national Jewish education, the planned all-Russian Jewish congress, the status of Palestine following the Great War, and more. On 11/24 July 1917, ha-ʿAm became a daily newspaper. In its quotidian form, the newspaper allocated much space to the events then taking place in St Petersburg and in other cities during the turbulent days of the summer and autumn of 1917. The circulation of the newspaper during this period stood at about fifteen thousand copies, full of varied information on the course of the war and on political life — both general and Jewish — in Russia and abroad.
In issue no. 38 (03/16 September 1917), the newspaper marked for the first time the strengthening influence of the Bolsheviks. Bentsiyon Katz wrote the following in issue no. 68, which appeared on 25 October/07 November 1917, the day on which the October Revolution began: ‘The danger of “Bolshevism” is growing from day to day … members of the government are in their [viz., the Bolsheviks’] eyes counter-revolutionaries, whose place is in prison’. In his memoirs, Katz later wrote that on that very evening, two hours after finishing typesetting an article that he wrote for the newspaper, ‘two soldiers came to the staff headquarters, and when I asked them if they had a certificate, they showed me their rifles: this was their certificate. They scattered the typeset article and, on the next day, no newspaper appeared in Russia, since every newspaper office received a visit such as this from soldiers’.
The publication of ha-ʿAm began again in December 1917, appearing thereafter as a weekly containing very diverse content. The newspaper adopted a negative stance towards the Bolshevik government. In a survey of the events in Russia, Shmuel Chernovich (1879–1929) characterised the new régime in the following terms: ‘this régime of [Vladimir] Lenin and [Leon] Trotsky and the other ‘people’s commissars ’— their orbiting planets, who do not really do anything but the will of these two dictators — it is the same single rule of [Tsar] Nikolai [II] in a different form but without a change of substance’. Ha-ʿAm’s daily publication began again, apparently, in March 1918; the newspaper promoted the Balfour Declaration as a blessing and its Zionist character continued to stand out. Bentsiyon Katz remained alone as its only editor and the newspaper became ‘slimmer’. In issue no. 36 (19 April 1918), Moses Kleinman (1870–1948) wrote about the response of the general public to the tide of disturbances that flooded the former Russian Empire in the spring of 1918. The reaction of the Russian public completely disappointed the writer: ‘The blood of our brothers, which is flowing like water, has absolutely no value to them at all … and again, we sense our terrible isolation in this world of socialists, [who claim to be] reformers of the world’.
The newspaper continued to operate with relative freedom for some time. Bentsiyon Katz recalled in his memoirs: ‘I wrote with total liberty against Bolshevism, without abuse or insult, but in a bold tone’. According to Bentsiyon Katz, ha-ʿAm closed because of a fine of ten thousand rubles which the newspaper was unable to pay: ‘the expenses mounted tremendously and ha-ʿAm shut down’. The final issue of the weekly and of the newspaper as a whole, no. 65, appeared on 03 June 1918. Ha-ʿAm was the last Hebrew daily newspaper to be published on Russian soil.