Berl Katznelson left his mark on a nation. Both a doer and dreamer, he combined idealism with preparation. In so doing he became the undisputed leader of the labor movement in what would become Israel, and one of the major figures in Zionism.
Katznelson was born in 1887, in a town just south of Minsk in today’s Belarus. His mother died when he was still a young child. So his father, a maskil—a man influenced by haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment—who worked as a merchant, raised him singlehandedly. Katznelson senior was a member of an early Zionist group called Hovevei Zion and imbued his son with a passion for Zionism. He became active in socialist Zionist movement as a young man.
Katznelson was just 10 years old when Theodor Herzl chaired the first World Zionist Congress in the Swiss German town of Basel 1897. As he got older, so, too, the fledgling political movement grew. At the same time, the Russian Empire was the scene of violent pogroms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including in Kishinev, Moldova in 1903 and at Odessa in the Ukraine in 1905. Tens of thousands of Jews were killed; hundreds of thousands, millions even, emigrated.
While the majority dreamed of sanctuary and pursued opportunity in America, known in Yiddish as the goldene medina, increasing numbers looked not west but east, to Palestine. They looked to eretz yisrael—a land to which they referred in the sacred tongue of Hebrew rather than in the every day and more profane vernacular of Yiddish. Only in a Jewish state, they believed, could a Jew as an individual and could Jews as a people live free.
While Jewish communities were being attacked in pogroms, Jews faced a dilemma. It was all very well looking to the United States or to some outlandish—luftgesheft, in Yiddish—pipedream of a Jewish state in Palestine, but they happened to be in Pinsk or Minsk. Or in the case of Katznelson, in Bobruisk. They needed to improve their lives there, to defend themselves in communities in which they lived. So it was that Katznelson became involved in the local Jewish self-defense organization, which was affiliated with the Zionists but dealt with the realpolitik of living in a land in which their people and possessions might arbitrarily be attacked while, when they weren’t openly supporting the pogroms, the Tsarist authorities would look the other way.
In addition to his work with Jewish self-defense groups, Katznelson taught Hebrew literature and Jewish history at a local girls school and ran a Hebrew-Yiddish library. The revival of the Jews’ ancient tongue, Hebrew, which had in exile been replaced by local languages and Jewish languages that drew from local tongues, such as Ladino and Yiddish, was a primary priority for Zionists. Although the vast majority of early Zionists spoke Yiddish—although their political leader Theodor Herzl did not; he was a German-speaking Jew from Budapest and later Vienna—they wanted to develop a revived (or old-new to paraphrase Herzl) language for use in their revived state. So Hebrew language lessons and libraries were critical. Nevertheless, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Katznelson refused to speak Hebrew in the Diaspora, even with his teacher. “He spoke Hebrew to me and I spoke Yiddish to him,” Katznelson recalled. Only in a Jewish state would he speak Hebrew.
And Katznelson planned to make this a reality. To do so he needed a trade for when he arrived in Palestine, one he could employ to help build the Jewish state. So ahead of making aliyah Katznelson trained as a blacksmith and ironmonger, two skills he could use in addition to the agrarian work the early Zionist pioneers engaged in. Through labor, Katznelson and his fellow socialist Zionists looked to reshape Jews. Jews would not just be a people with a land for the first time in millennia, they would be a people would work their land. Whether confined to shtetls or living in towns and cities, European Jews were, as a rule, not connected to the land, the fields, on which they lived, however invested in they may have been in the country. Either legally or de facto, Jews were rarely landowners in Eastern Europe. There were trades that Jews traditionally performed, and there were trades that it was customary for Christians to have. Agriculture was, more often than not, on the non-Jewish side of the divide.
Katznelson and his comrades wanted to change this, to develop a new Jew in Palestine. Socialist Zionists wanted to create a rooted Jewish proletariat in Palestine, a community that, like the peasants among whom they lived in the Russian Empire, were tied to the land. The importance of this connectedness to the land is still evident today, and when Israelis refer to their country, instead of saying Israel they will almost invariably talk of “haaretz,” which literally means “the land.”
After learning a trade in Belarus, Katznelson was ready to emigrate. He was ready in time for the Second Aliyah, the emigration from Eastern Europe of around 40,000 Jews between 1909 and 1914. While this was just a small proportion of the total number of Jews emigrating from Russia and Poland at the time, who numbered some 2 million, it was a massive number of Jews to be immigrating to Palestine, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. The Second Aliyah was a major injection of numbers, vitality and idealism to the pre-state Jewish project. While many Jews emigrated from Eastern Europe to avoid the poverty and persecution that blighted their lives, among them a core of idealists strove to create a communal, agrarian, socialist Jewish homeland (their most famous achievement to that end was the creation of the kibbutz movement). Katznelson was one of the most prominent of these idealists, and he was also one of the first when he made aliyah in 1909.
On arriving in Ottoman Palestine, Katznelson worked in agriculture in the Galilee and became involved in activities on behalf of agricultural laborers. In battling for better working conditions and workers’ rights, Katznelson helped create organizations that would become part of the infrastructure of the Jewish state. In 1920, he helped to found the labor union the Histradut, which is today Israel’s organization of trade unions. The Histradut played a major role in Labor Zionism and the two parties—the Israeli Labor party and Mapai—that in turn produced the first five prime ministers of Israel from David Ben-Gurion at its creation in 1948 until Menachem Begin in 1977. Katznelson also helped to establish a fund for sick workers that became and remains an important component of Israel’s national healthcare system. (Unlike the United States, Israel is a country that enjoys universal healthcare.)
As part of his passionate advocacy of labor rights activist and socialism, in 1925 Katznelson established a newspaper, “Davar,” which would serve as the mouthpiece of working Zionists. He served as editor of Davar from its creation until his death, whereupon the future President of Israel Zalman Shazar took the position. Although he died in 1944, and never got to see the realization of much of his life’s labor, the creation of a Jewish state, like a father who dies while his wife is pregnant with his child Katznelson had a formative influence on the state of Israel. A rare combination of dreamer and doer, idealist and pragmatist, intellectual and agricultural worker, Katznelson was devoted to workers’ rights and to building a state for the Jews that was better and more equal. As he put it himself:
“We workers here are not simply a small fraction of the Jewish working class, but a completely unique group that is a self-reliant, self-supporting elite…. If we are ever to enter into a relationship with a movement in the Diaspora, it will have to be a movement not merely interested in Eretz Israel, but dedicated to the ideal of personal Aliyah, to a life of labor and liberation of the personality.”
“Those who will find here a hold for their souls, an anvil for their hands and vitality for their hearts,” Berl Katznelson once said, “will build both their lives and the land.”