Dov Ber Borochov

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Dov Ber Borochov

Dov Ber Borochov (1881-1917) was an early Zionist thinker who reconciled Judaism and Marxism.

Dov Ber Borochov was born in an obscure Ukranian village in 1881 and died of pneumonia while on a speaking tour of Russia in 1917. In his brief lifespan he became what some described as a modern Moses Maimonides. That medieval philosopher had reconciled Judaism and Aristotelian thought. Borochov, perhaps the finest of the early Zionist thinkers, reconciled Judaism and Marxism. While orthodox Marxism contended that nationalism, no less than religion, was an opiate of the people, Borochov distinguished between two types of nationalism. The first type was that of the dominant group; the second was the expression of the dominated. His philosophical acumen enabled him to show how Marxist theory could be utilized for the sake of Jewish nationalism.

He was not only concerned with theory but also with organizing Jewish workers. His influence on the Poalei Zion (Zionist Worker's Party) extends from his own time through present day Israeli politics. His example stimulated Jewish immigration to the land of Israel and his forceful personality influenced many Russian Jews who formed the nucleus of the settlement (Yishuv) which would develop into the modern state of Israel. The Poalei Zion Party which bore his stamp became influential in Israeli politics and his thought remains influential today. In 1963 his remains were brought to Israel and buried in the Kinneret Cemetery together with those of many other early Zionists, some of whom he had opposed vigorously.

His Early Life

Borochov was born in Zolotonosha in the Ukraine and grew up in the slightly larger city of Poltava. He was educated in a Russian high school but was denied entrance to a Russian university. Unlike most Jewish radicals of his time he had never studied in a Yeshiva, a school of higher Jewish learning. While assimilated to the general culture, however, he felt the sting of anti-semitism and this pushed him into Zionism. His discontent with the Czarist system led him to join the Russian Social Democratic Party. In 1901, however, he established a Zionist Social Worker's Union at Yekaterinoslav and was expelled from the Russian Social Democratic Party. He himself, on the other hand, claims that his expulsion came because he was a bad influence on the workers since he "taught them to think for themselves."

His thought at that time centered on the problem of the Jewish people, on anti-semitism, and on the difference between the nationalism of dominating peoples and the nationalism of the dominated. This latter he identified with Zionism. He suggested that Marx and Engels had both recognized that the dynamics of socialism and the needs of workers were different in different contexts. Borochov's unorthodox Marxism claimed that Jewish problems could only be solved by merging the nationalism of the oppressed with the revolution of the workers. His focus on the problematic conditions of the Jewish people marked him as different from mainstream Marxists. His essay "on the nature of the Jewish Mind" (1902) is characteristic of his thought at this period.

Borochov and Poalei Zion

From 1905 to 1907 he worked with the World Zionist Organization, hoping to use it as a basis for the Jewish socialism he envisioned. His first major study of this period, "The National Question and the Class Struggle" (1905), described the different impact made by conditions of production in different social and historical contexts. He argued that together with the vertical class system of upper and lower classes there is also a horizontal one separating different ethnic-linguistic-cultural groups within a society. Jews represent an oppressed class on this horizontal level while the Jewish workers are the victims of the vertical class system. They are the only ones whose position in both systems is identical and only they can become the bearers of a national liberation movement.

During this period in his life Borochov helped organize and develop the Poalei Zion, the Zionist Worker's Party, throughout Russia. He attended the World Zionist Congress in 1904 and vigorously attacked Theodor Herzl's plan to settle Jews in Uganda. Such a program of territorialism (as it was called) went against his view of the political facts. Borochov argued that only the land of Israel presented an opportunity for Jewish colonization. Despite his usual realism he was naive about the Palestinian Arabs, who he claimed shared a common heritage with the Jews and who would willingly join them in a joint cultural revival. His arguments for this position were expressed in "On the Question of Zion and Territory" (1905). At the same time he was developing his own views of Zionism and socialism. His attack on Jewish assimilationists in "On the Question of Zionist Theory" (1905) demonstrated his insistence upon Jewish nationalism. Throughout 1905 he travelled up and down Russia organizing Poalei Zion groups for whom he became a delegate to the World Zionist Congress. In 1906 he crystalized his views in the programmatic statement "Our Platform, " which distinguished Poalei Zion from the World Zionist Organization. After the 1907 World Zionist Congress he led the Poalei Zion out of the World Zionist Organization, founding the World Union of Poalei Zion.

Years of Maturation

The third stage in his development, from 1907 to 1917, was spent largely in exile from Russia. First he went to Vienna and then in 1914 to the United States. There he contributed to the New York Yiddish Daily Di Warheit and engaged in research in Yiddish. His work during this time has been underestimated by many critics. He turned from theoretical studies to more concrete analysis of sociological data and Yiddish culture. He remained a controversial figure in American Zionist life. His support of the American involvement on the side of Russia in World War I—when many Jews retained sympathies with Germany—was controversial. The fruits of this period were both scholarly and personal. His study "The Jewish Labor Movement in Figures" and his scholarly articles on the Yiddish language show a keen sense of Jewish culture and sociological reality. His ideas matured and he synthesized various elements and themes in his work. He spread these ideas when, after the Russian revolution, he returned to Russia in 1917 for a speaking tour. During that tour he caught pneumonia and died in Kiev.

Further Reading

There is no full scale work devoted to Borochov in English, although much has appeared in Hebrew and Yiddish. An interesting chapter on Borochov can be found in Gershon Winer, The Founding Fathers of Israel (1971). The studies of Matityahu Mintz are extremely important, although most of them are in Hebrew. In English see his "Ber Borokhov, in "Studies in Zionism" (April 1982). It would also be helpful to consult David Vital, Zionism: The Formative Years (Oxford, 1982). □