Borochov, Ber

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BOROCHOV, BER (Dov; 1881–1917), Socialist Zionist leader and foremost theoretician; scholar of the history, economic structure, language, and culture of the Jewish people. A brilliant analyst, in debate as well as in writing, Borochov influenced wide circles of the emerging Jewish labor movement, first in Russia, later in Central and Western Europe and the U.S. He postulated the concept of an organic unity between scientific socialism and devotion to the national needs of the Jewish people. He thus freed many young Jewish intellectuals from their preoccupation with the seemingly irreconcilable contradiction between social revolution and Zionism. Borochov's main theoretical contribution was his synthesis of class struggle and nationalism, at a time when prevalent Marxist theory rejected all nationalism, and particularly Jewish nationalism, as distinctly reactionary. Borochov regarded the mass migration of Jews in his time as an inevitable elemental social phenomenon, expressing the inner drive of the Jewish proletariat to seek a solution to the problem of its precarious existence in the Diaspora, where it is uprooted and separated from the basic processes of production. The task of Socialist Zionism, Borochov maintained, was to prepare "a new territory," i.e., Ereẓ Israel, through a pioneering effort, for the concentration of the masses of Jewish migrants. This would prevent the perpetuation of the Diaspora through continued dispersion in alien lands and economies, creating instead a Jewish national economic body as a framework for the natural class struggle of the Jewish proletariat.


Borochov was born in Zolotonosha, Ukraine, and grew up in Poltava, where he was educated in a Russian high school. A studious youth, he early displayed a tendency toward philosophic thought and was influenced by the revolutionary socialist trends of his period. Like most Jewish high school graduates, he was denied entrance to a Russian university, which in any case he rejected as alien to his spirit, and embarked on a strenuous process of self-education. He gained erudition in various fields and fluency in several languages. Borochov joined the ranks of the Russian Social Democratic Party, but his interests in specifically Jewish problems led him, in 1901, to establish the Zionist Socialist Workers Union at Yekaterinoslav. The association, which was active in organizing Jewish self-defense and in promoting the interests of Jewish workers, was opposed by both the Russian Social Democrats (who refused to recognize the need for an independent Jewish workers' movement) and some Zionist leaders (who disliked the association of Zionism with socialism).

During the controversy in the Zionist movement about the Uganda Scheme, Borochov took a clear-cut "Palestinist" stand and cooperated closely with Menahem *Ussishkin and other leaders of the "Zion Zionists" who opposed any *territorialism other than in Ereẓ Israel. Borochov traveled throughout Russia to convince the newly founded groups of *Po'alei Zion against territorialist tendencies, which seemed to be gaining increasing influence in Socialist Zionism. He was a delegate to the Seventh Zionist Congress (1905), leading the faction of those Po'alei Zion delegates who were "faithful to Zion." During the ensuing debates among Socialist-Zionists over the territorial issue, the political struggle in the Diaspora, and Sejmism, it was largely Borochov who laid the ideological and organizational foundations of the Po'alei Zion movement. At a conference in Poltava (1906), the movement was renamed the "Jewish Workers' Social Democratic Party Po'alei Zion." Borochov crystallized its doctrine in his treatise "Our Platform" (published as a series in the Po'alei Zion Party organ Yevreyskaya Rabochaya Khronika from July 1906) and in supplementary articles and debates with other trends in the Jewish labor movement over the role of the Jewish proletariat and the national problem. In 1907, during the Eighth Zionist Congress at The Hague, Borochov participated in the founding of the World Union of Po'alei Zion, as a separate union (Sonderverband) in the World Zionist Organization. After the Eighth Zionist Congress, Borochov insisted on the withdrawal of Russian Po'alei Zion from the Zionist Organization in order to preserve the proletarian independence of Socialist Zionism. From 1907, when he left Russia, until the outbreak of World War i, Borochov worked as a publicist to further the aims of the World Union of Po'alei Zion in Western and Central Europe. He continued his philosophical studies and research into Yiddish language and literature. He left Vienna in 1914 and arrived in the U.S., where he continued his activities as a spokesman for the American Po'alei Zion as well as for the World and American Jewish Congress movements. He was also editor of and contributor to the New York Yiddish daily Di Warheit. With the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, Borochov returned to Russia, stopping en route in Stockholm to join the Po'alei Zion delegation at a session of an international Socialist Commission of neutral countries. There he helped formulate the demands of the Jewish people and working class in the manifesto for the postwar world order. When he arrived in Russia, Borochov became intensely involved in public activity during the stormy period before the October Revolution. In August 1917, in an address to the Russian Po'alei Zion Conference, Borochov called for socialist settlement in Ereẓ Israel. In September 1917, he read a paper to the "Congress of Nations" in Kiev on "Russia as a Commonwealth of Nations." In the course of a speaking tour he contracted pneumonia and died in Kiev. His remains were taken to Israel in 1963 for reinterment at the Kinneret cemetery, alongside the graves of other founders of Socialist Zionism. A workers' quarter near Tel Aviv, Shekhunat Borochov, now part of the township of Givatayim, was named after him.


Borochov's Socialist Zionist credo was never dogmatic, parochial, or static; it was universal and dynamic, the evolving product of continuous inquiry and study. In an attempt to analyze the Jewish situation and its problem along Marxist ideological and methodological lines, Borochov sought to probe "beyond the cultural and spiritual manifestations and to examine the deeper concealed foundations of the Jewish problem." The root of the problem, Borochov said, was the divorce of the Jewish people from its homeland. He considered a people "without a country, without an independent economic basis, and trapped in alien economic relations" to be a powerless national minority. The Diaspora was responsible for the fact that the "social physiology of the Jewish people is organically sick." It created the historic conditions in which Jewry was torn between the process of assimilation into, and the isolation from, the host society. The Diaspora had thus divided Jewry's strength, and, because of the ultimate prevalence of "alienating forces," exacerbated the tension between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors. The growing Jewish migration, while providing relief, was also testimony to Jewry's prolonged and aching conflict between ends and available means. The Jewish worker in the Diaspora occupied a particularly anomalous position. Since he lived in an economy in which petty, backward production predominated and was denied work in the modern, heavy industry, he had a narrow labor front and an abnormal, insufficient "strategic base" for his class struggle. As long as the Jewish economy was detached from those vital branches of production, which are "the axis of the historical wheel," the proletarization of the Jews would continue to be a slow, stunted, and uneven process.

In defining the Jewish problem, Borochov, while keenly aware of the constant threat of antisemitic outbursts in the Diaspora, never designated antisemitism as the fundamental basis or motivation of Zionism. He chose to view the whole of the Diaspora as a social aberration, reducing the Jews to a permanent state of economic inferiority and political helplessness. Thus, when proposing a solution to the problem, Borochov refused to believe that civil emancipation in the Diaspora, whether in a capitalist or socialist society, could, in itself, solve the Jewish problem. "Even when the State of Freedom will be established – and counterrevolution will be only a memory – the Jewish problem will still have to wait a long time for a specific answer." Assimilation, which Borochov attacked both theoretically and practically, was no less an anathema, whether in its bourgeois inception or in later socialist forms. The origins of assimilation – the mute antagonism between the successful individual and his miserable people – made it morally suspect, and an objective impossibility – the insurmountable objection of non-Jewish society – made it a dangerous daydream. Instead, the solution Borochov envisaged was a unique one, addressed to the particular needs of the Jews: only auto-emancipation, i.e., national self-liberation, could restore "to Jewish existence a healthy socio-economic basis, which is the keystone of national existence and national culture and the basis for a fruitful class struggle and socialist transformation of national life." This, he believed, was the Jewish people's particular road to socialist internationalism, a development which would herald the inevitable exodus from the Diaspora.

For Borochov, the Jewish renaissance and socialism were necessarily mutually interrelated, since Zionism and socialism together served the same purpose – making Jewish life productive again. Zionism was necessary because Jewish migratory movements disperse the Jewish masses into existing societies and economies, thus continuing the traditional Diaspora, instead of concentrating them in their own new territory. The first task, therefore, was to create the conditions necessary for an independent, sovereign national life, through a new trend in Jewish migration toward a new territory. The territory in question was destined to be Ereẓ Israel, Borochov said, for "the general pattern of Jewish dynamism" leads toward an ever-increasing "elemental" (stychic) migration to Ereẓ Israel. But this "elemental" mass migration (both his followers and opponents differed over the exact implications of the term) was the culmination of an enterprise which was to evolve from an initial pioneering stage in Ereẓ Israel. Thus, a positive, socialist, yearning for a pioneering way of life had to precede the mere recognition of the negative motives for an exodus from the Diaspora. This was the first task – the historic national mission – that Borochov assigned to the Jewish working class in the realization of Zionism. The Jewish worker was to be a "pioneer of the Jewish future," builder of the road to a territorial homeland for the whole Jewish people.

During his contact with the Jewish population in Western Europe and in the U.S., Borochov broadened many of his earlier concepts. Thus, Ereẓ Israel was to be not merely a strategic base for the class struggle of the Jewish proletariat, but a home for the entire Jewish people. Borochov, increasingly aware of the common fate of world Jewry and the universality of their problem in the Diaspora, also came to oppose any attempts to fragment Jewish history, as well as Jewish demography. He insisted that Jewish history was the chronicle of the Jewish masses' uninterrupted sense of self-pride and will to struggle. He acknowledged the vulnerability of the Jews and analyzed their dangerous position in the face of national renaissance movements on the one hand, and national-social antisemitism in Europe, which he perceived even before World War i, on the other. Yet he remained insistent that future international developments also held out hopeful and exciting promises for the Jewish people.

Literary Works

Borochov's literary efforts began in 1902 with a treatise "On the Nature of the Jewish Mind," published in Russian in a Zionist almanac. His 1905 article on "The Question of Zionist Theory," published in the Russian Zionist monthly Yevreyskaya Zhizn, decried the attempts of assimilationist Jews to reject Zionism and to rely on universal progress as the solution to the Jewish problem. Characteristically, Borochov raised the level of his polemics against the Uganda Scheme to one of fundamental principle, in his Russian treatise "On the Question of Zion and Territory" (1905). In it he introduced a materialist-historical analysis of the Jewish problem, establishing Zionism as an elemental force produced by Jewry's plight and sustained by its pioneering elements, becoming the true national liberation movement of the Jewish people. The pamphlet Class Factors in the National Question, which he published in the same year, was one of the first ventures at applying Marxist theory to the national question. Drawing a distinction between the nationalism of oppressed peoples and that of oppressing nations, Borochov investigated its expression at various class levels. He concluded that only the oppressing nationalism was "reactionary," whereas nationalism of the oppressed did not obscure class consciousness. On the contrary, this latter nationalism, flourishing among the progressive elements, "impels them toward real liberation of the nation, normalization of the conditions and relationships of production, and the creation of necessary conditions for the true freedom of national self-determination."

Borochov's writings during the 1907–14 period retain special value as contributions to contemporary historiography. His thesis on "The Jewish Labor Movement in Figures" (published posthumously) is a penetrating and original statistical-sociological analysis of the "economic physiology" of the Jewish people. One of the central topics of his ideology, Jewish migration and its social implications, was treated in a brochure published in 1911 in Galicia. He contributed articles to the Russian Jewish Encyclopedia on various aspects of Jewish life and history. He wrote in 1908 "Virtualism and the Religious-Ethical Problem in Marxism" (published posthumously in 1920), a polemical tract against A. Lunacharsky's "Socialism and Religion." His essays "The Tasks of Jewish Philology" (1912–13) and "The Library of the Jewish Philologist" (a bibliography of 400 years of Yiddish research) marked his place among the scholars of Jewish language and culture. Borochov's literary works revealed the wide range of his sustained creativity. There is a vast literature on Borochov the man, his life, and his teachings in Yiddish, Hebrew, and other languages. L. Levite et al. (eds.), B. Borochov Ketavim, 3 vols. (1955–66) is the best edition of his works; of special importance are the notes attached to each volume. Also in Hebrew is Z. Shazar (comp.), B. Borochov, Ketavim Nivḥarim (1944). There is a short selection in English edited by M. Cohen entitled Nationalism and the Class Struggle (1937). In Yiddish there are Po'alei Zion New York, Geklibene Shriften D.B. Borochovs (1935); B. Locker (ed.), Geklibene Schriften (1928); in German the anthology Klasse und Nation: zur Theorie und Praxis des juedischen Nationalismus (1932) and Sozialismus und Zionismuseine Synthese: Ausgewaehlte Schriften (1932).


Duker, in: M. Cohen (ed.), Nationalism and the Class Struggle (1937), 17–55; Shazar, in: B. Borochov Ketavim Nivḥarim (1944), 19–40 (first pagination); Ben-Zvi, ibid., 7–18 (first pagination); M.A. Borochov, in: B. Locker (ed.), Geklibene Shriften Borochovs (1928), 11–29 (first pagination); Ben-Zvi, ibid., 33–48 (first pagination); J. Zerubavel, Ber Borochov, 1 (Yid., 1926); A. Herzberg, The Zionist Idea (1960), 352–66; M. Minc, Ber Borochov 1900-Purim 1906 (1968), Heb. with Eng. summ.

[Lev Levite]