Katznelson, Berl

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KATZNELSON, BERL (Beeri ; 1887–1944), central figure of the Second Aliyah, a leader of the Zionist Labor movement, educator, and writer. Born in Bobruisk, Belorussia, son of a merchant, maskil, and a member of Ḥovevei Zion, Katznelson was a frail child. He attended ḥeder irregularly and was taught by private tutors, with his father's well-stocked Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian library serving as a constant source of instruction and knowledge. A passionate reader with an exceptional memory and keen interest in current problems, he mastered Hebrew literature and Russian revolutionary and scientific writing, took the requisite state examinations, and served for some time as tutor in a rural family.

In 1902, as an usher at the Russian Zionist Conference in Minsk, Katznelson was deeply impressed by Ḥ.D. *Horowitz's lecture on the abnormality of the Jewish economic structure. While still young, he had already developed a reputation as an acute and independent-minded debater on theoretical problems of nationalism and socialism. In his own neighborhood, as well as in Kiev and Odessa, he took part in public discussions with leaders of the various movements, including Ber *Borochov. Although he first joined *Po'alei Zion, Katznelson shifted his allegiance to the *Zionist-Socialists, whose leaders, Naḥman *Syrkin, Jacob *Lestschinsky, and Nahum *Shtif, were convinced by their study of contemporary Jewish life that the future of the Diaspora would be dark and uncertain. For a short time Katznelson joined the ranks of Ha-Teḥiyyah, attracted by its national spirit, revolutionary anti-Czarist ardor, and devotion to Jewish self-defense, including such terrorist acts as the attempted assassination of Krushevan, the organizer of the Kishinev pogrom. He was repelled, however, by its lack of interest in actual settlement in Ereẓ Israel, as well as its negative attitude toward the revival of Hebrew.

In Bobruisk, Katznelson took a post in a school for poor girls, subsidized by the Jewish Society for the Propagation of Enlightenment (Mefiẓei Haskalah), where he taught Hebrew literature and Jewish history, both in Yiddish, and sent to the society's headquarters reports that were published in its monthly pedagogic journal. He also served as librarian in the Hebrew-Yiddish public library that had been established in Bobruisk to counter the municipality's Russian library. Beloved by the young people who came to him for books, he became their guide and teacher.

In 1908, Katznelson wrote in one of his letters: "What I want is to go to Ereẓ Israel, to do something worthwhile, to light a little spark. I am drawn to the stubborn, hard-working few who have abandoned everything they had here to begin a new life and free themselves of Exile." This had been his goal since childhood. In order to achieve it and to be able to bring his family after him, he decided to learn a trade. At first he worked for a tinsmith; then went to the "Trud" Trade School in Odessa, where he was an iron engraver; and finally he became a laborer in a Bobruisk foundry. Lacking dexterity, he found these efforts enormously difficult and became deeply depressed. In the fall of 1908, after having been rejected for military service and suffering from a severe illness, he was able to sail from Odessa with his pay from the Hebrew library and a prize from the Society for the Propagation of Enlightenment.

Katznelson felt that the Zionist movement had begun by summoning the Jewish people to greatness, but only a decade later its leaders were lost in trifles, playing with superficial nationalism and elections to parliaments in the countries of the Diaspora. Even Labor Zionism, initially inspired by messianic hopes for the Jewish people and the world, had become the "servant of alien revolutions." His own comrades were opposed to his aliyah, and he kept his departure a secret from virtually all of them. Though he met disillusioned young people returning to Europe from Ereẓ Israel both in Odessa and in Jaffa, he was undismayed by their scorn for Zionism and for the "naive newcomers misled by Zionist propagandists." When he landed at Jaffa, making his way among the crowds of Arabs on the shore, he felt certain that this was his "final destination" and that he had broken completely with the past. His only friend in Ereẓ Israel, whom he knew from home, was the poet David Shimonovitz (*Shimoni), who had left a few months before Katznelson and had become a watchman in the vineyards of Judea.

Katznelson found work at Bahria, about an hour by foot from *Petaḥ Tikvah. He shared a room in *Ein Gannim with A.D. *Gordon and Joseph Ḥayyim *Brenner, who quickly became his closest friends. As he was employed only intermittently, he spent much time wandering about the country. His observations led him to question the value of "the conquest of labor" in the Jewish villages, although this was then the principal goal of the labor movement. He was depressed by the poverty and dependence of the workers in those villages; by the Jewish overseers armed with whips; and by the farmers’ eagerness to employ Arabs. He envisaged instead free settlement of self-employed workers on the nationally owned land of the *Jewish National Fund (jnf). His devotion to the principles of the jnf led him to conceive the idea of the small-holders’ cooperative (later called *moshav ovedim), while his pursuit of equality in work and life led him to the concept of the kevuẓah. When the Kinneret Farm was established by the *Palestine Office of the Zionist Organization, Katznelson made his way there. Along with the other workers, he was in a constant state of conflict with the administration. When the head of the Palestine Office, Arthur *Ruppin, was finally asked to come to Kinneret to settle matters, Katznelson was chosen to present the workers’ case, demanding that the workers themselves be allowed to manage their affairs.

Katznelson became secretary of the Council of Galilean Farm Workers, which was founded during his stay at Kinneret. A year later, when he returned to Petaḥ Tikvah, the first workers’ conference in Judea (1911) elected him secretary of the Council of Judean Farm Workers. His first essay, "Mi-Bifnim" ("From Within"), published in Ha-Po’el ha-Ẓa’ir (Autumn 1911) described his disillusionment with the Zionist and even the Ẓe’irei Zion and Po’alei Zion movements for trying to influence life in Ereẓ Israel though their members remained in the Diaspora: "We workers here are not simply a small fraction of the Jewish working class, but a completely unique group – self-reliant, self-supporting – something whole…. If ever we, as an organized group, enter into connection with a movement abroad, it will have to be a movement not merely ‘interested’ in Ereẓ Israel, but dedicated to the ideal of personal aliyah, to a life of labor and liberation of the personality."

Returning to Kinneret in the World War i period of hunger and want, Katznelson, together with Meir Rotberg, proposed the establishment of consumer cooperatives, to which he gave the name "Hamashbir" (see *Hamashbir Hamerkazi). To meet the health problems of the workers, almost all of whom were unmarried and without families or homes, he helped initiate Kuppat Ḥolim (the Sick Fund). He also began to develop a network of cultural activities – lectures, libraries, adult education, translations of world classics, and book publishing. When news of *He-Ḥalutz reached Katznelson during World War i, he wrote a memorable epistle to the ḥalutz movement (1917), setting forth a program of agricultural and cultural training to be followed by its members until it became possible for them to come to Ereẓ Israel. In "Toward the Future," an address delivered at the seventh conference of agricultural workers on Purim, 1918 – when only a small number of Jews had managed to remain in Judea, and Galilee was cut off entirely – Katznelson called on the labor parties to unite in order to establish a self-reliant working community. Influenced by reading this address, David *Ben-Gurion, then in the ranks of the *Jewish Legion (with which he had returned to Palestine), enthusiastically agreed with the call for labor unity. Katznelson joined the Jewish Legion as a volunteer in 1918, serving until 1920. In the Legion Ben-Gurion met Katznelson, whom he had hardly known before. The two addressed an assembly of legionnaires in the Tell-al-Kabīr Camp, and from that moment on the movement for labor unity began to gain adherents. A committee was established representing Po'alei Zion, Ha-Po'el ha-Ẓa'ir and nonpartisans. In the three centers of the Agricultural Workers' Union – Judea, Samaria, and Galilee – a committee was elected to work toward the unification of the three area councils and to investigate the feasibility of a general union of workers.

Katznelson was asked to compose and publish a program for working-class unity in Ereẓ Israel ("*Aḥdut ha-Avodah"), which was to be affiliated with the Zionist movement and the world socialist movement. Through large-scale immigration, the program was to recreate Jewish national life in Ereẓ Israel in the form of a labor society, based on freedom and equality, self-reliance, control over its property, and self-determination in matters of economy and culture. The means toward this end would be national ownership of the soil and of natural resources; public-owned capital; a pioneering aliyah; and dissemination of the Hebrew language and culture among all Jews.

In the spring of 1919, the conference of agricultural workers convened at Petaḥ Tikvah to vote on the issue of labor unity. The lecturer on this issue was Katznelson, and his program was adopted, with Ha-Po'el ha-Ẓa'ir abstaining. The conference defined the aim of Zionism as the establishment of a free Jewish state in Ereẓ Israel. Katznelson was chosen to edit Kunteres, the newly created weekly that voiced Aḥdut ha-Avodah's ideas. Labor unity was still incomplete, with the majority of Ha-Po'el ha-Ẓa'ir remaining outside the new framework. In 1920, in accordance with the proposal made by Joseph *Trumpeldor, a General Federation of Jewish Labor (the *Histadrut) was established at a conference in Haifa. Ha-Po'el ha-Ẓa'ir and Aḥdut ha-Avodah still continued to exist independently, and Katznelson and his colleagues on Kunteres continued to urge that the two merge, first in Ereẓ Israel and then abroad. The union was eventually achieved in 1930, when a united labor party – *Mapai – was founded.

A decision to found a labor daily followed the establishment of the Histadrut. Katznelson insisted that the editor be elected by the national conference of the Histadrut and thus derive his authority directly from it, as did the members of the Histadrut Executive. In addition, the editor was to be free to choose the members of his staff. After protracted discussion and debate, the first edition of Davar was published in 1925 according to Katznelson's terms. He was selected as the editor and chose a staff of five. His moral authority and the influence he exercised over his colleagues attracted many attentive readers to the paper, even outside its own movement, and made it a spiritual guide for the labor class and many of the intelligentsia. Katznelson was a member of the delegation sent to the United States in 1921 to muster support among American Jewish workers for the Workers' Bank (Bank ha-Po'alim), established by the Histadrut. This journey marked the beginning of the close relationship between labor in Ereẓ Israel and the American Jewish trade unions, which had been far removed from Zionism up to that time. Thereafter, annual delegations from the Histadrut came to America to work with the Gewerkschaften (Trade Union) Campaign for the Histadrut and brought "Labor Palestine" close to masses of Jews in the United States and Canada.

Katznelson believed that the jnf was the most important Zionist factor in the building of a labor society. He was appointed a director of the Fund by the Zionist Organization and was devoted to it until his death; however, he refused to join either the Zionist executive or the executive of the Va'ad Le'ummi. In order to understand the attitudes of the younger generation, he would sometimes visit groups abroad anonymously, and he invested all his ardor and talent in youth seminars at Reḥovot, on the Carmel, and at Ben Shemen. A large part of the 12 volumes of his collected works consists of his lectures at seminars and conferences which he reworked into essays.

All his life Katznelson was acutely aware of the importance of fostering the relationship between the yishuv and the Diaspora; viewing Labor Zionism as the Jewish revolution, equal to the revolutions of other nations; maintaining the influence of eternal Jewish values and of Hebrew literature in the movement; and thoroughly imbuing the younger generation with the age-old culture of the Jewish people. He would never compromise with his principles, even when he stood virtually alone. His was one of the few voices in labor circles to press for observance of the Sabbath and festivals, dietary laws in Histadrut kitchens, and circumcision in the kibbutzim. He showed special concern for the religiously observant members of the Histadrut and the attitude of educational institutions toward the hallowed traditions of Judaism. He was convinced that not compulsion, but the inculcation of affection and understanding for tradition, would bring young people to respect and appreciate the Jewish religious heritage.

Katznelson differed from Weizmann and Ben-Gurion in his opposition to the partition of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, as proposed by the Peel Commission in 1939. When Great Britain became increasingly hostile, he urged active struggle against the Mandatory power. Both at Zionist Congresses and within the yishuv, he pressed for "illegal" immigration, stating: "From now on, not the pioneer but the refugee will lead us." Under his guidance, his disciples parachuted into Nazi-held territory to try to aid Jewish survivors.

At the very beginning of World War ii, Katznelson prophesied that the Jews would have to emerge from the war with a Jewish state. Ultimately he reluctantly accepted the idea of partition for the sake of free Jewish immigration, which otherwise would not have been feasible. The last stage of his activity before his death was the establishment and successful direction of the Histadrut's publishing house, Am Oved, as editor in chief. On Aug. 15, 1944, Berl Katznelson died in Jerusalem. He was buried in the cemetery of Kevuẓat Kinneret. Bet Berl at Ẓofit, Oholo on Lake Kinneret, and Kibbutz *Be'eri are all monuments to his memory.


M. Shnir (ed.), Al Berl Katznelson, Zikhronot ve-Divrei Ha'arakhah (1952); Z. Goldberg, Perakim be-Mishnato ha-Ḥevratit shel Berl Katznelson (1964); D. Shimoni, Pirkei Zikhronot (1953), 235–44; Z. Shazar, Or Ishim (1963), 108–34; Gilboa, in: Ot, nos. 3–4 (1968), 120–4; M. Sharett, Orot she-Kavu (1969), 39–55; Iggerot B. Katznelson, 1900–1914, ed. by J. Sharett (1961); 1919–1922, ed. by Y. Ereẓ and A.M. Koller (1970).

[Shneur Zalman Shazar]

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