Katznelson-Shazar, Rachel (1888–1975)

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Katznelson-Shazar, Rachel (1888–1975)

Russian-born Israeli editor, teacher, and labor union activist who was first lady of Israel (1963–73) as the wife of Zalman Shazar, third president of Israel. Name variations: Rachel Shazar; Rachel Katznelson-Rubashov; Rachel Katznelson-Rubachov. Born Rachel Katznelson in Bobroisk, Russia, in 1888; died as a Zionist pioneer in Israel on August 11, 1975; daughter of Nissan Katznelson and Selde (Rosowski) Katznelson; aunt ofShulamit Katznelson (d. 1999); married Schneor Zalman Rubashov (1889–1974), who, as third president of the Jewish State, was known as Zalman Shazar; children: daughter,Roda Shazar .

Like Vera Weizmann and Rachel Ben Zvi , the two Israeli first ladies before her, Rachel Katznelson-Shazar played a notable part in the foundation and development of the Jewish State. She was born in 1888 in Bobroisk, Russia, into an affluent family, and attended a women's college in St. Petersburg, before going to Germany to study at the Academy of Jewish Studies in Berlin. Committed to the ideals of Socialist Zionism, in 1912 she moved to Palestine, then a province of the decaying Ottoman Empire. Palestine was overwhelmingly Arab in population, economically primitive, and disease-ridden, and life there, even for a healthy young idealist, required overcoming immense physical and psychological challenges. At first appointed to a teaching post at the kibbutz Kvztzat Kinneret, she soon decided that manual labor would bring her closer to the pioneering spirit of Palestine's Jewish settlers.

Katznelson and many of her contemporary female Zionists saw two problems inherent in the institution of the family: its potential threat to the collectivity and its inevitable role in isolating women at home to raise children, thus keeping them from participating in the public life of the community. Many women in the early kibbutzim decided not to get married and not to have children. Writing in her diary in July 1918, Katznelson reflected: "We are group beings not family beings. … No, we will not have children."

In 1920, she married Schneor Zalman Rubashov, also a Russian-born Zionist. He had visited Palestine as early as 1911, returned to Russia to report for his military service, and immigrated to Palestine after the Russian Revolution. Years later, when Hebrew-sounding names became the norm with high officials of the new State of Israel, he would choose the name Shazar which was made up of the initials of his full name.

Both Rachel Katznelson-Shazar and her husband had busy careers in journalism, politics and other spheres of Palestinian-Israeli public life. Devoted to improving the position of working women in the emerging Zionist community, she was one of the first women to join the Mapai Party which grew out of the original Achdut Avoda labor organization. From 1924 through 1927, she was a member of the central cultural committee of the Histadrut, the General Federation of Jewish Labor. In the years after 1925, when her husband was a co-founder and member of the editorial board of the labor daily newspaper Davar, she became increasingly active in labor politics, eventually serving on the executive committee of the Mapai Party. Katznelson-Shazar was also active in the labor movement from the first days of her arrival in Palestine. A member of the presidium of the Zionist Actions Committee, she was a familiar face as a delegate to Zionist Congresses for almost four decades, as was her husband.

Writing in flawless Hebrew, a skill not all early Zionists mastered, Katznelson-Shazar was a respected journalist and editor who won several literary prizes. These included an Israel Prize in 1958 for her book Masot Urshimot (Essays and Articles), which was taken from her journalistic contributions over the decades to the labor journal Dvar Hapoelet. She founded this journal in 1934 and served as editor until 1963. That year, she became chair of the journal's editorial board, thus guaranteeing her broad guidance of the journal. Some of the other awards Katznelson-Shazar received for her literary work and public service included the Brenner Prize in 1947, the Chaim Greenberg Prize, and the Prize of the Pioneer Women in the United States.

As one of the most influential members of the Women's Workers Council from 1930 to 1963, Katznelson-Shazar both participated and witnessed significant changes in the status of Jewish women, first in British-administered Palestine and later in the State of Israel. In theory at least, the Zionist ideology that justified the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine was based on ideas of gender equality. Although this was the Zionist ideal, from the start Zionist reality was very different. As Rachel Elboim-Dror has noted, in the Zionist movement's formative years as well as in Zionist literary utopias, women figure mainly as sex objects. There were no women delegates to the first Zionist Congress (held in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897), and nothing had changed a decade later when in 1907 Shalom Aleichem reported on the eighth Zionist Congress, commenting on the beauty of the lovely women "whom God created to make our life pleasant, pretty and enchanting. … It is a pity that no one of them is willing, or is able, to take part in the debates on the platform."

The inequalities seen in the Zionist movement in Europe continued when Jewish women immigrated to Palestine to help in the creation of a Jewish State. One of them, Zipora Bar-Daroma , writing in an anthology edited in Hebrew by Katznelson-Shazar (1930), gave voice to her grievances: "A feeling of inequality came over us with the first breath of air in Eretz Israel. We came together with the men but were divided into two camps: 'builders,' and 'servants' who nursed and served them." Writing in the same anthology, an anonymous woman revealed her sense of anger and betrayal: "You see the commune and the fate of women in it—the fate of a domestic servant as always, only instead of a small cooking-pot—a big one, instead of 'my child'—'our children,' and the same endless laundry." Another anonymous woman spoke at the time of feeling injured and insulted because her existence was secondary to that of men: "her life a narrow spring beside the main flow of life—his."

Writing in 1955, Ada Maimon-Fishman , one of the most militant activists in the Women Workers' Movement wrote, "Even in Erets Israel, with in the revolutionary and innovative Labor Movement, the woman was pushed into her traditional occupation, into housework and primarily into kitchen work." The same theme is repeated by Rachel Katznelson-Shazar in her 1989 book of notes and diaries, The Person as She Was, where she speaks candidly of the disappointments experienced by that pioneer generation of Zionist women, who saw themselves again and again relegated to the roles of being "an observer, a sister, a servant, but never in the front row."

The Jewish labor movement in Palestine and later Israel was theoretically committed to full equality of men and women. Established in 1920, the General Federation of Jewish Labor (Histadrut) was the all-encompassing organization for Jewish wage earners, skilled and unskilled, men and women. The beginning of urban development and the prosperity that accompanied new waves of immigration in the 1920s did not lead to significant improvements for women, in view of the fact that the building trades were almost totally male dominated and would remain that way. Although women proved that they were qualified to do the work, by 1926 there were only 51 women tile layers, 19 women painters and 13 women masons. Most female workers were associated with the Women Worker's Movement, founded in 1911, which was an integral part of the Histadrut. In 1921, this organization elected a smaller operative body—the Women Workers' Council (WWC)—which met annually, as well as a secretariat of four to deal with day-to-day matters. Katznelson-Shazar was a member of the WWC; witnessing vast social and intellectual changes over the decades, she participated in its deliberations.

In 1963, her husband Zalman Shazar was elected to the ceremonial post of president of Israel. As the third president of the Jewish State, Shazar continued his career as a writer, as did his wife, now the first lady of Israel. During her years as president's wife, she published two books. Born and raised in a very different pre-Holocaust world, the two elderly intellectuals and Zionist pioneers were respected in Israel, but the younger Sabra generation had little in common with them. The Shazars' world was now one of distant, faded ideals, long-forgotten debates, and personal animosities that lived only in the yellowed pages of old books and newspapers. But in these writings, read by a select circle of scholars, much of interest can still be found. Rachel Katznelson-Shazar examined difficult problems that would remain unresolved after her death. Of one such concern, she wrote: "The Women's Movement is full of contradictions, like nature which created the human being in two images, distinguishing these biologically as well as spiritually; and like civilization which both frees and enslaves." In another context, she noted in 1937: "If we ask ourselves, 'What is it to be a mother?' and if we remember that it is the wife of the worker who has to educate the children, keep house, decorate and design it, come into contact with doctors and teachers, then once again we may say: 'This is enough for one person. We have no more strength.'"

Zalman Shazar retired after two terms as president of Israel in 1973. He died on October 5, 1974, one day before his 85th birthday. By now a frail invalid, Rachel Katznelson-Shazar died less than a year later, on August 11, 1975.


Bernstein, Deborah. "The Plough Woman Who Cried into the Pots: The Position of Women in the Labor Force in the Pre-State Israeli Society," in Jewish Social Studies. Vol. 45, no. 1. Winter 1983, pp. 43–56.

——. The Struggle for Equality: Urban Women Workers in Prestate Israeli Society. NY: Praeger, 1987.

——. "The Women Workers' Movement in Pre-State Israel, 1919–1939," in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Vol. 12, no. 3. Spring 1987, pp. 454–470.

——, ed. Pioneers and Homemakers: Jewish Women in Pre-State Israel. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992.

Brilliant, Moshe. "Zalman Shazar Is Dead at 84; President of Israel for 10 Years," in The New York Times Biographical Edition. October 1974, p. 1498.

Daniel, Clifton. "Christians Submit Aims in Palestine," in The New York Times. July 12, 1947, p. 5.

Elboim-Dror, Rachel. "Gender in Utopianism: the Zionist Case," in History Workshop Journal. Issue 37. Spring 1994, pp. 99–116.

Izraeli, Dafna. "The Zionist Women's Movement in Palestine, 1911–1927: A Sociological Analysis," in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. Vol. 7, no. 1. Autumn 1981, pp. 87–114.

Katznelson-Shazar, Rachel. Adam kemo she-hu: pirke yomanim u-reshimot (The Person as She Was). Edited by Michal Hagiti. Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1989.

——, ed. The Plough Woman: Records of the Pioneer Women of Palestine. Rendered into English by Maurice Samuel. Reprint of 1932 ed. Westport, CT: Hyperion Press, 1976.

——, oral history file, Department for Oral Communication, Institute for Contemporary Jewry, Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

"Rachel Shazar," in Jewish Chronicle [London]. August 15, 1975, p. 27.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Katznelson-Shazar, Rachel (1888–1975)

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