Katznelson Berl (1887-1944)

Berl was a leader of the Zionist labor movement and a central figure of the Second Aliyah.

Born in Bobrinsk, Belorussia, Katznelson was the son of a member of Hovevei Zion (see Hibbat Zion), and from childhood grew up with dreams of aliyah. While in Belorussia, he was a librarian in a Hebrew- Yiddish library as well as a teacher of Hebrew literature and Jewish history. In both capacities he influenced many young people with his Zionist ideas.

In addition to his desire to settle in Israel, Katznelson was strongly imbued with the ideal of physical abor and when he arrived in Israel in 1909, he worked on farms and served on several labor councils. Together with Meir Rotberg, Katznelson helped found the consumer cooperatives for the sale of food, known as "Hamashbir." To meet with the health problems of workers, he helped initiate Kuppat Holim, the Sick Fund. (Both Hamashbir and Kuppat Holim are well-established institutions in Israel today.) After the founding of the Histadrut, the General Federation of Jewish Labor, Katznelson became the editor of the Histadrut's newspaper Davar. In this position, he made the newspaper a spiritual guide for the labor class and attracted many attentive readers.

Katznelson was deeply committed to maintaining the influence of Jewish values, even though among his fellow labor idealists he often stood alone in his views. He was one of the few voices in non-religious labor circles to press for the observance of the Sabbath and festivals, dietary laws in Histadrut kitchens, and the circumcision of children in the kibbutzim.

In 1939, when Great Britain became increasingly hostile to Jewish immigration to Palestine, Katznelson was instrumental in pressing for "illegal" immigration. Moreover, under his guidance, his disciples parachuted into Nazi-held territory to try to aid Jewish survivors. Interestingly, during World War II, Katznelson prophesied that the Jews would have to emerge from the war with a Jewish state. However, he died in 1944 before he could see his prophecy realized. Monuments to his memory were established at Bet Berl in Zofit, Oholo on Lake Kinneret and Kibbutz Be'eri.

Entry taken from "Junior Judaica, Encyclopedia Judaica for Youth" CD-ROM

by C.D.I. Systems 1992 (LTD) and Keter.


Berl, as he was known to all, is one of the most striking figures of the Second Aliya. He was born to a Zionist family in Belorussia which belonged to the Zion, or Lovers of Zion, and was impassioned by the principal themes of Jewish renaissance. While quite young, he joined the Jewish self-defense organization in his home town and later joined the socialist wing of the Zionist movement. He became a teacher in a school for poor girls where he taught Hebrew literature and Jewish history in Yiddish, and was also responsible for the Hebrew-Yiddish library where young Zionists came to meet.

In 1908, having decided to emigrate to Israel, Berl apprenticed with a linker in order to learn a manual trade. In the fall of the same year, he embarked for Jaffa. The living conditions in the first Jewish colonies, or moshavot, elicited his criticism of the worker movement policy which favored 'conquering the land through physical toil.' The poverty and dependency of the workers in these villages, the sternness and blindness of the overseers armed with whips and more eager to hire Arabs than Jews, led him to militate in favor of collective land purchases made by a National Jewish Fund to protect the workers against the arbitrariness of landowners and to create the conditions for better managing the colonies.


His concerns led him to the Kinneret where he became the mainspring of the strike against the overseer. Indeed, his fellow workers chose him to represent them in negotiations with Arthur Ruppin, the Director of the Palestinian Bureau of the Zionist Organization which owned the land. Soon thereafter he created the Council of Galilean Farm Workers and one of his earliest articles, mi-bifnim, 'From the Inside', reproached young Zionists for remaining in the Diaspora:

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 Aliya, to a life of labor and liberation of the personality.


During the First World War, Berl returned to Kinneret where he was instrumental in establishing a consumer cooperative -- Machbir -- and introducing health services -- Kupat Holim, for workers, most of whom were unmarried. He also helped to create a vast program of cultural activities including lectures, libraries, Hebrew translations of classical works, publication of new books, etc., designed to 'satisfy the workers' cultural needs.' In 1920 he joined the Jewish Legion where he met David Ben-Gurion, the future founder of the State of Israel, and with whom he created the Ahdut ha-Avodah, in order to bring together the entire labor movement. Berl laid out the party platform which advocated the rebirth of the Jewish people in Palestine and the creation of a Socialist society based on liberty, egalitarianism, cultural and economic autonomy and the collective ownership of land and natural resources. In 1920, the General Federation of Jewish Workers -- Histadrut -- was followed by the creation of a daily newspaper -- Davar -- of which Berl was editor in chief; he thus became one of the spiritual leaders of the worker movement.



Berl was always interested in the situation of Jews worldwide and was one of the rare leaders to advocate the preservation of traditional Jewish costumes and values, including the observance of Shabbat and festivals, and the laws of kashrut.


Tradition and Revolution


We like to call ourselves rebels but may I ask 'What are we rebelling against?' Against 'the traditions of our ancestors?' Is it only against the traditions of our fathers? If so, we are carrying coals to Newcastle. Too many of our predecessors did just that. Our rebellion is also a revolt against many rebellions that preceded ours. We have rebelled against the worship of diplomas among our intelligentsia. We have rebelled against the rootlessness and middlemanship, and not only in the forms in which they appeared in the older Jewish way of life but against their modern versions as well in some Jewish intellectuals in nationalist and internationalist circles, the latter of whom are indeed more disgusting than the former. We have rebelled against the assimilationist utopia of the older Jewish socialist intelligentsia. We have rebelled against the servility and cultural poverty of the Bund. And we continue to face the task of inciting young people against servility in revolution in all of its manifestations, beginning with those Jews who were so much the slaves of the Russian Revolution that they even distributed proclamations calling for pogroms in the name of the Revolution, including the Palestinian Communist Party of our day, which is acting in alliance with the pogromists of Hebron and Safed.

There are many who think of our revolution in an overly simplistic and primitive manner. Let us destroy the old world entirely, let us burn all the treasures it accumulated throughout the ages, and let us start anew like newborn babies! There is daring and force of protest in this approach. Indeed, there really were many revolutionaries who thus pictured the days of the Messiah. But it is doubtful whether this conception, which proceeds in utter innocence to renounce the heritage of the ages and proposes to start building the world from the ground up, really is revolutionary and progressive, or whether there is implicit within it a deeply sinister reactionary force. History tells us of more than one old world that was destroyed, but what appeared upon the ruins was not better worlds, but absolute barbarism. Greece and Rome sinned grievously and were destroyed by their sins, but a barbaric society was established in place of this ancient world with its art and creativity which is today a source of inspiration and nostalgia for Hitler. Hundreds of years went by before the spirit of man rose somewhat beyond this barbarism but another retrogression is now occurring before our very eyes.

Man is endowed with two faculties: memory and forgetting. We cannot live without both. Were only memory to exist, then we would be crushed beneath its burden and would become slaves to our memories, to our ancestry. Our physiognomy would then be a mere copy of preceding generations. And were we ruled entirely by forgetting, what place would there be for culture, science, self-consciousness, and spiritual life? Archconservatism tries to deprive us of our faculty of forgetting, and pseudorevolutionism regards each remembrance of the past as the enemy. But had humanity not preserved the memory of its great achievements, noble aspirations, periods of bloom, heroic efforts, and strivings for liberation, then no revolutionary movement would have been possible. The human race would have stagnated in eternal poverty, ignorance, and slavery.

Primitive revolutionism, which believes that ruthless destruction is the perfect cure for all social ills, reminds one, in many of its manifestations, of the growing child who demonstrates his mastery of things and curiosity about their structure by breaking his toys. In opposition to this primitive revolutionism, our movement, by its very nature, must uphold the principle of revolutionary constructivism. This view is in no way resigned to the defects of the existing order: it sees the need for a thoroughgoing revolution but, at the same time, it knows that the creative potentiality of destruction is severely limited, and it directs it efforts toward constructive action, which alone can assure the value of a revolution.

Many days are commemorated at present which are artificial, with some passing importance or even none at all. Perhaps one out of a thousand will be long remembered, but the rest will wilt away after the first storm. But those days which have taken root within the soil of the nation and to which generation after generation has given of its spirit will have a different destiny. The Jewish year is studded with days which, in their depth of meaning, are unparalleled among other peoples. Is it advantageous, is it a goal, for the Jewish labor movement to waste the potential value stored within them? The assimilationists shied away from our Jewish holidays as obstacles on the road to their submergence among the majority because they were ashamed of anything which would identify them as a distinct group, but why must we carry on their tradition? Did not bourgeois assimilationism and enlightenment, and even the Jewish socialism which followed in their wake, discard many valuable elements of social uplift which are contained in our tradition? If we really are Zionist-Socialists, it does not befit us to behave like dumb animals following every stupid tradition just because it calls itself modern and is not hallowed by age. We must determine the value of the present and of the past with our own eyes and examine them from the viewpoint of our vital needs, from the viewpoint of progress toward our own future. Berl Katzenelson, Collected Works.

B. Katzenekson






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02 May 2005 / 23 Nisan 5765 0