Zionism - Israeli Flag

Zionism and Israel - Biographies

Biography of Berl Katznelson


Biography of Berl Katznelson


Berl Katznelson (1887-1944) (Beeri Yaakov  Katznelson) was a leader of the Labor Zionist movement. He was born on January 25, 1887 in Bobruysk, Russia (now Belarus). His mother died when he was young, and a childhood illness prevented formal elementary schooling.  

Berl Katznelson was home-schooled by his father and imbued with a love of Zion. He joined the Jewish self-defense organization in Bobruysk and later joined the socialist wing of the Zionist movement. He taught Hebrew literature and Jewish history in a school for poor girls. He ran a Hebrew-Yiddish library where young Zionists came to meet. In 1908, prior to coming on Aliya, he decided to learn a trade. He worked as a blacksmith and iron monger, before coming to the land of Israel in 1909 during the Second Aliya.

Katznelson was a strong believer in the ideal of physical labor promoted by A.D. Gordon and when he arrived in Israel in 1909, he worked on farms and served on several labor councils. At Kinneret and elsewhere, he fought against the system of colonialist agriculture favored by PICA and the overseers of the Baron Rothschild, which exploited workers. He is credited with organizing the strike at Kinneret against the overseers. He proclaimed:

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 World War I he volunteered for the Jewish Legion and served with distinction. On his return, he soon revealed himself to be a towering intellect and effective organizer. Though a socialist, he was opposed to the Marxist model of Ber Borochov. David Ben Gurion quickly made him an ally in the foundation of the Labor Zionist movement.  A member of the Achdut Ha'avoda faction which he helped to found in 1920, he became the intellectual mentor and ideological father of the Labor Zionist movement. He was instrumental in founding the Histadrut and key institutions of the Histadrut.

After the massacre of Tel Hai on March 1,1920, Katznelson penned the famous Yizkor, which portrayed the defenders of Tel Hai, including Yosef Trompeldor as fallen heroes of labor, "loyal and brave people of labor and peace" who "had perished while guarding the motherland" (moledet). The Yizkor became famous, the world "moledet" entered the popular vocabulary of Zionist ideology and Tel Hai became a symbol of Labor Zionist activism.

Together with Meir Rotberg, Katznelson helped found the consumer cooperatives  known as "Hamashbir," and he helped initiate Kuppat Holim, the medical insurance fund.  Katznelson founded (1925) and  edited the Histadrut's newspaper Davar. In this position, he made the newspaper a spiritual guide for the labor movement as well as, for many years, one of the leading journals in mandatory Palestine. Berl Katznelson also founded the Am Oved workers publishing house in 1941. For Its first book, published in the gathering pall of the Holocaust, he chose an anthology about heroism. He wrote in the preface that "Jewish heroism since the destruction of the Second temple was heroism without any prospect of victory-- the heroism of believers to whom God had hidden his face. But he believed that despite lost battles in Palestine, Zionism would be victorious. This book was used in education of the Haganah by Yisrael Galili, who defined its topic as Massada throughout the generations.

Berl Katznelson's stands were characterized by activism and adherence to Jewish tradition. He claimed that secularist extremists were recklessly throwing the ancient traditions of Judaism into the trash bin. He was one of the few voices in secular labor Zionism to press for the observance of the Sabbath and festivals, dietary laws in Histadrut kitchens, and the circumcision of children in the kibbutzim.

He had this to say about the role of tradition:

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.

Berl Katznelson emphasized the role of workers education. He was active in translating and publishing a variety of cultural materials and initiating numerous cultural activities.  In 1938 he wrote to a friend, "I dream of an educational institution of that type in the midst of the agricultural settlement, where I can bring the best of the people to me and give them the legacy," and he wrote often about a "worker's university."

Kaznelson was a man of the people who insisted on accessibility and informalism. In an age of dogma and a socialist movement that was prone to dogma, Katznelson was outstanding for challenging accepted ideas and legitimizing dissent. In a 1940 speech he said:

When I see a man walking among us as one who has explained all the problems, or as one for whom a new version of "Guide to the perplexed" has been written just for him and is in his lap, or as one who doesn't even need that - for his clear mind never knew confusion - I wonder whether he lives in different worlds, outside our world of trouble and turmoil and suffering and stolen hopes, or whether he satisfies his soul by chewing the cud (of intellectual conformism) which straighten out all the perplexities. As for me, I prefer a confused and errant and restless soul, over a soul that has no imperfection and is placid, even today concerning the truths of its beliefs.   

When the British promulgated the White Paper, Berl Katznelson became a strong advocate of Aliya Bet (illegal immigration)/ During World War II, Berl Katznelson was among those who insisted that the only political solution was formation of a Jewish state.  The volunteers who parachuted into occupied Europe in World War II were his disciples (see Zionist Parachutists).

Berl Katznelson died at the age of 57 on August 12, 1944. The Bet Berl institution of higher learning was established in 1946 to fulfill his idea of a worker's seminar, as well as Ohalo teacher's training seminar on Lake Kinneret and Kibbutz Be'eri, after his Hebrew name. Numerous streets are named in his honor in Israel.

Books about Berl Katznelson (in English):

Shapira, Anita, Berl : The Biography of a Socialist Zionist: Berl Katznelson, 1887-1944, Cambridge University Press, 1985 ISBN 9780521256186

Books by Berl Katznelson (in Hebrew)

Collected works (12 volumes), Tel Aviv, Mapai, 1945-1950.

Katznelson, Berl, "On tearches and friends," Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1945.

Katznelson, Berl, "On Trial: discussions with youth leaders," Tel Aviv: The center for youth of the Histadrut, 1935.

Katznelson, Berl, "My way to the country," Tel Aviv, youth faction of Israel Labor party (Mapai) 1945.

Katznelson, Berl, "Zionist policy: Vision, to the goal, in the struggle," Tel Aviv, Executive committee of the Histadrut, 1946.

Katznelson Berl, "Revolution and Roots: selected works" (compiled and edited by Avinoam Barshai) Tel Aviv, Y. Golan, 1996.

Katznelson Berl, "The ladder up to the vision" (printed by M. Kushnir), Jerusalem, central office of the JNF, 1946.

Katznelson Berl, "The vision of defense," The national committee for the Jewish soldier, 1948.

Katznelson Berl, "Hidden Values: Discussions on the problems of education for socialism" (edited by Ephraim Broida), Tel Aviv: Aynot, 1944.

Katznelson Berl, "Working among the people: selected writings" (edited by Yehuda Araz) Tel Aviv, Ayanot, 1964.

Hebrew Biblography

ספרים שכתב:

- איגרותיו וכתביו כונסו ב- 12 כרכים:
- "כתבי ב.כצנלסון", תל אביב: מפלגת פועלי א"י, תש"ה-תש"י.
- כצנלסון ברל, "בחבלי אדם: על מורים וחברים", תל אביב: עם עובד, תש"ה.
- כצנלסון ברל, "במבחן: שיחות עם מדריכים", תל אביב: המרכז לנוער של הסתדרות העובדים בא"י, תרצ"ה.
- כצנלסון ברל, "דרכי לארץ", תל אביב: המשמרת הצעירה למפלגת פועלי א"י, תש"ה.
- כצנלסון ברל, "מדיניות ציונית: חזון, אל המטרה, במאבק", תל אביב: ההסתדרות הכללית,הוועד הפועל, תש"ו.
- כצנלסון ברל, "מהפכה ושורשים: מבחר דברים"(כינס וערך אבינועם ברשאי), תל אביב: י.גולן, 1996.
- כצנלסון ברל, "הסולם אל החזון"(מסודר לדפוס ע"י מ.קושניר), ירושלים: לשכה מרכזית של הקק"ל, תש"ו.
- כצנלסון ברל, "עם חזיון ההגנה", תל אביב: הועד הארצי למען החייל היהודי, תש"ח.
- כצנלסון ברל, "ערכים גנוזים: שיחות על בעיות החינוך לסוציאליזם"(סודרו ונערכו בידי אפרים ברוידא), תל אביב: עיינות, תש"ד.
- כצנלסון ברל, "הפועל בעמו: כתבים נבחרים"(הביא לדפוס יהודה ארז), תל אביב: עיינות, תשכ"ד.

ספרים אודותיו:

- כצנלסון-נשר חנה, "אח ואחות: זכרונות", תל אביב: עם עובד, 1978.
- שפירא אניטה, "ברל: ביוגרפיה" (2 כרכים), תל-אביב: עם עובד, 1980.
- קיסר ישראל, "ברל כצנלסון- 100 שנה להולדתו", ההסתדרות הכללית, הועד הפועל, תשמ"ז 1987.
- צביון אברהם, "דיוקנו היהודי של ברל כצנלסון", תל אביב: ספרית פועלים, 1984.
- גולדברג זאב, "דרכי איש: שלוש מסות על ברל כצנלסון", צופית: בית-ברל, 1968.
- שפירא אניטה, "ההליכה על קו האופק", תל אביב: עם עובד, תשמ"ח.
- צביון אברהם, "המורשה היהודית בעיצוב עולמו הרוחני של ברל כצנלסון", ירושלים: חמו"ל 1982.
- פרס שמעון, "לך עם האנשים: שבעה דיוקנאות", ירושלים: עידנים, 1978.
- גולדברג זאב, "פרקים במשנתו החברתית של ברל כצנלסון", בית ברל: מכללת בית ברל, 1964.
- שניר מרדכי, "על ברל כצנלסון: זכרונות ודברי הערכה", תל אביב: מפלגת פועלי א"י, 1952.


More Israeli and Zionist Biographies   General History of Zionism and the Creation of Israel   History of Israel and Zionism   Historical Source Documents of Israel and Zionism

Back to main page: https://zionism-israel.com Zionism and Israel Information Center

This site is a part of the Zionism and Israel on the Web Project

This site provides resources about Zionism and Israeli history, including links to source documents. We are not responsible for the information content of these sites.

External Zionism Links

Please do copy these links, and tell your friends about  https://zionism-israel.com Zionism and Israel Information Center

 Thank you.

Sister sites  http://zionism.netfirms.com Zionism Pages  and Zionism and Israel On the Web

Friends and informative sites:

Zionism - Definition and Brief History - A balanced article that covers the definitions and history of Zionism as well as opposition to Zionism and criticisms by Arabs,  Jewish anti-Zionists.

Labor Zionism - Early History and Critique - Contribution of Labor Zionism to the creation of the Jewish state, and problems of Labor Zionism in a changing reality.

Dvar Dea - Israel Advocacy

La Bibliothque Proche Orientale

The Grand Mufti

Zionisme - israelinformatie- Zionisme Israel/Jodendom Israelisch-Palestijns Conflict Anti-Semitisme Shoa - a Dutch Web site with many useful Jewish, Zionism and Israel links (in English too).

Israel-Palestina - (Dutch) Middle East Conflict, Israel, Palestine,Zionism... Isral-Palestina Informatie -gids Isral, Zionisme, Palestijnen en Midden-Oosten conflict... Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a European perspective - Dutch and English.


ZioNation - Zionism-Israel Web Log    Zionism & Israel News  Israel: like this, as if Albert Einstein Bible History of Zionism Zionism FAQ Zionism Israel Center Maps of Israel Jew Israel Advocacy Zionism and its Impact Israel Christian Zionism