Biography of Berl Katznelson
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 RevolutionBerl 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.