Berl Katznelson was home-schooled by his father and imbued with a love of Zion. He joined the Jewish self-defense
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
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
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
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.
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
Katznelson Berl, "Revolution and Roots: selected works" (compiled and edited by Avinoam Barshai) Tel Aviv, Y. Golan,
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.
- 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.
- 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.
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
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