top of page

Berl Katznelson

1887 - 1944.

Berl Katznelson was one of the intellectual founders of Socialist Zionism, instrumental in the establishment of the modern state of Israel, and the editor of Davar.

Source: National Photo Collection of Israel.

Born in Belorussia, he became involved in Zionist socialist activities at a young age. He taught Hebrew literature and Jewish history in his town.

He made Alyah in 1909, settled in Ahuzat Bait (former Tel Aviv), and then Petah Tikva. His work in agriculture led him to become an active organizer of workers into federations after he became disillusioned with their poverty.

In 1916, he founded the consumer co-operative Hamashbir with the goal of supplying Jewish communities in the Land of Israel with food at affordable prices during World War 1 shortage years. When the British army reached the southern part of the Land of Israel in 1918, Katznelson joined the Jewish Legion.

In 1919, he wrote a program for the working class party in the Land of Israel Ahdut Haavodah (Labor Unity), which advocated for creating a labor-based society in Israel. It was the most significant body of the workers' movement in the Land of Israel and he was one of its main leaders. He strongly influenced the creation of the Bank Hapoalim (Worker's Bank), which strongly supported Mapai's development (more details below).

This period indicated the transformation of the worker's movement into a central force in the Yishuv. Katznelson published the party's weekly, "Contras".

Over the years, Katznelson acquired spiritual authority in the labor movement. His influence was especially prominent in strengthening the national sensation at the expense of the working class. He strived for consensus, and contrary to the classic class war view based on the power of the working class, he claimed that the establishment of the national house required cooperation between the classes and between all parts of the settlement.

As a member of Ahdut Haavoda, Katzenelson traveled abroad to raise funds for the Yishuv and the party. He was part of several Zionist congresses.

Indeed, in 1927 Katznelson was a member of the Labor Unity delegation to the 15th Zionist Congress in Basel. At the end of the Congress, he concluded that the Hapoalim (workers) must "conquer the Zionist movement". A prerequisite for this was a union between Hapoel Hatzair and the Ahdut Haavoda (Labor Unity).

In 1928, Katznelson wrote the proposed union platform on behalf of the Labor Unity.

In 1929 the Labor Unity Council approved Katznelson's proposition.

Later that year, the union agreement was agreed upon, and Katznelson was one of the four signatories for Labor Unity.

This union gave birth to the Eretz Israel Workers' Party (Mapai), which encompassed about 80% of all workingpeople in Eretz Israel. This new party shaped the Israeli political landscape until the 1970s.

Katzneleson was also one of the founders of the Histadrut Labor Federation (in 1920), the Clalit Sick Fund, and the Solel Boneh construction company. He also gave significant importance to youth education.

In 1925, he founded "Davar" (still active today), the first daily newspaper of working people in the Land of Israel, and was its editor-in-chief.

In 1930, he gave a speech in memory of Theodor Herzl. In this speech, he presented his own Zionist view, in the face of Arab nationalism's opposition to the Zionist initiative. He said that Arabs have rights in the Land of Israel, but they do not have the right to prevent Jews from changing reality. It is possible to change the fact that Arabs are the majority in the country, through immigration, land acquisition, and settlement. These three elements are the main things in the Zionist enterprise and the answer to the Arab problem. The two populations in the Land of Israel are entitled to independent and separate development, without limiting each other. Each must be allowed full autonomy, in separate political bodies.

In 1939, the British published their third “White Paper”, limiting the Jewish population in the Land of Israel to 75,000 Jews. Ben Gurion managed the Yishuv's opposition to this policy, and in the next years, to the British mandate as a whole. Illegal immigration was conducted through the Mossad Aliyah Beth.

During the days of the struggle against the White Paper, a new wave of Jewish terrorism began. This wave gained sympathy among many youths, and also in the Hapoalim movement. In June 1939 Katznelson was the only leader of the Hapoalim movement to add his signature to the "Call Against Terror from Within", and in July he spoke at youth assemblies "for the purity of our war". In August 1939 he participated in the 21st Zionist Congress in Geneva. His Yiddish speech on the merits of "illegal" immigration received a standing ovation.

After Menachem Ussishkin's death in 1941, Katznelson became the central figure in the management of the National Fund for Israel (KKL). In 1942-1944, he was fund co-chairman. He was also the director of Hebrew University.

Katznelson was one of the first to question the success of the revolution in the Soviet Union. He was one of the few in his movement who referred positively to the Jewish tradition and religion. According to him, there is a need for a revolution that integrates spiritual life and does not get rid of the entire inheritance of previous generations. Instead, it should re-examine it and choose what's appropriate and right.

He respected Jewish tradition and Kiddush Hashem. Occasionally he studied a page of the Gemara. He did not keep kosher laws but was cautious about eating pork because Jews were killed for not eating it. Katznelson also instructed religious tolerance in his movement: he demanded that workers' kitchens be kosher so that religious workers could also enter the Histadrut. He even fought for the kibbutz movements' commitment to observe Shabbat in their kibbutzim, which provoked opposition among his disciples.



bottom of page