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Berl Katznelson - Biography

Berl Katznelson (born 25 January 1887, died 12 August 1944) was one the intellectual founders of Labor Zionism, instrumental to the establishment of the modern State of Israel, and the editor of Davar, the first daily newspaper of the workers' movement.



Katznelson was born in Bobruysk, Russia, the son of a member of Hovevei Zion. He dreamed of settling in the Jewish homeland from an early age. In Russia, he was a librarian in a Hebrew-Yiddish library and taught Hebrew literature and Jewish history. After the 1905 Russian Revolution, he tried his hand at physical labor, fell ill and suffered a severe spiritual crisis. He made aliyah to Ottoman Palestine in 1909, where he worked in agriculture and took an active role in organizing workers' federations based on the idea of "common work, life and aspirations." He perceived his aliyah to be a personal, existential experience, not a public calling. After his departure, he maintained ties with his friends from Bobruysk. He corresponded with Sarah Shmukler and Leah Miron, reporting on his life and experiences in Palestine, but not calling on them to follow him.

During World War I, he lived cooperatively with a group from Bobruysk, on the banks of the Sea of Galilee. The group sought acceptance to the young collective that had taken the Kinneret Farm under its auspices. Some opposition derived primarily from the fact that Katznelson himself could not demonstrate any practical skills, but the group was eventually accepted. There he became romantically involved with Sarah Shmukler, while Leah Miron and Rachel Katznelson loved him as well, one openly and the other secretly. Katznelson and Shmukler decided to leave for Tel Aviv, but later separated temporarily. He went to Jerusalem to set up a vegetable cultivation collective.

When the British conquered Palestine in 1917, the couple found themselves separated by the battlefront. Katznelson was in the south under British rule, while Shmukler was in the north, still under Ottoman control. He volunteered for the Jewish Brigade. By the time they were reunited, he was then preoccupied with the idea of uniting all the workers’ parties in Palestine, a plan that was never implemented. Shmukler returned to Yesud HaMa'ala at the request of Hillel Yaffe, to battle a yellow fever epidemic. Katznelson visited her there. Shmukler died in 1919, and Katznelson later married Leah Miron.

Together with his cousin, Yitzhak Tabenkin, Katznelson was one of the founding fathers of the Israeli workers union, the Histadrut. In this capcity, together with Meir Rothberg, Katznelson founded the consumer co-operative known as Hamashbir Lazarchan. He helped to establish the Clalit Health Services sick fund, a major fixture in Israel's network of socialized medicine. In 1925, together with Moshe Beilinson, Katznelson established the Davar daily newspaper, and became its first editor, a position he held until his death, as well as the founder and first editor-in-chief of the Am Oved publishing house.

Katznelson was well known for his desire for peaceful coexistence between Arabs and Jews in Israel. He was an outspoken opponent of the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. He stated:
I do not wish to see the realization of Zionism in the form of the new Polish state with Arabs in the position of the Jews and the Jews in the position of the Poles, the ruling people. For me this would be the complete perversion of the Zionist ideal... Our generation has been witness to the fact that nations aspiring to freedom who threw off the yoke of subjugation rushed to place this yoke on the shoulders of others. Over the generations in which we were persecuted and exiled and slaughtered, we learned not only the pain of exile and subjugation, but also contempt for tyranny. Was that only a case of sour grapes? Are we now nurturing the dream of slaves who wish to reign?
Katznelson also spoke of Jewish self-hatred, saying:
"Is there another People on Earth so emotionally twisted that they consider everything their nation does despicable and hateful, while every murder, rape, robbery committed by their enemies fill their hearts with admiration and awe?"

Katznelson died of an aneurism in 1944 and was buried at his request in the cemetery on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, next to Sarah Shmukler.

Memories of Katznelson

In her biography, Golda Meir remembers Berl Katznelson as a pivotal figure in the life of the Jewish community in Palestine: "Berl was not at all physically impressive. He was small, his hair was always untidy, his clothes always looked rumpled. But his lovely smile lit up his face, and [he] looked right through you, so that no one who ever talked to Berl forgot him. I think of him as I saw him, hundreds of times, buried in a shabby old armchair in one of the two book-lined rooms in which he lived in the heart of old Tel-Aviv, where everyone came to see him and where he worked (because he hated going to an office). 'Berl would like you to stop by' was like a command that no one disobeyed. Not that he held court or ever gave orders, but nothing was done, no decision of any importance to the Labour movement in particular or the yishuv in general, was taken without Berl's opinion being sought first."


Katznelson is commemorated in many places, in name. Beit Berl near Tzofit, Ohalo (lit. his tent) on Sea of Galilee, and Kibbutz Be'eri (which takes Katznelson's literary name). Many streets throughout Israel are named in his memory. Israeli Postal Service issued a Berl Katzenelson commemorative stamp.

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