1917: A Great Zionist Mind Dies Young

Ber Borochov, the socialist-Zionist theoretician and political leader, passed away in 1917, long before his Zionist dreams became a reality.

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Borochov.Credit: Wikimedia

On December 17, 1917, the socialist-Zionist theoretician and political leader Ber Borochov died, at the age of 36, after having returned from New York to Russia in the lead-up to the revolution there.

Borochov is remembered for his ideological synthesis of Zionism and socialism, which together he saw as providing the proper answer to the unique predicament of the Jewish people in the Diaspora. At the time, most socialists rejected nationalist movements in favor of a universal class struggle, and Zionists represented a wide range of economic approaches, and weren’t inclined to align themselves with one in particular.

Dov Ber Borochov was born July 4, 1881, in Zolotonosha, in what is today Ukraine, and grew up in nearby Poltava. From his Hebrew teacher father he received the influence of Zionism; whereas his educator mother encouraged his didactic tendencies. His upbringing was secular, but his experience of anti-Semitism at school helped cultivate his Jewish identity. He joined the anti-Czarist Russian Social Democratic Party, but was expelled when he founded a Zionist Socialist Workers Union in Yekaterinoslav.

Borochov saw himself as a Marxist, and insisted that Marx understood that the needs of workers differed from one context to another. In the case of the Jews, their unique situation demanded, he said, a blending of the nationalism of an oppressed people with the revolutionary socialism of the working class. His first major work laying out his philosophy was “The National Question and the Class Struggle,” published in 1905. In it, he argued that economically, the Jews constituted an inverted pyramid: Whereas in a typical society, industrial and agricultural workers make up the base of the pyramid, among the Jews, few filled these roles, and the lack of normal productive life made them vulnerable to forces outside their control, and led to their wanderings from country to country. Borochov believed that process would inevitably bring them to Palestine, where they would finally take up the working-class roles they eschewed in the Diaspora.

An Israeli apartment getting ready for Independence Day.Credit: Tess Scheflan

In November 1905, he joined and quickly became a leader of the Poalei Zion (Workers of Zion) movement, and became a staunch supporter of a Palestine-based Zionism at a time, following the Sixth Zionist Congress, when the Uganda option was being debated. He became the principal ideologue of the movement, and was active in organizing branches in various European cities and in the United States. In Palestine, Poalei Zion organized the Hashomer self-defense organization, and pioneered the concept of “conquest of labor” – among the key elements of the Labor movement. There, it went through a number of splits and metamorphoses, most significantly dividing into the non-Marxist Mapai, the precursor to today’s Labor Party, which was led by David Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and Mapam, the more left-wing precursor to today’s Meretz party.

Surprisingly, Borochov also became a student and a prophet of Yiddish. Other Zionists saw it as a language of the Diaspora, to be shed in favor of a revived Hebrew; Borochov, who said he only began studying Yiddish at age 26, believed that Yiddish and Zionism were perfectly compatible. He championed the pedigree and sophistication of the language, and said that its fusion of German, Hebrew and Slavic elements were part of its greatness. His call for formal study and a standardization of the language’s structure were key in leading to the establishment of the YIVO Institute of Yiddish Studies in Vilna (and today still existent in New York).

By 1914, Borochov was living in New York, working simultaneously on both the Labor Zionist and Yiddish causes: He contributed regularly to the Yiddish daily Di Warheit and wrote a short dictionary of Old Yiddish; and he supported U.S. involvement in World War I, at the side of Russia. It was to Russia that he hastened to return in March 1917, during the period before the Revolution when the Social Democrats came to power. There he contracted pneumonia, and died on this date in Kiev.

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