January 25, 1887, is the birthdate of Berl Katznelson, arguably the most influential and most productive Labor Zionist leader in the decades preceding Israeli independence. Passionately idealistic but also practical in his thinking, he helped establish some of the nascent state’s most important and enduring institutions, from the main trade-union federation and the first health insurance fund to one of Israel’s major banks and an important daily newspaper.
Berl (Be’eri Ya’akov) Katznelson was born and raised in Babruysk, Belarus. His father, Moshe Avraham Katznelson, was a prosperous timber merchant who was influenced by the Jewish Enlightenment movement. He made sure that his son received a firm grounding in Judaism and the Hebrew language while also being politically aware and culturally literate. Berl’s mother, the former Teivel Reizel Nemetz, married his father after Moshe’s first wife died. When Moshe died, in 1899, this strong-willed woman was left to raise their six children by herself. She refused the aid her own family offered and opened a shoe store in the local market.
Berl dreamed of aliyah, immigration to the Land of Israel, from an early age. He led a group of young Jewish radicals in Babruysk who shared that ambition. Before he realized it, at the age of 22, Katznelson taught in a Jewish girls’ school and worked in a Jewish library. Although he remained a secular Jew his entire life, he retained an enduring love and respect for Jewish thought and tradition.
Katznelson prepared for aliyah by working as a blacksmith, although his skill at metalwork never matched his belief in the value of physical labor. He sailed to Palestine in 1909, disembarking at Jaffa. Over the next 36 years, before his death in 1944, Katznelson achieved a remarkable record of accomplishment.
Together with his comrades from Babruysk, he helped establish the collective Kinneret Farm, after leading a labor action against its professional managers.
He helped to found and run many of the major institutions of the Labor Zionist movement that fostered the creation of an independent state in Israel, including the Clalit health fund (1911), the Histadrut labor federation (1920), the daily newspaper Davar (1925), Bank Hapoalim (the “workers’ bank” in Hebrew) in 1921, and the Am Oved publishing house (1941).
Katznelson pushed hard for the unification of the various labor organizations and their respective political wings. He was finally rewarded in 1930, when Mapai (an acronym for “the party of the workers of the Land of Israel” in Hebrew) was formed.
He called for a Jewish state, in the years before it was a given that statehood was the goal of the Zionist movement.
Katznelson was a revolutionary who strived for moderation and eschewed extremism. He was a secular Jew in his behavior and beliefs, yet it is thanks to him that in the Israeli public space, kashrut and Shabbat are observed and the Jewish festivals are national holidays.
The love of Katznelson’s life was Sarah Shmukler. From the circle of Zionists in Babruysk, she was a fellow member of Kinneret Farm, which evolved into the kibbutz Kvutzat Kinneret. After Shmukler, who was a nurse, died, while treating yellow-fever patients in 1919, a broken-hearted Katznelson married her best friend, Leah Miron, another Babruysk comrade.
At Berl’s request, after his death, on August 12, 1944, he was buried next to Shmukler in the Kinneret cemetery. After his widow died, 32 years later, she was buried on the other side of Katznelson’s grave.
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