Born in the Ukraine, Ber Borochov was educated in a Russian high school. A good student, he was attracted by the revolutionary socialist trends of the time. Like most Jewish high school graduates, he was denied the chance to study at a Russian university. He was largely self-educated and spoke several languages.
In 1901, his interests in Jewish problems led him to establish the Zionist Socialist Workers Union. Active in Jewish self-defense, the organization was opposed by both the Russian Social Democrats and some of the Zionist leaders who disapproved of the combination of Zionism and socialism.
During the controversy about the possibility of settling Jews in Uganda, Borochov joined with Menahem Ussishkin in opposing any territory other than Eretz Yisrael. At the Seventh Zionist Congress(1905), Borochov led a faction of the Poalei Zion delegates who opposed the Uganda option. At the Eighth Zionist Congress, two years later, he was instrumental in the withdrawal of Russian Poalei Zion from the Zionist Organization. From then until the beginning of World War I, he publicized the aims of the World Union of Poalei Zion in Western and Central Europe.
In 1914, Ber Borochov arrived in the United States, where he was the spokesman for the American Poalei Zion and for the World and American Jewish Congress movements. When the Russian Revolution began, he returned to Russia and helped formulate the demands of the Jewish people for the postwar world order. He was intensely involved in public activities leading up to the October Revolution. In August 1917, he addressed the Russian Poalei Zion Conference and called for socialist settlement in Eretz Yisrael.
Borochov was on a speaking tour on behalf of Poalei Zion when he contracted pneumonia and died in Kiev. In 1963, his remains were reinterred in the cemetery at Kibbutz Kinneret, alongside the other founders of Socialist Zionism.
A scholar of the Jewish people's history, economic structure, language and culture, Borochov—who was largely self-educated—was a brilliant analyst whose main theoretical contribution was the synthesis of class struggle and nationalism at a time when Marxist theory rejected all nationalism—particularly Jewish nationalism. He viewed the mass migration of Jews as the inevitable expression of the inner drive of the Jewish proletariat to solve the problems created by living in the Diaspora. He argued that only pioneering efforts in Eretz Yisrael could prevent the continuation of the Diaspora.
His outlook was universal at a time when others were dogmatic and parochial. He sought to determine the hidden roots of the Jewish problem which, he said, stemmed from the fact that the Jewish people were divorced from their homeland. His astute analysis of the effects of the Diaspora on the Jewish people included the effects of assimilation, dividing Jewish strength, and ultimately intensifying tension between Jews and non-Jews.
While aware of the threats of anti-Semitism, Borochov did not see anti-Semitism as the basis or motivation of Zionism. Rather, he saw the Diaspora as an aberration which made Jews economically inferior and politically helpless. He saw “auto-emancipation” or self-liberation as the only way to solve the Jewish problem. Specifically, by following the path of socialist internationalism, Jews would find their way out of the Diaspora.
For Borochov, Zionism and socialism were interrelated. He argued that they served the same purpose: to make Jewish life productive again. The first step was to enable Jewish migration to go to a “new territory” in Eretz Yisrael. He considered the Jewish worker as the pioneer of the Jewish future.
Borochov began writing in 1902 at the height of the Uganda debate. His political work concerned topics ranging from the role of the Jewish labor movement to the social implications of mass Jewish migration. He was also a contributor to the Russian Jewish Encyclopedia and compiled a bibliography of 400 years of Yiddish research.
See text of Borochov's speeach to the Russian Poalei Zion Conference
Source: The Pedagogic Center, The Department for Jewish Zionist Education, The Jewish Agency for Israel, (c) 1997-2005, Director: Dr. Motti Friedman, Webmaster: Esther Carciente.
Picture courtesy of: Zionism and Israel Information Center.