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Berl Katznelson’s Socialist Zionism in  “Facing the Days Ahead”

By Alex Harris
(July 2021)

Katznelson’s Early Days
“Facing the Days Ahead”
Translator’s Preface
The Difficulty of Translating Hebrew into English
Issues Related to the Translation of a Spoken Speech
Content-related Problems


In the annals of Zionist history, few influential figures have accomplished so much, yet are so often forgotten as Berl Katznelson. As the architect of Israeli society, Katznelson belongs in the pantheon of Zionist heroes along with Herzl, Ben-Gurion, Meir, Begin, Bialik, Agnon, Ahad Ha’am, Gordon, Jabotinsky, Weizmann, Kook, Ben Yehuda, Pinsker, Nordau, and Hess. Remarkably, Berl Katznelson is often absent from this mythology. However, this is not due to a lack of achievement. Katznelson was influential in the creation of many integral institutions that would later fuel the nascent state such as HaMashbir, the agrarian communal fund; Kupat Holim, the precursor to national healthcare; Davar and Am Oved, the first newspaper and publishing house of the labor movement.

Nor was his absence due to a lack of love and admiration. He was widely regarded as a beloved father figure for the youth of the yishuv and his passing was described as “the last funeral where people truly grieved.” (Shapira IX).[1] Instead, the lack of ubiquity for Katznelson’s name stems from his disdain for the spotlight. He abhorred official positions and routinely refused them. After one of their first meetings in the 1920s, S.Y. Agnon wrote of Katznelson, “[he] is a man who has measured his own strength and knows that he is capable of action, but his modesty prevents his greatness from showing.” (91) Yet, despite a lack of formal titles, Katznelson was widely admired for his ability to mold grand visions with grounded reality. As Arthur Ruppin wrote of Katznelson, “This man sees everything with his own eyes. Have you met many people who can see with their own eyes?” (345).

Moreover, Katznelson left a rather cogent philosophy about the actions taking place in the Land of Israel. He was guided by two parallel forces: the centrality of the worker and the necessity of unity. He believed that through these two avenues, the land of Israel, the Jewish people, and humanity would be redeemed. His philosophy was a blend of Zionism and Socialism and it is clear that he was heavily influenced by his contemporaries (most notably A.D. Gordon). But Katznelson’s greatest strength laid in the synthesis of vision and reality, of past and future each refracted through the prism of the Hebrew worker.

Although Katznelson matured greatly during his life, the foundations for his weltanschauung were present early in his career. This is most evident during his groundbreaking 1918 speech at the Seventh Conference of the Judean Workers’ Union in Rehovot, titled “Facing the Days Ahead.”[2] But first, it is important to discuss Katznelson’s upbringing to contextualize his later thoughts.

Katznelson’s Early Days

Katznelson was born on January 25, 1887, in Bobruisk, White Russia. His father, Moshe, was a traditionally educated man and worked as a timber merchant. When he returned home from his business, he brought with him much of the intellectual ferment of the Russian Socialist movement. Although Moshe passed away while Katznelson was an adolescent, he imbued his son with a love for both traditional Jewish learning as well as an interest in both Zionism and Socialism.  At the same time, he was wary of adhering to a single ideology and viewed the Marxism that his compatriots espoused to be too rigid (Shapira ch. 1).

Living in Eastern Europe Katznelson was keenly aware of the precarious situation of the Jews both as a people under an oppressive government and without the means for self-sufficiency. He became convinced that physical labor was the most promising solution to the Jews’ ailments. Although he mostly worked as a Hebrew and Yiddish teacher in White Russia, Katznelson did attempt to be a manual labor for three years, first as a tinsmith and later as a blacksmith. Soon, however, he realized that he lacked “manual sense” and resolved to emigrate to Palestine where he could recreate his life and perhaps redeem himself. On the eve of his departure for Palestine Katznelson wrote, “I am going for nobody’s sake but my own. I can no longer live this way. And however bitter my thoughts about the Jewish people as a whole...I believe that if there is a possibility of saving ourselves and living by our own labor, we will do it.” (Shapira 22).

From this point on, labor became the first of Katznelson’s core values. This is readily apparent during his years at Kinneret (1911, 1914-17) and Ben Shemen/Ein Ganim (1911-13). Although he struggled greatly, he was pleased with his ability to work. During this time Katznelson was also introduced to the political milieu of the Second Aliyah.

In December 1913, he attended the Fourth Conference of the Judean Workers’ Union held in Rishon Le-Zion. At that conference, he made an impressive speech elaborating on his vision of the importance of the Hebrew worker: “It must be recognized that the settlement of the workers is the alpha and the omega of the settlement of the country, that it is the sole method for national settlement.” (Shapira 53). Katznelson soon became a respected figure of the Second Aliyah and a pioneer of Hebrew labor.

Moreover, Katznelson was a practical man. He realized that a worker’s settlement was only possible with the proper support and institutions. In 1916, Katznelson worked with Meir Rotberg to create HaMashbir, an organizational purchase of crops to be distributed at cost to the workers. It was an ambitious project that required a variety of different settlements to buy in at the beginning of a harvest season. And although it encountered some resistance it was largely a success. As Anita Shapira describes, “the concept of ha-Mashbir played a considerable part in the post-war consolidation of the labor movement. It was the first country-wide institution of the movement.” (Shapira 64) With the success of HaMashbir, Katznelson was firmly established as one of the leading minds of the labor movement.

If labor was the heart of Katznelson’s philosophy, then “unity” was the mind. Enamored, albeit unsatisfied, by the Second Aliyah settlements, Katznelson realized that no effective program of Hebrew worker settlement could exist without a unified backing. There were often petty squabbles between rival factions of Labor Zionists: at this point, most notably between Poalei Zion and Hapoel HaTzair. Katznelson, who had an eternal disdain for dogma and rigid political structures became one of the leaders of a third group: the Unaffiliated Group, and sought to bring unity to the two rival parties.

“Facing the Days Ahead”  

In 1918, Katznelson attended the Judean Workers council as a representative from the Unaffiliated Group. In his speech, Katznelson asked his audience to engage in an exercise of communal self-reflection with the goal, “To clarify our paths for the coming days - that is our current duty, a special duty, the greatest.” (“Facing the Days Ahead”)[3]

Katznelson then introduced the protagonist of his vision, the worker, “who will pour new blood into the arteries of the existing settlement.” Katznelson understood that this process would be difficult with each worker having to overcome “the education, the inheritance of generations, of laxity, and inability.” Yet, Katznelson affirmed that this process of redemption had already begun, “Hebrew labor is a fact...Our legs stand on the edge of the future. The time of the resolution of the ancient dream is approaching…[for] Aliyah of the people and the return to Zion.”

However, Katznelson was troubled by the society he saw being created around him. He was worried that the difficulty of creating this new life would lead his comrades towards a preference for solely practical means devoid of social content. He implored his comrades to acknowledge the historical significance of their actions, “What Jew would cut corners on the promises of the prophets, complain about the destiny of choice and redemption...‘from Zion comes the Torah’….Where, where is the ancient “you have chosen us”, the living, the burning hot, the heart-filled, the commandment that acquits and accuses?”

 In this regard, Katznelson differed greatly from many of his compatriots. While certainly not advocating for a purely religious community, Katznelson saw the value of Jewish tradition as the foundation of the modern movement. In his later work “Destruction and Detachment” Katznelson wrote, “Would we be capable today for a revival movement if the Jewish people had not protected in their hardened hearts and their holy hinterland the memory of the destruction?”[4] This theme is also articulated in his work “Tradition and Revolution.”[5] Katznelson expounded:

Man is endowed with two faculties: memory and forgetting. We cannot live without both. Were only memory to exist, then we would be crushed beneath its burden and would become slaves to our memories, to our ancestry...had humanity not preserved the memory of its great achievements, noble aspirations, periods of bloom, heroic efforts, and strivings for liberation, then no revolutionary movement would have been possible. The human race would have stagnated in eternal poverty, ignorance, and slavery. (Katznelson, “Tradition and Revolution”)

Furthermore, after grounding Zionism in a larger historical context, Katznelson turns to its future significance. As Katznelson articulated, “The question of the future for Zionism is, if it will reveal and open up the popular, human, wide, and deep contents, those hidden in it from the beginning of its existence, and find the key to the heart of the people... through a vision of complete redemption, a vision of freedom and humanistic Jewish sovereignty, an expanse for the lives of man.” For Katznelson, the “content” that would make Zionism appealing for the masses is its high ethical standard. He cited Herzl as a pioneer of this view, “Theodor Herzl...understood that Jewish society needed to be not only new but ‘better.’”

Returning to the individual worker Katznelson associated this exemplary morality with the labor of the worker, “Here he is faithful to himself, lives his own life, works his own work, and creates the future society, the society of Hebrew workers….Through his life, his work, through his aspiring soul and through filling his needs and realizing his desires in their fullness, and weaving the fabric of the generations, and sewing the tapestry of the future.”

At this point, having outlined his redemptive vision for the worker, Katznelson turned to discuss the means and conditions that will make this vision possible. First, he thanked the work of the Jewish National Fund thus far and cited them as a partner in his endeavors. However, Katznelson saw this relationship between the workers and the JNF, and other institutions as a mutual one. He expressed, “In the creation of the worker's settlement we need to combine the individual and the collective.” He envisioned, “A new era will soon come to the work of the JNF when its path will be clear in front of it: not to waste money on small things...but rather the redemption of the ground and the delivery of it to the authority of the worker.” Here lies the crux of Katznelson’s philosophy: all power, funds, supplies, expertise, and the like must be filtered through the hands of the worker. Only through labor can society and the land be redeemed and filled with national content.

Yet, this is not enough for Katznelson. Merely filling the workers’ pockets with funds or pushing for mass settlement will not bring the redemption of the land. Katznelson argued that there will be serious repercussions if the land is not adequately prepared for the incoming immigrants. He lamented that the current situation is not receptive to mass immigration due to several sub-par conditions including homelessness. He stated, “This situation of homelessness imposes a strong influence on the lives in Israel, on the body and the spirit, and lowers and degrades the sanitary conditions.”

Katznelson proclaimed that “mass aliyah must be sought in all ways,” but “we have a law in Zionism: ‘preparation of the conditions precedes the settlement’.” This is Katznelson’s incisive logic working at its best. He clearly understood the importance of the work he is engaged with, but simultaneously realized that it cannot be accomplished without the necessary conditions.

And what are these conditions? First and foremost, a national, self-sustaining, “natural income” must be created. This income would be cultivated by establishing a vibrant agricultural sector so that the yishuv would no longer be reliant on cheap “foreign” labor and Arab produce. Katznelson stated, “Without the progression of agriculture at a radical level there is no progress for the worker.”

Secondly, Katznelson envisioned a society that emphasized not only contemporary agricultural but inventive practices and was a pioneer in agricultural technology. He called for the construction of institutions such as “Climate stations for planting vegetables and crops, central nurseries, sufficient healthy and secure trees, a center for the production of seeds and examining them, etymological institutions for fighting pests, agricultural laboratories” and the list continued for some length.

In this regard, Katznelson’s vision was unprecedented in its scope and precision. Although he admitted that his vision was far from complete, (he chirped that “The very concept of an agronomist in the land is the material of mockery and jokes”) he was steadfast in his belief of its possibility and resolute in his belief of its necessity. Furthermore, Katznelson’s vision for the preconditions of settlement was not restricted solely to the agricultural sector. In the final sections of his speech, he mentioned two other areas that needed investment: medicine and education

He described the devastating scene of starving children in “the open squares of Jerusalem, Tzfat, Tiberias and see the children, the poor children of the land of Israel, who have never seen a drop of milk.” He questioned whether the devastation of WWI had finally pushed humanity to look after one another and called for “a group of united institutions and forces which would supply the necessary help for the health of the land, and would create the serious atmosphere of scientific work, which would be a place for a good doctor and a great doctor.”

Finally, Katznelson turned to the subject of education, and by which he specifically referred to the teaching of the Hebrew language, “Cultural work in the land means today - school.” Unfortunately, the quality of Hebrew education in the yishuv was disastrous. There were no institutions to teach new olim the language causing them great distress. In an anecdote, Katznelson related, “Many of us know of themselves or of a close relative who in their heart had the great pain of a man who comes to the land and does not have the language and the situation of the soul of the man who wants to speak with a Hebrew girl and his tongue stutters.” He envisioned Hebrew as a necessary tool for the consolidation of culture and society and viewed its teaching as paramount to the health of the soul of the yishuv. He asked, “Do we need to accept the situation, that peasantry and illiteracy are synonymous. No and no. The Hebrew peasantry will not be built on illiteracy” And later regarding its importance, he said, “The creation of literature for the nation... a national art museum, a popular university will fill the needs of education in the land, and the cultural height of the work in the land of Israel.” For Katznelson, the Hebrew language was the “cultural” labor of the worker. And it is on this point that Katznelson ended his speech:

The cultural creation in its entirety needs to be from the creation of the life of the nation, fed from it and feeding it. The cultural, scientific, artistic and philosophical property needs to be the inheritance of the people. Do not say that these things are distant.


It is not difficult to see how Katznelson’s streams of thought outlined in “Facing the Days Ahead” resonate throughout his later work. His work with Ben-Gurion to establish the Hebrew labor union (the Histadrut), the labor party Mapai and his feud with Yitzhak Tabenkin over the unification of the Kibbutz Movement were based on his desire for the unity of labor in Palestine. The creation of the labor movement’s first paper, Davar, as well as its first publishing house, Am Oved, and his plan for worker educational programs centered around his idea that a healthy society had a cultural “inner content” that was produced by and spoke to the masses. His opposition to the 1937 Peel Commission’s Partition Plan was rooted in both his love for the land as well as its practical failings. As Anita Shapira describes, “While Katznelson’s opposition to the partition scheme was colored by an irrational element - a blend of mysticism, historical ties, and love of every corner of the country which had been sanctified by Jewish sweat - his protests were concrete and political. He believed that a Jewish state within the confines of the British would propose would be a mere caricature: neither a state nor Jewish.” (265)

Although Katznelson’s philosophy and achievements are worth studying in their own regard, they can offer us additional benefits in our days. Although the State of Israel and the Jewish people are living in a period of great affluence and relative security, a wide gap has been steadily growing between the pioneering vision for the Jewish home in the land of Israel and the reality on the ground. Increasingly, Jews dissatisfied with the imperfect implementation of the Zionist dream are becoming bitter or leaving it entirely. Perhaps what Jews need today is another Katznelson: someone to simultaneously elevate the practical and realize the visionary. A man to make the Zionist dream not only seem desirable, but possible. As S.Y. Agnon wrote of Katznelson in 1911, “And if our small deeds here in Palestine are more important to me than several vital matters in the world, I have Berl Katznelson to thank; he taught me to see what I had not seen before and to understand what I had not understood.” (49)

Translator’s Preface

“A translator ought to endeavor not only to say what his author has said, but to say it as he has said it.” -John Conington
“Woe to the makers of literal translations, who by rendering every word weaken the meaning! It is indeed by so doing that we can say the letter kills and the spirit gives life.” - Voltaire

And herein lies the perennial difficulty of translation: whether to be a slave to the original language of the author, but to lose the clarity of the author’s vision or to depart from the letters of the author to have a chance at conveying a more “faithful” meaning.

In each of these choices, there are pitfalls. To strive to convey the author’s intended meaning precludes a subjective understanding of the author’s intentions. To translate literally assumes that words have the same meaning in different languages. The result is a compromise which is best summed up by Benjamin Jowett, “All translation is a compromise – the effort to be literal and the effort to be idiomatic.”                                                

My translation of Berl Katznelson’s “Facing the Days Ahead” is an attempt to walk the tightrope of this compromise. On one hand, I wished to convey Katznelson’s magnanimous vision of Socialist Zionism, a dream which he nurtured and saw mature until his premature death. On the other hand, I attempted to remain faithful to the transcription of his words to let him speak again as himself a century after this passing. This process was arduous and I am thankful to Yossi Turner for his generous and erudite advice on how to translate Katznelson’s works. To get a better sense of what went into my translation, I would like to highlight some challenges in three areas: the difficulty of translating Hebrew to English, issues relating to the translation of a spoken speech, and problems accurately translating the content of Katznelson’s speech.

The Difficulty of Translating Hebrew into English         

The central difficulty of translating Hebrew into English is that Hebrew has a much smaller vocabulary than English (33,000 in Hebrew compared to over 170,000 in English). Hebrew compensates for this dearth by attaching multiple meanings or connotations to a single word and by relying on a three-letter roots system to conjugate nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. For example, according to the Morfix dictionary:  לדעתlada’at” means to know something, to be aware; to know how to; to be familiar with, to undergo ; (flowery) to recognize, to be familiar with ; (biblical) to have sexual intercourse). The three-letter root י.ד.ע is used to form the words יודע (I know (m. sing.)), מידע (information), מדע (science), מודיעין (intelligence), ידיעה (news/knowing/tidbit), ידוע (known/familiar), and many additional words. The meaning of Hebrew words is both heavily contextual as well connected to alternative meanings. Take this line from the second paragraph:

אין אתנוּ חבר-הפּוֹעלוֹת אשר בּוֹדדוֹת עלוּ הראשוֹנוֹת בּמשעוֹלים התלוּלים
We don’t have the workers who, alone, first ascended the steep path

The word “לעלות” literally means “to ascend,” but it also is used in the context of immigration to the Land of Israel. One who immigrants there is called an “oleh” and the act of immigration is called “aliyah,” which literally means ascension. Furthermore, the root ע.ל.ה is used in the context of ancient Temple sacrifices as well as Pilgrimage Festivals. One of these sacrifices is called an ״oleh.” This brings up an important note about Hebrew: its cultural contextualization.[6] Hebrew is the language of the Jewish people, Hebrew Bible, and is indigenous to the Land of Israel. Modern Hebrew draws extensively from its predecessor in Biblical Hebrew and, therefore, carries with it the cultural baggage of Judaism. It is impossible to completely separate Hebrew from religious and cultural associations even if the content is distinctively secular.

In conclusion, each word of Hebrew is multi-semantic as well as laden with textual relativity as well as cultural associations. Translation of Hebrew requires the translator to know both what the word means in context as well as what it may connote in the larger cultural sense.

Issues Related to the Translation of a Spoken Speech

There are also difficulties in translating the medium from a spoken to a written form. The two central issues of this endeavor are (a) the fidelity of transcription to the original version and (b) fidelity of the translator to verbal missteps or grammatical errors prevalent in speech. Regarding the former, I am relying on the only available version, which was originally published in Avodah, the newspaper of the Labor movement in Palestine.

Regarding the latter, I have chosen to translate the speech as it might have been written, but not as it was spoken. By this I mean that I have “corrected” several grammatical errors, the most prominent being run-on sentences. Katznelson may not have spoken his speech as I have translated it, but there is good reason to believe that this is how he intended to speak it. While many moments might have been more impactful in speech by departing from traditional writing conventions, these would be distracting in written form.

Content-related Problems

The content of Katznelson’s speech was difficult to accurately translate because he drew heavily from both Socialist Zionist language as well as Biblical passages. Regarding Socialist Zionist language, Katznelson used many terms that are not common in modern English and some that don’t have any translatable parallels. For example, Katznelson used the term “רצון-חיים” which literally translated as “life-will.” It is similar to the concept of a “life-force,” but connotes an internal, inherent drive that is akin to a soul, but not identical. Another term Katznelson uses is “כוחות” which means, “forces/powers/strengths/might.” It implies both a theoretical force and a practical force that will push the worker’s movement forward. Even to those familiar with socialist theory many of these terms are unusual because they are imbued with the religious-cultural content of Hebrew.

This brings us to the second difficulty regarding the content of Katznelson’s speech: his use of Biblical terminology and phrases. One example is the term, “תורת-חיים” which I translated as “the teaching of life.” The word, “תורה” comes from the root which means “teaching,” but is also the Hebrew name for the Pentateuch. It connotes wisdom, knowledge, and learning. The term “teaching of life” is far too thin to convey the depth of meaning that the word “Torah contains.”

Furthermore, Katznelson alludes to Biblical characters, concepts, and even quotes entire passages. Katznelson’s audience would likely understand these allusions and references. They give his words a great deal of depth and context. For example, Katznelson alludes to the prophets of Isaiah, Micah, and Jeremiah. This is a reference to three Biblical prophets who preached righteousness and warned the people of Israel that they would be punished should they not heed the word of God. Furthermore, these prophets (especially Isaiah and Jeremiah) spoke extensively on the eventual redemption of the people of Israel and the glorious triumph of the Jewish people at the end of days. Critically, these prophecies of redemption centered on the return to the Land of Israel and a society built upon justice and righteousness.

Katznelson uses these characters and their known context to provide both depth and a foil to his words. Katznelson’s speech could very well be classified as a contemporary prophecy in which he rails against the dreadful conditions in the land and promotes labor as the key to redemption.

However, Katznelson’s reliance on Biblical tropes can also be seen as a subversion of the traditional religious model. In the Biblical narrative, redemption comes when God will it, not when the people decide. As well, Biblical redemption is grounded on a religious revival and observance of divine commandments. Katznelson’s Socialist Zionist redemption is a complete refutation of Biblical redemption. It is built on culture, labor, and secular institutions rather than rituals, religion, and the Temple cult.  Katznelson’s listeners would have acutely understood this subversion and intuited his double-speak.

[1] Shapira, Anita. Berl: The Biography of a Socialist Zionist. Translated by Haya Galai, University Press, Cambridge, 1984.

[2] Katznelson, Berl “Facing the Days Ahead” [לקראת הימים הבאים], Collected works. Volume 1. 1918. Translated by Alex Harris.

[3] Translations are the authors unless otherwise specified.

[4] Katznelson, Berl “Destruction and Detachment” [חורבן ותלישות], Davar, Jul 26, 1934. P.2. Translated by Alex Harris

[5] Katznelson, Berl “Tradition and Revolution” [מהפכה ומסורת], Collected works (12 volumes), Tel Aviv, Mapai, 1945-1950.

[6] See also van de Heever, Cornelius M. “Translating the Hebrew Scriptures: Some Challenges and Helps” Ancient Texts and Modern Readers Brill, 2019. Pp. 211-227