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Berl Katznelson

A Man of the Spirit Confronts the Land of Dollars

EXCEPT FOR Ben-Gurion, Berl Katznelson may have wielded more influence in the yishuv during the interwar period than anyone else. The guru, conscience, and thinker of the labor movement, he took an active role in its affairs and in those of the yishuv at large. As editor of the movement’s weekly Kuntres and daily Davar and founder of its Am Oved publishing house, he had platforms for making his voice heard. Anita Shapira, his definitive biographer, has called him, “the architect of Palestinian socialist society”;1 and in these years the yishuv and that socialist society were in many ways one.

The outstanding pioneering institutions of the yishuv—the kibbutzim (collectives) and moshavim (smallholders’ settlements), the Histadrut national labor union, and HaMashbir, the consumers’ cooperative—were established by the labor movement; and Katznelson helped to shape them. From Labor’s ranks came much of the political leadership of Jewish Palestine; many of its foremost intellectuals were card-carrying members or sympathizers like Bialik. Berl was mentor to all, even if they frequently disregarded his somber, principled, demanding counsel. He declined high political office and refused to join the Zionist Executive, the Jewish Agency Executive, or the Jewish National Council in Palestine (the Va’ad Le’umi). Yet his strong personality, uncompromising principles, and enormous creativity made him primus inter pares in the Zionist body politic.

Katznelson was an intense patriot with loyalties to the Jewish people, Jewish culture, and aspects of Jewish tradition. As a young man, he flirted with several varieties of radicalism, eventually settling into an eclectic, non-Marxist socialism suffused with Jewish values. He was a militant Zionist, who “rebelled against the servility and cultural poverty” of the Diaspora.2 After his aliyah to Palestine, his deepest concerns were the internal affairs of the yishuv. He lacked enthusiasm for the gentile world, in particular for the United States, which he saw as the epitome of capitalism and an alternative place of settlement to Palestine that invited assimilation. Of those who contributed most significantly to molding the yishuv in its formative period and preparing it for statehood, Katznelson may have been the least curious about the United States, although by the 1920s, he exhibited considerable knowledge of events there.3 Until the late 1930s, he limited his interest in America almost entirely to its Jews but generally avoided involvement in their affairs. Often he addressed American issues in asides and parenthetical comments; but his extraordinary position in the yishuv gave even his casual views considerable weight.


Berl spent most of his early years in Bobruisk, the Belarus town where he was born in 1887. In the turn-of-the-century years, Bobruisk Jews were on the move. Like others in the Pale of Settlement, they lived in poverty, feared pogroms, and resented the lack of civic rights. America, Katznelson later wrote, appeared to be both “a haven” and “the land of gold.”4 His younger brother, Isser, “hoped” it would “rescue [the Katznelson family] . . . from [their financial] . . . troubles.”5 His step-brother, Ḥaim, and brother, Israel, as well as friends and more distant relatives headed for the goldene medine. In early 1908, not altogether sure of his ultimate goals, Berl thought America might “straighten out a hunchback” like himself.6 Later that year, however, he headed south to Palestine rather than west to the United States.

Katznelson had limited formal education, although he read widely; he learned English as an adult, but imperfectly. Before leaving for Palestine he had seen nothing of the world outside Russia. He may have gleaned some knowledge of America from the books and journals to which he had easy access as librarian of the Bobruisk Jewish library. The works he recommended to his sister, Hannah, in 1912, however, do not indicate familiarity with the New World. They included only two American selections, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer in Hebrew translation, and Max Raisin’s Hebrew biography of Mordecai Manuel Noah.7

From the European-Palestinian Hebrew writer, Yosef Ḥaim Brenner, a friend whose works he admired, Berl got a mixed view of America. Brenner’s 1911 novel, Mikan u-miKan, presents a rather bleak portrait of American “laborers [who] do their jobs like automatons, while buried up to their necks in muck and rags and yarn and scraps of cloth . . . and [then fritter away] their leisure hours” on worthless pursuits. But in HaAḥdut, the Palestinian Poale Zion journal, he observed approvingly that hundreds of thousands of Jews who had been unemployed in Russia “make a living” in America and, as a result, had acquired power. In addition, they had “created the [American] Jewish press and [Yiddish] literature.”8

Emigré family members and friends also depicted life in America with ups and downs, as in Russia.9 Mostly they reported the downs. When they could find work at all, Berl’s brothers and other Bobruiskers labored at tedious jobs in dehumanizing conditions for skimpy wages. None had realized the American dream. One of his friends there committed suicide. Katznelson feared for his brothers’ health, and even more for their souls. He chided Israel for “following the strange American custom . . . of bluffing,” thus erecting a barrier between members of the once close-knit family. And he scolded him for lodging with a Bobruisker whom missionaries had induced to “sell out his honesty and people.”10 Palestine appeared to be a healthier place to live.11 Berl was fortified in his decision by the writings of his socialist-Zionist “mentor and comrade,” Naḥman Syrkin, who imbued him with “hatred of the Diaspora and its degradations.”12

Katznelson belonged to the pre-World War I “wave” of Palestine immigration, known as the Second Aliyah. Most of the newcomers were young idealists, socialist pioneers determined to build a new society through physical labor. In 1911 he joined a cooperative housed at the Kinneret Training Farm of the Palestine Settlement Office. The members of the spartan group saw their ideals as the antithesis of American materialism and wastefulness. Not only their spiritual condition but even their economic circumstances seemed superior to those of Jews in the United States. Echoing Brenner, Berl wrote to his brother, Israel, from Kinneret that in Palestine “it is possible to live, to work without the suffocation of the shop [that is, the clothing factory], without fear of the eternal ‘slack’” season, in which no work was available.13 As a popular Zionist song of the day went, the pioneers were helping “to reconstruct” the Jewish land and people, and in the process were themselves “being reconstructed.” In America, where “time was money,” his brother’s “health,” Katznelson feared, “was being eroded and his years used up without purpose.”14

Although Berl missed his family greatly and hoped they would join him in Palestine (Israel and his wife came from America in 1912 and others at the same time or subsequently from Europe), he did not paint an unrealistic picture of life there. Nor was he altogether blind to positive aspects of the New World. He admired American technology, especially what might be of use in Palestine. He studied American farming manuals, although able to understand “only the . . . drawings and pictures.” (Even Der Yiddisher Farmer with its Americanized Yiddish was hard for him to read.)15 In the first essay he published in Palestine, he praised “the men of good will, the seekers of greatness, redemption, and a field of opportunity for their uncontainable energy . . . [with their un]conventional ideas . . . [who] had created . . . America and Australia and given the world” its most significant social experiments. Without people like that, he asserted, there would be “no hope for the redemption of Palestine.”16

Jewish life in the United States was not as rich nor as polished as in the Russian Pale, but Yiddish and Hebrew culture were being transplanted with some success.17 Katznelson recognized the merits of American Zionism, which many Europeans and Palestinians regarded with total disdain. Syrkin, “the only man in the Diaspora,” according to Berl, with “a feel for Palestinian affairs as well as deep historical understanding,” emigrated to America in 1907 and flourished, although he was not uncritical of his new home.18 Among Second Aliyah pioneers were some who had come from America, including the group led by Eliezer Yoffe, with whom Katznelson worked in Kinneret. Although they would later become ideological antagonists, Katznelson noted in 1911 that Yoffe “had [already] earned considerable admiration” in the yishuv and was “apparently . . . a good fellow.” Years later he listed the desirable “American” attributes that Yoffe had brought to the yishuv: his familiarity with American scientific literature, “his clean clothes, good grooming, . . . [and] politeness.”19

Whatever the virtues of America, by 1911 Katznelson already looked upon himself as a “citizen” of Palestine. For him, the United States, no less than other countries of the Diaspora, was a dead end. By contrast, the “old-new land” of Israel had become once again a “land of the living.”20


Towards the end of World War I, Katznelson had his first extensive contacts with Americans; and only then did events in America begin to impinge upon his world. In the Jewish Legion he met American and British soldiers, including Ben-Gurion and Yitzḥak Ben-Zvi, who returned from their American exile with the Legion, and some old friends from Bobruisk. Like Jabotinsky, Katznelson found “the [conscript] English Legionnaires” apathetic about army service and Zionism. The Americans, however, “had enthusiastically enlisted of their own free will.” Among them were “comrades” whose goal was to come “to Palestine as pioneers.”21 The Americans were “good Jewish boys,” he said, “loyal, special soul mates, the likes of whom” he had seldom met. Ben-Gurion thought them unregenerate Yiddishists, but many were studying Hebrew in preparation for settling in Palestine. Here, at last, Katznelson wrote exuberantly, was that first wave of the mass immigration “for which we have been waiting all our lives!”22 The Legionnaires gave him “an entirely different kind of connection with America.” In the fall of 1918 he held talks with the Americans, probably to encourage them to remain in Palestine after demobilization and to enlist them for his “non-party [political] party.”23 Later, he joined with Ben-Gurion, Ben-Zvi, and other Legionnaires in “overcoming the fractiousness” of some of the Second Aliyah old-timers to form Aḥdut HaAvoda, “a kind of Palestine council of workers and soldiers.” Eventually the new party (a forerunner of today’s Labor Party) would unite most Jewish workers in Palestine under its banner.24

Like Jabotinsky, Berl was greatly disappointed that most of the Americans returned to the United States. In its straitened circumstances, the WZO did not realize the veterans were “its principal asset.” Katznelson accused the Zionist establishment of squandering “national energy” by allowing the Americans to leave. They would have to be brought back at greater expense later, if they were still interested in aliyah. He also feared that embittered, “trashy Legionnaires” might seek to damage the reputation of the yishuv in America. “Encouraging the emigration from Palestine of thousands of young men, was,” he declared at the time, “a terrible, shameful business.”25 The Americans had forsaken their fleshpots in order to share in the great task. The shortsighted Zionist leadership had rejected them; and the movement would suffer immeasurably. More than two decades later Katznelson recalled the events as “a tragic nightmare.” Those few Legionnaires who had stayed in Palestine, he noted, retained “the spirit of the Legion from those days” and marshaled it to deal with the crisis of World War II.26

Katznelson did not initially react to the American Zionist Medical Unit as he did to the fighting force. Like most yishuv Laborites, he was aware that local medical services compared unfavorably with those in the developed world. Still, he resented what appeared to be the maternalistic imperialism of Hadassah. Before seeing the Unit in operation, he declared it “almost unbelievable that [it could do] anything worthwhile.” A few months later, he disdainfully observed that few of the Unit’s original personnel remained in the country and recommended that the WZO withdraw support. The “great dedication, alacrity, loyalty, and tenacity” of the HMO staff during the 1920 Arab riots changed his mind, demonstrating, as he wrote in Kuntres, that Hadassah “had struck roots” in the yishuv. Although he originally advised his sister not to enroll in the new HMO nursing school, by her graduation in 1923, he was a fervent supporter.27

In the area of Zionist affairs closest to Katznelson’s heart, Labor Zionism, Palestinians and Americans seemed to be forging a significant alliance in the immediate postwar period, he noted in a letter to his Labor comrades.28 At its international conference in Vienna in 1920, the Poale Zion Party split into two factions. The leftists, most of them eastern Europeans, unconditionally agreed to join the Third [Communist] International. Supported by the Americans and British, the Palestinians conditioned their membership on the acquiescence by the International in the establishment of a Jewish socialist society in Palestine and upon adherence to the principle of national rights, neither of which was acceptable to that body. During their World War I stay in the United States, Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi had become disillusioned with the American Poale Zion, largely because of what they considered a halfhearted commitment to Palestine. In 1920–21, however, the Americans demonstrated devotion to their confrères, not only supporting them in Vienna, but also organizing a successful “Tool Campaign” to provide advanced agricultural, woodworking, and road-building machinery for the yishuv. After the split of the international party, Katznelson wrote to Baruch Zuckerman, a New York Poale Zion activist: “Palestine and America are obliged to stick together.”29 When the party, which in the yishuv had merged into Aḥdut HaAvoda, started the daily, Di Tsayt, in New York, Berl assumed the paper would bring Palestinians and Americans “a great deal closer” and make them “much more than two allied parties.”30

In subsequent years the dual alliance solidified, although the Americans would frequently disappoint their partners. Already in early 1921 they annoyed Katznelson by using funds collected for the yishuv to pay for running the American office and campaign and for Di Tsayt. He had hoped the paper would supplement the income of penurious Palestinian writers; but it lost money and became a serious drain on party resources, of which more below.31

If Americans in the Legion, HMO, and the Poale Zion impressed Katznelson favorably, others in the immediate postwar period aroused negative feelings. Like Jabotinsky, he grew to dislike Brandeis, although for his own reasons. During his 1920 Palestine tour Brandeis pronounced the country not yet ready for settlement, largely because of its rudimentary sanitary and medical facilities. Berl felt the aristocratic judge had no feel for pioneering and had gratuitously given the British an excuse to prohibit aliyah.32

Brandeis and his coworkers in the ZOA crossed swords with Katznelson at a London conference later that summer. World Zionist leaders had last met before the war. Now they were confronted with a promising new political reality but also with the WZO’s shortage of funds. One of the thorniest questions was Palestine settlement. Two years earlier “in thunder and lightning the American [Zionists] had given the world the Pittsburgh Program . . . overflowing with radicalism and socialism,” Katznelson wrote in HaAdamah. In London, however, in the hope of attracting wealthy—and conservative—donors, they advocated private property rights and opposed the nationalization of land, as he and other Laborites were demanding.33

By 1920, Berl claimed, an imperialistic and paternalistic mentality reigned in the Zionist movement. “Notables and clerks from London and New York,” who were “altogether without daring national ideas and had no courage for serious initiatives,” sought to impose their rule on the “natives” in Palestine. The movement, he feared, was selling its soul in the vain pursuit of “large private investments.” Perhaps because he felt they had repudiated their own progressive, democratic, American ideals, Katznelson focused his attack on the patrician Zionists from the United States. In the press and privately he condemned not only Brandeis but also Robert Szold, Harry Friedenwald, and Eliahu Lewin-Epstein, who had been working with the Zionist Commission in Palestine since 1918.34

The far left of Jewish America Katznelson found even more problematical than its bourgeois elements. He expected but refused to condone the unsympathetic attitude towards the yishuv of the Bundists with their Marxist, Yiddishist orientation: New York’s Forverts; the protean Ḥaim Zhitlovsky (“a socialist, revolutionary, assimilationist, nationalist, autonomist, territorialist, Zionist, Yiddishist”); and the Left Poale Zion, which, he claimed, “deliberately misled the public” with exaggerated tales of a war on Yiddish-speakers in the yishuv.35 He was especially vexed by Zionist journals, such as Dos lddishe Folk, an official organ of the ZOA, and even Di Tsayt, which lent occasional support to the Yiddishists.36

Notwithstanding his dislike of the money-oriented Zionist captains, money drew Berl in the direction of America. Even the idealists recognized that the yishuv could only be built up by significant infusions of funds; and once he joined the leadership ranks, Katznelson had to face the community’s financial crises. In a 1920 letter to Baruch Zuckerman, he posed what he called the “principal question” of the day: “What financial means are available to us for Palestine?”37 With few resources of their own, the Labor Zionists were particularly hard hit by the postwar turndown. Towards the end of 1920, Katznelson commented despairingly that budget reductions by the official Zionist bodies removed “any possibility of [creating new] agricultural enterprises or employment opportunities” in Palestine; Ben-Gurion warned him that the entire Labor Zionist movement “faced bankruptcy.”38 Money, however, meant America! In the aftermath of the war, Katznelson recognized, Jews “in the countries of eastern and central Europe were altogether unable to assist [the Zionists] . . . and the entire movement [had become] . . . dependent upon the good will and understanding of America.”39

Since England and America, he believed, were given over to materialism, Zionism there could in any case only “start with serious money raising”; and he encouraged Zuckerman not to be embarrassed by the task.40 Some years later he would assert that “popular cultural work” could only be done in the United States, if it were stimulated by fund-raising activities.41 American Jews, “the only ones spared the terrible destruction” of war and pogroms, had “an obligation,” he said, to fund the rebuilding of Palestine for all Jews; and he did not hesitate to tell them so.42

Still, the reality of solicitation could be embarrassing; dependence on charity was debilitating; and Americans were not reliable. Their methods of handling money disturbed Berl.43 Although sometimes generous, they employed tasteless fund-raising stratagems, often resorting to “bluff.”44 “The way they organized the distribution” of funds, he asserted in a 1920 Kuntres article, was demeaning. The wartime American Relief Committee had sent to Palestine its own charity wardens, who, unlike their clients, he noted sarcastically, “could be trusted by all of Columbus’s countrymen” to oversee distribution of the largesse.45

By 1921, American Zionists “were not meeting any of their obligations” to the Zionist movement, Ben-Gurion wrote to Katznelson. Early that year the American Poale Zion cut off funds for the party’s London office, which had served as Labor’s representative to the WZO. Katznelson maintained “a spark of hope,” that if the Americans knew how “murderous [a] blow” they had dealt, they would make up the shortfall. His pleas, however, fell on deaf ears and empty pockets.46 The Americans would not even support the movement publications with which Katznelson was closely connected and which perennially hovered on the brink of insolvency.47 Despite his misgivings about the Brandeis group, Berl turned to them—unsuccessfully—for help in obtaining a substantial sum to train agricultural experts and acquire up-to-date farm machinery.48

However distasteful or unreliable American philanthropy was, and whatever the dangers of dependency, American funds were indispensable. To secure them it was “essential to send people [and] to concentrate energy” there.49 Although he preferred to work in the yishuv, Berl acceded in mid-1921 to the call of Ben-Gurion and others “to fortify the home front” (that is, the Diaspora Zionist organizations). He feared that failure in America, where “the danger and the rot were very great,” could deliver “a mortal blow to” Labor’s cause;50 but he agreed to participate in the first fund-raising mission of the Histadrut. His recent experiences in the Legion may have made the decision somewhat easier. A workers’ bank, the primary object of the trip, moreover, could, in the long term, help to end dependence on charity by creating an instrument for productive investment.51


The Histadrut founding conference in December 1920 discussed sending a delegation to America, since Labor’s priorities were unlikely to be met soon by the WZO. Berl, who understood that the fate of Labor institutions “depend[ed on] . . . America,” was considered a likely emissary.52 A practical, pragmatic man, he had demonstrated ability to “extract . . . funds from the settlement institutions of the [World] Zionist Organization . . . [and] donors” in Europe for Poale Zion projects.53 Earlier the Party had tried to send him to America; and Pinḥas Rutenberg, the promoter of electric power in Palestine, had sought his help in raising capital funds there.54

The Histadrut leaders dithered over the delegation; the political parties haggled over its composition and agenda; and likely candidates refused to go. The May 1921 Arab riots in Palestine, and Britain’s failure to back the Zionists unequivocally, catalyzed the Laborites. But even after a delegation was in place (Berl and Manya Shoḥat from Aḥdut HaAvoda and Yosef Baratz from the non-Marxist party, HaPo’el HaTza’ir), it could not “plan its work,” according to Katznelson, because of the “chaos in the Zionist movement” in Palestine and abroad. When they left, the trio knew for certain only that they were to raise investment funds for the nascent Histadrut institutions, “most especially, the Workers’ Bank,” for which a charter had just been received from the WZO. On the other side of the ocean, “no preparations . . . were made” by the hosts, the Poale Zion Party of America.55

Katznelson arrived in New York in early November. Perhaps because of the urgency of the hour and his uneasiness in the United States, perhaps because he felt it appropriate in materialistic America, he determined upon a business-only trip, although normally when traveling he indulged his broad cultural interests. His goal, he wrote his sister, Hannah, was to “disturb the usual complacency” of the Americans, to disabuse them of their “illusions and idle consolations.”56 He restricted off-hours activities to those likely to confirm his negative views of the New World. Except for the dictaphone, which caught his attention during a factory tour in Columbus, Ohio, he ignored the natural and technological wonders of America, barely taking note of Niagara Falls or the Ford factory outside Detroit. The occasional movie or museum visit gave no pleasure. He did go to the theater and was surprised at the level of sophistication. The Yiddish plays, however, served to remind him of “the glory and the grandeur” that had been Jewish eastern Europe, now in ruins. A visit to the Yiddish poet, Shmuel Niger, whom he had once admired, left him saddened by the “weakness and submission” which had overtaken Niger in America.57

A loyal friend and relative, he visited family, Bobruisk friends, relatives of Palestinian comrades, and Legion veterans, including Jabotinsky’s friend Elias Ginsburg and journalist-historian Louis Fischer. Everyone, he wrote to his wife, greeted him with “exaggerated honor,” although his concerns seemed “foreign” to most; even once close associates treated him like a “creature of another species.” Such contacts provided a window on the day-to-day life of the immigrants, most of whom appeared no better off than they had been in Russia. “God’s leftovers,” he called them. His step-brother, Ḥaim, seemed now “an old man, broken and miserable.” The prosperous had degenerated into “status-conscious allrightniks;” but even the allrightniks had lost confidence during the postwar recession. One exception was a Bobruisk friend married to a farmer, who lived “a truly wonderful” life, “a kind of idyll” in rural isolation.58

Katznelson construed his task in America in the narrowest terms, unlike other Labor emissaries, including his partners. He had planned “to do something for aliyah . . . the most important aspect of [Zionist] work.” Syrkin urged that it be one of the delegates’ main concerns.59 Katznelson matched a few prospective settlers with institutions in the yishuv; and he helped a group of Jews from the Ukraine arrange the aliyah of recent pogrom victims; but he did not recruit olim.60 He also did not urge the Palestinian emigrants whom he met to return, and only canvassed them for funds. He had moral qualms about advising people who were adjusting to America “to exchange their life” for one less certain and may have considered them “unfit” for life in Palestine. He was surely mindful of the demobilized Legionnaires’ experience.61

Once, he took an active role in a cultural event unrelated to fund raising, a memorial meeting for the Hebrew writer, Michah Yosef Berdichevsky, where he flayed his listeners for their superficial attachment to Hebrew culture.62 In England he had made special efforts to cultivate labor leaders; and he knew the American Federation of Labor was friendly towards Zionism. Yet he ignored American labor leaders, except for Jewish union activists who raised money for Palestine.63 He met with the head of the Cooperative League only, apparently, in the hope of gaining entrée through him to wealthy Jews.64

Money alone was the object of this trip! Katznelson felt “upon him the eyes of the Palestine workers” who were interested in funds to run their settlements and institutions, not in laying the groundwork for the future.65 From Europe he warned Zuckerman that there “would be no time for discussions.” From New York he reported to his Aḥdut HaAvoda colleagues that “any meeting with us . . . immediately turns into a serious Zionist session,” which meant solicitation for the bank.66 Following a call on his revered mentor, Syrkin, the singleminded emissary recorded in his diary only that he had “invited [Syrkin] . . . to throw himself wholeheartedly into work for the bank.”67

Baratz and Shoḥat had come to the United States before Katznelson, but only when he arrived was a welcome meeting held in New York’s Cooper Union Hall. At the impressive reception Berl renewed old friendships and met some of those with whom he would work in the coming months: union leader Joseph Schlossberg, Di Tsayt editor David Pinsky, Judah Magnes, Ḥaim Zhitlovsky, Syrkin, and others.68 The gathering served to reinforce his sense of Americans as fluffy and insubstantial. The bank campaign had not yet been organized; so the reception was all show and no money.69

It took about a month to assemble broad-based sponsorship and almost another month to map out the campaign, tasks which fell on Katznelson.70 Meanwhile the delegates obtained the agreement of Zionist and non-Zionist labor groups in the New York area to sell bank shares to their members.71 They also approached the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) for an investment in the bank’s capital fund. Those discussions introduced Berl to upper-middle-class, non-Zionist Jews, including Louis Marshall, the acknowledged leader of American Jewry, Herbert Lehman, the future governor of New York, and Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture Society. He wrote home that “Marshall quoted Lehman to Magnes to the effect that the impression [he had] made was formidable.” No JDC funds were forthcoming, however. No doubt “Columbus’s countrymen” trusted more the Central Bank for Cooperative Institutions [in Palestine] sponsored by the Brandeis group and managed by Americans.72

At the “enthusiastic [campaign] kickoff” on New Year’s Day at the Manhattan Opera House, Katznelson, who was not very effective before large crowds, received “a tremendous ovation,” when he spoke of “another kind of life” in Palestine, “a Jewish workers’ economy.” Between eight and ten thousand dollars in bank shares was pledged or sold that evening.73 Then the delegates took the show on the road, assisted by Magnes and Poale Zion stalwarts.74 By early February, Katznelson had spoken in Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, Catskill farming communities, Hamilton, Toronto, Detroit, and Chicago. Later he visited Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Columbus, South Bend, Rock Island, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Duluth, and other communities.75 In Chicago he made sales to professionals, as well as to blue-collar workers; at the Talmud Torah in Minneapolis he peddled bank shares to schoolchildren, amongst whom he sensed “an inclination towards pioneering.”76 From “the provinces” Katznelson sent articles to Di Tsayt, provided raw material for other journalists, and prepared a brochure on the bank.77 In mid-April he returned to New York to supervise the collections, lest the money be diverted for local needs and “all the propaganda and fund raising across the country have been done for nothing.”78 It was ironic that Berl resented American donors who did not trust their Palestinian clients, although he did not trust even his own comrades in the American Poale Zion Party.

In a letter to his wife written towards the end of his stay, Berl reflected upon the “gruelling labors of this year that we sacrificed.”79 The results seemed modest, indeed. Ben-Gurion, whose call to arms Katznelson had answered in going to America, initially declared the mission a failure, although he would later sound a more positive note. Katznelson, usually the less upbeat, recognized that there had been intangible gains. The mission earned heightened “prestige” for the Histadrut in American-Jewish labor circles;80 and valuable new friends had been acquired. These included Magnes (“the man for whom we have been looking”);81 Max Pine, “a pillar of the Forverts” and longtime opponent of Zionism, whose “respect and affection for Berl” led him to become an ardent supporter of the Histadrut;82 and Joseph Schlossberg (“a willingness to know and to help”), from 1914 to 1940 secretary of the large and powerful Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, another anti-Zionist converted by Berl.83 Without those three the campaign would never have gotten off the ground; the last two would play an invaluable part in later Histadrut campaigns. Also promising was future ZOA president Solomon Goldman, a Conservative rabbi. Although Katznelson remained attached to Jewish tradition and looked askance at Conservatism and Reform, he respected Goldman’s “spirituality and traditional learning.”84

On the minus side of the ledger was the principal goal of the tour and Berl’s only real interest: money. Accountings of share capital raised range from $17,000 to $60,000;85 but even the higher figure is only a fraction of the goal of $200,000–$290,000.86 Net proceeds were lower. The mission had faced a set of probably insurmountable obstacles. These bear enumeration here, because they help to explain Katznelson’s subsequent reticence regarding American Jewish affairs.

As in the case of Jabotinsky, much of the failure resulted from lack of preparation. “We are,” Berl wrote to his wife in March 1922, “three people without any talent” for our job.87 The scale of operations demanded by the United States amazed them. The country was so dauntingly huge, Berl remarked, that “good, precious people, who . . . could do a great deal, . . . get lost” in the crowd.88 Because they knew—and cared—little about America, the emissaries refused to tailor their pitch to suit local sensibilities, again rather like Jabotinsky. Katznelson sensed early on that his listeners might respond favorably, if he would “say a few flattering words”; but he regarded them as “unworthy” of kid-glove treatment.89 He opted for an “argumentative, chastising” stance and actually sought “to cast a pall over” his audiences.90 The problem was not only attitude. Katznelson, Baratz, and Shoḥat said repeatedly that they had come to America “not as recipients, . . . but as donors.”91 What they had to give, however, was unclear; and even Jews who felt responsible for their less fortunate brethren did not wish to think of themselves as milk cows whose only purpose was to sustain the yishuv. Not surprisingly, Berl found himself “alienated and isolated,” unable, he lamented to his wife with some slight exaggeration, “to get close to a single person in America.”92

His calculated bad temper—if it was that—was aggravated by bouts of illness and by living conditions “even less settled than in Jaffa.”93 On the road he was “adversely affected by the [winter] climate,” and forced to resort to beggary for his personal needs by the Poale Zion office in New York, which otherwise squandered its resources. By January he was seriously ill. The next month he had to interrupt his trip in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, where he was hospitalized. In March he collapsed in Rock Island.94 Even a sunnier person might have succumbed to dampened spirits under such circumstances.

Poor planning was the tour’s nemesis. The postwar recession was not over. Yet the Histadrut mission arrived at the same time as the WZO mission of which Jabotinsky was a member.95 In the battle for media attention and money, the fledgling, class-based Histadrut was at a disadvantage, although relative to their goals, the Laborites proved the more successful fund raisers.96 Berl needed up-to-date information on the yishuv “even [to] begin [work] properly.” On arrival in New York, however, he found that nothing had been sent, not even stock certificates, making it difficult to approach wary purchasers, many of whom had been sold worthless Palestinian stocks in the past.97 Ben-Gurion tried to intercede, but the budding Histadrut bureaucrats offered no concessions to American ways of doing business.98 Over a year after returning to Palestine, Katznelson was still trying to persuade the Histadrut to set up a foreign desk.99

Berl and his partners had not anticipated the extent of their hosts’ ineptitude. He would eventually conclude that one could raise “significant amounts of money” in America, but only with the aid of “an energetic organization.”100 In 1921, however, “the only force ready to help” was the Poale Zion, whose “shortcomings” Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi had observed years before.101 Ideological disputes were tearing the leaderless, disorganized party asunder. Berl considered its officials “vacuous” mediocrities “without any concept” of the larger Zionist issues or of developments in the yishuv;102 he thought campaign head Hirsch Ehrenreich “the least appropriate choice” for the task.103 Not only were no preparations for the campaign made before the delegates arrived, but afterwards, instead of “helping us to make the right contacts,” Berl charged, the Poale Zion actually “impeded us.”104 Confusion and ill will produced half-empty halls. In Rock Island and South Bend Katznelson’s hosts “behaved in a most ugly fashion.” In Buffalo, like Ben-Gurion before him, he arrived as an “unwanted guest.”105 Most painful of all, there was no one to inherit the Palestinians’ modest organizational achievements.106

The most troublesome problems besetting the mission related to ongoing debates in the immigrant community over Yiddish language and culture, and socialism. These “lay like a wolf in ambush,” a potential threat to any advocate of Zionism and Hebrew culture, as Bialik was to learn, but especially to socialists unenthusiastic about the Bolshevik experiment in Russia. Early on, Katznelson realized they had been caught “in the teeth” of the wolf.107 While the Palestine labor movement in general was accused of persecuting Yiddish language and culture, Manya Shoḥat was charged with having been an agente provocatrice who betrayed Jews to the czarist secret police.

Berl Katznelson (seated) with Yosef Hagai in Detroit, 1921. (Courtesy of the Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem.)

The attack was led by Vladimir Medem, a sworn anti-Zionist, who, although raised a Christian, had become one of the foremost leaders of the Polish Bund before fleeing to New York in early 1921. In the Forverts he answered Magnes’s call to American-Jewish workers to support the cause of Palestinian Labor by pointing to Shoḥat’s alleged treachery. He insisted, moreover, that the Palestinians were entitled only to a share of Labor’s charitable dollar proportional to their numbers, not to the large amount they sought in order to prepare the infrastructure for the future.108 Katznelson perceived immediately the implications of Medem’s “Forverts bomb.” He had been anxious about Shoḥat because of her background but also because she was easily distracted by irrelevant issues.109 He and Baratz remained on the sidelines of the skirmish, in the hope, undoubtedly, of salvaging the bank campaign.110 In the end, the affair was less damaging than feared at first, as Shoḥat successfully redirected her fund-raising efforts to middle-class groups. Still, the scent of scandal dogged the delegates until their return to Palestine.111

In part, the assault on Shoḥat was a screen for the general opposition to Zionism of the Yiddishist, radical Left, which Katznelson believed to be taking direction from communists in Palestine.112 Despite friendly representations to Abe Cahan, the editor of the Forverts, and a secret night meeting between him and Katznelson, that paper led the war against the mission. It carried derogatory articles, ignored the delegates’ activities, and even refused to accept paid advertisements for public events.113 Within the Poale Zion Party, Yiddishists directed the faithful “into the trap of the Zion-haters.”114 Zhitlovsky undercut the Palestinians with direct assaults in Di Tsayt and with pointed silence,115 as did Abraham Revusky, a Palestine-based correspondent affiliated with the Left Poale Zion, once vice-minister for Jewish affairs in the Ukrainian counter-revolutionary government under Petliura. Revusky’s colorful reports about the persecution of Yiddish speakers in the yishuv amounted to “insidious fabrication,” Berl charged. Years later he made peace with a repentant Revusky and invited him to write for Davar. Now, he fought back vigorously in Di Tsayt, although the New York Morgn Zhurnal, which had no connection to the Poale Zion, was more hospitable to his rejoinders.116 The struggle was the more demoralizing, because Katznelson was a moderate on the language issue, who, as he jested to a friend, would never “breakfast on a Yiddishist.”117

Di Tsayt became a real thorn in the flesh. As noted above, the Palestinians, most of whom opposed strengthening the Diaspora at the expense of the yishuv, understood the need for a party organ to propagandize American-Jewish workers. Many American Zionists believed the fortification of their own institutions justifiable—even at the expense of Palestine—for without a strong Diaspora to lend it support, the yishuv would be imperiled. Berl thought that rationalization to be “empty, superficial, [and] foolish,” another form of American assimilationism, little more than an excuse for not giving financial assistance to Palestine.118

Under any circumstances he would have resented the diversion of energy and money to Di Tsayt. Now, however, the daily tottered towards bankruptcy in the midst of the bank drive; and rescue efforts detracted from “work on behalf of Palestine.” In January the party mounted a fifty-thousand-dollar campaign for the paper. Katznelson believed the closing of Di Tsayt would be a “disaster” for the Labor Zionist cause, but the competing campaign, which turned “friends” into “enemies,” made him bitter.119 When the paper folded in the spring of 1922, after “swallowing three-years of Poale Zion work,” Katznelson regretted most that his mission had been robbed of considerable resources.120

He returned to Palestine exhausted and dispirited. In over half a year he had achieved little in the United States, which lived up to his preconceived notions. In his diary he recorded admiration of the “innocence, intelligence, self-confidence, and self-knowledge” of American Jews, and of their sympathy for religious tradition.121 But he accused them of preferring talk “about uplifting, spiritual subjects” to dealing with the concrete political and economic problems of the yishuv, on which he wished to focus. When he raised these issues, Katznelson said, the Americans would turn the discussion to pseudo-spiritual problems: contravention of the kosher laws, the alleged dictatorship of the proletariat, and the suppression of Yiddish.122 He was convinced that American Jews’ raison d’être was to support the yishuv financially; and this he had not motivated them to do. He perceived no irony in the failure of an intellectual with deep spiritual concerns to communicate effectively with supposedly materialistic Americans about wordly concerns.


After his searing experiences Katznelson lost interest in the United States. (Such disengagement was not unique to him;123 nor was this the only issue from which he would withdraw in his career.) From 1925, Davar, which quickly became a major voice in Palestine, occupied much of his time and energy. When he directed his attention to American matters, he exhibited aloofness and irritability. In public speeches and articles in Davar, he took favorable notice of such American phenomena as women’s liberation, Jewish mutual-aid associations, municipal federations, and trade union control over production through the “union label.”124 He was more impressed, however, by the hollow rituals of American Jewish life (“New York banquets”) and the assimilatory power of the melting pot; and he poked fun at “modern” (Conservative) American rabbis, who presumably fell prey to both. With less charity—and less knowledge—than Bialik, he mocked American Hebraists, whose work he found pretentious and derivative. Nonetheless, he invited several of them to write for Davar, and, no doubt mindful of his own disappointment with Di Tsayt, promised them a small honorarium.125 Returning to an old theme in a 1928 Davar editorial, he reminded “the people of ‘donating’ America” of their odious image in “‘recipient’ Jewish communities.”126 In Kuntres he decried the impotence of the American Jewish Congress and other institutions, which appeared to be “no more than a front for resolutions, without any financial clout.”127

American Jewish labor circles and the American Federation of Labor exhibited an increasingly positive attitude towards Zionism in the 1920s, especially towards the labor sector of the yishuv. Thanks to Max Pine, Joseph Schlossberg, and others, the United Hebrew Trades conducted a campaign for Labor Palestine, the Geverkshaften (that is, Trade Union) Campaign, annually from 1924. In 1927, without acknowledging the turn of the tables, Berl suggested that proceeds of the Geverkshaften Campaign be used to rescue Davar from crushing indebtedness.128 Abe Cahan visited Palestine in 1925 and 1929; and “a breach . . . appeared in the iron wall called, Forverts.”129 In 1928 Davar secured a linotype machine at a considerable discount through Baruch Charney Vladeck (a brother of Shmuel Niger) of the Forverts. Katznelson was not altogether unappreciative of the changing atmosphere in America; and he understood the growing importance of American Labor to the welfare of yishuv workers.130 Still, when Cahan arrived in Palestine in 1925, he seized the opportunity to chide him for the quality and anti-Zionism of his journalism, although he also mustered some flattering words for the dean of American-Jewish newspapermen.131 Only grudgingly did Berl accept the linotype, insisting that even at no charge, a “luxury” American machine might cost the paper more in maintenance than it could afford.132

In the 1920s Katznelson no longer saw much positive in American Zionism. In a speech to the Zionist Congress in Carlsbad in August 1923 he carped at the inability of the ZOA to comprehend the most fundamental facts about the yishuv and claimed that the organization actually damaged the cause of Zionism on occasion.133 He recognized the continuing partnership of Aḥdut HaAvoda with the American Poale Zion but could not forget that the “same party in the same uniform . . . produced people” such as Medem and Zhitlovsky, “who vilified” the yishuv and its workers. He now concluded that the American Poale Zion would never achieve power, and implausibly attributed their past successes to having ridden the coattails of Aḥdut HaAvoda.134 By 1927 he was becoming apprehensive that the anti-Labor Revisionists might sweep the United States as they had Poland.135

The Brandeisists with their notions of scientific management, technical expertise, and “efficiency,” earned special opprobrium in these years from him and other Laborites for their supposed lack of humanity and Zionist commitment. In the summer of 1923, Judge Julian Mack, who headed the Brandeis group after Brandeis had retreated to the cloistered sanctum of the Supreme Court,136 came to survey the progress of the yishuv, especially the projects in which his group was involved. Berl greeted him with a “success story” in Kuntres, about their Central Bank for Cooperative Institutions, “one of the [few] remnants of the lofty aspirations from the days of the Pittsburgh Convention of blessed memory, the golden age . . . of Brandeisian Zionism.” Success, however, was relative. The generously capitalized bank, Katznelson pointed out, lent far less than the undercapitalized Workers’ Bank, which the Brandeisists sought to undermine at every opportunity; the American manager of the Central Bank, Harry Viteles, earned an exorbitant salary for Palestine; and the bank’s overhead in the previous year had amounted to fully a quarter of the sum lent. With unsubtle sarcasm, Katznelson wondered if the time had not come “at last, to learn how to build from our big brothers, with their imagination and practicality.”137 A few years later he editorialized against the bank in Davar, because its annual report was published in English for the benefit of directors “who sit abroad,” and of Viteles, who still did not know Hebrew. Confident that they would not understand, he used Bialik’s words to describe bank officials as “pigs fattened on foreign cultures.”138

As noted above, the Brandeisists lost the struggle for power in the ZOA and the WZO to Weizmann and his followers in 1920–21 and withdrew from active involvement in “official” Zionism. By 1927, however, the Weizmannites and their allies, including the Labor Zionists, had proved incapable of obtaining adequate funding for the yishuv or of managing on what they had. There was no money for new settlement projects, not even enough to pay teachers or deal with growing unemployment. Assuming that Americans would respond to scientific management, the Zionist Congress that year embraced Brandeisist ideals and chose an Executive that would implement them. “Brandeisism without Brandeis,” Katznelson griped in Davar, “the same tune, but different trumpeters.”139 Henrietta Szold, who had close ties to Mack and other Brandeisists and a reputation for efficiency and hard-headedness, became one of three members of the Palestine Zionist Executive. The Laborites did not oppose the change at the Congress, but they rebelled vigorously when the Executive tried to carry out its mandate of balancing the budget. Typically, Katznelson expressed controlled scepticism regarding “the new American regime” at first but later, in Davar, castigated an administration which, he said, attached “the emblem” of Zionism “to an empty shell.” Justly enough, he pointed out that the Americans withheld financial support from this, their own administration, as they had from earlier ones, and, while preaching probity and economy in Palestine, did nothing about corruption and the mismanagement of Zionist affairs at home.140

Katznelson looked rather more favorably than most other Laborites on one American-Zionist project of the 1920s, the American Zion Common-wealth land-purchase and settlement company. Between 1924 and 1927 the company acquired large tracts from absentee Arab landlords on which the towns of Herzliya and Afula would be built, and in the Haifa Bay area. By 1926, it was experiencing financial difficulties, only partly because of bad management. Although it was a private initiative established to compete with the settlement activities of the Jewish National Fund, now the Fund had to save the AZC, lest lands revert to their former owners, creating a scandal in America harmful to the entire movement.141 Laborites were outraged that national funds were being used to rescue a private company, especially because the bailout caused their priorities to be ignored.142

Perhaps because he believed so strongly in the necessity of American funding, and because most AZC investors were of modest means, Katznelson took a moderate approach to the problem. He advocated Histadrut cooperation with the AZC if workers were not exploited; and he praised decentralized settlement. As a director of the Keren Hayesod in 1928 and 1929, he supported a bailout, which would leave the National Fund in control of most AZC lands, remarking sardonically that private initiative seemed to succeed in Palestine only with the aid of public funds.143

To Berl in the 1920s money was the only unequivocally positive feature of America. In Kuntres, he waxed euphoric over Weizmann’s “material success” there in 1923.144 He would not consider another trip himself but urged Ben-Gurion, Dov Hoz, and others to seek American funds for “a number of small—and perhaps large—undertakings.”145 He could not easily shed his suspicion of wealthy, American, non-Zionist “big fish” (that is, Louis Marshall and his cronies) and, like Jabotinsky, feared partnership with them in the enlarged Jewish Agency sought by Weizmann.146 By the end of the decade, however, he knew his fears were a luxury that neither Labor nor the yishuv, as a whole, could afford.147 In any case, he said to Ben-Gurion, there was probably “no more to fear from the very rich of America than from the petty bourgeois of eastern Europe.” The money of both was vital; the overlordship of either would be destructive. The enlargement of the Agency was a positive step, so long as the Zionists—especially those in the yishuv—maintained control.148

As he had asserted years before, accepting money from America was to confer a favor upon the benefactors. Taking it legitimated the donors’ wealth and assuaged their feelings of guilt for having grown rich, while friends and relatives in other countries languished in poverty. “When,” Katznelson asked in 1923, “has the dollar” (a derogatory metonymy for American Jews?) “ever enjoyed such moral stature as now, when it can justify its existence through redemption of the soil, building workers’ quarters, and opening the gates [of Palestine] for tens of thousands of expellees from Poland and Rumania?”149


As a journalist and politician Katznelson was called upon to respond to the dramatic events of the decade from 1929 to 1939. As a militant and maximalist Zionist and a practical thinker in the changing world of the 1930s, he found himself reviewing attitudes and operating assumptions regarding the United States, which he now began to view rather more positively. At a time “when our regular political cane [that is, Britain] is broken,” he remarked on the eve of war in 1939, “it is necessary . . . to reexamine . . . this [American] Diaspora, its power, its value, and our contribution to it. To my sorrow, I must admit that in this matter we have been neither broad of vision nor farsighted.”150 In fact, he had begun the reevaluation years earlier.

Katznelson never abandoned the negative attitudes towards America rooted in his generalized hostility to the Diaspora. The land of Israel would remain for him “forever the one and only homeland.” Except in Palestine, he claimed, Jews had run out of creative steam.151 In America, no less than in Germany and Poland, they faced “catastrophe,” he prophesied to the Mapai Party directorate with a startling lack of prescience two months after Hitler’s accession to power!152 (Founded in 1930, Mapai was the successor to Aḥdut HaAvoda and the immediate forerunner of today’s Labor Party.) A few months later he told delegates to the fourth Histadrut convention that the United States remained the land of puffery and bluff, where “success” was “a cult.”153 Now he saw it also as a place where violence was endemic,154 and where Jews were menaced by antisemitism—even by Nazis—as in Europe, despite the country’s efforts at “total isolationism.”155

American Jews, Berl still maintained, could never achieve spiritual fulfillment. As prejudice mounted and the immigrant generation began to die off, assimilation was becoming an ever more serious problem. He returned from his second trip to the United States in 1937 with tales of self-abnegating Jews threatening to apostatize if a Jewish state were established in Palestine.156 American Jewish workers lived in a spiritual ghetto; but in the New World melting pot, he told a conference of young workers, they could never have “an autonomous cultural life.”157 The American “Jewish labor movement lacked imagination,” he admonished a visiting delegation of American labor leaders in January 1937, and “only Palestine could lend it substance.” The American movement, he charged, failed utterly to recognize its obligations to the workers of Palestine and to “the Jewish people.”158

Now America was not even the goldene medine, which had once beckoned to him and other Russian Jews. Stricken by the Great Depression, American Jews, he feared, stood at the brink of the same abyss that had opened under unsuspecting Russian Jews after World War I. Once the economic “shield and salvation” of their fellows everywhere, some American Jews, he noted in a 1931 Jerusalem speech, were now considering aliyah to save themselves from financial ruin and possible future oppression.159

And yet, despite the logic of the situation as Katznelson saw it, American Zionism languished. Like Bialik, he expressed pity for Weizmann, who had to go cap in hand to “the crumbling, disintegrating” American Zionist “camp,” which resembled nothing so much “as a rotting tree.”160 He continued to chide American Zionists for armchair progressivism. At the 1933 Zionist Congress he accused Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, who had disparaged the Histadrut, of favoring “freedom, progress, workers’ rights, and democracy” for gentiles only. Other Laborites apparently now persuaded him that the AZC bailout amounted to a giveaway of public funds to people who should bear the burden of their investment follies.161 He complained to the 1932 Mapai Party conference that the Brandeis group’s Palestine Economic Corporation subverted socialist ideals through its investment policies and undermined the national principle, even when it supported projects backed by Labor.162 During his 1937 stay in America he observed that “no young leadership worthy of the name” existed in any Zionist organization, while the older leaders, from Louis Lipsky of the Weizmann camp to Judge Mack and Rabbi Wise of the Brandeis group, “were unable to initiate any activity.” That, he reported to the Mapai leadership, constituted “the tragedy of American Zionism, which has great opportunities for action not present anywhere else in the world, and which could garner strength from the tremendous shift in Jewish opinion in favor of Palestine . . . but is just incapable.”163

At the twenty-first Zionist Congress, held beneath war clouds in August 1939, he experienced his deepest disappointment with American Zionism. Rabbis Solomon Goldman, whom he had earlier admired, and Abba Hillel Silver, the outstanding leaders of the ZOA, spoke in opposition to illegal immigration to Palestine. Katznelson held major, although unofficial, responsibility in the yishuv for illegal immigration, which offered one of the few escape routes open to European Jews. In one of his most effective speeches, he called Silver’s words “a stone cast at our refugees on the seas and a knife in the back of Zionist policy.”164 Secure in their bastion, American Jews failed to comprehend the desperate imperative to become “law breakers” rather than abandon the Jews of Europe to their destruction, he wrote a few months later in the (American) Pioneer Woman.165 In this case, time proved him tragically insightful; both rabbis would soon recant.

As the decade closed, Katznelson, unlike Ben-Gurion who thought him unduly pessimistic, still “viewed the future of Judaism and Zionism in the United States through a glass darkly.”166 That outlook continued to dull his interest in the New World. Moshe Davis, the founder of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University, relates an illustrative encounter with Katznelson. Davis, who had been president of the Hebrew Youth Association in the United States (Histadrut HaNo’ar HaIvri), arrived in Palestine in 1937. Leaders of the yishuv, including Ben-Gurion, considered the Hebrew-speaking American rara avis and met with him to discuss how his peers might be attracted to aliyah. Katznelson also requested an interview. When Davis arrived from Jerusalem at the Davar office in Tel Aviv, however, he found a scribbled note on the door: “Do not disturb! I am preparing the lead editorial for tomorrow.” The young graduate student realized the brush-off was not a personal snub but rather an indication of how indifferent the editor was to American developments.167

If America left Katznelson generally unimpressed in the 1930s, it also began to pique his interest again. Times and needs had changed; the memory of his experiences in 1921–22 had faded. He came now to appreciate certain aspects of the American past about which he had known nothing earlier: the nineteenth-century Jewish and Christian Americans, including President Grant, who contributed to the rebuilding of Palestine, as well as the “vigorous, idealistic, and courageous young people” who had brought “ideology and organization” (italics his) to American-Jewish immigrant workers, like his own two brothers, in their “cellars and sweatshops.” Those young Jewish socialists, Berl remarked, had taught the “exploited, defenseless” masses of America to defend their economic interests, serving as an inspiration to Jewish working people everywhere.168

The present, he realized, was also not entirely barren. He valued from afar the plenitude of the United States, even in the Depression Era, as well as its civility and tolerance.169 Benny Applebaum (later, Ben-Zion Ilan), an American-born disciple with whom Berl felt special “closeness,” helped him to see that the “pioneering will . . . [and] spirit [were] not yet maimed . . . [in America, that the] vision [was] still fresh.”170 Shmaryahu Levin, the consummate Zionist fund raiser, taught him that through “love of fellow Jews,” rather than angry, uncompromising speeches, it was possible not only to extract money from American Jews but also to ignite “that nobility of spirit which smoulders under the embers of business and ‘all right.’”171 There were now a few bright lights on the American Jewish cultural stage, such as Labor Zionist thinker Ḥaim Greenberg (“not boring, even from a purely journalistic point of view”), whom he deemed worthy of being printed in Davar.172 He recognized the meaningful changes undergone by the American Jewish labor movement since he had observed it firsthand in 1922. It was no longer, he noted already in a 1930 Davar editorial, “a limp limb,” with a membership of “refugee tailors” and a leadership of “wardens from the temple of ignorance.”173 Abe Cahan exemplified the change. Although still “no Zionist and altogether different in outlook” from the pioneering Jews of Palestine, he had been spurred by the 1929 Arab riots, Katznelson observed, at last “to state [publicly] his sympathy for the yishuv and his pride in it.”174

This tentatively more positive appraisal of the United States led Katznelson to a modest reassessment of his working relationship and that of yishuv institutions with American Jews. He came to realize, as had some of his more Diaspora-oriented colleagues years earlier, that the yishuv had been remiss in “never having attempted any systematic work” to stimulate Zionist sentiment in America and that his own purely instrumental approach had proved unappealing.175 He agreed to head the new Youth Department of the Histadrut, which was established to provide Palestinian leaders for Diaspora youth groups. From Yitzḥak Chizik, Golda Myerson (Meir), and other young Palestinians who visited the United States, he had heard that the best young people there were being attracted to communism, while Zionism was the preserve of immigrant oldsters.176 Exchanges with “groups of Hebrew-speaking, American young people” at the Boston Hebrew Teachers’ College and elsewhere in 1937 led him to believe the trend could be reversed.177 Although the Youth Department proved a failure, Berl’s concern for Diaspora youth grew. He cautioned Mapai leaders in the spring of 1939 regarding “the fate of Zionism when the present generation will have descended from the stage.”178 At the outbreak of World War II, he was involved in discussions about the proper preparation of emissaries to the young people of America.179 Something had been learned since 1922!

In these years Americans sought Katznelson’s intervention or offered advice on issues ranging from Zionist youth to the possible appointment of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik of Boston as chief rabbi of Palestine.180 He offered counsel in articles in the American Jewish press, although poor health prevented him from responding favorably when Abe Cahan finally invited him to contribute to Forverts.181 In 1937 his pamphlet Revolutionary Constructivism appeared in the United States, translated by Benny Applebaum and Shlomo Grodzensky. An abridged version of an essay published in Hebrew three years earlier, it provided Americans “insight into [his] . . . unique approach” to Zionism, as well as instruction in analyzing “socialist and Jewish problems without fear of gentile reactions.”182

Berl’s involvement with American Zionism reached its peak during his 1937 visit to the United States. Like the journey of sixteen years earlier, this was a business trip. Now, however, he was more experienced and better prepared, older and more willing to meet Americans halfway; and he knew some English. He showed interest in the New York municipal elections; he went to the theater, on one occasion as Golda’s date; and he toured the sights of Washington and New York, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, and the Arlington National Cemetery. He made time for family and friends, although the tie with former Bobruiskers had frayed beyond repair.183 He visited the Jewish Theological Seminary more than once, like Bialik taking special interest in its library; and he spent time in discussion with Hebrew teachers.184 With sceptical satisfaction he observed that American Hebraists no longer seemed “isolated, orphaned, and emasculated”; and with mild surprise, he acknowledged that at least “at certain moments ethical issues count for something” in the land of dollars.185

Katznelson promised Menaḥem Ussishkin of the Jewish National Fund that he would endeavor to raise money in America for land purchase and the expansion of Jewish settlements, as he had been doing in England.186 He also wanted to promote understanding of the implications of partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, as the British were now proposing. To accomplish these tasks he devoted attention to the broad spectrum of Zionists.

Well before 1937, Berl began to mend his fences with the “progressive” Brandeis group, good relations with which were, he now came to believe, “of inestimable importance to the future of Zionist work.”187 During his second American sojourn he met with Professor Felix Frankfurter of the Harvard Law School, Brandeis’s close collaborator who would soon join him on the Supreme Court, and Brandeis himself; and he dined with the executive of the American Economic Committee for Palestine, an organization sponsored by the group.188 Those exchanges resulted in admiration all around, if not in tangible accomplishments. Subsequently Brandeis proffered financial aid to the Arabic-language newspaper and other projects of the Histadrut; and the Brandeisists looked to Davar for public recognition of their activities.189

On his first American foray Katznelson had contact mostly with Yiddish-speaking, immigrant workers. In 1937 he addressed the national board of Hadassah, an English-speaking, mostly second-generation, middle-class organization, and traveled to Atlantic City for its national convention. In vain, he tried to persuade the women of the virtues of partitioning Palestine into Arab and Jewish cantons; he also sought to direct their attention away from politics and towards a sales campaign for Palestine products. The Hadassah members, however, saw in the battle against partition “their great educational role in the [Zionist] movement” and resisted his approaches.190 Not without irony, he observed that Hadassah and the Geverkshaften Campaign, with their philanthropic orientation, had become the two most actively Zionistic organizations in the United States.191

Katznelson had come to America chiefly to finalize terms for the merger of the American Poale Zion-Zeire Zion with the non-Zionist, National Jewish Labor Committee. As will be discussed below, Ben-Gurion had shortly before concluded an agreement in principle with Baruch Charney Vladeck, the Forverts journalist who had once aided Davar, now a New York City politician and chairman of the Labor Committee. To Katznelson fell the task of selling the pact to both sides.192 Although he proceeded with tact and diplomacy, the assignment proved “to be much more difficult than Ben-Gurion had imagined.”193 The unionists “knew,” he confided to his wife, “that one day they would have to succumb to Palestine.”194 To his amazement, some opponents of the agreement were themselves considering aliyah; but they were unwilling, for personal reasons, to give Vladeck the satisfaction of having engineered the arrangement.195 Katznelson attempted to salvage the trip by persuading International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union secretary David Dubinsky, one of the most powerful union leaders in the United States, to invest three million dollars from union reserve funds in Palestine. Here, too, he failed, in part because Dubinsky, along with several other Jewish labor leaders, felt he had been slighted by Histadrut officials over the years.196

Americans’ sense of the importance of the yishuv in the geopolitical context of the late 1930s led to the only real successes of the tour. These came in the realm of public relations, which Katznelson tended to devalue. As noted above, he was well received by Hadassah, even if many of the women disagreed with his views. The National Arbayter Farband and the New York Jewish Educators’ Council responded enthusiastically to his softened rhetoric; other groups, including the veterans of the Jewish Legion and an association of nutritionists, invited him to speak. During an address to the thirteenth annual convention of the Geverkshaften Campaign, in which he reviewed the situation in Palestine and Europe and took to task the leaders of “certain Jewish socialist organizations” who still refused to climb aboard the Zionist bandwagon (meaning, of course, Vladeck and his compatriots), “everyone hung on his every word.”197 His departure from America in December 1937, unlike that fifteen years earlier, was not unlamented, especially within the Labor Zionist movement. The Iddisher Kemfer captured his essence, albeit in the florid language that he disdained as American bluff. All during his trip, the journal observed, Katznelson had spoken “without one word of empty propaganda, without one false note . . . , with a firmness whose great magic and forceful power lie in the gentle humanity of the person.”198 If he remained ambivalent about America, some Americans had learned to appreciate him. Ironically, his voice would henceforth carry more weight in the United States, while in the political arena of the yishuv, events were beginning to pass him by.

The most significant consequence of Berl’s encounter with America and its Jewry in the 1930s was a moderate and conditional revision of the role he envisioned for them in the Zionist enterprise. In line with Ben-Gurion, he now accorded America a political as well as an economic function. American Jewish workers, who in the past had “left” the workers of Palestine to themselves, could, he realized, smooth the way in international labor and socialist circles and garner left-wing support for Zionism. He told visiting union leaders in January 1937 that “the influence of [the workers of] America must” be felt.199 More important was the political task he now assigned to American Jewry, at large, which he began to envision as a counterbalance to the increasingly anti-Zionist British government. Those Jewries, especially in the English-speaking world, which were least committed to the personal fulfillment of the Zionist ideal, he told the Mapai Party Council in the spring of 1939, were well placed to become not only “the financial reservoir” of the yishuv but its “political crutch” as well.200

Like Jabotinsky and Ben-Gurion, Katznelson was aware of British sensitivity to American opinion on the Palestine question and less inclined even than his Mapai colleague to expect fair play from England. In March 1930, the British government officially received the Shaw Commission report, which placed a considerable measure of blame for the 1929 riots on Jews’ displacement of Arabs from their ancestral lands. Shortly thereafter Sir John Hope-Simpson was dispatched to Palestine to study the question of land transfer. Katznelson feared the worst and suggested to the Mapai Party Center that a delegation of “Palestinians [be sent] to New York . . . to stir up the Jewish public.” In that election year, he asserted, “every senatorial candidate would express his sympathy for Zionism”; and a skillful delegation “would know how to exploit” such statements;201 but the deputation was not sent. The initial sympathy of the American public for the yishuv in the wake of the riots quickly dissipated; and the isolationist American government quietly acquiesced in Britain’s restrictive measures against the Jews.202

During the first days of the 1936–39 Arab insurrection, Katznelson again urged upon party leaders “serious action in Washington,” such as an official warning that additional restrictions on the yishuv, “would make a bad impression in America.”203 He proposed that President Roosevelt be urged “to make America the guarantor of Jewish interests in Palestine. A country with a Jewish population of four million, which was a partner in the establishment of the Mandate, and which has a treaty with Britain regarding Palestine issues, is certainly entitled to become involved.”204 Unlike others, he did not perceive any special affinity of the United States for the yishuv. He wished merely to exploit the potential of American Jewish political power. Less than a year later he predicted to his friend and physician in London that neither “America nor France would assist . . . [in forcing Britain] to maintain the Mandate faithfully,” although he seems not to have discouraged Mapai and the Histadrut from seeking the support of organized Labor in the United States and Britain.205 During the debates over partition and immigration restriction that raged between 1937 and 1939, Katznelson again reminded his colleagues of the importance to British “government circles of the American reaction” and urged Weizmann and Ben-Gurion to secure the support of the Zionist hinterland in America.206 On occasion, usually in private, he attributed Zionist political victories to “the unprecedented unity of American Jewry.”207

The importance that Katznelson came to attach to American political activity on behalf of the yishuv in the 1930s reflects the changes that occurred in the Zionist movement, in the geopolitical context, and in Katznelson himself during that troubled decade. As the French proverb has it, however, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” In fact, he continued to look upon money as “the principal factor” in the America-Palestine relationship. “I know of nothing,” he declared to a Histadrut Council meeting in 1936, “more important than saving workers from the affliction of unemployment.”208 Without funds the Zionists could not fight for their goal. In America there was money in relative abundance, even in the Depression Era; and he understood better than most that time was running out. Now more than ever the yishuv needed money to build. That it should look to America was natural and necessary.209

Katznelson expected financial backing for all the projects of the labor movement, which depended upon American funds for a major portion of its budget in the 1930s. Like Bialik, he solicited money for the Hebrew University and for the subvention of Hebrew writers coming from Europe. For Davar he sought backing and subscribers.210 Most especially, he was eager to raise funds for illegal immigration. He tended to ignore the Depression, probably on the assumption that however difficult conditions were in America, they were worse in Palestine.211 If America was no longer the goldene medine for individuals, it had to remain that for Zionist institutions.

Berl saw “nothing wrong with . . . repeated requests for money.” Not only did the ends require means but he remained convinced that “depriving the American Jewish public of its fund drives would impoverish [it spiritually] rather than enrich it.” His own experiences in the New World notwithstanding, he still believed that fund raising was the only way to prepare the ground for cultural and educational activities among America’s money-oriented Jews. He claimed American and western European Jews had forgotten “what poverty was,” and—contrary to evidence—that American gentiles were more generous than Jews. Since, he averred, “giving ennobles the donor” (italics his), through their financial demands the Palestinians were contributing to the character development of American Jews.212 America was still chiefly a cow to be milked. Berl did not lose sight of the dangers of dependency, but he regarded the Geverkshaften Campaign, Labor’s mainstay, as benign. Unlike the “well-known personalities” who had highhandedly doled out American relief funds during World War I and after the 1929 riots, or the “money moguls” of the enlarged Jewish Agency, Geverkshaften Campaign leaders, he claimed, never tried “to assert control over expenditures or over cultural affairs or politics. . . . [They] do not attempt to impose [upon us] the ways . . . of Warsaw or New York.”213


The war years were the last of Berl’s life. Although he was only fifty-two years old in 1939, his physical health and morale were declining. He now became something of an elder statesman, and gradually ceased to play the central role in the political life of the yishuv that had been his for so long. He remained very active in the Histadrut “study month,” which he organized for the first time in 1941, in Mapai Party seminars and other teaching settings, to an extent in Davar, and, most of all, in the Am Oved Publishing House established by the Histadrut in 1942 with him as director and general editor. These forums enabled him still to function as the spiritual mentor and intellectual preceptor of mainstream Laborites, and, to a degree, of the entire yishuv.214 His voice was still heard everywhere. His opinions still carried weight with close associates like Ben-Gurion, with the Labor leadership, and with many others. Once again, he manifested apathy and negative feelings towards America; but building upon the reevaluation he undertook in the 1930s, he came to recognize its enormously increased importance to the free world and to Zionism in the wartime period. As teacher and editor he voiced those contradictory sentiments.

To Berl, America was still the place where people worshiped success, where those who had not prospered materially were deemed to have led worthless lives.215 In a letter to the Chicago Hebrew poet and critic, Shimon Halkin, he mourned the Hebrew writer, L. A. Orloff, who, he said, had possessed “the true spark” but, like so many others, was “shunted aside” in America.216 Capitalistic society, which was “fundamentally anarchic,” he claimed, “promised individuals freedom, but absolved itself of any responsibility for their . . . welfare.” By contrast, he told a Labor conference in 1942, at the heart of the socialist society for which they were striving “was the question of human beings within society.”217 His views in this regard seemed to have changed little since the days at Kinneret. At its best, the freedom of America promoted homogenization, as the fate of Jewish labor movements illustrated. American Jewish unions, he told the twentieth-anniversary celebration of the Histadrut, shed their commitment to the Jewish people, as their members climbed the ladder of success. Only in Palestine was it really possible “to share in the fate of the reborn nation.”218

In the early days of the war, Eliezer Kaplan, the treasurer of the Jewish Agency, Manya Shoḥat, his old comrade in American arms, and others reported to him on the infighting in American Zionism, which was undiminished by the threat to Europe’s Jews. He “could not come to terms” with the failure of the Americans to rise above their usual behavior, but the news was not surprising.219 Like Jabotinsky, he longed for the good old days of World War I and hoped American Jews could be recruited for a new Jewish Legion to serve in Palestine. He understood, however, that “many American [legal] obstacles” (italics his) stood in the way; and he doubted the will of American Jews.220 In a vastly overgenerous evaluation of the role of Ben-Gurion and Ben-Zvi during the earlier emergency, he asserted before a gathering of Palestinian Jewish soldiers that only the miraculous presence of “a few Second Aliyah” exiles, who “lit the Zionist torch,” had brought American volunteers to the Legion in 1917.221 He refused, however, to provide such a presence now himself.222 This exaggerated compliment to his colleagues constituted an unfair devaluation of the contribution of Americans to the Legion, a contribution which, as noted above, he had acknowledged two decades earlier.

By early 1940, Berl already perceived the Nazi “crusade” as the worst in history; in the hour of crisis the Jews of the world were looking desperately to their prosperous and more secure American brethren for leadership. But Hitler’s influence was felt even in Russia and the United States, still untouched by the war. America’s once “assertive and proud” Jews, he averred in a 1940 speech, were frightened “to speak out” against the Nazis, “lest they be suspected of desiring war.”223 After Pearl Harbor American Jews still seemed more “fearful” and less nationalistic than during the First World War, he remarked in 1942. Even Professor Salo Baron of Columbia University, the respected historian of the Jews, failed to grasp the gravity of the situation. In an essay that appeared in Davar, Baron expressed the hope that after the war, Europe’s displaced Jews could return to their former homes. To Berl that was the sort of cowardice, naiveté, and blindness to the proper role of Palestine, characteristic of “the respectable Jews of America.”224

In September 1941, he answered Baron in an essay in the Jewish Frontier. “Whatever the general atmosphere following the war,” Katznelson proclaimed, “we can expect only defeats unless the Zionist movement makes a firm stand on its full platform. This means the full solution of the Jewish Question, the transformation of millions of homeless and defenseless Jews into a population that is not dependent on the love or hatred of others.” It was a call for the establishment of a Jewish state and a vote of unequivocal no-confidence in the Diaspora. He issued it in the United States, moreover, where, until then, even Zionist leaders who favored a state usually refrained from forthright language.225

As always, however, his attitude was ambivalent. One senses that in the early forties Berl was setting his house in order by making peace with some of his American adversaries, perhaps with America itself. As he withdrew from active political involvement, he devoted less attention to financial matters. Although he never lost sight of the importance of American money to the yishuv nor abandoned the notion that American Jews had a duty to bankroll Zionism,226 he now showed interest in other aspects of American Jewish life.227 He expressed regret for “the catastrophe” wrought by “the lack of understanding” between Western Jews and eastern Europeans in the Zionist movement. The tragic split after World War I between Brandeis and Weizmann, he wrote in Davar in 1940, had been caused not by conflicting interests but by “the inability [of the two camps] to communicate with each other.”228 In 1942 he sent warm greetings for a volume honoring David Pinsky, the former editor of Di Tsayt, on his seventieth birthday. Pinsky’s “literary and public creativity,” he asserted, was “intimately connected . . . with the flowering of Zionist and socialist consciousness.”229 Katznelson had been in the United States when the Poale Zion celebrated Pinsky’s fiftieth birthday. Then he had conspicuously avoided sending even a perfunctory greeting. In 1943 Am Oved began the publication of the complete works of Abraham Liessin (Walt), the Yiddish poet, editor, Forverts journalist, and socialist, who was one of Berl’s heroes. In the introduction Berl acknowledged that America had not snuffed out Liessin’s spark nor his commitment to the Jewish people during the forty-one years he lived there.230 Shortly before his death Katznelson seemed ready for reconciliation even with the American Jewish communists. Golda warned him that they were unregenerate in their opposition to Zionism, but he preferred to believe otherwise, despite his strong dislike for their Moscow masters.231

The war forced him to come to terms with America as a political power and moral force. “We are more interested in the victory of the democracies,” Katznelson declared in a June 1940 speech to the Mapai Party Council, “than they are themselves.”232 Considering the enemy about whom he harbored no illusions, it could hardly have been otherwise. By mid-1941, along with Golda, Ben-Gurion, Moshe Shertok (Sharett), and others, Katznelson recognized that Zionism’s “front line was in London and America” and that the welfare of the yishuv now depended in no small measure upon the political clout of American Jewry.233 As a non-Marxist socialist, he had long before perceived the danger of “the romantic pro-Soviet” outlook of many Palestine Laborites, which led to admiration for Russia’s anti-Zionist tyranny. Appreciation of America, he now hoped, might counteract that potentially destructive sentiment.234 He expressed special contempt for leftist American intellectuals whose love affair with communism blinded them to their own country’s moral promise and political responsibilities. Roosevelt, he wrote in Davar in September 1941, had comprehended the threat posed by the Axis well before Pearl Harbor but had been unable to rouse the nation, in part because of the activities of the leftists.235

To foster the reorientation of the Palestine labor movement Berl sought American books about politics, art, and society by authors such as Lewis Mumford, Max Lerner, and Alan Moorehead, for publication in translation by Am Oved.236 He brought out an anthology of British thought concerned with wartime issues and hoped to publish a complementary volume of American thought.237 He eagerly searched for suitable works of American Yiddish and Hebrew writers and of refugees from Hitler’s Europe living in the United States.238

Central though the United States may have been to his concerns in the early 1940s, Berl remained characteristically wary. Anxiety about the Soviet Union could not move him to unqualified endorsement of capitalist, materialist America; and American Jews, with their Diaspora values, could never earn his unreserved acceptance. His ambivalence manifested itself in a number of ways. At Mapai seminars, he refused to experiment with the modern pedagogy pioneered in the American-Jewish teachers’ seminaries because the youth of Palestine, who could “live Hebrew literature,” supposedly required a different approach.239 In politics, he reminded Histadrut members and Davar readers in the spring of 1942, America was not thoroughly reliable. During World War I, she assented to the Balfour Declaration. But after the 1920–21 riots came the American King-Crane investigatory commission, which sided with the Arab perpetrators.240 Still, America’s workers, the “vanguard of tomorrow,” were sympathetic to Jews;241 and the country was the best—if not the only—hope the world then offered. His reservations were fewer. His early awareness of the value of American technology and funds was now enlarged by recognition of the political and moral role that only the United States could play in a world threatened by unprecedented tyrannies. His approbation of America was greater; but it could never be total.

Katznelson’s death in 1944 shook the entire yishuv. A commanding leader and moral visionary who had remained uncompromised by eschewing political office and its emoluments was gone. The conscience of the yishuv, the voice that had cautioned against both American materialism and bluff and Bolshevik tyranny, while waving the banner of the Jewish people and of a humane socialism infused with Jewish values and tradition, was stilled. Ben-Zion Ilan was overcome by a “feeling of personal orphandom”;242 but even political opponents would miss Berl’s guidance and reproof. His appreciation of the importance to the yishuv of American money and political power would prove to be a significant and so far permanent legacy. His no less well-placed anxiety regarding many American values would be less long-lasting. Across the ocean, his loss was felt most deeply by those Labor Zionists who shared his vision of America, those who also saw the United States and its Jews largely as financial and political resources to be exploited for Zionism. To them Berl was “essentially a man of thought and expression” who exemplified the highest aspirations of the Jewish people, the most exalted ideals of the human race.243 Soon after his death, his Labor colleagues decided to establish a teachers’ seminary and retreat center in his memory. The funds for the institution that came to be known as Beit Berl were to be raised in the United States.244

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