Socialism in the Service of the Nation: Berl Katznelson and “Constructive” Socialism
Berl Katznelson has a unique place, not only in the history of the labor movement and its historiography but also in the collective memory of the Israeli political and cultural elite. His death in 1944 at the relatively early age of fifty-seven, at a time when all his friends of the Second Aliyah, from Ben-Gurion, Tabenkin, and Ben-Zvi to Eshkol, Remez, and Sprinzak were approaching the zenith of their careers, his reputation as an ideologist and educator who did not “soil his hands” with day-to-day politics, and his long and sentimental lectures called “discussions,” full of reminiscences of the early days, resulted in an image in which reality and imagination, truth and legend, have been indiscriminately intermingled for more than sixty years. In the collective consciousness of the native-born generation that reached maturity in the 1940s and early 1950s and that was reared on the legend, Katznelson was the embodiment of the pioneering Yishuv, of the heroic and pure society, frugal in its ways, swamped by waves of mass immigration and the modernization process of the early years of the state. That generation longed for an image that would immortalize its lost innocence and that in many ways would serve as an alibi.
In recent years the most interesting expression of the cult of Berl Katznelson is Anita Shapira's biography. 1 More than a history book, it is a labor of love, and the responses of Israeli readers reflect a nostalgia for a golden age that has vanished beyond recall. For the children and grandchildren of the immigrants who came to the country before the Second World War, graduates of the famous high schools in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa, products of youth movements and kibbutzim, and, generally speaking, the children of the educated upper-middle class close to the labor movement, Katznelson represented an inseparable part of the vanished days of their youth, together with the sand dunes of Tel Aviv, the campfires that lit up their nights in the summer camps in Galilee, and the comradeship of the youth groups. The fact that this nostalgia has more to do with myth than with the gray realities of that period makes little difference. It is necessary to discuss Katznelson's thought not only because he was a key figure in the formation of the labor movement's ideology but because he embodied all the strengths and weak-