Secular Zionism

From religious idea to secular ideology.

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Labor-Socialist Zionism

In many ways, the labor-socialist Zionists succeeded in synthesizing the political and cultural streams through their ambitious colonization projects, social vision, and ideology of cultural and social revolution.

Many Jewish Marxists were committed to Zionism and the return to the Land of Israel, but they faced an inherent conflict between communism's internationalist focus and Zionism's nationalist focus. Jewish Marxists, therefore, worked to reformulate the Communist Manifesto to fit into a Zionist context. The most important of these thinkers was Ber Borochov, who interpreted the Jewish Problem in class terms and held that "the emancipation of the Jewish people either will be brought about by Jewish labor, or will not be attained at all" ("Our Platform" 1906).

According to Borochov, immigration to the Land of Israel, if planned and executed properly, would transform the Jewish people from a petty bourgeoisie society into a healthy society, based on Jewish workers who would forgo their shops and clerkships for the fields and factories of the new Jewish homeland. Marxist-Zionist ideology, stemming from Borochov's formulations, was the basis of the kibbutz movement (which built communal villages and farms) and was a dominant force in Israeli politics for many years.

An important leader of the socialist Zionist movement who acted upon Borochov's ideals was Berl Katznelson. When he came to the Land of Israel in 1909 from Russia, Katznelson worked as a farm laborer and eventually became the leader of the socialist Zionists, until his death in 1944.

As the founder and editor of the labor-socialist newspaper, Davar, the entire cultural and ideological program of the workers in the Land of Israel were under his influence. His love of Jewish culture, the Hebrew language, and commitment to social justice are apparent in all of his writings. Katznelson's greatest contribution was his call for contemporary Jews to reinterpret ancient Jewish values for the modern secular worker. He urged his fellow revolutionaries to find ways to integrate newly interpreted Jewish values and culture into their lives and not relate to the Zionist revolution as one that "destroys the old world entirely."

An example of how he used his influence: In 1936 Katznelson wrote an article in which he criticized his party's youth movement for holding a celebratory campfire on Tisha B'Av, the day for mourning the destruction of Jerusalem. He urged the youth and their leaders to find innovative and meaningful ways to adapt the old traditions to the new reality, reinterpreting traditional Judaism for the modern Hebrew worker (beyond campfires and sing-alongs). In modern Israel, the words of Katznelson remain relevant for many secular Jews who struggle to find ways to connect to Judaism outside the framework of religious beliefs and traditional observance.

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Rabbi Ed Snitkoff

Rabbi Ed Snitkoff is the Director of the Ramah Israel Seminar and lives in Jerusalem.