The secular socialist Zionist who insisted on mourning Tisha B’Av
It has become an annual modern ritual. Every summer before Tisha B’Av, 9 Av, many serious Jews wonder if they should still fast on this day commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples – as well as many other persecutions Jews endured on this day. over the millennia. Especially in a united Jerusalem, as Israel is about to celebrate its 75th anniversary, it seems anachronistic to once again recreate the despair of our grandparents. A friend from Jerusalem fasts, prays, prays, but ends the fast four hours before sunset, toasting modern Israel with Bible readings stressing that when redemption comes, mourning will end. This religious dispute goes far beyond the strictness with which one adheres to Jewish law. This debate, about how to remember history and what to forget, goes to the heart of the Zionist revolution – and of some democratic dilemmas today as well.
In 1934, Berl Katznelson, an avowed secular socialist Zionist living in Tel Aviv, blamed members of his youth movement for going camping in Tisha B’Av. By embracing Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, these young revolutionaries happily rejected their suffocating and depressing religious upbringing. They ate on Yom Kippur. They had bread at Passover. And, instead of lamenting Tisha B’Av, they celebrated the return of the Jews to Zion, even before the establishment of Israel. Each assault on tradition affirmed their status as New Jews, and not as pathetic, passive, pious and persecuted Yids from whom they fled in “Galut”, exile.
Katznelson himself enjoyed impeccable revolutionary credentials. Born in 1887 in Babryusk, present-day Belarus, he immersed himself in the passionate Marxist debates of turn-of-the-century Russia. His Universalist crusade for equality, however, never weakened his ties to the Jewish people or his Zionist dreams. Arriving in Palestine in 1909, he joined the trickle of “Second Aliyah” ideologues building the country – and being rebuilt by him too.
This sincere socialist first worked as an agricultural worker. Eventually, his talents as a union organizer, lecturer, writer, editor, and co-founder in 1925 of the working-class daily Davar made Katznelson a champion of socialist Zionism. His fatal aneurysm in 1944 at the age of 57 deprived Labor Zionists of a defining figure. Today, that leaves him more forgotten than friends who established Israel four years later, including David Ben-Gurion.
Yet, as much as Golda Meir liked to remember her “pretty smile,” Katznelson was fuming that summer of 1934. It is true that he was not the first revolutionary to find young revolutionaries too revolutionary, but he was right. In a Davar column titled “Destruction and Detachment,” Katznelson attacked those Tisha B’Av revelers for not “lamenting our destruction, our enslavement, our embittered exile.” What is the value of a national liberation movement, he wondered, if it does not root itself in the rhythms of its people, and only remember how to forget?
For socialist Zionists, he insisted, 9 Av has the same meaning as for any Jew. We all lost our land, our freedom, our hope when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, triggering the 1900 year exile the Zionists sought to end.
Eventually, Katznelson forgave these young amnesiacs. But, he warned, there is no salvation in our national salvation movement for those who have “no instinct for national spirit, for historical symbols, for enduring cultural values”.
Still furious, Katznelson soon decided to confront the intellectual rot underlying this undoing of history. The result was what might be his most memorable essay, “Revolution and Tradition.”
Establishing his revolutionary credentials first, Katznelson cataloged the many rebellions stemming from their socialist Zionist revolt against Jewish homelessness and powerlessness. We reject “the cult of diplomas within our intelligentsia”, “the assimilationist utopia” of the old Jewish socialist intelligentsia and “the uprooting and the intermediary” of the European bourgeois, he rejoiced. But good revolutionaries don’t just smash toys like kids throwing a tantrum. Stepping back from Nietzsche’s nihilism, already fearing Hitler’s Nazism, Katznelson warns that erasing the past often produces a barbaric present. Even revolutionaries need balance.
In juggling, Katznelson taught that people are “gifted with two faculties: memory and forgetting. We cannot live without both. If only memory existed, then we would be crushed under its burden. We would become slaves to our memories, to our ancestors. Our physiognomy would then only be a simple copy of previous generations. And if we were entirely ruled by oblivion, what place would there be for culture, science, self-awareness, spiritual life?
If only memory existed, then we would be crushed under its burden. We would become slaves to our memories, to our ancestors.
Katznelson’s “revolutionary constructivism” rejects the rigidity of “archiconservatism” and the anarchism of primitive “pseudo-revolutionism”. Instead, he says, we sift.
“A renewed and creative generation does not throw away the cultural heritage of the ages,” he preached. “He examines and scrutinizes, accepts and rejects. Sometimes it can maintain and complement an accepted tradition. Sometimes he descends into ruined caves to dig up and dust off what had been forgotten, to resurrect old traditions that have the power to stimulate the spirit of the renewal generation. If a people possess something ancient and deep, which can educate man and train him for his future tasks, is it really revolutionary to despise it and to distance ourselves from it?
Initially, Katznelson speaks Marxist, sounding very theoretical. He ends up sounding downright rabbinical, preaching, using the Jewish calendar to uncover the true character of his people. “The Jewish year,” he reasoned, “is dotted with days which, in depth of meaning, are unparalleled among other peoples. Is it advantageous—is it a goal—for the Jewish labor movement to squander the potential value stored within it? Instead, he suggested, we “must determine the value of the present and the past with our own eyes and examine them from the perspective of our vital needs, from the point of view of progress towards our own future”.
First, reveling in the Zionist journey of his peers from slavery to freedom, he analyzed the Passover. Celebrate the story m’dor l’dor, from generation to generation, Katznelson has devised two sublime phrases that should be read obligatorily at every seder. “I know of no literary creation that can evoke a greater hatred of slavery and a love of freedom than the story of servitude and the exodus from Egypt,” he wrote. “I know of no other memory of the past which is so entirely a symbol of our present and our future as the ‘memory of the exodus from Egypt’.”
Returning to his summer obsession, Tisha B’Av, Katznelson noted how Polish and Russian exiles in Paris and elsewhere quickly assimilated, forgetting their identities. In contrast, “the Jewish nation…remains unconquered by two thousand years of dispersion.” Indeed, “Israel knew how to preserve the day of its mourning, rescuing the date of its loss of freedom from oblivion… On each anniversary, burning tears were shed and each generation expressed its pain”.
Remarkably, the non-Jewish Polish national poet, Adam Mickiewicz, visited the synagogue every Tisha B’Av to “join the Jews in their mourning over the loss of their homeland”. As an upset nationalist, Mickiewicz appreciates this exercise in memory and national awareness. He “understood the power and depth of Tishah b’Av.”
Finally, refuting those who wanted to celebrate the revitalized homeland on Tisha B’Av, Katznelson warned that too many Jews remained at risk, from physical threats in Europe and Arab lands, to spiritual threats through assimilation in “capitalist France” and elsewhere. Giving a leap of hope, Katznelson left open the possibility of sweeping change once Jews experience “complete liberation from slavery – including its liberation from class-by-class oppression.” But, even if salvation were to come, he hoped “that every child born in freedom and equality, ignorant of hunger and material oppression, will experience the sufferings of all previous generations.”
“Revolution and Tradition” explains why Jews should commemorate Tisha B’Av, even when free. Reading Katznelson today highlights the many miracles of the Zionist revolution: 88 years later, most Jews wake up free and comfortable every day, especially after millions found refuge and dignity in Israel, home to now the largest Jewish community in the world. More broadly, Katznelson values history and memory as essential glues that unite communities, strengthen people. He therefore warns against conservatives who are too stuck in the past as well as progressives who trash the past. Today we see how such blinders create conservatives who fail to hold institutions and progressives who don’t believe in progress.
Katznelson’s middle path is constructive. Destructive fanaticism or one or the other offers one-way tickets to barbarism. Liberal democracies must sift, remember and forget, look back and forward, embrace just enough of the past to be grounded and wise, while dreaming just enough of the future to be ambitious and creative.
Teacher Gil Troy is the author of Zionist ideas and the publisher of the three-volume set, “Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings,” the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People, which will be published in August to mark the 125th anniversary of the first Zionist Congress.