Tearoom of a Po‘ale Tsiyon home for workers in the Praga suburb, Warsaw, ca. 1920s. On the wall are portraits of Karl Marx and Ber Borokhov. (YIVO)

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Po‘ale Tsiyon

In the early twentieth century, the Labor Zionist Po‘ale Tsiyon (Workers of Zion) organization evolved from various groups in Eastern Europe that followed the Labor Zionist teachings of Naḥman Syrkin and Ber Borokhov and the secular nationalism of Khayim Zhitlovski. Seeking to base Zionism on the Jewish proletariat, the Po‘ale Tsiyon rejected territorialism, Bundism, and assimilationist Marxism as solutions to the Jewish Question. Straddling the boundaries of revolutionary socialism and Jewish nationalism, the movement then experienced a large number of splits and disagreements over such issues as Palestine versus the Diaspora, Hebrew versus Yiddish, cooperation with nonproletarian Zionists, support for the USSR, and over whether pioneering zeal or objective historical conditions would serve to build a Jewish home in Palestine.

The rapid development of socialist movements in Russia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Bund’s emphatic rejection of Zionism in 1901, and the Russian Revolution of 1905 hastened the consolidation of disparate Labor Zionist groups into an organized movement. These groups rejected the view of the Bund’s founders that socialism and democracy sufficed to solve the Jewish problem and stressed that only a territorial base in Palestine could allay the economic marginality and abnormality of Diaspora Jewry.

Students and teachers in a classroom of the first Jewish kindergarten, Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi, Ukr.); ca. 1920s. Affiliated with Po‘ale Tsiyon, this was one of many schools known as “Borokhov” schools, which taught both Zionism and Yiddish culture. A portrait of Borokhov hangs in the background. (YIVO)

In Russia in 1906, Borokhov founded the Jewish Social Democratic Workers Party–Po‘ale Tsiyon. This party followed his “prognostic Zionism,” outlined in the 1906 pamphlet “Nasha platforma” (Our Platform) that stressed the role of objective socioeconomic factors and crises rather than Jewish nationalism and pioneering zeal in establishing a Jewish territorial base in Palestine (Borokhov himself later changed his views and embraced the “principled” Zionism that “Nasha platforma” rejected).

In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, stung by their perception that the Austrian Social Democratic Workers Party neglected the Jewish proletariat, Shlomo Kaplansky and Natan Gross helped organize the Po‘ale Tsiyon Federation in Austria, which adopted the name Jewish Socialist Workers Party—Po‘ale Tsiyon in 1906. In 1905, a Jewish socialist party, Po‘ale Tsiyon, was organized in the United States and Canada and in the following year began to publish its hallmark journal, the Yidisher kemfer. In Palestine, activists who had arrived during the Second Aliyah founded a Po‘ale Tsiyon party in 1906–1907. In 1907, immediately after the Eighth Zionist Congress in The Hague, various national organizations founded the World Union of Po‘ale Tsiyon.

Differences soon surfaced among the branches of the movement. Influenced by Borokhov’s leftist “prognostic Zionism,” the Russian party rejected cooperation with bourgeois Zionists and left the World Zionist Organization in 1909; the Austrian and American parties demurred. In Palestine, Po‘ale Tsiyon also went its own way, believing that the Marxist underpinning of Borokhov’s thinking, with its forecast of bourgeois–proletarian struggle in an industrialized Palestine, made less sense than the pragmatic need to work with other Zionists to build collective agricultural settlements and attract immigration. Led by Yitsḥak Ben-Zvi and David Ben-Gurion, the Palestinian party also questioned the Yiddishist orientation of the Diaspora groups.

A group of Jewish men on the eve of their induction into the Polish army at the age of 21, with a portrait of Marxist Zionist theoretician and founder of the Po‘ale Tsiyon party Ber Borokhov, Lublin, 1919. (YIVO)

During World War I, the United States, where Borokhov and Ben-Gurion temporarily resided, became the center of the movement. Numerically small, the American Po‘ale Tsiyon nonetheless played a major role in the campaign for an American Jewish Congress that challenged the political leadership of the American Jewish Committee and lobbied for Zionism and Jewish minority rights in Eastern Europe. The American Po‘ale Tsiyon helped build Zionist Yiddishist schools (Yidishe Natsional Radikale Shuln), established a far-flung mutual aid organization (Yidisher Natsionaler Arbeter Farband), and published the Yidisher kemfer. Its Pioneer Women established dozens of branches across North America.

The Russian Revolution and the Balfour Declaration sparked a major split in the movement that culminated in the tumultuous Fifth Congress of the World Union in Vienna in July 1920. There, 178 delegates (the Left) voted to seek membership in the Comintern (Communist International); 179 other delegates (the Right) abstained. The Left, true to “prognostic Zionism,” welcomed the Russian Revolution, reaffirmed its militant Yiddishism, and continued to boycott the World Zionist Organization. Its pro-Soviet stance dictated that a Moscow-inspired world revolution rather than reliance on “British Imperialism” would establish a territorial base in a binational, Soviet Palestine. After the Comintern rejected the Left’s insistence on a territorial base in Palestine, the Left organized its own World Union.

Between 1920 and 1939, Poland became the stronghold of the Left Po‘ale Tsiyon. Resolutely ignoring Borokhov’s own volte-face on prognostic Zionism, as well as incessant Communist attacks, leaders such as Ya‘akov Zerubavel, Natan Buchsbaum, and Yitsḥak Lev championed a pro-Soviet line and attacked the mainstream Zionist labor movement in Palestine for its hostility to Yiddish and its opposition to Arab labor. The party published a weekly, the Arbayter-tsaytung, collaborated with the Bund in the TSYSHO (Central Yiddish School Organization), and organized two culture congresses and extensive educational activities for poor workers. The promising young historians Emanuel Ringelblum, Raphael Mahler, Bella Mandelsberg-Schildkraut, and Artur Eisenbach were members of the party.

“First Shtern assembly in Poland, Warsaw, 31 May–2 June 1933.” Polish/Yiddish poster. Printed by Wzorowa, Warsaw, 1933. (YIVO)

The Polish Left Po‘ale Tsiyon reached peak levels of support in the late 1920s and then steadily lost ground to the Bund in the 1930s. In the municipal elections of 1927 and 1928, the party received about 50,000 votes and elected 140 delegates to various city councils. In smaller provincial cities such as Brest, Chełm, Będzin, and Kalisz, the Left Po’ale Tsiyon was the dominant Jewish party. After a damaging split in the mid 1930s, sparked by disagreements over settlement in Birobidzhan and He-Ḥaluts, the Left Po‘ale Tsiyon reversed course, rejoined the World Zionist organization in 1937, and drew somewhat closer to the Right Po‘ale Tsiyon. Small Left Po‘ale Tsiyon groups also existed in Palestine, the United States, France, and elsewhere.

The Right, which captured a majority of the movement in Palestine, the United States, Britain, and Argentina, supported the Balfour Declaration, worked with nonproletarian Zionists, and eventually affiliated with the Second (democratic socialist) International. In 1925, it merged with the World Union of the Left Tse‘ire Tsiyon to form the World Jewish Socialist Workers Party Po‘ale Tsiyon (united with the Zionist Socialist Alliance).

In 1919, the Palestinian Po‘ale Tsiyon merged with other labor groups to form Aḥdut ‘Avodah, which in turn merged with the non-Marxist Ha-Po‘el ha-Tsa‘ir in 1930 to form the Mapai party, anchored in the Histadrut, the major Zionist labor federation. In Poland, the Right Po‘ale Tsiyon established the small Shul-Kult school system that taught both Yiddish and Hebrew and gained the adherence of the Zionist youth movement Dror-Frayhayt. The Right also dominated the American movement. In 1932 in Danzig, the Right established a new worldwide organization, Ha-Iḥud ha-‘Olami.

During World War II, both the Right and Left Po‘ale Tsiyon in Poland played a major role in mutual aid and in cultural activities. During the battle of the Warsaw ghetto in April 1943, both groups had units in the Jewish Fighting Organization. In Palestine, the small Left Po‘ale Tsiyon group merged with Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir in 1944 and eventually joined Mapam.

Suggested Reading

Ber Borochov, Class Struggle and the Jewish Nation: Selected Essays in Marxist Zionism, ed. Mitchell Cohen (New Brunswick, N.J., 1984); Jonathan Frankel, Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism and the Russian Jews, 1862–1917 (Cambridge and New York, 1981), pp. 329–365, 453–552; Bina Garncarska-Kadary, “The Poalei-Zion Left Party in the Municipal Councils in Poland, 1919–1929,” Gal-Ed 12 (1991): 61–91; Samuel Kassow, “The Left Poalei Zion in Interwar Poland,” in The Emergence of Modern Jewish Politics: Bundism and Zionism in Eastern Europe, ed. Zvi Gitelman, pp. 71–85 (Pittsburgh, 2003); Gideon Shimoni, The Zionist Ideology (Hanover, N.H., 1995); Shabtai Teveth, Ben Gurion: The Burning Ground, 1886–1948 (Boston, 1987).