The Secular Zionist Who Insisted on Mourning the Destruction of the Temples—Even in the Land of Israel

August 10, 2022 | Gil Troy
About the author: Gil Troy is distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University in Montreal. He is the author of  nine books on the American presidency and three books on Zionism, including, most recently, The Zionist Ideas.

As it does every year, the Fast of Tisha b’Av last Sunday sparked arguments over whether it is still necessary to spend a day weeping over the ruin of Jerusalem when Jews have returned to their homeland and reestablished sovereignty there. To the non-religious in particular, such a commemoration can seem almost like a rejection of the accomplishments of Zionism. Gil Troy notes that Berl Katznelson, a leading theorist of Labor Zionism and a committed socialist, sharply criticized his comrades who wished to turn the Ninth of Av into a day of celebration:

For socialist Zionists, he insisted, the Ninth of Av has the same significance as it has for every Jew. We all lost our land, our freedom, our hope when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, triggering the 1.900-year-exile Zionists sought to end.

Ultimately, Katznelson forgave these young amnesiacs [who wanted to jettison the day]. But, he warned, there is no [chance for success in the] movement for national salvation for those with “no instincts for the national spirit, for historic symbols, for enduring cultural values.” . . . Katznelson soon decided to confront the intellectual rot underlying this canceling of history. The result was what may be his most memorable essay, “Revolution and Tradition.”

“A renewing and creative generation does not throw the cultural heritage of ages into the dustbin,” he preached. “It examines and scrutinizes, accepts and rejects. At times it may keep and add to an accepted tradition. At times it descends into ruined grottoes to excavate and remove the dust from that which had lain in forgetfulness, to resuscitate old traditions which have the power to stimulate the spirit of the generation of renewal. If a people possesses something old and profound, which can educate man and train him for his future tasks, is it truly revolutionary to despise it and become estranged from it?”

“The Jewish year,” he reasoned, “is studded 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 waste the potential value stored within them?”

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