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Borochov Biography (1937)



(The following, somewhat adulatory, biography of Borochov appeared in the 1937 book Nationalism and the Class Struggle: A Marxian Approach to the Jewish Problem, a collection of Borochov’s writings, published by Poale Zion-Zier Zion of America & Young Poale Zion Alliance of America in New York City)

Ber Borochov was born June 21, 1881 in the town of Zolotonshi in Ukraine. The constant pogroms and attacks in the small towns and villages forced many Jews to move to the larger cities. Two months after his birth Borochov’s parents settled in the capital city of Poltava.

Poltava was by no means a large city. It had no factories to speak of, and the Jews gained their livelihood mainly from trading with the neighboring cities and villages. For some unknown reason, the Russian government chose to exile revolutionaries to Poltava, and some of the outstanding intellectuals of that time were sent there. They exerted a profound influence on the youth of that city.

Poltava was also one of the first Zionist centers. A branch of the "Lovers of Zion" was established there. Borochov’s father Moses Aaron, was among its active members. The practical work for Zion evoked an interest in Jewish culture, schools and libraries, and enriched Jewish life.

The ideological components of Socialist Zionism thus found their way into Poltava. These currents of thought operated independently of each other. Both of them, no doubt, impressed Borochov, who later integrated socialism with Zionism.

Ber Borochov’s parents were cultured people. His father (living in New York in 1937) a Hebrew teacher had to work long hours to eke out his living and therefore could devote little time to the education of his son. His mother, Rachel, possessing a love for learning, spared no effort to educate Borochov. With her help, at the age of three he could already read Russian; and listening to his father’s classes he also learned Hebrew. Reading was his hobby. Young as he was, he never put away a book without making sure he understood it. Even in his early childhood, his Jewish and non-Jewish comrades recognized him as their leader, although some of them were much older than he. He could tell them stories and help them with their lessons.

Though Borochov read everything he could lay his hands on, his favorites were travel stories. Inspired by these stories and by the Zionist atmosphere of his home and town, Borochov (at the age of ten) and a playmate decided to "leave" for Palestine. Secretly they sneaked away from home early one morning, but were brought back late at night by strangers who found the "travelers" on the outskirts of the city.

At the age of eleven, Borochov entered the Gymnasium. At that time he knew Russian well, for his parents had conversed in Russian with him since he was three years old. They did that because the school authorities did not tolerate "a Jewish accent." Thus he was called Borya, and only later did he adopt the Jewish name Ber.

Though an excellent pupil, his interests lay outside his textbooks. The study of philosophy and languages attracted him greatly. Even before he graduated (in 1900) he already had a good command of Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, philosophy, and economics. His instructed acknowledged his scholarship but resented his lack of discipline. Once, having escaped punishment in school, he decided for the second time to leave for Palestine. He had earned enough money for his tutoring for a day’s travel. Having reached Nicolayev penniless, he turned to the local rabbi. He told the rabbi of his noble mission and asked for assistance. The rabbi explained to young Borya the unfeasibility of his plan and convinced him to return home, assuring him that his parents would not punish him.

Social problems attracted Borochov very soon. Because his father was a government-licensed teacher, he was not suspected of harboring revolutionaries or illegal literature. When the occasion arose, therefore, Borochov’s father offered a safe haven. In this way, Borochov came into contact with illegal literature. He became interested in the lives of conspirators and learned that one of their holiest vows is not to disclose the names of fellow members. Once his mother noticed a wound on his hand. Upon inquiry he told her that he had wanted to test his endurance. He had held his hand over a flame of a candle until he was convinced that he would not betray his comrades no matter how brutally the police should treat him.

Borochov was a candidate for the gold medal offered by the Gymnasium to the most outstanding student. Because of the anti-Semitism prevailing in the Gymansium he failed to receive it. He therefore refused to enter the university, lest he meet in the higher schools of enlightenment the same anti-Semitic ire. From then on his political life begins.

In 1900 Borochov affilitated with the (Russian) Social Democratic Party and for the first time served as an organizer and propagandist. An independent thinker, searching for a solution to the problem of nationalism which the party ignored, Borochov’s doubts led to his expulsion from the party in May 1901. He then organized a labor club with Socialist Zionist leanings. He was a travelling lecturer for the General Zionist organization, addressing himself to the Jewish worker. Then he made his first attempts to integrate Zionism with Marxism. At the close of 1903 he made his literary debut – in an essay dealing with "The Nature of the Jewish Intellect."

Officially, Borochov joined the Poale Zion Party in November 1905, after the Sixth Zionist Congress, when the burning issue was Zion versus Uganda. His opposition to any other territory than Palestine (being made the new Jewish homeland) found expression in his famous essay "To the Question: Zion and Territory." At the Poltava conference (November 1905), Borochov helped to formulate the Poale Zion program. The young party could not unite all the elements because of the various ideological currents. Only in December of 1906, after numerous splits, did the first convention of the pro-Palestine Poale Zion take place; and its adopted program guided the party till the Bolshevik Revolution. At that time, Borochov published his "Our Platform," the result of a three-week discussion by the committee which was delegated to draft a program. During 1905-06, Borochov edited the Russian Party organ, Yevreskaya Babotochaya Chronika (Jewish Labor Chronicle). He also wrote "The National Question and the Class Struggle."

On June 3, 1906, the Czarist government disbanded the Duma, and on the same night Borochov was arrested. Among the prisoners he founded a "Peoples University." There were many Ukraininas there who fell under the spell of Borochov’s theories of nationalism. Later, a number of Social-Democratic Ukrainian groups even called themselves "Borochovists," and many of his theories of nationalism were adopted. He soon escaped from prison and settled for a time in Minsk.

There, in 1907, he first began to write in Yiddish. Constantly spied on by the police, Borochov was forced to leave Russia, and in the latter part of 1907 he left for Crakow and thence to the Hague.

From that time on Borochov’s life became that of a wanderer. In the summer of 1907, Borochov helped found the World Confederation of Poale Zion. He became a member of its administration and for a time was also its secretary.

He went to Vienna to edit the Party organ, Das Freie Wort (The Free Words), from 1907 to 1910. Until the World War, Borochov traveled continually. He visited England, France, Belgium, Holland and Switzerland; and everywhere he shared his time between literary work and Party activities. He was a correspondent for a number of European and American Jewish papers, and collaborated in the writing of the Russian Jewish Encyclopedia (which contain his articles on Vienna, Jewish professions, and the Yiddish language). In 1913, he published in the Pincas (The Record) two monumental works: "The Tasks of Yiddish Philosophy" and the "Library of the Yiddish Philologist," which to this very day are the basis for this branch of Jewish science.

During this period he also attempted to form a union among all Jewish socialist and labor parties, but without success.

With the outbreak of the World War, Borochov was forced to leave Austria, and he came to America. Here too he divided his time between Party work and literary work. A gifted orator and writer, Borochov enriched the Party during his stay in America. He edited, for a while, Der Yiddisher Kaemfer (The Jewish Militant). He became one of the outstanding proponents of a democratically organized American and World Jewish Congress. His profound analysis of the minority problem and of the question of minority rights is contained in the book, In The Struggle For Jewish Rights. In his fight for democracy within Jewish life he spared no one. He discolsed the timid psychology of the wealthy assimilationist and the cosmpolitan Jewish socialist. That American Jewry was finally represented at the Peace Conference in Paris is in no small measure due to Borochov’s activities.

More than once his views conflicted with those of the majority of the Party. He was against the pro-Allies sentimet which dominated the Party during the World War. He also criticized severely the Party’s orientation on bourgeois Zionism, asserting that in its attempts to bring socialism into the ranks of General Zionism, it estranges itself from the Jewish labor movement. In spite of these differences and also his opposition to participation in the Zionist Congress, he knew that this period of Sturm und Drang was not the time for debates.

His literary activities were, none the less, abndant. He was on the staff of the Yiddish daily, Die Warheit, writing articles and editorials. He continued with his research work in the Yiddish language and literature and completed – a yet unpublished work – "A History of the Yiddish Language and Literature." He also introduced a new Yiddish orthography which, with but slight revisions, is now in standard use.

The March Revolution broke out in Russia in 1917 and Borochov could no longer bear to remain in exile. The Russian Party, too, demanded his immediate return. His wife, Luba, and their five year old daughter (in Palestine in 1937) at first pleaded with Borochov not to return to Russia. His wife was again an expectant mother, but even this did not influence Borochov’s course. "I am a soldier – I must answer the call!" was his reply.

On his way to Russia, Borochov stopped in Stockholm and helped to prepare the memorandum containing the Poale Zion demands before the Holland-Scandinavian Socialist Conference, to which he was also a delegate. From there he proceeded to Russia to attend the Third All-Russian Poale Zion Convention.

S. Har, who met Borochov in Petrograd and accompanied him to Kiev, relates that among other things Borochov announced his plans to issue a revised edition of "Our Platform" to take account of the contemporary Jewish and Palestinian realities. The Party selected his as one of its delegates to the Conference of Nationalities, and there he delivered two addresses: "The Federation of Nationalities in the New Russia" and "The Language Problem." His proficiency in the problem of nationalism resulted in his selection as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of the Russian Republic. In the course of the Party’s preparation for these responsible tasks, Borochov traveled day and night as its emissary. On one of these trips he caught a cold which later developed into an inflammation of the lungs; after a brief illness he died in Kiev on December 17, 1917 at the age of 36.