A prize-winning pioneer in the teaching of Hebrew by way of an intensive immersion in the language (the ulpan method) and an ardent proponent of peaceful dialogue between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens, Shulamith Katznelson was born in Geneva, Switzerland on August 17, 1919, while her parents were students there. She came to Israel when she was two years old. Her father, Dr. Reuven Katznelson (1895–1961), was an early researcher in the inderdisciplinary blending of social work with political science. Her mother, Batsheva Katznelson (1897–1988), studied education under the noted Swiss pedagogue Jean Piaget and later became his assistant. Both parents became prominent in Israeli public life. Dr. Katznelson, a pioneer in public health and social work, established the first independent network of public health clinics in Israel. He served as the assistant to Henrietta Szold in the formative years of the Hadassah movement. Batsheva Katznelson became an educator and was also a member of the Second Knesset (the Israeli Parliament). Shulamith’s brother, Shmuel Tamir (1923–1987), a highly-respected attorney and champion of legislation to protect individual rights and freedom, was a member of the Knesset (1965–1981) and Minister of Justice (1977–1980).
Katznelson’s commitment to pluralism began to be developed early in her childhood. Talbieh, the Jerusalem neighborhood in which she was raised, was a colorful mosaic of Jewish, Muslim and Christian families who lived together in harmony. Her nursemaid during her early years was a Russian nun. This pluralism was also reflected in the broad political and social spectrum to which the various members of her family belonged. One of her uncles, Zalman Shazar (1889–1974), a member of Mapai, was Israel’s third president from 1963 to 1973. Avraham Nissan, Israel’s first ambassador to Sweden and an early leader in Israel’s labor movement, was another of her uncles. Yet another uncle, Joseph Katznelson, was active in the underground effort to rescue Jewish children trapped in Europe during the Holocaust.
Though the various members of her family often held diametrically opposed political views, all of them were fiercely dedicated Zionists who made a substantial contribution to the establishment and early development of the State of Israel. From this, Katznelson early in life learned the vital lesson that there is more than one path to seeking truth and that each person’s viewpoint deserves to be treated with respect and dignity.
Katznelson studied in Jerusalem at the Rehavia Gymnasia, at David Yellin Teachers’ College and at the Hebrew University School of Social Work. She continued her education in the United States on a grant from the U.S. State Department, taking master’s degree studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and additional courses at the Pendle Hill International Quaker retreat near Philadelphia.
In her youth, Katznelson was a member of Ha-Zofim, Israel’s Scouts organization, and of the Mahanot Olim youth movements in Jerusalem. She was a volunteer agricultural worker at Kibbutz Givat Brenner and also a member of both the Haganah and the Irgun Zeva’i Le’ummi pre-State underground military organizations. She served as an underground radio announcer for the Irgun and produced a weekly program for children and young people which stressed a spirit of freedom and unity.
Her first job was with Youth Aliya at the Me’ir Shefeyah Youth Village, educating the Jewish refugees who had arrived over the dangerous mountain routes from Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. She went on to teach at the Rehavia Gymnasia in Jerusalem and at the Le-Dugma elementary school in Tel-Aviv.
Early in 1951 Katznelson established Ulpan Akiva in Nahariyya and then moved to Netanya. Akiva was one of the country’s first three ulpans (intensive adult Hebrew language schools), under the auspices of the Adult Education Department of the Ministry of Education and Culture, in cooperation with the Aliya (immigration) Department of the Jewish Agency. She headed Ulpan Akiva from 1951 until 1996.
From its beginning, Katznelson opened Ulpan Akiva’s gates not only to immigrants, but also to veteran Israelis; to Arabs, Druze, Bedouin and other groups living in the region; to visitors—Jews and non-Jews alike—from around the world. Her belief that pluralism in adult education could open up pathways of dialogue and understanding between peoples—transcending national, cultural and religious barriers—has borne much fruit and brought widespread recognition both to Katznelson and to Ulpan Akiva.
From 1967 the Ulpan under her leadership was in the forefront of promoting the study of spoken Arabic by Israelis, holding monthly Arabic courses for veteran Israelis, including school teachers on sabbatical. A course in Arabic, along with Arab culture and heritage, was held for field grade officers of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as part of the National Defense College. Another unique course was the eight-month intensive program for training young women soldiers from the IDF to become teachers of Arabic in Israel’s junior high and high schools. This program, run in cooperation with the Ministry of Defense, graduated its twentieth class of soldier-teachers in 1999.
The original and unique methods of teaching practiced by Shulamith Katznelson and her staff have had an impact beyond Israel. Christians, Jews and Muslims, as well as representatives of other religions, have been among the more than eighty thousand students from one hundred and forty-eight countries who have studied at Ulpan Akiva since it was established. In 1972 there began an ongoing affiliation with the Makuya pro-Zionist movement of Japan.
Language revival is another sphere in which Shulamith Katznelson and Ulpan Akiva had an impact. The revival of Hebrew within the last century as a language of communication in all disciplines has been looked upon by many as a modern-day miracle. This has proved to be a source of inspiration to various national and regional groups which are working to revive and encourage the spread of their own once dormant languages such as Basque, Gaelic, Welsh and Occitan. Representatives of a number of such groups have come to Ulpan Akiva or have sought the Ulpan’s assistance in their efforts. In 1990, Ulpan Akiva co-sponsored—with the Ministry of Education and Culture—an International Conference on Language Revival.
On the recommendation of Martin Buber (1878–1965), Katznelson became one of the original members of the Israel Interfaith Committee. Her interest in developing adult education programs for the furtherance of Arab-Jewish relation stems from this time. In 1953 she was sent on a study mission to the United States. She represented Israel at the UNESCO Congress in Japan in 1972 and in 1983 was a member of the Israeli delegation to the Expo-Languages International Language Fair in Paris. In 1991, at the request of Israel Bonds, Katznelson spoke in several cities in the United States and Canada on behalf of their fund-raising activities for Israeli causes. She was an invited delegate and speaker at the 1992 International Conference on Conflict Resolution, entitled “Beyond Hate: Living with our Deepest Differences,” held in Derry, Ireland. This was followed by meetings in London and Paris. In February 1996 she was invited to speak at the prestigious National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC, where the honored guests were President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary.
Katznelson and Ulpan Akiva built a long-standing relationship with the Folk High School movement and with various other Scandinavian organizations. In 1956 she was delegated to participate in the Frederika Bremer Ferbundit in Sweden, a five-week educational conference for women from Middle Eastern countries. She remained in Sweden and Denmark for six months to study the adult education programs of the Folk High Schools. In 1990 she returned to Sweden as a delegate to the international Folk High School conference and also paid a short visit to Norway. In 1992 she was a guest speaker at the conferences of the Norwegian philanthropic foundations Help Jews Home and With Israel for Peace (MIFF). She also made various other appearances at this time in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands.
For her efforts in building bridges of understanding between Jews and Arabs, Shulamith Katznelson was nominated for the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. Prior to her Nobel nomination, Katznelson and Ulpan Akiva received several awards. Among these were the 1986 Israel Prize for Life Achievement in Education (The State of Israel’s most prestigious award in this area), the Award of the Speaker of the Knesset for Quality of Life in Israel (1983), the Torch Award from the Association for Adult Education in Israel (1976), the 1991 City of Peace Award from the Rabbinical Cabinet of Israel Bonds, the 1982 award of the Interfaith Committee of the Histadrut (Israel’s labor federation) and the 1988 Award of B’nai B’rith Israel.
Katznelson retired from Ulpan Akiva in 1996 due to poor health. The ulpan continued to operate in her spirit, under the directorship of Ephraim Lapid (who in 1948 was her pupil in first grade). Since 2000 the current executive director of Ulpan Akiva is Esther Perron.
Katznelson passed away at her home in Netanya on August 6, 1999, in the week of her eightieth birthday.
How to cite this page
Rabinovich, Aviva. "Shulamith Katznelson." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 1 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 24, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/Katznelson-Shulamith>.