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by Ralph Seliger
ALTHOUGH I define myself as a (leftwing) Zionist, I was drawn to a YIVO seminar in New York on the Jewish Workers’ Bund, the famously non-Zionist radical socialist movement that began in Russia in 1897, the same year that Theodor Herzl launched the World Zionist Organization. CUNY political scientist Jack Jacobs led 18 diversely-aged students, seated around a conference table, through five stimulating two-and-a-half hour sessions.
My experience was not without some moments of discomfort: my Zionist leanings caused one participant to announce that he knew me and my writing, and disagreed with all of it. After class, he told me that we had clashed previously at a conference on antisemitism on the left, which we had both attended in 2006; he adamantly refused my entreaties to meet outside of class to discuss this further.
This participant totally rejects the legitimacy of Israel as a state dedicated to empowering and safeguarding Jews. For him, the Western model of equal citizenship rights for Arabs and Jews in one state is persuasive. I support equal rights for all Israeli citizens — Arab, Jewish, or other — but Israel is in the Middle East, not the West. Given the history of bloody conflict, and the appallingly bitter nature of inter-group relations within most Arab and other Muslim-majority countries, there’s little likelihood of security or fair treatment for Jews in a new Arab-majority state comprising Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.
I similarly drew fire when I argued that Israel and Israelis no longer seek to negate the existence of Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Most young Israelis don’t even know the Hebrew words Yordim and Yeridah (emigrants and emigration, literally "descenders" and "descent") as terms that once denigrated Jews for leaving Israel. But when I pointed out that the Jewish Agency for Israel (a Zionist institution) now supports the maintenance of at-risk Jewish communities abroad, Prof. Jacobs responded (correctly) that Israel had endeavored in earlier decades to force Jews fleeing the former Soviet Union to settle in Israel as opposed to the U.S. or other Western countries. This is a discussion that requires more time and depth than this class or a tit-for-tat debate allowed.
THE PROFESSOR grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home in New York, nurtured by parents who were Polish survivors of the Holocaust. As a teenager, he worked for a Bundist-run summer camp, and was later active in a Bundist youth group, vestigial institutions that eventually petered out in the U.S. (The summer camp, Camp Hemshekh, closed in 1978.)*
Bundism played a prominent and heroic role in the turbulent revolutionary history of Russia through the overthrow of the Czarist regime in 1917 and the establishment of the Bolshevik/Communist regime shortly thereafter. In 1922, however, Lenin’s government compelled the Bund to dissolve into the ruling Communist party, and virtually all of the Bund's leaders who remained in Russia, even after years as loyal Communists, would fall victim to Stalin’s purges. The Bund enjoyed a second life in the interwar republic of Poland as a vibrant political party and social movement, before being physically destroyed by the Nazis.
In his book, Bundist Counterculture in Interwar Poland (Syracuse University Press, 2009), Jacobs wrote about the Polish Bund’s ancillary institutions: e.g., a children’s group (the Sotsyalistishe Kinder Farband or SKIF), the youth movement (Tsukunft), and its sports association (Morgnstern). The Bund’s approach to sports was particularly innovative and radical, utilizing athletics to instill cooperative social values and militate against individualist and competitive inclinations.
The women’s division of the Bund, the Yidishe Arbeter Froy or YAF, did not gain much of a constituency, but its Yiddishist school system did. (The schools were a partnership between the Bund and the socialist-Zionist “Left-Poale Tzyon” movement, and it’s too bad that this did not foster greater cooperation in the political sphere.) Also notable was the Bund's Medem Sanitarium for sick children.
Jacobs posits that these allied groups and institutions expanded the Bund’s outreach, paving the way for its dramatic surge in the 1938 and ’39 municipal and Jewish community elections. In a wave of electoral contests, the Bund suddenly garnered many more votes from Jews than any of its competitors (left-, right-, and centrist-Zionists, Communists, Socialists, and ultra-Orthodox). Sadly, this would come to naught with the Nazi onslaught around the corner.
THE BUNDIST PHILOSOPHY of joining with the working class of their native country to struggle for democracy and social justice (Doikayt, or “here-ness,” as they dubbed it in Yiddish) seemed to make more sense than the Zionist dream of reviving the ancient Jewish homeland in what was then Palestine. Perversely, history vindicated the Zionists in seeking a refuge away from Europe.
It surprised me when merely making this observation drew harsh rebukes from two other seminar participants. The existence of the Yishuv, the rapidly growing Zionist community in early 20th century Palestine, allowed at least half a million Jews to find safety. Yes, as was scathingly pointed out by my aforementioned anti-Zionist classmate, Palestine’s Jews survived only because the British managed to hold off Nazi forces in North Africa — but so what?
Bundism was an admirable movement in many ways, but it tragically failed in all of its objectives. It did not establish Jewish cultural autonomy, nor keep Yiddish alive as a modern literary and spoken language for masses of secular Jews, and it did not help usher in a reign of democratic socialism. In the end, it didn’t (nor could it) defend most Jews of Eastern Europe from utter destruction.
As a leftwing dissenter within the Zionist fold for decades, I sympathize with concerns raised by Bundists in their day and by others in our time about the rights of Palestinian Arabs and the potential for endless conflict. I agree that some Israeli actions have themselves become a source of antisemitic animus.
Still, harsh critics of Israel usually ignore or downplay those Arab behaviors (violent and otherwise) that exacerbate the conflict. Unstinting leftwing assaults on Zionism are largely based on a misconception: They conflate the Zionist idea with particular policies of various Israeli governing coalitions, especially the very rightwing one that governs today under Prime Minister Netanyahu.
Zionism has succeeded in establishing a state for the Jews but not in its more profound goal of fully “normalizing” Jewish existence. Both the Bund’s catastrophic demise and Zionism’s precarious and incomplete triumph emphasize the same truth: that the Jews are a tiny global minority, heavily dependent upon the good will of others.
* A previous description of Prof. Jacobs' background has been corrected.
Ralph Seliger, a JC contributing writer, is a veteran editor, freelance writer, and blogger. He edited Israel Horizons from 2003 until 2011, when it was discontinued as a print publication, and currently co-administers The Third Narrative website.