An anti-Zionist Movement That Promoted Judaism as a Secular Culture Shuts Its Doors

They believed in a just society and wanted to teach Palestinians Yiddish. The Bund’s center in Israel closes, marking the end of a movement that offered a radical alternative to mainstream Zionism

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A sign on the Beit Brit Ha’avodah building in Tel Aviv. "The liquidation of modern Yiddish culture is proceeding from all directions," says Gali Drucker Bar-Am.
A sign on the Beit Brit Ha’avodah building in Tel Aviv. "The liquidation of modern Yiddish culture is proceeding from all directions," says Gali Drucker Bar-Am. Credit: Moti Milrod
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

The first thing that a clearly agitated Eran Torbiner did, when we met to talk about the Bund movement, was to hand me a poster he’d removed from the door of Beit Brit Ha’avodah in central Tel Aviv, until recently the home of the Workmen’s Circle movement’s Israel branch. Torbiner had passed by there in the morning, as he does occasionally, still trying to come to terms with the fact that the place where he spent so many hours with his beloved friends, who themselves are now no longer alive, and where he shot his documentary film “Bunda’im” (Bundists) – had shut its doors for good.

The poster is an announcement for a workshop on the subject of Yiddish art songs, which was, as it happens, was to be held at Tzavta, a Tel Aviv culture venue. What infuriated Torbiner was the illustration on the poster: a map of the Land of Israel with a Star of David flag, situated in the center of a map of the world, with arrows leading to it from far and wide. The caption, in Yiddish: “Wohin? Aheim!” – “Where to? Home!”

“It’s a desecration of the Bund’s name,” he fumes. “If any of them had seen this on the door, they would have died again.” For Torbiner, almost every element of the poster is wrongheaded. To begin with, the depiction of “Greater Israel,” which is marked as the only home for the Jews, and for the Jews alone. “The people in the Bund always talked about the injustice done to the Palestinians,” he explains. “It was a deep and thoroughgoing socialist, radical, secular, left-wing movement.” Moreover, the idea that Jews from around the world should come to Israel conflicts with the Bundist conception of doikayt, or “hereness,” by which every Jew should be capable of maintaining his culture in the country he lives in, with no advantage to Israel. As for the semi-official National Authority for Yiddish Culture, whose logo is at the top of the poster, some of its officials don’t even speak Yiddish, Torbiner says, and that, too, is a desecration.

But the unkindest cut of all for Torbiner in the poster is the logo of Beit Shalom Aleichem (Shalom Aleichem House), the organization to which the Bundists transferred ownership of their two floors in a building on Kalischer Street, in the Nahalat Binyamin neighborhood, and which decided to shut it down a few months ago. The books from the rich Yiddish library housed there for 60 years were moved to Shalom Aleichem House, on Berkowitz Street, and the Workman’s Circle activities – biweekly meetings, lectures, a choir and more – were discontinued.

Things could have been done completely differently, says Torbiner says, even though the last of the Bundists in Israel, journalist Itzhak Luden, died two years ago, at age 95.

Eran Torbiner. Credit: Moti Milrod

The Bund espoused singular ideas in regard to Israeli politics: life under a distinctive Jewish identity characterized through Yiddish language and culture, but disconnected from a territorial context – in other words, not Zionist. This went hand in hand with responsibility for and solidarity with the working class and opposition to capitalist processes. Does the closure of the center identified with the Bund signify the demise of a potentially different political option for Israel?

Mortal blow

Torbiner, who is 48, says that his love affair with the Bund began in 2006, when he came to the Workman’s Circle for the first time and met a group of elderly people whose tenaciousness and mutual solidarity impressed him deeply. “Members of the Bund were connected to the people,” he says. “They established women’s clubs, sports groups, children’s schools. In Israel they set up cooperatives, joint finances, something like a supermarket.

“The world of Yiddish in Israel is like a small, bickering village, but within that morass there was one splendid group, devoted and idealistic, and that was the Bund. They were each other’s comrades until the end. Their greeting was ‘mit chavershaft,’ which means more than ‘with friendship’ or ‘with solidarity’ – it’s mutual responsibility in the deepest sense.”

The tragedy, says Torbiner, was that they didn’t produce a successor generation. “Their children didn’t want to speak Yiddish.” Torbiner himself is not from a Bundist family but was ready to continue their path. It didn’t work out.

The Bund movement, whose full name is the General Jewish Labor Bund [Alliance] in Russia, Lithuania and Poland (in Yiddish: Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund in Liteh, Poyln un Rusland), was founded as a Jewish socialist movement in Vilna in 1897. Its aim was to unite all the Jewish workers in the Russian Empire in one socialist party. In Poland, the Bund was a significant political force that received 100,000 votes in the 1928 parliamentary election. The Bund was simultaneously Jewish and secular: It advocated cultural autonomy for national groups, but was against national territorial solutions – hence its opposition to Zionism.

According to Dr. Gali Drucker Bar-Am, who studies modern Yiddish culture, the Bund rejected the Zionist model of one people, one land, one language. “They thought it was necessary to strengthen the democratic foundations in Eastern Europe and to be part of the multicultural mosaic that had existed during the period of the Russian Empire, for example. So they called for ‘doikayt’ – from the word ‘do,’ meaning ‘here’ – in other words, for reinforcing self-awareness wherever Jews lived.”

But after the Holocaust, it was no longer possible to talk about a cultural mosaic and integration among the nations.

Drucker Bar-Am: “That’s true. There was a Bund conference in 1947 in which they acknowledged that the situation had changed completely, and they themselves modified their approach. They said they were still opposed to Zionism, but that they saw Israel as a positive element within the Jewish people. They realized that a rescue operation was needed, that the old order had fallen apart.”

The Bundists who settled in Israel after World War II were not motivated by Zionism, Drucker Bar-Am says; they came because they had no other choice or had family there. “To immigrate to Israel means living among the Jewish masses. That is, even if you have no direct relatives here, you are still living the Jewish collective experience. By the end of the 19th century, Jews from Eastern Europe had established associations of former residents of [particular] cities, which operated institutions of mutual responsibility. These were networks of ties among people who didn’t [necessarily] know each other but came from the same city. So, people who arrived here lost, as Holocaust survivors, could get by.”

In the 1950s and ‘60s, the Israeli branch of the Bund had close to 2,000 members. In 1957, with the help of donations, the organization bought two floors of the building at 48 Kalischer Street, and the site became the base of the Arbeter Ring, the Workmen’s Circle. Until its closure this year, the building served as the center of Bund activities. These included a library and a drama circle, and there were lectures, choir practice, movement meetings and a Yiddish school for children. The Bund also ran a summer camp. The editorial board of the periodical Lebens-fragen (Life’s Questions) was also located at the Kalischer address.

In 1959, the Bund established a political party, which ran in that year’s Knesset election. However, with a paltry 1,300 votes, the party did not pass the threshold for entering the Knesset. It was the Bund’s one and only attempt to translate its cultural activity in Israel into concrete political terms.

The reason the Bund wanted a branch in Israel goes back to the doikayt principle, Drucker Bar-Am explains: “Wherever there are Jews or whenever a large wave of Jews arrives, they need to fight for autonomous existence and equal rights. The Holocaust survivors who reached Israel included Bund activists, and they organized and fought for their rights. They did not imagine that Yiddish would become a foreign language in Israel and that it would be prohibited to publish a daily newspaper in that language. From their point of view, Israel should have been a cultural and linguistic haven, but from the outset they realized that they were the victims of cultural genocide. Israel was unwilling to recognize the cultural annihilation they had undergone, and viewed itself as the sole heir of the six million.”

As a left-wing, socialist movement, the Bund showed solidarity with the struggle of both the Palestinians and the Mizrahim, the Jews from Middle Eastern and North African countries. But their insistence on the use of Yiddish as the language of the proletariat constituted an obstacle. According to Drucker Bar-Am, they were aware of their limitations.

The Bund believed in life under a distinctive Jewish identity characterized through Yiddish language and culture, but disconnected from a territorial context – in other words, not Zionist.

Did they expect the Arabs and the Mizrahim to learn Yiddish?

“At first, yes.”

That’s a major blind spot.

“It was a conscious blind spot. They showed solidarity with the struggle of the Mizrahim and also that of the Palestinians. But they were physically helpless: They were a minority, they did not belong to the consensus, all their activities were self-funded. In this sense they constituted a great threat to the state. Ben-Gurion underwrote 85 percent of the education budget of the Yiddish-speaking ultra-Orthodox, but he refused to give even a pound for the activity of the Yiddishists, who advocated Jewish culture that was secular and pluralistic.”

Why did he make that distinction?

“The Haredim at the time were a small community that was not perceived as a threat to Zionism. Zionism and the Bund were born together, twins, in the same year [1897]. But the one twin grew so strong that we were all educated to believe that this was the only option, that the only way to leave the shtetl was to become Zionists.”

Painful deal

In 2007, two of the last Bundists, Josef Fraind, the executive secretary of the Workmen’s Circle, and Itzhak Luden, the editor of Lebens-fragen and a contributor to Yiddish newspapers around the world, asked Avraham Novershtern, director of Shalom Aleichem House, for help in financing the activity of their center. In return, they would transfer ownership of the Kalischer Street property to organization. Shalom Aleichem House is the largest and richest Yiddish cultural association in Israel, with assets estimated at more than 40 million shekels ($11.3 million) in value. Under the contract’s terms, Prof. Novershtern undertook to fund the Bund’s activity for four years. In practice, he did so for more than a decade. After Luden’s death, however, Noverstern decided to close down the Workmen’s Circle center.

It was not easy for the Bundists to seek help from Novershtern, who is known to be an ardent Zionist, but they felt they had no choice. Eran Torbiner describes the deal with sorrow. “Novershtern is one of the great scholars in the world of Yiddish. But Bund is not only Yiddish, Bund is also socialism. Avraham disparaged the political and cultural identity of the Bundists as socialist Jews, because he himself is ultra-Zionist.”

The periodical Lebens-fragen (Life’s Questions), from 1952.

The Bundists themselves felt they had made a mistake, Torbiner adds: “In terms of upholding the contract, Novershtern was 100 percent and even more. But it was a bad contract. They came to it worn out – people far from being young, not necessarily in touch with reality and not knowing the value of real estate in Tel Aviv. The Workmen’s Circle center effectively became the financial reserve of Shalom Aleichem House. Novershtern received an asset worth millions of shekels in return for payment of a property tax debt of a few hundred thousand shekels. He won their trust, but he wasn’t generous enough with them.”

It’s not clear what Torbiner thinks should have happened with the Kalischer Street site, or who was supposed to have kept the activity going there. For years, groups of young people tried occasionally to carry on the Bund’s activity by themselves. One such effort was undertaken in 2011 by a group calling themselves Mensch, who included Torbiner. Their aim was to connect the Bund’s activity to other left-wing movements in Israel. By that time, the Bund’s headquarters was already in the possession of Shalom Aleichem House.

In addition to Torbiner, Mensch included Gali Drucker Bar-Am; Yiddish researcher and translator Yaad Biran; writer and literary critic Benny Mer; playwright and director of Yiddish theater works Motti Averbuch; and literature scholar and lecturer Roy Greenwald. Some of them work in Shalom Aleichem House, and the question of whether the closure of the Bund center was justified leaves them very uneasy.

Two years before Itzhak Luden’s death, Drucker Bar-Am relates, he passed the mantle of leadership officially to her and appointed her executive secretary of the Israeli branch of the Bund.

“It was largely a symbolic gesture,” she says. “He hoped that the appointment would carry some substance, but the material assets were no longer at his disposal, so in fact there was nothing to give. It was both nothing and too late.”

In her view, the disappearance of the Bund should be seen in the context of the demise of left-wing movements worldwide in general, and is also connected to the growing dependence of Yiddish research in Israel on American funding. “The option of being a secular Jew in Israel who promotes Yiddish culture is dependent on the money of conservative Jews in the United States. The liquidation of modern Yiddish culture is proceeding from all directions – from the neo-capitalist economy, from nationalism, and from people who did not educate their children in Yiddish culture and did not raise the next generation of leaders.”

The Bund showed solidarity with the struggle of both the Palestinians and the Mizrahim, but their insistence on the use of Yiddish as the language of the proletariat constituted an obstacle.

Drucker Bar-Am, along with others I spoke to, was disturbed by the possibility that the demise of the Workmen’s Circle will become one more folkloristic anecdote about the world of Yiddish. “It needs to be taken seriously,” she insists. “The big story is the takeover by the conservative, right-wing agenda, and how the money of conservative and right-wing Jews in the United States is overriding left-wing culture and politics.”

‘Dialogue of the deaf’

Do the ideas espoused by the Bund still resonate, even without the movement? Some would say they can. Benny Mer thinks that even if there are only a handful of Bundists left in the world, their ideas still exist – though that is not necessarily true in Israel. “Bundist ideas are fraught with meaning,” he says, “and they resonate in the present and will do so in the future. Belief in humanity and belief in the Jewish people – secular socialist Jewishness – speak very powerfully to young people abroad, even if it’s not called Bund.”

Why didn’t their ideas take root in Israel?

Mer: “The Bundists who came here from Poland focused on their Yiddish, while at the same time, they constantly talked about the class war and about their solidarity with Jewish workers and craftsmen. But the Jewish workers in Israel no longer spoke Yiddish and did not belong to the same social class as those who wanted to speak in their name. It was a dialogue of the deaf. They did not actually have anyone to tell their ideas to.”

In Yaad Biran’s view, “In order to ask what elements of the Bund’s ideals could be relevant today, one has to take one step back and one step forward. Which among the problems of pre-World War II Jewish society are still relevant? One central issue is that of the nation-state. Zionism chose to identify completely with the nation-state model, which is ideologically potent and convincing, but generates tensions. The Bund proposed a model of cultural autonomy within the state that serves all its citizens irrespective of religion and origin. That’s a model that needs to exist on the cultural horizon.”

The second important theme at the heart of Bund ideology was Yiddish culture. This is an issue that relates to Jewish identity and has occupied many Israelis, Biran notes: “We see that the model of Jewish secularization that Labor Zionism tried to impose failed. But the question of what a Jew is, still bothers Jews in Israel and abroad. The Bund’s response revolves around people – Jewishness is what Jews do. If Jews have been speaking Yiddish for a thousand years, then Yiddish is a language of Jews. The successful rejection in Israel of the Diaspora contributed to a process in which the definition of Jewish identity was disconnected from communal cultural continuity, and the option that remains is very national-oriented [and] religious.”

The Bundists’ mistake, says historian Daniel Gutwein, was that they concentrated on the narrative of the persecution of Yiddish and on the struggle to maintain Yiddish culture, in the face of Israel’s roughshod attitude toward that culture.

“They had a case,” observes Prof. Gutwein, who heads the Gotteiner Institute for the History of the Bund and the Jewish Labor Movement at the University of Haifa, “but one can argue whether it was right or not that Israel wanted to standardize the Hebrew language. In the 1950s, when there was a large population of new immigrants here, that debate made sense. But the Bund in Israel stuck with that issue even when it had already become a historical anecdote. I asked them why they didn’t cultivate the Bund’s socialist, democratic heritage, which is still valid. There are attempts to create Israeli socialism, and the Bund also organized Haredi workers in Poland. The questions we’re facing today have precedents in the situation the Bund dealt with before the Holocaust.”

There has been a revival of interest in the Bund in recent years, though not necessarily for the right reasons, according to Gutwein: “The more identity politics flourished in Israel, the more buyers there suddenly were for the story of the Bund and the struggle to preserve Yiddish. But identity politics is part of the process of Israel’s privatization and of the assault on the socialist basis of the welfare state. Identity politics took the subject of Yiddish and filtered out the socialist theme. I told them, ‘Let’s talk about the Bund’s democratic and socialist conceptions. Let’s transmit that heritage, and not the heritage of the struggle for Yiddish. But they chose to focus on Yiddish, because it was more appropriate for their lives.”

Ugly and violent

Ironically, Prof. Avraham Novershtern, the director of Shalom Aleichem House and the person who decided to close down the Workmen’s Circle center – the gvir, as Torbiner calls him, referring to the rich man of the shtetl – is the son of Bundist parents and attended Bund schools in his native city of Buenos Aires. On top of this, his half-brother, Yitzhak Nivorsky, a Yiddish scholar, is on the board of a library in Paris that is named for the founder of the Bund, Vladimir Medem.

Novershtern relates that even as a child he was an avid reader of Lebens-fragen and other Bund literature, and that he accompanied his parents to meetings of the movement. “My parents were Bundists from back in Eastern Europe, but it wasn’t a party thing, it was a ‘simpatico’ thing. The Bund people saw themselves as one big family. In the wake of the Holocaust, its people scattered to many different countries, but they stayed in touch.”

But you chose Zionism.

“Yes. I saw that there was no point to secular Judaism in a different country. I didn’t know what would happen here, but at least it was possible to fight with a certain degree of success. Abroad, you had no chance. Tens of thousands of Bundists ended up in other countries. And where are their children and grandchildren? They’re no longer Bundists and some of them even are no longer Jews.”

Didn’t the Bund offer an option for everyday Jewish secular life?

“It’s a situation of the culture of one generation of migrants not passing on to the next generation. And it’s not just Yiddish – it also happens with far stronger languages. It’s a process which in an open society is discernibly one-way. The secular Jewish cultural freight in the Diaspora wasn’t attractive enough to be able to sustain Jewish society, and language cannot be the basis for a separate national identity in an open society.”

And as a political option?

“Certain people on the Israeli left, and also abroad, feel nostalgic for the Bund. In the Israeli reality, the ideas that the Bund proposed, such as those for resolving the conflict with the Palestinians, are no different from those of Meretz. They had nothing distinctive to offer here, besides, perhaps, the sensitivity toward minorities that they brought with them from abroad. That sensitivity could have heightened their possibilities here, but not to the point of sustaining an independent ideological movement.”

As to the closure of the Bund center, Noverstern maintains that the reason was that there was no one to carry on the activity. “The people there were very old and some were on the brink of senility. In some cases, they only came to eat the herring. It was a bit embarrassing, actually.”

There was the Mensch group of young people who wanted to carry on.

“That wasn’t meaningful. There were a few events of a cultural nature, not political. They weren’t all that young and also weren’t coming anymore.”

Did the non-Zionist line of the Mensch group bother you?

“They were critical of Zionism and nostalgic for the Bund, but it was all small-time, very minor, and nothing would come of it. The Bund was a magnificent movement with much to its credit, and it reached the end of the line.”

What are you going to do with the Bund’s premises?

“We don’t know what will happen there. The public activity is in Shalom Aleichem House. From the budgetary point of view, it was difficult to maintain two places, and it wasn’t justified.”

Will Shalom Aleichem House organize some sort of commemoration for the Bund movement in Israel?

“Possibly. I’m fond of everything historical, everything relating to the past. Possibly when the time comes, we will do something.”

Bund activity in the context of a separate movement no longer exists, Novershtern says, adding that he views his role as being to integrate Yiddish culture into Israel culture. The allegation against him is that he prefers to see Yiddish as a dead language used for research and not as a living, political one. “The role of Yiddish cannot be what is was three generations ago,” he says in response, “but it could have a significant role in Israel’s cultural fabric.”

You call yourself a pious Zionist. How do you resolve the contradiction between Zionism’s war on Yiddish and your own life project?

“It was necessary to impose Hebrew here, but along the way things were done that should not have been. Hebrew could have been imposed without the violent and ugly measures that accompanied the project. Yiddish paid a high price, but it would have paid in any case. In fact, even before the Holocaust, in Poland, where there were three million Yiddish-speaking Jews, only 4 percent of the children went to Bund schools, where Yiddish was the foundation. Yiddish started losing even then.”

So, from your point of view, the option of Judaism as a culture is no longer viable.

“Exactly. There is hardly anything like that, and no chance there will be. I lived through the whole decline, which was painful, very painful. The life of secular Yiddish culture was short. And I project that onto the personal aspect – how short life is and how you have to fit everything in, because we are not given eternal life. There is a close connection between growing and withering. The growth of secular Yiddish culture was already bound up with its demise.”

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