Why Modern anti-Zionists Love the Bund

The Bundist movement is making a comeback among radical Jewish millennials, including those in favor of BDS. But are the Neo-Bundists upholding its true tradition?

Rokhl Kafrissen
Rokhl Kafrissen
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An elections poster of the General Jewish Labour Bund hung in Kiev, 1918.
An elections poster of the General Jewish Labour Bund hung in Kiev, 1918.Credit: YIVO
Rokhl Kafrissen
Rokhl Kafrissen

It’s the most famous poster for an election you’ve never heard of. A man’s face stares out from the poster, hands cupped around an open mouth. In Yiddish letters the poster proclaims: “There where we live, there is our country.” Voters are urged to choose Bundist candidates in the Constituent Assembly elections of 1917-18. Bundist candidates, the poster promises, will “ensure full political and national rights for Jews.” Sadly, the Bund was crushed in the elections.

For hundreds of years, Jews served as the silenced Other in the imagination of Europe’s Christians, as well as the first objects of the latter’s scholarly and ethnographic Enlightenment gaze. Within the Russian Empire, Yiddish publications were long banned, both to enforce Jewish Russification and to squelch Jewish revolution.

Since this is the age of the meme, that striking image has been modified and reproduced again and again, creating the impression of a resurgent, if reductive, neo-Bundism. The British-Jewish anarchist collective Jewdas sells a simplified version as a fundraiser. The NYU chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace produced a modified version to protest a student trip to Israel. The International Socialist Organization used its imagery for a poster promoting BDS – incidentally, featuring some truly cringey Yiddish spelling mistakes, artifacts of a designer for whom the presence of Yiddish letters communicates far more than what they may spell.

Why has this 100-year-old election poster been taken up with such enthusiasm in (non-Yiddish speaking) anti-Zionist and Palestine solidarity contexts? Besides just looking really cool (and being easy to reproduce), its slogan rings like a voice of moral authority from the past, shouting in solidarity to the current anti-Zionist moment. Back then, “There where we live, there is our country” pointed to one of the key aspects of the Bundist movement: doikayt – literally, hereness.

An elections poster of the General Jewish Labour Bund hung in Kiev, 1918.Credit: YIVO

As a contemporary rhetorical move, emphasizing “hereness” mitigates “thereness,” that is to say, theoretical Jewish obligations to, and responsibility for, the State of Israel. It posits a starkly bad there (“no peace on stolen land”), while implying an unproblematic here.

But where, exactly, is here? Is it New York? The reconstituted, prosperous capital of global Jewry? Or is “here” Lenapehoking, home of the indigenous Lenape people, who lived on what is now known as Manhattan, before they were dispossessed (again and again) by European settlers?

Writing in Pacific Standard magazine in 2018, journalist Noah Berlatsky mused on how the Bund’s legacy spoke to him as an American Jew: “Maybe we’re home here, wherever we are, because anywhere we are is worth living in, and worth making a better place. Maybe we can see value in our neighbors, wherever they come from, whatever their history, simply because they’re our neighbors now. Our existence in the Diaspora is anti-fascist. That’s something to be proud of, and to build on.”

In order to make his argument, Berlatsky figures Diaspora life as an active repudiation of anti-Semites who despised Jews for their lack of nation and roots. But that requires him to erase the contingencies of Jewish presence in the newly configured post-war Diaspora, places like North and South America, and Australia. And it demands we ignore the ways in which our presence in those places is made possible only by the sufferance of settler-colonial states.

I find it a historical irony that Bundist hereness can, in one breath, be used to condemn Zionism as a fascist settler-colonial state, and in the next breath, be used to proclaim as anti-fascist a Jewish person’s mere existence within a different settler-colonial state.

The mechanical meme-ification of doikayt offers no further tools for reconciling modern Jewish life with complicity in North American settler colonialism. Noah Berlatsky can unironically state that “Our existence in the Diaspora is anti-fascist” because his analysis, despite making nods to the unfolding of historical events, is essentially ahistorical. His – and others’ – negative deployment of doikayt, moreover, reads like a superficial burlesque when compared to its original significance.

Though the Bund was strongly against the establishment of a Jewish state in Israel, the original context of doikayt wasn’t merely, or even mostly, a negation of Zionism. For one thing, it was a reaction to the dire economic situation in Eastern Europe, as well as rising anti-Semitism. Jews were streaming out of Eastern Europe; over two million left at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. The Bundist movement argued that Jews could, and should, stay in Eastern Europe and build a new, more just society.

There’s an argument to be made that the significance of doikayt was much broader a century ago, and its roots deeper, going back to people like the great historian, Simon Dubnow. Dubnow, father-in-law of Bundist leader Henryk Erlich, was notably opposed to Bundism and the suggestion that socialism, and class struggle, was the answer to Jewish suffering. He believed Jews needed to be more rooted in place, and that a renewed sense of Jewish nationalism, across class, offered Jews the strongest identity in the face of a hostile and crumbling empire.

At the turn of the 20th century, Dubnow revolutionized Jewish historiography in Eastern Europe by arguing that the communal institutions of the traditional Jewish kehilah constituted a kind of quasi-national authority. Where historians had previously treated the Jews of Europe as a problem to be described, Dubnow argued that the history of Eastern European Jews be written like that of any other nation – by Jews, using Jewish sources, like responsa and pinkasim (communal record books). Dubnow insisted on Jewish subjectivity where previously, only Jewish Otherness had been inscribed by a Christian, European scholarly apparatus.

The unthinking transposition of pre-war Yiddish socialist poetics onto a vastly different world, a century later, is itself a kind of violent Othering. It allows participants to identify as Jews, while remaining distanced from the embarrassments of the past, as well as from the reactionary Zionism of their contemporaries. By privileging anti-Zionism above all else, it attempts to purify Jewishness of its “outdated” nationalism, cherry picking the past for elements compatible with (a certain part of) contemporary post-colonial left praxis. I am reminded of nothing so much as the scholars of the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement, who used the academic study of Jews to create a new kind of rational, universalized Jewishness, one at home in “liberal,” Christian Europe but ill at ease with lived Judaism.

Without a substantive, positive, historically grounded vision for Jewish life in the Diaspora, the contemporary vogue for doikayt risks becoming an ironic parody of the Zionist shelilat hagolah – negation of the Diaspora – but with a demonized image of the State of Israel as its animating idea.

I am deeply inspired by the Bund, and describe myself as a Yiddish-oriented Diaspora Nationalist. However, I find myself disheartened by the sudden enthusiasm of my peers for change to the Bundist past. Rather than an icon of resistance and creative struggle, the man on the Bundist election poster has become a reproducible cypher, mouth eternally agape so that others may speak with his authority, while erasing the history, and people, in whose image he was originally made.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a Yiddishist, playwright and cultural critic who lives in New York.

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