Opinion

Repulsed by Aggressive Jewish Nationalism? Reviving the Bund Is No Answer

Is the secular Jewish socialism of a pre-war mass movement opposed to Zionism really coming back from oblivion? A small kernel of young, idealistic Jews think it’s the answer to today’s Jewish identity crisis. This is why they’re wrong

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Pro-Israel supporters shout slogans during a rally at Times Square in New York, to show support for Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip, July 20, 2014.
Pro-Israel supporters shout slogans during a rally at Times Square in New York, to show support for Israel's military offensive in the Gaza Strip, July 20, 2014.Credit: REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

One of the many fascinating insights and discoveries in Tom Segev’s magisterial new biography, “David Ben-Gurion - A State at all Costs” (out in English August 2019), is that the first serious public recognition he received in his career was, of all places, in the United States, where he lived for three years during the First World War.

Zionism was still a niche persuasion in those days among the million or so East European Jews who had arrived in America in the previous decades.

But there were enough supporters of the early pioneers, from afar, and a lively Yiddish press in which to publish articles, pamphlets and a Yizkor book, commemorating eight martyrs of the Zionist labor movement, killed by Arabs while tilling or guarding their fields.

The book was well-received, according to Segev, but there was one negative review, from a Bundist who went by the pen-name of Moshe Yosef Olgin in the Forverts (Forward).

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“The Jewish colonies in Eretz Yisroel were built on the tragedy of the Arabs,” wrote Olgin, justifying the Arab violence against the Zionists. “It was a hooligan article,” wrote Ben-Gurion in a letter to his friend Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. “A call to carry out pogroms against the Jews of Eretz Yisrael.”

The Jewish Labor Bund had been founded in 1897, just two months after the First Zionist Congress. Originally active in the Czarist Russian empire, by 1920 it would be forced out of Russia by the Communists and establish itself in Poland as one of the largest Jewish political movements there. While the Zionist movement was led in those years by central and Western Europeans, its rank and file came from the same petit-bourgeois Eastern European Jews who were the leading lights of the Bund. The Bundists affected working-class mannerisms, while the Zionists styled themselves as hardy pioneers.

Bund election poster, Kiev, 1918.Credit: Courtesy of Bund Archives / New York

Both groups sought to break out of the life of poverty and persecution and petty religious parochialism that was the Pale of Settlement, the Zionists by building a new Hebrew culture in the ancient homeland, while the Bundists insisted that through socialism and a secular Yiddish ethos, Jews could achieve equality and respect in their current homes.

Ben-Gurion had met, and fought with Bundists in his hometown of Plonsk. A decade after leaving Plonsk, he found himself in conflict with them once again, this time in America. Thousands of Zionists and Bundists had chosen the New World – or Doykeyt, Yiddish for the Bund’s principle of “hereness” – over Zion.

Would Ben-Gurion have been so angry with his critic had he known that within just over three decades, he would be founding a Jewish state and the Bund would be on its way to oblivion?

But history has a funny way of repeating itself - and the Bund is making a comeback of sorts these days. Jewish millennial writers and activists have rediscovered of late the charms of the Bund’s Jewish socialism and Diasporism.

It’s not hard to understand the attraction. In the age of Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu, when Israel’s descent into perpetual occupation seems all but final and neo-liberalism has become a dirty word, how comforting to rediscover a Jewish ideology of solidarity with the toiling masses, one that elevates your own neighborhood rather than an aggressive Jewish ethno-nationalist state.

Members of the Jewish Bund with bodies of their comrades killed in Odessa during the Russian revolution of 1905.
Members of the Jewish Bund with bodies of their comrades killed in Odessa during the Russian revolution of 1905.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The neo-Bundist narrative is simple. After most of its members were exterminated by the Nazis in the Holocaust and the few escaping leaders executed by Stalin in Moscow, the survivors after the war were pushed aside by the Zionists. Most Jews, in shock from the destruction, were more receptive to a Jewish state in those postwar years. The Bund didn’t stand a chance.

And that’s true as far as it goes. Only the Bund did have a fair chance after the Holocaust. It wasn’t the only Jewish movement that had been decimated. The Nazis didn’t discriminate between religious and secular Jews, capitalists and socialists, Bundists and Zionists. And while its core membership in Poland was all but gone, there were the thousands of Bundists who had made it already to the U.S. and other points on the globe.

The Bund tried to resurrect itself after the war. Even in the new Israeli state it was recreated and even ran for the Knesset in the 1959 election (failing dismally to cross the electoral threshold with only 1,322 votes). Where did they all then disappear to?

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The Zionism-crowded-out-the-Bund narrative may be a convenient one for today’s neo-Bundists but it is far from accurate.

Earlier on, there were those who criticized Ben-Gurion and his colleagues for bringing a disaster on Palestine’s Arabs, but the main objection to Zionism was a much more pragmatic one. The original Bundists simply didn’t see the Jewish homeland as a viable project. Trying to build up strong workers’ communities in their present homelands seemed a much more practical prospect.

Members of the Socialist Bund march in a May Day parade, Bialystok, Poland, May 1, 1934.
Members of the Socialist Bund march in a May Day parade, Bialystok, Poland, May 1, 1934.Credit: USHMM / Wikimedia Commons

It wasn’t just Zionism that prevailed over the Bund. Even after its members failed to make inroads against Polish anti-Semitism and authoritarianism, or were murdered by Nazis and Communists, it could have still won over the Jews in the West who chose not to emigrate to Israel. Ultimately they lost out to the preferred ideology of Jews in the 20th century – capitalism.

The sad fact is that Jews have never prospered under socialism. It was only the combination of liberal democracy and free markets that allowed Jews to both fully integrate into the middle classes and openly lead secure individual and communal Jewish lives as free and equal citizens.

Jewish capitalists, Orthodox Jews and Zionists all succeeded in rebuilding their movements after the Holocaust. But many of the Bundists who survived, along with their children, rejected secular Jewish, non-Zionist socialism. The few remaining stalwarts failed to attract new members. Jews didn’t want solidarity with the working classes. They wanted what every worker wants, to get ahead in life.

Zionism, Western capitalism and Orthodoxy are all now facing major crises, which are probably not existential, but severe enough to repel many young idealistic Jews. It would make sense at such a time for a new Jewish identity, one not beholden to nationalism, capital or religion, to emerge. Many Jews, not only in the Diaspora, but in Israel as well, could adopt such an identity.

But pinning hopes on socialism, which has always failed the Jews, and blithely disregarding the deeper attachment to a homeland, the certainties provided by faith and the rare security Jews have enjoyed in capitalist structures, is the wrong way to go about it.