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Bundist Anti-Zionism Lives On

By Ralph Seliger

The Jewish Workers’ Bund, once a proud progressive current in the Jewish world, was defeated by Leninism in Russia and destroyed by Hitler in Poland. But in taking a seminar recently at the YIVO Institute in New York, I found that it remains an inspiration for anti-Zionists.  This is from my Jewish Currents article, “The Bund Is Gone, But Its Anti-Zionist Critique Remains“:

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. . . .

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.  . . .

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.

My piece drew a caustic response from someone in Australia, and Jewish Currents gave the writer the courtesy of publishing it as a web article rather than a comment: “A Bundist Talks About the Bund.” Among the few countries where vestigial Bund groups and institutions continue to function (at least culturally) are Australia and Israel (ironically).  A tiny echo of its once thunderous political voice remains in the US and other countries where some young Jewish radicals are inspired by its old anti-Zionist tropes.  If you scroll to the comments section under both articles, you can read a lively debate between myself and two DSA activists.

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