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Jewish Bund’s Anti-Zionism Idealized & Idolized

By Ralph Seliger

On the evening of Sept. 16, New York’s YIVO Institute sponsored a massively attended panel discussion called “Bundism’s Influence Today.”  The panel was diverse in age, but less so in viewpoint.  The audience included an impressive number of engaged young Jews, but apparently few with sympathy for the Jewish state.  Although the panel’s moderator, Prof. Jack Jacobs of CUNY, a respected scholar on the Jewish Workers’ Bund, said that he still hopes for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, the program might have benefited from the participation of an actual left-Zionist.   

One of my final pieces published at the Jewish Currents website, “The Bund Is Gone, But Its Anti-Zionist Critique Remains,” was about my participation in a five-session YIVO seminar on the Bund, taught by Prof. Jacobs early in 2018.  During one session, I found myself denounced for expressing pro-Zionist convictions by none other than the individual who organized this panel, Spencer Sunshine.  He remembered me from a conference we had both attended about 15 years ago (I actually didn’t remember him).  Being unsettled by his hostility, I suggested we meet privately to discuss things further — an offer which he contemptuously spurned. 

Spencer Sunshine (standing), Jack Jacobs, Jacob Pitman, Jenny Romaine, Molly Crabapple, Irena Klepfisz

In reaction to the panelists’ frequent gibes against Zionism, cheered on by most of the audience, one older gentleman lost it, shouting from the audience that “if Rabin had lived,” things might be very different — a sentiment I basically share.  After calming down, this same individual made a very sensible observation during the Q & A: that with the rise of Nazism, establishing the State of Israel was the best approach.  Currently, however, he’s come around to seeing the Bundist “hereness” doctrine (Doikayt) as making more sense for Diaspora Jews today. 

I agree.  Since most American Zionist groups no longer emphasize making Aliya, we liberal Zionists are actually better described as pro-Zionist — as supporting Israel’s existence and security, but also the legitimacy and value of Jewish life in the Diaspora.  Since we are, in fact, still “here,” the Bundist outlook has had something of a posthumous victory. 

Yet, also during the Q & A, a friend of mine insightfully questioned how the Bund could be an appropriate model for American Jews today, citing our very different cultural and material conditions.  Most American Jews are not Yiddish speakers, are no longer classically working class, nor are they socialist-leaning radicals.  

The revival of interest in the Bund today, mostly among culturally hip young Jews, reflects their understandable disillusionment with Zionism during the post-Oslo years of bloody conflict and repression under right-leaning Israeli governments.  This romance with the Bund is an exercise in nostalgia recalling a noble, innovative mass movement utterly destroyed by Stalin and Hitler (Prof. Jacobs is an excellent authority on the Polish Bund’s remarkable counterculture).  In tandem with a resurgence of interest in Yiddish, it is a Jewish leftwing “Lost Cause.”     

The younger panelists revealed little experience or knowledge of either Bundism or Zionism, before definitively elevating Bundism over Zionism.  Jacob Plitman, the new editor and now publisher of Jewish Currents, has quickly transformed it from a reflective space for a broad tent of liberal and leftwing views into a more hip, youthful and stridently leftwing publication and platform.  (After several efforts to continue writing for Jewish Currents, I concluded that my left-Zionist perspective was no longer welcome under the new regime.)   

Plitman (29 or 30 at most) presents himself with insouciant charm and ease.  He’s the product of a mainstream Zionist background with many summers spent as a Young Judea camper; he describes a Zionist upbringing that ignored or trivialized Palestinian suffering under the Israeli occupation.  His rude awakening, as he described it, was a visit to the West Bank town of Bethlehem on a casual lark during a stay in Israel; given his age, this had to be after the Second Intifada, after the relative openness of travel and relations between Green Line Israel and the West Bank were shattered by Palestinian terror attacks.  His reaction eventually hardened into anti-Zionism, epitomizing what Peter Beinart warned about in his 2012 bombshell of a book, The Crisis of Zionism.  

Molly Crabapple (36), an activist writer and artist, was drawn to learning about the Bund from a great grandfather.  Jenny Romaine is a veteran of the contemporary Yiddish arts and culture scene, but shows less of a political grasp than the others.  Crabapple was alone among the panelists to fully endorse “one secular democratic state” with a complete “right of return” for Palestinians, with no concern expressed for the likely consequences.  Neither she nor Romaine revealed a deep well of experience or expertise from which to weigh these issues. 

This cannot be said of Irena Klepfisz, now 78, whose Bundist affinity is a birthright.  She was born in the Warsaw Ghetto to Bundist parents; her biological father perished in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.  She’s especially well known for her poetry and for her Jewish lesbian activism, which includes protesting Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.  Possessing a doctorate in English literature, she’s also been an adjunct associate professor of Jewish Women’s Studies at Barnard College since 1996. 

I found most of this program either enlightening or entertaining, and not as aggravating as I had expected.  Both Jacobs and Klepfisz are well worth listening to, and all the panelists spoke well in their individual ways.  But I wish that an articulate left-Zionist was included in the panel instead of Romaine.  I encourage readers to view as much of this YouTube video-recording as possible: 

18 Responses to “Jewish Bund’s Anti-Zionism Idealized & Idolized”

  1. Sheldon Ranz
    September 27, 2019 at 9:09 am #

    Did Plitman actually identify as anti-Zionist?

  2. Ralph Seliger
    September 27, 2019 at 10:28 am #

    I do not believe so (you can see for yourself in the video). Regardless of how he identifies himself, he’s turned Jewish Currents into a one-sided anti-Zionist platform. If memory serves, the only Zionist or pro-Zionist he’s published since taking over is T’ruah’s Rabbi Jill Jacobs in a forum on JVP officially embracing anti-Zionism.

  3. Jack Jacobs
    September 27, 2019 at 10:51 am #

    Thank you for your generous comments about me and my work. I appreciate them. I did not initiate this event, and did not play a role in choosing those who were on the panel. It is my understanding, however, that the intent of the evening was to have people who have been influenced by Bundism discuss how and why Bundist ideas have impacted upon them. I don’t agree that having ideological opponents of Bundism on this panel would have added to it. The event, f.y.i., has clearly struck a nerve. More than a thousand people watched the event video before it was posted to Facebook, and hundreds more have watched it since. I look forward to continuing our dialogue, and wish you a sweet new year.

  4. Ralph Seliger
    September 27, 2019 at 12:43 pm #

    Thanks Jack. Since the program was called “Bundism’s Influence Today,” and was bound to discuss Zionism, I think it would have been fully appropriate to have had one left-Zionist on the panel — not to argue as an ideological opponent, but to provide another perspective.

  5. Sheldon Ranz
    September 27, 2019 at 12:49 pm #

    Jewish Currents recently ran a piece by Libby Lenkinski of the New Israel Fund (part of the Progressive Israel Network) on September 12 about Likud’s voter suppression. On September 5, JC ran a piece uncritically interviewing Etgar Keret, an Israel iwriter who receives lots of money from Israeli government and cultural institutions. He is, in fact, strongly opposed to any boycott of Israel – both BDS and even the settlements-only boycott. I criticized on JC’s FB page its omission of these salient facts, but hey, you got what you wanted, Ralph, in these two recent cases.

    Bottom line, is, you continue to misrepresent JC as ‘anti-Zionist’ even though, time and time again, I have demonstrated this portrait to be false. It’s obvious you have a personal axe to grind here which is warping your perception of reality. Let me offer you Aiden Pink (of the Forward)’s more accurate description of JC as part of the “Israel-skeptic” Left.

    • Ralph Seliger
      September 27, 2019 at 1:17 pm #

      Sheldon, the NIF uncovering dirt on Likud, or an interview with a left-liberal Israeli writer (even if he opposes BDS) is hardly an open door to pro-Zionist opinion. If you don’t see that JC has changed its receptivity to pro-Zionist voices, I can’t convince you otherwise. But by all means, feel free to criticize me at every opportunity.

  6. Sheldon Ranz
    September 27, 2019 at 1:58 pm #

    The examples I cited show that your depiction of JC as a ‘one-sided anti-Zionist platform’ is false. It’s not Mondoweiss!! Mondoweiss would NEVER publish an article by Lenkinski or kvell over Keret.

    Jewish Current s has not changed. Israel has. furshtayst?

    • Ralph Seliger
      September 27, 2019 at 3:02 pm #

      Israel under Netanyahu’s leadership has not changed in the less than two years since JC’s editorship has changed. What’s changed is the steady diet of harsh anti-Zionist articles, without the opportunity for thoughtful responses, or even online comments. The diversity of opinion that Larry Bush and Ron Skolnik had cultivated at JC is as absent now as they are personally.

  7. Sheldon Ranz
    September 28, 2019 at 7:00 am #

    Israel HAS changed in the last several years under Netanyahu – for the worse. It sells weapons to neo-Nazis and has publlcly embraced right-wing anti-Semites and similar tyrants the world over. Netanyahu has engaged openly in Holocaust revisionism and his son drew a neo-Nazi cartoon attacking George Soros.

    The opportunity for thoughtful responses may have been curtailed, but that cuts both ways. No one can respond to the “pro-Zionist” articles either (not counting its Facebook page, which accepts comments)

  8. lazer
    September 28, 2019 at 1:51 pm #

    ralph, why should a left-wing zionist have been on the panel when the bund wasn’t zionist? it doesn’t even make sense. you’re free to organize an event on the influence of labor zionism or poale zion or whatever.

    • Ralph Seliger
      September 28, 2019 at 2:46 pm #

      That’s one way of looking at it, Lazer, but as I responded to Prof. Jacobs, since this panel was bound to discuss Zionism (as it did), it would have been legitimate to have one panelist bringing a pro-Zionist perspective into the discussion.

      • lazer
        September 28, 2019 at 3:32 pm #

        those issues were discussed at the panel! it seems like you just have a bone to pick with jewish currents and weren’t even paying attention.

        • Ralph Seliger
          September 28, 2019 at 3:39 pm #

          That’s my point. These issues were discussed by the panel, but without any pro-Zionist perspective.

  9. lazer
    September 28, 2019 at 4:39 pm #

    “Since most American Zionist groups no longer emphasize making Aliya, we liberal Zionists are actually better described as pro-Zionist — as supporting Israel’s existence and security, but also the legitimacy and value of Jewish life in the Diaspora. Since we are, in fact, still “here,” the Bundist outlook has had something of a posthumous victory.”

    This is odd to me. Take just one example: since 1979, the New Israel Fund has channeled $300 million to progressive causes in Israel. From a material standpoint, this is not connected to any form of ‘doykeit’ that I’m familiar with.

    • Ralph Seliger
      September 28, 2019 at 7:06 pm #

      I hope you’re not against the New Israel Fund supporting progressive causes in Israel. Contributing money to the NIF is representative of what progressive American Zionists are most likely to do nowadays, rather than making Aliya. In the meantime, they are “here” supporting progressive causes in this country. They can do both at the same time.

  10. Bernard Bohbot
    October 1, 2019 at 1:07 am #

    Those young “neo-Bundists” should remember that the Bund never sought to dismantle the state of Israel once it was created. In fact, the Bund opened an Israeli chapter in the 1950s, as many Bundist Holocaust survivors had no other choice but to find refuge in Israel since no other country accepted to welcome them.

    As I said earlier, young anti-Zionists (whether they are Jews or not) are not anti-Semitic, they are merely ignorant. Amos Oz once said that anti-Zionists sound as they believe that Jews who ended up in Palestine went to a travel agency and chose Palestine instead of the French Riviera. This is not what happened. Most Jews who went to Palestine were refugees who had nowhere else to go. If Jacob Pittman and Molly Crabapple really believe that the Jews should have died rather than going to Palestine, they should say so openly instead of hiding behind the Bund.

    • Ralph Seliger
      October 1, 2019 at 3:57 pm #

      I agree with you, Bernard. But I’m sure that neither Jacob Plitman nor Molly Crabapple believe that Jewish refugees should have died rather than go to Palestine/Israel.

      • Bernard Bohbot
        October 1, 2019 at 6:18 pm #

        Agreed. But the onus is on them to explain what the Jews should have done to survive if they really believe that going to Palestine was a crime. They can’t have it both ways.

        Also, these far-left anti-Zionists never miss an opportunity to argue that depriving the Palestinians of part of their land to create the state of Israel was an injustice. Fair enough. But leaving the Jews homeless is not fair either. This is why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so complex. But for some reason, the radical left is unable to see that. It seems like only liberal Zionists (and a handful of Palestinian liberals such as Sari Nusseibeh and Mohamed Dajani) don’t live in a black and white world. It’s depressing…

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