Jewish Bund’s Anti-Zionism Idealized & Idolized

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, which were 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 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: