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Remember the Jewish Labor Bund?

The Bund was a Jewish socialist, revolutionary party in Eastern Europe dedicated to class struggle. It is all but forgotten in modern day Israel, but a few members are still around to tell the story. 

By Alon Aviram

A piano played and a middle-aged woman stood in the middle of the room singing classical Yiddish songs to an attentive, seated audience of 30 or so old men and women. Every so often the music was interrupted by a hoarse laugh or some remark blurted out in Yiddish by a member of the audience. Heavy red velvet curtains blocked out the now largely gentrified old Tel Aviv neighborhood of Nahalat Binyamin. At a social gathering every fortnight, members of this Yiddish community center escape the realities of 21st century Israeli life and return to a largely bygone Yiddish-speaking era.

Yitzhak Luden stands in the Yiddish community center
(photo: Alon Aviram) 14th November 2012

As the music finished and old friends said their goodbyes, journalist Yitzhak Luden, 90, one of the last surviving members of the Jewish Labor Bund in Israel, led me down a stairwell to a Yiddish library. “The others are here for just cultural and social reasons, they’re all too young to have been members of the Bund,” shrugged Yitzhak. As he pulled out tattered leather-bound books, he began to tell his story, and that of the Jewish Labor Bund. “One hundred and fifteen years ago, the Zionists held their first congress in a casino in Basel. The Bundists on the other hand, had their first meeting in the attic of a farm near Vilnius a month before. The Zionists were bourgeois from the start!” said Yitzhak.

The Bund was a Jewish socialist, revolutionary party, dedicated to class struggle and with an internationalist agenda. It played a significant role in the Russian revolutionary period. Similarly to Zionism, it was born in the wake of widespread anti-Semitism and pogroms across Europe. While the Zionist movement turned to emigration and the founding of a Jewish nation-state as a solution, Bundism argued that a Jewish state was a form of escapism which would only replicate existing class inequalities.

Yitzhak reconciled his position as an anti-Zionist living in Israel. “I came to Israel in 1948 not as a Zionist, but as someone fleeing war-torn Europe. Poland denied Bundists the right to organize, and the few Bundists who came made clear our political position in support of Palestinians, and for a one state solution.” The Bund in 1929 for example, defended the Palestinian riots as an anti-colonial uprising, rather than as anti-Semitic, as had been depicted by Zionists.

Even before the establishment of the Bund, a Yiddish article printed in Russia in 1887 wrote that those who think that “once the Jews have their own country they will be able freely to develop social ideas and cooperate with other peoples” forget that “the origin of nations is betrayal, robbery and murder”. The Bund would later echo this political position as an anti-Zionist organization with deep roots in the Jewish working class and intelligentsia across Eastern Europe.

“The religious Jews had traditionally organized Jewish communities. The Bund came out against both this and Zionism. It began to organize worker cooperatives and the social lives of many Jews. I was at first a member of the Bundist youth organization, SKIF. And some of my friends from SKIF who stayed in Warsaw later fought in the Ghetto resistance,” said Yitzhak.

Members of the Jewish Bund with bodies of their comrades killed in Odessa during the Russian revolution of 1905
(photo: Wikimedia Commons, PD-US)

The Bund repeatedly mobilized self-defense militias which managed to successfully thwart a number of pogroms, orchestrated general strikes, built a network of cultural organizations, and later became a considerable electoral force in Poland. As it turned to electoral politics in its later years, it obtained 40 percent of the Jewish vote in council elections across large cities in Poland in 1938. “That same year in Warsaw, the Bund took 17 out of 20 council seats won by Jewish parties in the Municipal elections” Yitzhak said proudly.

Decades earlier, Vladimir Medem, a Russian Jew, became one of the Bund’s most prominent theorists. He rejected the Zionist aspiration of establishing a Jewish nation-state. Medem did not however dismiss the value of national autonomy, but sought a version which was not territorially defined. Instead, the Bund called for the creation of a ‘state of nationalities’ rather than a nation-state.

The Jewish Labor Bund’s vision of national cultural autonomy was an early form of radical multiculturalism. It opposed both those who argued in favor of forced assimilation and those who called for nationalist separation. It envisaged a socialist society that would allow communities to freely conduct their own cultural affairs while ensuring that they remained connected economically and politically in one territory. Although the political conclusions outlined by the Bund were informed by life in late 19th and early 20th century-Russia, their commitment to essentially a one state model, of bi or multi-nationalism shares similarities with certain debates regarding the future of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories today.

Despite the Bund’s influential role in early 20th century Eastern European Jewish life, it seems that they are solely remembered by specialist historians or nostalgic left-wingers. “No one imagined that the Nazis would do what they did”, said Yitzhak as he spoke of the Holocaust. As a result of the Bund’s insistence that Jews should stay and fight for socialism rather than emigrate, many were murdered by the Nazis, and to a lesser extent also by the Stalinists. Decades later, it  appears that Zionism, the prevailing dominant ideology among Jewry, has played a part in forgetting, or at least in not remembering, the narrative of its pre World War II rival. Yitzhak, himself the survivor of a Russian gulag, said “we see this all around us. Before my wife met me, she had never heard of the Bund.”

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Tamar

      Interesting piece. As a child growing up in NYC, I knew many children of these folks. Alon, would you provide contact information for the group that meets in the Nahalat Binyamin area every fortnight? TIA

      Reply to Comment
      • Alon

        Hey Tamar,

        As far as I’m aware, the largest post WW2 community of Bund members post was in NYC. I’m sure that the people you knew had many interesting stories to tell.

        The address of the community center is: 48 Kalischer street, Tel Aviv (comes off Nahalat Binyamin)

        I don’t know the exact dates for when they meet, but it’s on a Wednesday afternoon every 2 weeks. I’m sure if you pop in someone will be able to help you.

        Reply to Comment
        • Tamar

          Thanks for your helpful reply, Alon. I live paces from the community center, and will drop by Wednesday afternoons till I encounter the group.

          Reply to Comment
        • Tamar

          Alon (and anyone else), I dropped by the center today, Wednesday, where they had a scheduled program at 11:30am. As you wrote, Wednesdays every two weeks they meet. Note the correct time. I told Belle, on duty, that I read your article, and she was happy that the interviews you conducted were published here.

          Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      Poor Bundists. Although among the founding member organizations of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, Lenin chucked them out when the Bolshevik-Menshevik split occured at the 2nd Party Congress, and in spite of all their well-meaning socialism, they were accused of being bourgeouis-corrupted deviationists. Stalin viciously repressed the Bund, and many who surived this were wiped out in the Holocaust. Their belief in the ‘socialist brotherhood of workers’ couldn’t stand up against the popularity if Fascism in Germany and eastern Europe.
      Those who managed to survive all this in Israel and North America and Britain saw almost all their grandchildren adopt comfortable, bourgeois life-styles.
      Meanwhile the Zionism these Bundists rejected goes from success to success. Maybe there is a message there somewhere?

      Reply to Comment
      • sh

        You forgot France, XYZ. The Bundists survived there too. They were a tough bunch and during the Nazi occupation were the beating heart of the Resistance. A Bundist founded the (these days right-wing) CRIF – Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France – and they still run an active cultural centre, library and Yiddish classes in Paris.

        Reply to Comment
    3. I suspect that, if we look closely, most of us are on social/political paths that will fail someway or another. The Bund failure was huge, with the Zionist “get out” message the only major survivor. What has been lost, though, in the Bund ideal were other, actually non-religious, ways of creating social bonds and groups. I would say that while the Zionists were clearly prescient, those on the destroyed Bund path may not have lacked prescience entirely.

      Reply to Comment
    4. XYZ

      Yitzhak stated:
      —————————–
      Yitzhak reconciled his position as an anti-Zionist living in Israel. “I came to Israel in 1948 not as a Zionist, but as someone fleeing war-torn Europe. Poland denied Bundists the right to organize, and the few Bundists who came made clear our political position in support of Palestinians, and for a one state solution.”
      —————————
      I wonder if Yitzhak appreciates the irony of the fact that the only reason he was able to come to Israel is because the darned Zionists whom he opposes set up a state which gave him, as a Jew, the right to come here. His Arab friends whom he and his Bundist comrades wanted to live under never would have let him come here in the first place.

      Reply to Comment
      • Alon

        XYZ,

        I think that your comments reflect a common and misguided implication made by many. That is, that Zionism was the Jews salvation against Nazism. As we all know, only a widespread alliance between nations, not emigration and the creation of a nation-state, succeeded in defeating fascism. Otherwise, the Nazis would have reached and conquered Palestine/ Israel one way or another.

        Reply to Comment
        • XYZ

          Please show me where I said any such thing. Yitzhak came to Israel AFTER the Holocaust, as you yourself wrote. However, the fact is that Jews who were in Eretz Israel were saved. I know that was due directly to Montgomery’s Eigth Army that stopped Rommel at El Alamein, but it is interesting that Yitzhak came to Israel and not the US. Jews were feeling pretty insecure at the time (are Jews really more secure today) and many of us feel the best place to be is here, under our own goverment and not to be dependent on the “good will” of non-Jews as was the case before 1948. Don’t forget, the Holocaust could NOT have happened without the passive acquiesence of the non-Jewish populations of Europe, even in the Nazi occupied countries.

          Reply to Comment
          • sh

            “it is interesting that Yitzhak came to Israel and not the US”
            If he had a real choice between them (did he?) Yitzhak Luden might have preferred Israel to the US because he had people here.

            Reply to Comment
        • Erez

          Alon, your answer is strange in Apologetic. That widespread alliance did defeat fascism, but did not save Jews, though it could have, which is still arguable to what extent. A Jewish nation state does not contradict a widespread alliance, it supports it, where Jews can participate as partners, with their particular interests included in the fight against fascism. You imply that for a moral cause, it is ok to pay with Jewish lives.

          Your description of the bund is impressive, only it lacks important political facts – only Jews supported it. Every non-Jewish partner of the Bund betrayed it of was to weak to act. A state of nationalities can never become a reality when only the weakest nation supports it.

          Reply to Comment
    5. was very happy to read this article. I wish it would be longer, because we lack those insights and information.
      Yitschok Luden is a worthy essayist, journalist and author, and foremost he has this quality of being a mentsh and the writer of this article does him justice.
      Yasher koach.

      Reply to Comment
      • Peter Attwood

        The story is not complete without recalling that the Zionists torpedoed the very successful boycott of Nazi Germany in 1933, in keeping with their alliance with the Nazis, with whom they expressed agreement.

        That might easily have led to the overthrow of the Nazi regime, or at least a significant retreat. But as Ben Gurion explained in 1938. For half the Jewish children in Germany to die was worth it if the Zionists could have their state.

        And this attitude is quite consistent. Israel cooperated with the Argenitine military regime in its slaughter of Jews there, I guess because they were the wrong kind of Jews.

        On the whole, Israel’s attitude toward Jews in the diaspora resembles that of Stalin toward other Communists parties – useful tools at imes, to be betrayed and discarded whenever convenient.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Is there some way to contact Yitzhak Luden? He mentioned that some of his friends were Bundists who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Resistance. I’d like to ask him if he knew my uncle, a Bundist who died in the fighting.
      thanks

      Reply to Comment
    7. Sonia

      Thank you for this article! My beloved Bubbe, Sonia Avrouskin Lessin, was a Bundist. Her speeches made her a political prisoner at 16, until three years later, she was released by the Czar’s amnesty. In the U.S.,she and my Zayde, were IWO members, and her voice repressed by those around her.If only I’d known to ask….

      I live in Madison Wisconsin, but travel frequently to Philadelpia. Does anyone know where I can get more information?

      With deep appreciation to Alon, and to Yitzhak Luden.
      Sonia Baku

      Reply to Comment

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