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The Anti-Zionism of the Jewish Worker's Bund

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The Anti-Zionism of the Jewish Worker's Bund

Despite its anti-Semitic "flavor," communism attracted many followers among the Jews of Eastern Europe. Manifestly, the only hope for Jewish advancement and equality within Eastern Europe and Russia lay in overthrowing the reactionary regimes that perpetuated and encouraged anti-Semitism, and the Socialist parties were in the forefront of those working for this change. Jews hadn't a hope of acceptance in nationalist or peasants parties, which, if anything, accentuated the anti-Semitism that was the prevailing cultural norm.

Jews attempted to fit in to the socialist rubric, but soon found it necessary to found their own organization. The Jewish Bund (Algemeyner Yidisher Arbeter Bund in Lite, Poylin und Russland - General Jewish workers union of Lithuania, Poland and Russia) , founded in October 1897 in Vilna by Alexander (Arkadi) Kremer  was one Jewish adaptation to socialist ideology which sought, increasingly, to preserve Jewish culture and Jewish nationality in the context of socialism through speaking of Yiddish and perpetuation of Yiddish culture.

The Bund began as study circles that coalesced into a fairly sizeable movement that organized strikes and demonstrations. It was made possible by

1. The rise of socialist and communist ideology.

2. The creation of Jewish proletariat, a salaried working class in Poland and Russia. This "normal" class development nonetheless faced special problems because of of discrimination against Jews and the difficulty of career advancement.

3. The gradual development of a Jewish revolutionary intelligentsia, a class of Jewish intellectuals  who had been educated in European general schools but remained aware of their Jewish identity and of the special situation of Jewish workers.

The Bund numbered about 34,000 members at the beginning of the century. It was able to turn out tens of thousands of demonstrators in the Pale and in Poland. It was initially totally totally uninterested in Jewish culture and Jewish nationalism, seeking to integrate themselves into the socialist international. However, this integration failed owing to opposition of the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, attacked the Bund as a Jewish nationalist faction. Lenin claimed that the Bund was developing independent uniquely Jewish political tendencies. This attack caused some of the Bund leaders, especially y Vladimir Kossowsky, to declare that the Bund was not created to supply reserves of workers for the General Russian Movement, but rather to further the rights and status of the Jewish proletariat. Jewish internationalist wishful thinking had come up against the realities of Russian and socialist attitudes toward Jews. In 1903 this led to the Bolshevik instigated removal of the Bund from the Russian Socialist Democratic Party coalition. at the second congress of the RSDWP in Brussels, though the Bund eventually was returned to the party.  In 1905, perhaps inspired by competition from Zionism as well as rejection by the socialist mainstream,, the Bund adopted a platform calling for Jewish cultural autonomy. This was based on the premise that after the revolution, the workers government would devolve cultural and educational  authority on national institutions. According to the Bund, the Jewish national language and culture were based on Yiddish. While thus admitting the unique culture and the nationhood of the Jews, the Bund was implacably opposed to Zionism,  Plekhanov remarked, perhaps not without some justice, that the Bundists are "Zionists who are afraid of seasickness."

Lenin's attacks on the Bund did not abate. In a pamphlet written in 1905, "To the Jews," Lenin noted the sins of the Bund:

The organization of Jewish workers—the Bund—affiliated with the Party as an autonomous section. Unfortunately, from that moment the unity of the Jewish and non-Jewish Social-Democrats within the single party was destroyed. Nationalist ideas began to spread among the leading members of the Bund, ideas which are in sharp contradiction to the entire world view of Social-Democracy. Instead of trying to draw the Jewish and the non-Jewish workers closer together, the Bund embarked upon a policy of weaning the former away from the latter; at its congresses it claimed a separate existence for the Jews as a nation. Instead of carrying on the work begun by the First Congress of the Russian Social-Democratic Party towards still closer unity between the Bund and the Party, the Bund moved a step away from the Party.

In 1913 Lenin wrote in Critical Remarks on the National Question:

Whoever directly or indirectly puts forward the slogan of a Jewish "national culture" is (whatever his good intentions may be) an enemy of the proletariat, a supporter of the old and of the caste position of the Jews, an accomplice of the rabbis and the bourgeoisie.

Since other nationalities or groups were not singled out for this distinction, we can trace the development of ideological anti-Zionism from Marxist anti-Semitism. It was not only Jewish nationalism that was to be eradicated as reactionary, but "Jewish national culture."

Not surprisingly therefore, while the Bund supported both the Social Democratic and eventually the Bolshevik revolutions, they were soon dissolved in Russia when the Bolsheviks came to power. The Bolsheviks also suppressed the teaching of Hebrew, closed down the Zionist parties and arrested thousands of their members in 1919 and 1920, including members of the Poalei Tziyon movement, which had fought for the Bolshevik revolution as an organization. The Bund split in 1921 and essentially disappeared in Russia. Part of the Bund joined the Bolshevik party and the Yevsektsia (Jewish section), achieving some prominence in Soviet affairs until the late thirties, when the Yevektsia and most of its former Bundist personnel were purged. The remainder for the most part fled to Poland and the West.

During World War I, Poland was cut off from Russia. Bund leaders understood that the war would probably result in an independent Poland, and they formed a separate Polish Bund organization, organizing their first party congress in 1917 under the leadership of Vladimir Medem.

In response to Zionism and the Balfour declaration, the Bund in Poland developed an ideological dogma of "do-igkeit (here-ness) which maintained that Jews would best develop their culture in the various countries in which they were rooted. Considering the huge migrations of Polish Jews to the north America after World War I, including many Bundists, as well as the international character of Yiddish culture,  the basis for this philosophy in reality was unclear.

Whatever the logic of its political positions, the Bund appealed to wide sectors of the Jewish public in Poland, and became a political force in local elections, though not in the Polish parliament. The Bund, together with the Left Poalei Tziyon Zionist group, operated a Yiddish school network, enrolled over 12,000 members in its youth movements, built a sanatorium, published several newspapers and organized a separate women's organization. The Bund stood at the forefront of the Jewish community by 1936, and was able to call a general strike with participation of Zionist and other groups in response to an anti-Semitic pogrom. Smaller Bund parties were organized in Latvia, Roumania and other parts of central Europe.

With the approach of Nazism however, the Bund ideology of anti-Zionism and "do-igkeit" failed them tragically.

In keeping with "do-igkeit" but against all logic and common sense, in the face of the gathering Nazi storm, and in response to direct warnings by Ze'ev Jabotinsky that the Jews must to leave Poland, the Bundists insisted  that Jews must remain in Poland to defend "their" country:

"The Zionists are unable and unwilling to understand that we Bundists cannot accept, even for a moment, the trappings of a capitalist society. They, on the other hand, wish to remain within these trappings. Because they adapt themselves to the existing capitalist society, they cannot understand the urgency of our struggle in Poland.

"We Bundists wish to shatter the existing economic frameworks and show the Jewish masses how a new society can be built not by escape but by struggle. We link the essence of the Jewish masses' life to that of humankind."

Viktor Alter, Neyer Folkseytung, February 19, 1937, p. 29,
 

. "No, it is not we who are creating a sense of alienation between the Jewish masses and Poland; this is being attempted by those who have supported Jewish reaction wherever and whenever it occurs, who wish to turn the Jewish masses into a collective of fanatics who are alien to the ideology and struggles of Polish workers. It is an attempt by Polish nationalists, who declare publicly that Poland is merely a temporary home for Jews and that they have to leave as quickly as possible because Poland is anti-Semitic.

"Our party alerts and will continue to alert the Jewish masses of the fate they share with those in whose country they live.

"[The Bund] urges and will continue to urge the Jewish masses to feel that they are Polish citizens, worthy not only of equal rights with others but also of equal responsibilities. [The Bund] was and remains the liaison between the Jewish masses and life in Poland, for the Polish proletariat's struggle for a better future and complete freedom in their shared homeland."

Neyer Folkseytung, June 20, 1937
 

The Bund reserved special satirical ridicule for Zionist leader Ze'ev (Valdimir) Jabotinsky, who warned Polish Jews well in advance of the Nazi takeover of Poland that their fat was sealed if they remained in Poland. A flier apparently issued about 1937 stated:


The leader of the Revisionists, the Spiritual Father of Jewish Fascism, the Paper General, Vladimir Jabotinsky is coming to Vilna.

Of late, this adventurer and political charlatan has become very "popular". He has come to us to Poland with a grandiose plan to redeem the Jews from their Polish Galut.  His plan bears the military title evacuation.

In the name of the Jewish "folk" he publicly calls for the evacuation of three million Jews from Poland, which is to say, he simply asks for them to be driven out of the country.

...

We are citizens with equal rights in this country!  We shall fight for work and for bread, for life and for rights here in Poland!  We do not wish to escape from Poland!  We shall not permit charlatans and adventurers to speak in our name!  Together with the workers of the entire country, and under the leadership of the Jewish Working-Class party-the "Bund", we shall fight and win the battle for a better life!

Jewish workers and Jewish masses of Vilna!  Show your contempt for the Purim General and give him his military command:

Panie (Sir) Vladimir, evacuate yourself along with your friends from Poland!
Down with Facism and Anti-semitism!
Down with Revisionism!  Down with Jabotinsky!
Long live Socialism! Long live the "Bund"!

The fate of Poland's Jewry, however, was not to be the same as that of other Poles. As the Zionists foresaw, and as the Soviets later denied, the Nazis singled out the Jewish population of Poland and selectively murdered the Jews of Poland. In a few short years, the people who wrote all these articles and flyers, and those who read them, were almost all dead.

With the Nazi conquest of Poland, the Bund went underground. Many of the leaders who had preached "do-igkeit" had fled to the United States or had been captured by the Russians. In the cities, leadership was taken over by the Tzukunft youth movement leaders. Bundists smuggled out reports of Nazi atrocities and demanded that the world take action to stop the massacre of European Jewry. In 1943, Shmuel (Artur) Zygielbojm, the Bundist representative to the Polish government in exile in London, committed suicide to protest allied inaction in helping the Jews.

Bundists fought side by side with Zionists in partisan groups and in the heroic Ghetto revolts. In the end, they could not escape the fate of European Jews. Bundist leaders who were captured by the Soviets were killed or committed. Viktor Alter, who had declared (see above) "We link the essence of the Jewish masses' life to that of humankind" was executed by the Soviets.

Following the war, the remnant of the Bund continued to function in Poland until 1949. when it was suppressed by the Stalinist Polish government. The history of the Bund was finished. It was the history of the loftiest ideals and the greatest bravery in the name of an impossible ideology that was betrayed by reality. The history of the Bund was the enactment of the bankruptcy of internationalism on a tragic scale.

Ami Isseroff

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A history of anti-Zionism

Jewish anti-Zionism - Jews Against Zionism

Neturei Karta (Jews against Zionism)

Marxist anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism

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General Resources on the History of Israel, Zionism and the Jews


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