The Bund was far from Perfect. It still matters to Jewish History

tags: Jewish history, Israel, socialism, Bund

Joshua Meyers is a Harry Starr Fellow in Judaica at Harvard University with a specialization in modern Jewish political history. Currently, he is writing a book manuscript on the Jewish Labor Bund in Russia during 1917; past projects have included a study of Dovid Lipets, a Bundist leader active in Ukraine between 1917 and 1919. In addition to his interest in the Jewish 1917, he is interested in the relationship between the Jewish community and state power in Eastern Europe, and the ways in which this relationship served to define modern Jewish politics.

A Bundist demonstration, 1917



From 25-27 September 1897, thirteen activists from various Jewish radical organizations in the Russian Empire met in Vilna (now Vilnius, Lithuania). The date was no accident, it coincided with the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, a day when many Jews were traveling to be with family, a day when these activists could travel without arousing the authorities’ suspicion. The need for secrecy overrode all other concerns. 


At no point were all of the activists in the room at the same time, and no official minutes of the meeting were kept. But the party they founded, the General Jewish Labor Bund, would play a leading role in Jewish politics for the next 50 years. Staunchly secular and socialist, hostile towards Zionism but fiercely committed to the Jewish community, the Bund insisted that if the revolution liberated Jewish workers as workers, but allowed them to suffer continued persecution as Jews, it would not have liberated them. Rather, the party dreamed of a socialist federation of nations, including Jews; autonomous in cultural matters but politically and economically united.


The Bund occupies something of a paradoxical place in Jewish history. Judged by its own criteria, the Bund failed. Largely destroyed in the Holocaust (small chapters survive today), the closest it came to its goal of Jewish autonomy within a socialist federation of nations was the Soviet Union, an experiment few would consider a successful resolution of the Jewish Question. And yet, despite this inability to realize its goals, the Bund played an outsized role in the lives of the Eastern European Jews. When the Jews of Russia and Poland suffered from popular- and state-sponsored antisemitism and economic displacement, the Bund gained the admiration of many—including many of its staunchest opponents—for its role in organizing workers and defending Jewish communities from during pogroms. The Bund played a central role in cultural matters too, embracing Yiddish, a language often derided as a folksy jargon, as one worthy of serious discourse. We cannot easily dismiss this party from Jewish history.


After slowly fading from the Jewish communal consciousness after the Bund’s near-destruction in the Holocaust, the Yiddish socialism espoused by Bund today is undergoing a revival of interest, especially among young, left-leaning Jews. In part, this is spurred on by a declining interest in Zionism, itself the result of Zionism’s conflation, rightly or wrongly, with the politics of Benjamin Netanyahu, politics opposed by many American Jews. Combined with the rising antisemitism on both the right- and left-wings in the US that has robbed American Jews of a domestic political home, the Bund has emerged as an important symbol. Articles about the Bund specifically and Yiddish socialism in general have appeared in the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, the Jewish Daily ForwardJacobin, and elsewhere, with many of these going viral. Jewish Currents, a left-wing Jewish magazine founded in 1946, has successfully relaunched in pursuit of younger Jews. Organizations such as The Jewish WorkerJewdas, and Jewish Solidarity have joined with Jewish Currents in claiming the Bund’s legacy while growing the conversation about the Bund on Facebook and Twitter. Coinciding with a moment when campaigns by Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocassio-Cortez, and others have brought socialist ideas back into the mainstream, young Jews have found the idea of a proudly Jewish form of progressive politics that embraces cultural specificity while rejecting particularism attractive indeed.


Ironically, the Bund’s history of failure only adds to the Bund’s mystique. Virtue is easy when one lacks the power to act, and the Bund was powerless for most of its existence. Its program existed only in the world of “what could be.” While the Zionists, like so many national liberation movements before and after, disappointed in power, the Bund’s dreams, perpetually deferred, lived on as potent symbols. The party is easily reimagined as a kinder, purer alternative for Jewish politics, representing everything Zionism was not; while the latter was masculine and national, in the Bund is imagined an egalitarian and cosmopolitan spirit. 


However, the lionization of the Bund depends in a large part on the Bund’s historical powerlessness. This is problematic. Hannah Arendt once noted that beauty and humanity are luxuries afforded only the oppressed, luxuries that “have never survived the hour of liberation by even five minutes.” The Bund did not prove Arendt wrong. The Bund did experience one moment of power, during the Russian Revolution. Despite claims to the contrary by many antisemites, Bundists did not initiate the Red Terror (1917-1922). They did, however, participate. Spurned at the ballot box by the Jewish masses in favor of their Zionist archrivals, the Bund swiftly learned the value of being able to arrest their rivals on political charges. Dissenting party members suffered as well. Sara Foks, a seamstress from Kiev and one-time rising star of the Bund in Ukraine who opposed Soviet rule, was arrested and interrogated repeatedly by one-time comrades now wearing the uniform of the Cheka until, on July 24, 1919, she jumped off a bridge into the Dnieper River. Others were simply executed.


None of this is to say that Bundists were evil, but that they were human. Like all movements, the Bund reflected the environment from which it emerged, and late Imperial Russia was as harsh an environment as one can imagine. Its actions were driven by a desperate conviction that the future of the Jewish people depended on the successful realization of its program. This was at a time when the Jewish future was very much in doubt. The debate as to whether the Bund were angels or demons misses the point; that they were human, a status they had to fight time and time again to defend. 


The importance of the Bund is not in whether it succeeded or failed, or if it provided a kinder path for Jewish politics than Zionism. What does matter is what the Bund represented during the half-century it contended as a major force in Jewish politics. In leading strikes and organizing defense against pogroms, in advancing new forms of ideas in Jewish politics. The Bund embodied the aspirations and identity of millions of Jews for five decades and provided serious answers to the questions Jews faced then and now—even its mistakes are valuable lessons, warnings to good people from across the political spectrum who are convinced with absolute certainty that they are right. 


Moreover, the Bund represents a model for diaspora existence that should prove inspiring to Jewish communities around the world, pioneering the idea of meaningful Jewish existence beyond Zion. It offereda political language deeply committed to the Jewish community with an equally uncompromising commitment to values of freedom, justice, and societal fairness. It is in this legacy that the Bund remains essential for Jews today, a legacy at once more difficult and more helpful than the callous erasure of our past or a rose-tinted nostalgia for the lost causes. 

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