Was the Jewish Bund anti-Semitic?

The revisionist definition of anti-semitism to include anti-Zionism is refuted by its absurd conclusion that the old Jewish Bund was therefore anti-Semitic.

The media have been carrying stories about anti-semitism, particularly on the rise of hate-crimes against Jewish individuals and religious institutions. Also in the headlines are allegations that anti-semitism exists within the Labour Party and its left-wing hangers-on.

Zionism claims to speak on behalf of Jewish people. Today, although a majority of Jews choose to live outside of Israel, only a minority still oppose Zionism and its creation, Israel. A hundred years ago, however, it was Zionism that was the minority and challenged in the working-class movement by Yiddish-speaking secularists of the Jewish Bund.

Originally Zionism was a nationalism of Jewish people outside Palestine, claiming that the main cause of the troubles of the Jews was the fact that they had no country of their own. Its supporters argued that, as a means of solving the problem of anti-semitism, Jewish people should establish a nation-state in Palestine, chosen on the grounds that the region was the historic homeland of the Jewish people. Only by settling in a country of their own would Jews be safe from anti-semitism. No longer then would they be a small minority of outcasts, dependent upon the tolerance of others, but citizens of their own state. As such they would be free from interference and discrimination.

Yet in their efforts to free Jews in Europe from anti-semitism, the Zionists generated another, Arab and pro-Arab anti-semitism, a price they were prepared to pay as David Ben-Gurion, a well-known Zionist leader and future prime minister of Israel, acknowledged when he declared even before Israel was established:

‘We shall go to Palestine in order to become the majority there. If need be we shall take the country by force. If Palestine proves too small…her frontiers will have to be extended’ (Manchester Guardian, 3 July 1946).

Many of Jewish background have been brought up to hold an image of Zionism as a movement of pioneering, progressive, pious, peace-loving nation-builders. However, in the 1920s and 1930s, some Zionists resorted to violence against fellow-Jews, breaking up meetings and fire-bombing printers and publishers so as to keep the Yiddish language and its rich Jewish culture out of public life in Palestine. An early Zionist group, ‘the Battalion of the Defenders of the Language’ who sought to make re-constructed Hebrew the national language of Israel through suppression of other Jewish traditions, was hailed ‘Heroes of Israel’ by the prominent Zionist Chaim Weizman, later the  first President of Israel (see: strangeside.com/yiddish-in-israel).

The Jewish Labour League, the Bund, believed that anti-semitism was a by-product of the private property system and would end with the end of that system; the Jews were just used as a convenient scapegoat for the problems capitalism caused other workers, easy to label and point the finger at. They did not think in terms of a return to ‘the promised land’ as a solution to the problem Jews faced.

The Bund, in Russia and Eastern Europe, was a mass movement with tens of thousands of members; and, due to emigration to Western Europe and the United States, an international network of left-wing activists. They argued that a Jewish state would be yet another class-ridden society in which Jewish workers would have to fight their Jewish bosses. The Bundists defended the rights of Palestinians against Jewish settlers. Bundism maintained the hope that Jew and Gentile could coexist in a true socialist world in all lands. Instead of falling for the divide and rule tactics which weaken the workers’ movement, Bundists said Jewish workers should recognise who their real enemy was and work together with other workers to defeat the system that exploits all workers..

People make their own history but that history gets written only later and it is often selective with great omissions. The Bundist alternative to Zionism appears to be written out of the history of the Jews. Bundists rejected emigration to Palestine as a solution and favoured a social revolution in their ‘real homeland’, i.e., the place they were born or lived. To rid the world of anti-semitism, the world itself had to change, class society had to be ended everywhere, and this was a struggle that began at home – or as Marx put it, ‘The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.’ The Bund urged Jews to remain in their countries of residence, support the workers’ movement of that country, and forge a Jewish culture around the Yiddish language. The belief of Bundists of trying to build a better Jewish life in the country where Jews lived was rejected outright by Zionism.

The State of Israel came into being in 1948. The Bund’s hopes never materialised and it finally disbanded in the mid-1950s. Although they were essentially Social Democratic reformists they never fell for Jewish nation-statism. They certainly weren’t anti-Semitic. In fact they were criticised by other Jewish opponents of Zionism for being too nationalist themselves.

We in the Socialist Party also opposed Zionism. As we wrote in our pamphlet The Racial Problem published in 1947 before the state of Israel was set up:

‘Our case to the Jewish workers is that under no circumstances should they allow themselves to be deluded by ideas of nationalism and “race” into supporting such movements as Zionism which will not solve their problems. The only solution to anti-semitism is Socialism, and to the extent that Jewish workers co-operate with other members of their class to bring about Socialism will the complete eradication of anti-semitism be more quickly achieved.’

So, we, too, on the invalid revision of anti-semitism to include anti-Zionism, would have to be classified as anti-Semites; which is just as absurd as the Bund being so classified. We are – and always have been – opposed to all discrimination on grounds of nationality, language or cultural tradition, including anti-semitism.

We were opposed to the establishment of Israel and we do want to see it disappear – but not, as some Islamic and Arab Nationalists want, on its own within the context of capitalism. To campaign for its abolition would be just as much a diversion as campaigning for its establishment was originally.

Instead, we want all nation-states to cease to exist and oppose the creation of new ones such as the proposed Palestinian state. What we want is the establishment of a frontier-less world community without any states as the coercive institutions of class-divided society that all of them are.


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