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Which Jewish State?

Converging Alternatives: The Bund and the Zionist Labor Movement, 1897-1985
By Yosef Gorny
State University of New York Press, 309 pages, $75.

If the second intifada has achieved little else, it has reawakened furious disputes over questions seemingly settled long ago. Are Jews a nation? Are they entitled to political self-determination? Does the State of Israel have a right to exist? In recent years, a growing number of leftwing scholars, writers and activists have answered those questions with a resounding “no.” Israel, they declare, is an anachronism, a tragic mistake, even a horrible crime. Justice, they say, demands the eradication of Zionism so that Palestinian nationalism can be fulfilled. As the goal of Palestinian statehood remains elusive, more and more leftists call for an end to Jewish statehood. Those who disagree and suggest that maybe both Jews and Palestinians deserve statehood increasingly find themselves on the defensive.

Leftwing Jews — not all, of course — rank among Israel’s most vociferous opponents. They cry out, “Not in our name!” Each time they do, they help to perpetuate a longstanding debate over Jewish collective identity and political power that extends back to the 19th century. By now, one could fairly call this old-new debate a tradition. Where does this tradition come from?

Esteemed Israeli historian Yosef Gorny helps to answer that question in his new study of modern Jewish politics. In “Converging Alternatives,” Gorny offers a challenging intellectual history of two of the most important Jewish political forces of the 20th century: the Bund (General Jewish Labor Union of Lithuania, Poland and Russia) and the Zionist Labor movement, a term Gorny uses to encompass an array of workers’ organizations and political parties. Rarely, if ever, has a scholar attempted such a systematic comparison of those two antagonistic movements over such a long period of time. Gorny does not go easy on the reader. He writes in dense prose and skimps on background information. Still, “Converging Alternatives” warrants the effort — especially now.

Gorny has waded through a thicket of polemics, treatises, speeches and programs that addressed nothing less than the fate of the Jewish people during an era punctuated by cataclysmic events: revolutions, wars and persecutions. So much occurred so quickly in the period covered here that one can scarcely gain a handle on everything. The politicization of Jewish life in imperial Russia, the division of Russian Jewry into Polish and Soviet Jewries, the breakneck modernization of both communities (albeit in very different ways), the Nazis’ attempted annihilation of European Jewry and the establishment of Israel — all these happened in the first five decades of the 20th century. Historians have told those stories in numerous ways. In “Converging Alternatives,” Gorny has chosen to trace how the Bund and Labor Zionism struggled to redefine the Jewish people as those movements rose and fell during the course of the 20th century.

The book begins in 1897, the year when a small cadre of Russian Jewish Marxists established the Bund, an all-Jewish political party (the very first one of the modern era) committed to political and social revolution. The Bund initially put forward no Jewish national goals. It aimed to organize Jewish workers into an autonomous, Yiddish-speaking movement that would participate in the larger struggle to overthrow the tsar. Yet, six years later, the Bund altered its program to call for “national cultural autonomy,” or Jewish self-governance in matters of education and culture.

The evolution of the Bund’s national program was nothing if not tortured. Bundists needed to formulate a conception of Jewish nationality compatible with mainstream Marxian theory at a time when Europe’s leading Marxists expected Jews to assimilate out of existence. The Bund’s theoreticians thus developed a doctrine called “neutralism,” which held that Russian Jews in the present moment constituted a nation — bound together by a common, Yiddish-language culture — but might or might not continue as such into the future. Bundists disavowed any subjective desire to perpetuate the Jewish nation, which, according to Marxism’s strictures, would be an impermissible expression of national chauvinism at the expense of working-class solidarity. If the Jewish people continued to exist, fine. If not, that would be fine, too. Social forces would ultimately determine the outcome.

Bundists defined Jewish nationality on a narrow basis. They limited it to Yiddish-speaking, working-class Jews in the Russian empire and, after World War I, independent Poland. Ladino-speaking Sephardim in Turkey, for instance, did not count. Nor did France’s juives or Palestine’s Hebrew-speaking halutzim (pioneers). Still, Bundists viewed themselves as representatives of the majority of Jews in Russia who were impoverished. They took satisfaction in asserting that while Zionists claimed to represent Klal Yisrael, the entirety of the Jewish people, the Bund faithfully served the masses of Jewish artisans and workers. Indeed, the Bund struck deep roots in Eastern European Jewish society, building a popular movement of trade unions, cultural organizations, youth groups, schools and party branches.

For its first several years, the Bund enjoyed a monopoly over Jewish working-class politics, but that quickly changed in the early 1900s. Around the time of the 1905 Russian Revolution, a number of Jewish political parties, most advocating some combination of socialism and Jewish nationalism, appeared on the scene. The Zionist Labor movement arose out of that early 20th-century political ferment. Leftwing Zionists did not form a monolith. Among them could be found Marxists and Tolstoyans, partisans of Hebrew and defenders of Yiddish, lovers of Zion and those willing to settle for a Jewish homeland elsewhere.

Bundists and Labor Zionists had much in common, though they might not have acknowledged it. Both rejected accommodation to the existing social order. Both envisioned workers’ utopias. Both wanted to reconstruct Jewish culture along new, secular lines. Yet they also opposed one another in irreconcilable ways. Labor Zionists proposed a more expansive conception of Jewish nationhood than Bundists did. In their view, Jews formed a worldwide people not limited by cultural differences, class divides or political boundaries. Labor Zionists aimed to incorporate Jews from around the world into a new, Hebrew-speaking society.

Nonetheless, as Gorny subtly explains, pioneers in Palestine always had a problematic relationship to Klal Yisrael. By making aliya, Zionists separated themselves physically from the major Jewish population centers. How, then, should they relate to the majority of Jews who still lived in the Diaspora and probably always would? That’s a primary question taken up by Gorny.

Bundists lambasted Labor Zionists for turning their backs on the Jewish masses in pursuit of a pipedream. A Jewish homeland probably could never come into existence, Bundists maintained, but if it somehow could, it would be incapable of solving the problems facing the majority of Jews who resided elsewhere. By abandoning Diaspora Jews to their fate, Bundists charged, Zionists objectively aided the work of antisemites.

Labor Zionists, of course, saw things differently. By moving to Palestine, they had not given up on the Jewish people but had started to build its future on a radically new basis. In terms familiar to any Russian revolutionary, Labor Zionists argued that although they were few in number, they objectively served the needs of the entire Jewish nation by providing the correct solution to Jewish problems. According to an activist quoted by Gorny, “we consider the Zionist movement a truly democratic movement irrespective of whether a majority of Jews embrace the Zionist idea or not.” How to act as a revolutionary avant-garde without slipping into elitism was a question Labor Zionists would grapple with over the decades.

The Bund and Labor Zionism met altogether different fates. The Nazis all but destroyed the Bund along with most of Polish Jewry, the party’s main arena of activity between the two world wars. In Gorny’s view, however, the Bund was doomed to failure from the outset, its many accomplishments notwithstanding. He does not fault the Bund for failing to anticipate the Holocaust, but he locates the Bund’s weaknesses in its own program: Jewish national cultural autonomy through socialism. In Gorny’s opinion, the two goals could not have been realized because they pulled against each other. He does not believe that Polish Jews could or would want to maintain themselves as a Yiddish-speaking national minority if given full equality with non-Jews. I think Gorny too quickly dismisses historical contingencies that could have helped the Bund achieve some of, if not all, its goals. Is it so farfetched to imagine that Polish Jews could have kept Yiddish alive, alongside Polish?

In any case, it was the Bund’s rivals, the Labor Zionists, who succeeded in establishing a Jewish homeland that, for a time, approximated a decent version of socialism. How a relatively small, idealistic movement managed to build a new society is another story, one that suggests the world need not be accepted as is.

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