Doi’kayt– a Yiddish word signifying “hereness.” For decades, this was the central principle of the General Jewish Labor Bund, a multinational and decentralized labor organization of Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews. Founded in 1897, the Bund and its various branches was an unapologetically diasporic institution committed to transnational labor advocacy and socialist agitation.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, long before the establishment of the Jewish state, Zionism was still a pipe dream. Urban Jews struggling under the double burden of economic exploitation and violent anti-Semitism in such times and places as Tsarist Russia and Nazi-occupied Poland had two options: fight or flight.
The Bund gleefully mocked those who, instead of dreaming about a Jewish retreat to Eretz Yisrael, withdrew from the fight for economic and social equality. Committed to the valorization and preservation of Yiddish language and culture, the Bund emphatically rejected Hebrew-centric conceptions of Jewish identity. “Oy Ir Narishe Tsienistn / Oh You Foolish Little Zionists,” a Yiddish song mocking the supposed passivity and cowardice of Zionists is an especially biting example of the organization’s pointed diasporism.
You want to take us to Jerusalem
So we can die as a nation
We’d rather stay in the Diaspora
And fight for our liberation
Things didn’t turn out in the Bund’s favor. It was attempting an impossible task: being a truly revolutionary organization while also promoting Jewish autonomism, a philosophy of non-assimilationism so as to preserve Jewish “spiritual nationhood” while remaining firmly in the Diaspora. That continued insistence on the valorization of regional Jewish identity and stubborn refusal to assimilate into the dominant cultures of the Eastern European nations in which the Bundists lived eventually became a fatal weakness for the Bund.
After the German occupation of Poland in 1914, coordination between the Polish Bund and the General Bund, still headquartered in St. Petersburg, became impossible, and the Polish branch became effectively independent. Another blow to party unity came in 1922 when the Jewish Communist Labor Bund of Poland, a minority faction of Bundist communists in favor of joining the Comintern, declared independence from the Polish Bund.
Despite these setbacks, Polish Bund members were militant activists at the intersection of labor inequality and anti-Semitism. Polish Bundists protested discriminatory firings of Jewish workers, organized Zelbst-shuts (self-defense) militias, and declared a general strike in 1937 in opposition of the Polish government’s decision to legalize discrimination against the ghettoization of Jews. During the Second World War and the German occupation of Poland, Polish Bundists were active in partisan resistance groups.
In Russia, however, the General Jewish Labor Bund of St. Petersburg, the overarching organization from which the Polish branch had split, was even more short-lived. Majority of Russian Bundists supported Vladimir Lenin’s 1917 revolution which established the Bolshevik (majority) wing of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, which eventually evolved into the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Unfortunately, Lenin’s “dictatorship of the proletariat” had little patience for factionalism, any group identification beyond that with the new Soviet state, or the Bund’s dream of “spiritual nationhood” for the Jewish people. The Bolsheviks dissolved the General Bund, forcing Jewish leftists in the Soviet Union either to submit to the authority of the Communist Party or to risk reprisals by the new regime. Mikhail Liber, a leader of the General Jewish Labor Bund during the Russian Revolution and a major player in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party made the mistake of opposing Lenin’s Bolshevik wing and unsuccessfully arguing that the General Bund be granted autonomy within the party. Liber escaped persecution until 1922, when he was arrested for the first time and sentenced to internal exile. In March 1937, Liber was arrested for the last time, this time by Stalin’s government. He was shot and killed in October of that year, a victim of the Great Purge, estimated to have claimed 20 million lives.
What lessons should be drawn from the Bund’s successes and decline? Were the Jews of Eastern Europe right to plant their feet firmly where they stood, or should they have seen the writing on the wall that European governments, whether fascist or communist, would have no tolerance for Jewish “nation within a nation” philosophy? There is no way to answer these hypothetical questions with any certainty. The fact is that, following the Holocaust, diasporism as a political tendency in world Jewry has been almost entirely replaced by a total devotion to the cause of Zionism. Today, it is difficult to sympathize with Bundist jibes about Zionist fantasies when, only one century later, the state of Israel is an established reality with a central place in Jewish cultural identity.
But there is something to be said for doi’kayt, that brash insistence that a Jew can not only be a Jew anywhere, but that the most important place a Jew can be is where he already is. A better life is not something to find elsewhere, a Bundist would say, but something worth fighting for anywhere.