Yiddishland and beyond: Jews, nationalism, and internationalism

Jews have long been associated with socialist politics, either maliciously or adventitiously. Obviously I have no interest in lending weight to this association, as it’s more a matter of historical accident than any cultural or biological predisposition. Because I like to use this blog as a resource for readers, however, providing materials that are otherwise hard to find, I thought I’d post some documents pertaining to the issue. Without further ado, then:

Some of these are primary source memoirs. For example, those of the Bundist leader Vladimir Medem, the Bundist agitator Bernard Goldstein, and the Bundist-turned-Bolshevik-turned-Left Oppositionist-turned-Zionist Hersh Mendel. Others are essay collections, whether compiling the shorter works of a single figure like the “Marxist Zionist” Ber Borochev, founder of Poale Zion, or individual contributions by a number of authors (as in Jews and Leftist Politics). Other texts are more thematic studies. Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klineberg’s Revolutionary Yiddishland and Michael Löwy’s outstanding Redemption and Utopia are good examples of this. Historical overviews are also included, like Yoav Peled’s Class and Ethnicity in the Pale and Arno J. Mayer’s Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?

Needless to say, I don’t necessarily endorse the views espoused in the texts shared above. Indeed, many of them are at odds with each other. Zionism and Bundism are equally antithetical to me, insofar as I consider myself an internationalist opposed to nationalism in all of its forms. The politics of Medem and Borochov thus do not appeal to me, as interesting they may be as historical figures. Likewise, Traverso’s End of Jewish Modernity was deeply disappointing to me, as was Butler’s Parting Ways (and I entered that one with much lower expectations). Jews are not any more broad-minded or inherently universalist than any other group of people, and there is no “true diasporic essence” that can be somehow recaptured. For if the last seventy years have shown anything, it’s that Jews can be just as narrow and chauvinistic as any other nation.

Because the topic repeatedly comes up, I thought I might briefly address the relation of Jewish politics (to the extent one can speak of a single body of Jewish political thought) to the two rival orientations of the modern age: nationalism and internationalism. Jewish nationalisms flourished throughout Europe around the fin-de-siècle. Two main types may be distinguished: Bundism and Zionism. Whereas the former sought to establish a Jewish homeland wherever a sufficient concentration of Jews already lived, the latter proposed relocation to Palestine (or sometimes to Uganda). Each type was ideologically inflected by mainstream European socialism, though they deviated from its internationalist scope and outlook.

For whatever reason, Borochov’s Labor Zionism proved more cosmopolitan than Medem’s Bundism when it came to propagating international communism. Although he died in 1917, before the October Revolution, the followers of Borochov fought with the Red Army in much higher numbers than their Bundist counterparts. The image above, by the Polish constructivist Henryk Berlewi, features Yiddish text which reads “Workers of all lands, unite!” Quite clearly, the unnamed figure shown in between the floating suprematist shapes is Borochov (compare with the photo portrait before it). Likewise, the Hebrew of the next, above and below the stock Comintern image of the worker smashing the chains of the world, reads:

With the workers of Zion, to the struggle!
For a Histadrut that will fight!
For the sake of Socialism!
Left Workers of Zion,
The Borochovian opposition,
And “Non-Partisans”

Medem, in contrast with Borochov, was far more sympathetic to the Mensheviks than to the Bolsheviks. He reviled Lenin and Trotsky, suggesting the former suffered from megalomania.