The Jewish Labor Bund poster in Yiddish says: “There, where we live, there is our country! A democratic republic! Full political and national rights for Jews. Ensure that the voice of the Jewish working class is heard at the Constituent Assembly,” Kiev, circa 1918.
Via: NYRB & Bund Archives of the Jewish Labor Movement, New York
We also witness its effects today as the rise of the reactionary right, of illiberal movements and of authoritarian populism. Such movements cannot be ignored, but seen for what they are and understood for why they exist—they draw their purpose and their power from the discontent of everyday people who feel they have long been ignored and marginalized by “liberal” democracies. Yet, despite all this, despite feeling the suffocating power of its presence, we are mindful and are aware that it is imperative to act, with renewed vigour, to ensure that the modern high-minded values of freedom, tolerance, justice and dignity remain a vital part of our everyday lives.Founded in 1897 in Vilna (Vilnius in modern-day Lithuania), and reaching its height in interwar Poland, the Bund was a sometimes-clandestine political party whose tenets were humane, socialist, secular, and defiantly Jewish. Bundists fought the Tsar, battled pogroms, educated shtetls, and ultimately helped lead the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Though the Bund was largely obliterated by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the group’s opposition to Zionism better explains their absence from current consciousness. Though the Bund celebrated Jews as a nation, they irreconcilably opposed the establishment of Israel as a separate Jewish homeland in Palestine. The diaspora was home, the Bund argued. Jews could never escape their problems by the dispossession of others. Instead, Bundists adhered to the doctrine of do’ikayt or “Hereness.” Jews had the right to live in freedom and dignity wherever it was they stood.As a Jew, I can applaud this statement; and as a human being with wider humanist sentiments I can say that such ideas ought to apply to all peoples of the world, no matter where they live. The Bund as an organization promoting universalist ideas in Yiddish, a language that has fewer speakers than it once did, now lives on chiefly in archives and in articles like this one. Its relevance snuffed out by the Holocaust, the Stalinist Gulags and entho and religious nationalism, whose primal sources—fear and hatred of the Other— are as old as humanity itself.
Such are as important now as they were in 1897. Perhaps even more so. As a reminder, the history of the 20th century is instructive of what can happen when such values are ignored or pushed to the margins. Hope is the wellspring of liberal democracies; hope is the antithesis of hate. Hope opens doors and builds bridges.
Final thought: We reside with hope that the new year of 2019 will be one where we can all live with dignity as free men and women. For now, given what is taking place in many parts of the world, this seems a far-away dream. But dream we must, and moreover act with good conscience on such dreams.