book review: The International Jewish Labor Bund After 1945

by jewonthisguest

David Slucki, The International Jewish Labor Bund After 1945: Toward a Global History
Rutgers, 2012
Available on Amazon for $US45.95

Reviewed by Clare Fester

It is not every summer that I read an academic book cover-to-cover, with enough fascination to miss my train station on more than one occasion. Last (Australian) summer David Slucki’s The International Jewish Labor Bund after 1945 gave me cause to do so. The book maps the survival and eventual decline of the Jewish Labor Bund during the post-war period in the Soviet bloc, France, the US, Australia and Israel. Slucki pieces together the struggles the Bund faced – their leadership and rank-and-file decimated, their surviving members scarred and scattered across the globe, and new alien political contexts in which to organise.

Even readers who have walked the halls of Jewish Studies departments could be forgiven for knowing little about Bundist history, since most courses cast only a cursory nod in the Bund’s direction. The Bund was a Yiddish socialist party active in Central and Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century. It grew to be the most influential Jewish political organisation in pre-revolutionary Russia and later inter-war Poland, playing a substantial role in trade unions, anti-racist struggles and local elections. It also ran a sophisticated network of media, schools and social clubs.

Slucki contributes not only to the modest array of literature on the Bund, but to the study of Jewish life in the Diaspora more generally. Slucki challenges the narrow binary of the post-war focus on Israel and the US, and hence the book considers more diverse aspects of Diaspora Jewish experiences since the Second World War.

The book is also compelling reading for anyone interested in the history of social movements and the left. Bundists had some of the earliest critiques of Stalinism; many had cut their political teeth jousting with the early Bolsheviks over questions such as party democracy and national minorities. These conflicts intensified with the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, ending in the bitter liquidation of the Bund in the Soviet bloc during the 1920s.

Slucki unpacks not only the political twists and turns of the Bund in the post-war period. Indeed the book speaks to critical questions the entire left faced at the height of the cold war, when there seemed to be few political alternatives beyond either Stalinism or Western democracy.

Furious tears dribbled down my face as I read how the French Bund marched in sorry lockstep alongside the rest of the French left supporting de Gaulle’s military intervention to squash the independence movement in Algeria. Shouldn’t the Bund, of all parties, have known better about the perils of imperial occupation and national oppression? Where was their tradition of challenging racism? But the Bund was consciously operating in the wider context of the French left, and the French left as a whole was decidedly confused on the Algerian question. The Bundist guiding principle is doikayt, from the Yiddish “here-ness”. Doikayt means to struggle for a better world for Jews and non-Jews alike in the political and geographical context that Bundists find themselves in. The Algerian experience is just one of Slucki’s investigations into how the Bund navigated its new do (“here”).

Slucki necessarily deals with the Bund’s work carving out a space to build Yiddish culture. The book explores the particular circumstances that allowed Bundist youth camps to flourish until the 1990s in Australia, but fizzle in France. It speaks to the role Israel played in reshaping the Bund’s historically anti-Zionist stance and the challenges Israeli Bundists faced building Yiddish culture in a hostile environment. It demonstrates how Bund members came to play significant roles in US and Australian politics, although not necessarily in their capacity as Bundists per se.

Slucki shows repeatedly how the post-war Bundist organisations were firmly embedded in their respective milieus and remained thoroughly committed to doikayt – this makes for fascinating reading for veteran Bundists, historians and leftists alike.

Readers might ask, what is the point of learning about this small organisation in decline? As the trope goes: history is written by victors. Needless to say, neither Yiddish nor socialism – the twin bedrocks of Bundism – have won many great victories lately. Slucki paints portraits not of victorious historical explosions, but of brave women and men who came out the other side of hell and painstakingly rebuilt a movement dedicated to social justice and cultural freedom. The book should be compulsory reading for anyone interested enriching the tapestry.