by Ilana Rossoff, Reference Services Research Intern, Center for Jewish History
This post is part of the Jews and Social Justice Series. To read the introduction to the series, click here.
The Jewish Labor Bund was a unique and memorable force in European Jewish communal and political history. Established in Vilna in 1897, the General Jewish Labor Bund was originally conceived as a vehicle through which to organize the Jewish masses, support internationalist socialism under the Russian empire, and celebrate Yiddish language and culture.
“Doykeit,” the classic Yiddish phrase that means “hereness,” is a foundational principle for the Bund, upon which members committed to working from within their current (non-Jewish) society to expand socialism and cultural rights for Jews. The Bund’s work ranged from holding educational events within Russian Jewish Communities, to actions to improve the conditions of Jewish workers, to creating pockets of armed resistance against anti-Jewish pogroms.
The Bund believed that anti-Semitism and all racism were products of capitalism; therefore, these ills would be eliminated when Jews joined with non-Jews to overcome capitalism. Established during the same year that the First Zionist Congress was held, the Bund rejected the fundamental tenets of Zionism. Members of the Bund did not believe that the way to solve the problems facing Jews was to relocate them to Palestine. However, the Bund did strive to be recognized as a religious-cultural “nation” under the Russian Social Democratic Party.
Having been affiliated with the Russian Social Democratic Party and the Socialist International, the Bund was expelled from Russia with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. At that time, the Bund support group in Poland became the central site of Bundist activity. There, the Bund organized Yiddish schools and held political rallies in which thousands of Jews participated. As Nazism and fascism took hold in Polish society, the Bund organized strikes and worked with Polish unionists to resist in the face of violence. Polish Bundists were devastatingly targeted during the Nazi genocide. They represented strong numbers of those who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, as well as those who perished in that effort .
After World War II, the few Bundists who survived the Nazi genocide relocated and became refugees in places as far as Latin America and Australia. According to David Slucki in his comprehensive The International Jewish Labor Bund after 1945: Toward a Global History, Bundists in displaced persons camps in Western Europe worked to organize groups and conferences. However, they encountered difficulty due to conditions in the camps and because they felt isolated in their smaller numbers. They competed with Zionist organizations to influence the political climate of the camps .
Bundist organizations around the globe struggled with how to maintain the organizational power and spirit of the Bund after the devastation of World War II. Some of these organizations had been established by members of the Bund who had traveled throughout the first decades of the 20th century (such as with the wave of Jewish immigration to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries). Others were established in the wake of the war.
After much debate, it was decided that a semi-centralized international organization of the Bund would be formed. In April 1947, Bundists from eighteen countries gathered at the first World Conference of the Bund to form a “transnational coordinating effort of the local Bund organizations in all realms” . In their various local organizations, the Bundist groups worked to push the political programs of Jewish communal organizations, allied with labor and socialist parties, and continued their work of preserving Yiddish culture by establishing libraries and hosting other cultural education events . In 1958, when a 60th anniversary book was published by the International Jewish Labor Bund, the Bund counted organizations in 24 different cities in Australia, Africa, Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, England, France, Israel, Mexico, Sweden, Uruguay, and the United States. Additional cities in these countries were home to Bund representatives, as were cities in Colombia, Switzerland, and Venezuela .
While local labor organizing and community building continued in all these locations, the World Coordinating Committee also published literature about the Bund’s work globally. The Central Committee in New York facilitated support between Bundist organizations by sending leaders to various cities to deliver speeches and help with fundraising and membership efforts. However, with the victory of what Slucki identifies as “the Bund’s main ideological opponents—Zionism and communism” in the decades following World War II, the Bund was not powerful enough to compete and slowly lost its steam . Most organizations’ leadership integrated into other socialist and labor organizations throughout the next few decades.
By the 1980s, the Bund was mostly an organization on paper. However, its fundamental mission to raise socialist consciousness among the Jewish masses and to fight for the preservation of Yiddish culture was maintained for longer and in more parts of the globe than many grassroots Jewish organizations can claim.
It is evident that throughout the organization’s history, Bund members grappled with whether they should focus on improving conditions for Jews or for all people. As I understand it, the mission of the Bund was to encourage Jewish participation in the broader, not-exclusively-Jewish movement towards internationalist socialism. Throughout their years, Bundists worked with many Jewish organizations that were either Zionist or non-labor-focused with the goal of broadening their exposure and pushing socialism in Jewish political spaces whenever possible. They also impacted non-Jewish populations in the unions and labor organizations for which they advocated.
The dedication of the Bund to combining Jewish cultural vitality and internationalist political organization presents an ideal to which many leftists today look with vicarious nostalgia and hope for the present.
 “Di velt konferents fun Bund in Brisl,” Unzer tsayt (Sept. 1947): page 44. As translated and quoted by David Slucki, “The Bund Abroad in the Postwar Jewish World,” Jewish Social Studies: History, Culture, Society. Vol. 6, No. 1 (Fall 2009), page 124. This article can be found in JSTOR and accessed at the Center for Jewish History.
 David Slucki, “The Bund Abroad in the Postwar Jewish World,” Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Fall 2009), pages 125-126
 Jewish Labor Bund, page 70
 Slucki, “The Bund Abroad in the Postwar Jewish World,” page 135