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Books The alternative to zionism

Given the dehumanising vision propagated by Israel, how vital it is to highlight the radical, humane and beautiful world of the Bund, says HENRY BELL

The Bund
Sharon Rudahl and Michael Kluckner
Between the Lines, £22.50

THE late Scottish Marxist Neil Davidson described the political division in Jewish Europe as one between two different responses to the brutality of anti-semitism. 

One was to see that the oppression and persecution of Jews necessitated a new society in a Jewish majority state: this was zionism and ended in the catastrophe we see today. The other response was to view the oppression and persecution of Jews as inherent and brutal aspects of capitalist oppression that necessitated a new society for everyone: a society free from capitalism, and from the state. This was socialism, communism, Bundism, and its many lives and legacies continue to exist today, though they are often erased or suppressed. 

One such legacy is the beautiful new graphic novel The Bund by Sharon Rudahl and Michael Kluckner. 

Structured as an overarching history of the Bund, it zooms in on moments and figures from the movement and explores what being a Bundist meant to the hundreds of thousands of Jewish fighters, organisers, teachers, singers and students who fought for a better world. Bund itself means both “alliance” and “to bind,” and Rudahl and Kluckner movingly show the comradeship and solidarity of that alliance, and also the suffering and violence that bound the Bundists together. 

With pages depicting tsarist pogroms and labour leaders singing the Bund anthem in the Nazi death camps, this could in many ways be a tragic history, and yet instead this is a book that is filled with the hope and togetherness of those who organise and fight for a world held in common, even in the face of the worst oppressions. 

As the Bund anthem declares: “Brothers and sisters of work and need/ All who are scattered like far flung seed/ Together, together,/ our flag is high/ we swear together to live or die.”

Of particular interest here is the cultural richness of Bundism, in its attention to the Yiddish language, to poetry, theatre and music. In many ways it finds its analogue in the Irish struggle, and in the fertile overlapping of socialism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism and the preservation of language and culture. But where Ireland, like many countries, saw its left consumed by a national struggle, Bundism in its innate anti-nationalism and cosmopolitan nature presents, perhaps, an even more interesting model for our political liberation. 

Providing a helpful overview and in-depth portraits of key leaders and organisers within the movement, The Bund provides a great first encounter with Bundism. Through its combination of history, image and biography it offers a rich and multi-dimensional picture of a radical, inclusive and vibrant movement, consistently humanising the Jewish workers at its heart. More depth might have been welcome: the relation between Lenin and the Bundists feels skirted over, as does the important history of why Jewish communists, such as Isaac Deutscher and his comrades, rejected the “Yiddishist” nature of Bundism. Nevertheless The Bund is very successful as a short populist primer, and other more complex histories would be welcome in subsequent publications by the same authors. 

For many people today the dominant Jewish politics they are likely to encounter is the narrow and dehumanising vision propagated by Israel. How vital then to have this book which, with wit and flair, serves to highlight the radical, humane and beautiful world of the Bund. This is a book that helps to reclaim a radical vision of the future, one that goes on to inspire us through its poetry, action and power. 

Young left-wing Jews around the world are increasingly engaged in this reclamation of a politics of diasporaic pride, resilience and solidarity. Their project, like this book, has a great deal to offer us all. 

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