Talk given as part of a panel of speakers at the Red Labour “Celebration of Jewish Radicalism” on 15th December 2020 on Zoom
In 2013 a remarkable museum called Polin opened in a location that 80 years ago was part of the Warsaw Ghetto. I’ve visited several times.
The history most Jews around the world have been taught is that Poland is nothing but a Jewish graveyard. A thousand years of continuous presence collapsed into six years of utter destruction, when 90% of Poland’s 3.3 million, largely Yiddish-speaking, working class, Jews, were wiped out by the Nazis, with operations to find hidden Jews carried out by auxiliary Polish police.
Today, under Poland’s ultra-reactionary government, admired by Johnson in Britain and Netanyahu in Israel, you can be punished for exposing Polish wartime collaboration.
And yet, a pluralist Jewish life is reviving in 15 Polish cities today. They don’t have one central Jewish body, like our Board of Deputies, who arrogantly declare what the community believes, and they’re not susceptible to Israeli pressure on their priorities. If Keir Starmer visited, he would be flummoxed, having to consider several Jewish opinions, instead of one.
The Museum showcases 1,000 years of Jewish life, culture, interaction with non-Jews, intellectual creativity, periods of terror and hardship but also long-lasting golden ages.
Only part of it focuses on those 6 years of annihilation.
One compelling display marks the late 19th century, when most Polish Jews lived under Tsarist rule, but new radical ideas promising liberation and self-determination were spreading.
The Zionist idea – territorial self-determination in Palestine – was one among several. It was challenged from day one by Jews who advanced alternative ways to build equal lives for Jews, as a minority, wherever they lived, whether centred on religious identity, secular cultural autonomy, or integration strategies.
So when you next hear some shmendrik (that’s Yiddish for fool) say “anti-Zionism is antisemitism”, remind them: anti-Zionism was invented, first used, and developed by Jews for positive reasons (though we don’t own the copyright).
Today, when people discuss “Jewish self-determination” – not least in the dubious IHRA definition and examples – our notion of it is so impoverished. It refers only to territorial self –determination in Israel – a fortress state, built on dispossessing and expelling so many Palestinians in 1948, and then denying self determination to Palestinians who remained.
Twenty one percent of Israelis today are Palestinians who endure multiple discrimination. Israel also rules brutally over 2.2 million Palestinians in the Occupied West Bank. Palestinian refugees, whether from 1948 or ‘67 cannot return.
Under Israel’s 2018 Nation State law, only Jews are entitled to national self-determination in Israel. Not indigenous Palestinians, migrant workers or refugees. That law was passed during a state visit by Netanyahu’s chum, Victor Orban, who used antisemitic propaganda targeting George Soros to help him win the Hungarian election that year. You couldn’t make it up.
If Israel doesn’t want to be labelled an apartheid state, it can repeal the Nation State law and Law of Return, dismantle discrimination, confiscate arms from illegal settlers, make Jewish–only roads available to all. It could make laws to ensure that Israel/Palestine is a state for all its citizens equally, whether in one state or two.
Despite repression, growing numbers of left-wing Israelis and human rights bodies are working for that goal by protesting, publishing, refusing army service, making illegal solidarity visits. Here in Britain we can support justice there, by amplifying activities by progressive Israelis Jews, as well as exposing brutality towards Palestinians.
Zionism proclaimed the ingathering of Jews in one nation state. Yet, 72 years after independence, a majority of Jews (including many Israelis) choose to practice Jewish self-determination elsewhere – in London, Paris, Berlin, Toronto, New York, Melbourne, Kiev, Warsaw…
Those who shout loudest about defending “Jewish self-determination” are not talking about enhancing the creative, diasporic Jewish self-determination which already exists, but about defending an ethnocracy in Israel. The Israeli ruling class, and their supporters among Jewish so-called “leaders” outside, don’t like other Jews using their self-determined voice to denounce Israeli racism.
Emanuel Scherer, a Polish-born member of the Bund, a secular, left-wing, anti-Zionist Jewish movement, once wrote:
“Rights and Justice for Jews everywhere without wrongs and injustice to other people anywhere”.
Political Zionism and Bundism were both born in 1897, the first at a plush conference in Basle, the other in an illegal house gathering in Vilna (Vilnius). The Bund sought to link the struggles of Jews with those of workers throughout the Russian Empire for socialism.
Bundism and Zionism had opposite values: Optimism versus pessimism; internationalism versus nationalism; Integration versus isolation and evacuation. The Bund accused Zionists of worshipping the same nationalist values as regimes that oppressed Jews and other minorities
The Bund threw itself into Russia’s revolutionary upheavals in 1905 and 1917 but also engaged very critically with Lenin and warned about the Bolsheviks anti-democratic tendencies. The Bund’s socialism was from the bottom up.
Its heyday as a mass movement was in 1930s’ Poland, where it had a daily Yiddish newspaper and other publications in Yiddish and Polish, organised strikes, built a world of institutions – libraries, schools, sports clubs, cultural projects, a Bundist women’s movement, youth movement, and children’s organisation, a sanatorium funded by trade unions, for children at risk of TB, run on the most democratic, children’s rights principles.
As Poland slid into semi-fascism the Bund and Polish Socialist Party activists jointly led the political and physical struggle against antisemitism. Apart from one small faction, Zionists and religious Jews abstained from that fight in the 1930s, while Communists were too obsessed with a trade union turf-war with Bundists to defend Jews.
In the last municipal elections before the Nazis’ invasion, the Bund won massive victories among Jewish voters in major Polish cities where Jews comprised a third of the population. Many religious Jews voted for secular socialists – the Bund – who defended them from antisemites.
In the ghettoes, in the early 1940s, Bundists, Communists and left Zionists united in armed anti-Nazi resistance. The Holocaust decimated the Bund. Its post-war presence has been marginal but its philosophy of diasporic self-determination and its fundamental critique of Zionism, remain absolutely pertinent today.
Zionism represses Palestinians daily, but also, through insisting on the centrality of Israel to Jews, undermines Diaspora Jewish lives, dividing us from other minorities, and other allies, with grave consequences:
In semi-fascist Argentina, late 1970s, thousands of political opponents disappeared. Jews were 1% of the population but more than 10% of those that disappeared, under a regime armed to the teeth by Israel.
In apartheid South Africa, the most progressive Jews joined the ANC. When I interviewed a Jew who had worked in the ANC’s armed wing, he told me that Jewish establishment bodies handed over names and addresses of Jewish activists to the Apartheid authorities.
I will end back in Poland. Last year, 12 Jewish Socialists’ Group members went to Warsaw. We met left activists, historians, a socialist choir, and visited museums and the grounds of Treblinka death camp. On our final day, we joined hundreds of local anti-racists and anti-fascists (some Jewish) in an alternative Warsaw Ghetto Uprising commemoration. We were stunned by the symbolic presence of the Bund on banners, placards and slogans; in Yiddish songs sung by a non-Jewish school choir. Those same Polish anti-racist and anti-fascists are in the frontline today defending Roma and Muslims while also fighting homophobia and attacks on women’s reproductive rights.
Poland’s reactionary government and Britain’s Conservatives are main partners in a Council of Europe grouping that now include the ultra-right AfD in Germany, Vox Party in Spain, Salvini’s Northern League. If those in Britain, who claim to care about antisemitism, were serious, they would turn the heat on these parties abroad, and Tories at home. But they don’t make a peep about this, partly because those parties support Netanyahu.
Jews and other minorities deserve much better.