This article is adapted from a talk first given at Nottingham Liberal Synagogue in November 2013, and in different versions since at meetings of the Jewish Socialist Group (JSG) and Workers’ Liberty, as well as at the Jewish educational and cultural conference Limmud in December 2014. A transcript of the original talk was published by the radical Jewish community organisation Jewdas in April 2014.
“Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism,” by Alain Brossat and Sylvia Klingberg, Verso, $23
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“Revolutionary Yiddishland: A History of Jewish Radicalism” focuses on this working class, radical left-wing, Jewish tradition that was a prominent force in Central and Eastern Europe until the eve of the Second World War. First published in 1983 in France, the book is now being published in English translation. The book chronicles the rise of a Jewish workers’ movement and working-class culture under the harsh working conditions in the factories of Eastern Europe’s urban centers. There, Yiddish was the language spoken, and the language in which this community printed its newspapers, propaganda pamphlets, and books.
The book follows this community through the Holocaust, at which point the historical and political landscape drastically changed: Those radical Jews who had once believed in a Marxist utopian future – with working class emancipation, fraternity between peoples, and socialist egalitarianism – now understood that a proletarian revolution was less likely. The evils of fascism and Nazism had been defeated. But the Jews who survived had either emigrated to the West, were roaming around Europe as stateless refugees, or were locked behind the iron curtain of a harsh Soviet regime. The social, cultural and linguistic world of these Yiddish-speaking Jews had almost entirely disappeared overnight.
The three camps
Prior to this shift, the majority of radical Jews in Eastern Europe, as the authors explain, were part of three movements. The Bund, founded in Vilnius in 1897 and disbanded in 1920 after a major split, viewed itself as an integral part of the Russian Social Democratic movement, denouncing Zionist groups as bourgeois and reactionary. Poale Zion, a proletarian movement, had members across Poland, Lithuania and southern Russia, and sought to combine Zionism and socialism. Another group of Jews were part of the international communist movement.
While the history of the Jewish bourgeoisie has been well documented, the voices of the Jewish proletariat have been largely ignored, Brossat and Klinberg argue. This trend is most notable in Israel, where they’ve been purposely erased from the collective historical consciousness, as nationalist mythologies take precedence.
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It just suddenly ends mid-sentence.
Also, I wrote a piece for New Politics several years ago on "The Life and Death of Socialist Zionism," which can be found here:
Thanks for spotting that, now fixed.