Interview # 2. The Bund and Zionism.
What was the influence of Jewish organizations like the Bund and Zionism on Polish-Jewish relations?
Wladyslaw Bartoszewski replies: The Zionist movement first developed predominantly in the Russian-annexed part of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth before the First World War. During the last decades of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, Jews had suffered largely negative experiences in the Ukraine and in Russia. The first waves of emigration (the so called first and second Aliyah) - overcoming tremendous obstacles to reach Palestine - were made up almost exclusively of Ukrainian and Russian Jews. Some of them lived in the territories also populated by Poles and had culturally mixed identities.The impulse to emigrate was sparked by political and social conditions in the Russian Empire. And it was mainly from the Russian Empire, not from Germany or England, that Jews were leaving for Palestine at the turn of the century.
It should be remembered that the cultural awareness of David Grun (Ben Gurion), the historic hero of Zionism, the wise creator of the state of Israel and its first Prime Minister, was formed in Poland. He came from Plonsk, a town inhabited by Jews and Poles, but administered by Russians, as was every larger Polish town under the Russian partition. The authorities and the rules were Russian. Ben Gurion had never made any comments about the Poles. He lived in close proximity to them but considered himself a Jewish Zionist who would be leaving the Russian Tsarist state to build a free Jewish life.
Zionism, as a political option, did not set Poles against the Jews. Now, the question whether it set Jews against Poles, should be answered by the Jews themselves. The Poles, essentially, had no contact with the Zionist groups, which were closed to outsiders.
What was Zionism? What did it mean to the Poles? After all, it was no different than the Polish aspirations in the 19th century, when Poles cherished hopes that they would not always live partitioned by three foreign powers, that a sovereign Polish state would ultimately reappear with the right to decide its own fate. This was the thinking of the Poles in the Russian, Austrian and Prussian-occupied parts, but the whole question of independence was interpreted in many ways: conservative, peasant, social-democratic, and Christian-democratic.
Dmowski and Pilsudski, Witos and Korfanty had different visions of the future of Poles and the Polish state. Similarly, Zionism among the Jews grouped together the whole political and social spectrum from left to right and proposed various political and social options. On the left, Zionism represented the Marxist program. To this day, portraits of Marx can be found hanging on walls in some of the kibbutzim in Israel. On the right, Zionism was represented mostly by Wlodzimierz Zabotynski. This national-conservative movement was directed strongly against all social-democratic or liberal sympathies. It was an authoritarian movement with a strong urge to lead. Zabotynski's successors were Begin, Shamir and Netanyahu. The successors of Zionists? left are those who hold power in today's Israel - mostly with those social-democratic background (MAPAY and MAPAM). The successor of moderate Zionist movement in Israel is the liberal party.
Zionism was viewed by Poles with interest, even with a dose of approval by Poles with anti-Semitic feelings. Nothing better could be imagined by anti-Semites than the desire by Jews to leave Poland. But it was only the extreme right wing of Zionism under the banner of Zabotynski that received political, organizational and financial support by the Polish government in the 1930?s, including the military training of the Jewish youth. Why was that? Because of the possibility of their future actions in Palestine. Against whom? Against the British. This support, as we may well imagine, was secret, because the Polish state enjoyed very good political relations with Great Britain. Recently, a diary by Drymmer was published in Poland. Drymmer followed a policy of staying in touch with the organizations of the Zionist right, which demanded an immediate and final departure of Jews from Poland with the goal of settling in Palestine. This was supported by various people who hoped that the Jewish exodus would significantly reduce the number of Jews in Poland. It should also be mentioned that Jewish orthodox religious circles were against Zionism and they, too, had influence.
It?s worth looking into the writings of Isaac Bashevis Singer, who left Poland in 1935 and remembered well the 1920?s and the early 1930?s. Singer accurately portrayed the cultural, social, and ideological divisions among Jews in the small towns in Poland, in those proverbial shtetls. The shtetls were autonomous Jewish communities within Polish towns. Polish anti-Semites entertained the stand that so long as the Jews did not penetrate the Polish community, they could do as they wished. This meant that the Jews could live according to their own religious laws and social customs, and even their own educational system, as long as they kept their distance from the Poles. The Poles did not have a problem with kheders as long as they kept Jewish youth away from Polish schools. This was the anti-Semites' position. Nobody, therefore, prevented the Jews from praying in synagogues or from establishing new synagogues. Paradoxically, the anti-Jewish attitudes were directed mostly against those Jews who were the most open-minded, who were the most eager to assimilate and integrate with the Polish way of life; who considered themselves Polish citizens and wanted to have equal rights. Anti-Semitism was generally not directed against those who isolated themselves in the way that, today, the most orthodox Jews do in Israel; those Jews claim that Israel is a state hostile to the Jewry and that it interferes with the traditional religious order of those Jewish groups that stick to absolute, historical orthodoxy.
When you enter the Mea Shearim district in Jerusalem you instantly find yourself simply on Nalewki Street in pre-war Warsaw. I experienced it myself. This is a different world, one that does no longer exists in Europe. There are similar small communities in the United States, since this is not at odds with American democracy. These are not communities which include professionals like lawyers, doctors, journalists or film-makers. They come straight from the pages of Singer's books, from the first half of 20th century Central Eastern Europe.
Zionism did not antagonize Poles at all. The antagonism was directed only towards those who had no intentions of emigrating and who did not view Palestine as the only place for the Jews. Neither did the Jewish religious groups evoke antagonism, because they were not considered a threat either culturally or socially. The orthodox groups were similarly against secularization, liberalism, sexual freedom, religious tolerance and free choice in education. So, there was no conflict here.
The Bund was a Jewish social democratic party known only in the pre-1914 territories of the former Russian Empire, before the changes on the map of Europe brought on by German and Austrian eastward expansion. Whereas the Bund carried on barely a token activity in the Austrian sector, in ethnically Polish lands occupied by Russia, as well as in the Lithuanian, Baltic, Ukrainian and Belorussian territories, the Bund was gaining strength like all revolutionary parties which were anti-authoritarian, and anti-Tsarist. The PPS (Polish Socialist Party) with all its factions belonged to the same stream. In interwar Poland, especially in the 1930s, the Bund played an important role in the municipal elections. There were towns and cities in independent Poland during the inter-war period where the Bund was so influential that it won more seats than the Polish parties in local elections. In towns, where Jews constituted 60 to 80% of the population, their votes swayed the elections and put Jewish politicians in municipal councils. It was thanks to the Bund, not the Zionists.
The Bund, like all the revolutionary movements, advocated full and equal rights for all citizens regardless of their ethnic background, religion, profession and political views. It also supported free life choices of individual people. The Bund disregarded the commands of the synagogue, just as the PPS (Polish Socialist Party) disregarded the commands of the Catholic Church. The Bund also disregarded all institutions, religious or other, which interfered with human and civil rights. The Bund supported a universal and free education system, accessible to all regardless of their wealth. This was unacceptable to orthodox Jews who viewed the Bund?s actions as a virtual earthquake and demoralizing the youth. The Zionists did not like the Bund for its stand: "We live here and we want to stay here. We share this right with all the other inhabitants of this land. We demand total tolerance and no interference in our affairs."
It is understandable that those who wanted to organize an exodus to Palestine and build a new Jewish homeland there claimed that the Bund was standing in their way. Those who wanted to preserve the influence of the kheder, the yeshibot and the synagogue also believed that the Bund was in their way. All of this contributed to the Bund?s historic defeat defeat. It suffered total defeat because the Jewish masses in the east central Euopean countries occupied by Hitler were annihilated, from the Baltic states all the way to Hungary.
The extreme left, like Roza Luxemburg, maintained: "We don't want any Polish state, because all we want is a social revolution and equal rights for German, Polish and Jewish proletarians with no exception". Jews treated those issues according to the same rules as non-Jews. They were looking for a political option, which could accommodate their political views and attitudes, psychology and individual preferences; and they found this mainly in two movements: Zionism or Communism.