The Jewish Labour Bund of Russia, Poland and Lithuania, was founded in Vilna (now called Vilnius) in 1897. This was a result of the determination of a cross-section of the Jewish population living within the Tsarist Pale of Settlement to insist on an end to the injustice which so many of them suffered under Imperial rule – injustice that affected them both as Jews and as workers. Female Jewish workers, of course, were triply oppressed.
The union of intellectuals who had the advantage of a European education, and workers who represented a sea of Jewish life if not formal Jewish education, was a dynamic one that put its stamp on the Jewish experience soon after it was formalised.
In the 1890s, the vast majority of Russian Jews were engaged in commerce and industry according to the Imperial census of 1897. The average workday was 18 hours long, and the workweek was six days. Jewish owners tended to be better represented in the more marginal light industries than in heavy industry because they couldn’t afford the cost of heavy machinery, steam, gas and electricity. This also led to the average non-Jewish factory worker being better paid and having better working conditions than the Jewish worker who was employed in local workshops or small factories. Jewish workers were further disadvantaged by the fact that while non-Jewish employers avoided hiring them because of their insistence on Saturday being the day of rest as opposed to Sunday, Jewish employers often shunned them because they realised that their fellow Jews were more likely to defend what meagre rights they had than were non-Jewish workers.
Workers in large factories were also granted a 12 hour workday by law. It is therefore not surprising that the Jewish workers of Russia were amongst the first to organise and carry out strikes as early as the 1870s. Many of these strikes were successful in improving wages and/or working conditions.
Trade unions arose out of the traditional self-help groups, or “khevres”, which were usually organised by craft and often included a synagogue for its members. The use of synagogue buildings for strike meetings is well documented. So is the use of the “shoyfer” to call workers to strike duty and the practice of swearing to accept the decisions of the strike committee on one’s phylacteries. When Jewish workers heard about the glorious life they would lead under socialism from intellectuals, it was a secularisation of what they had traditionally been taught would occur after the coming of the Messiah.
The early history of the Bund was marked by extreme self-sacrifice. There were many arrests and exiles to Siberia suffered by both workers and intellectuals. The founding of the Bund also marked the beginning of many changes to Jewish life within the Pale of Settlement and a new level of cooperation with like-minded non-Jews.
The founders of the Bund played a major role in the founding of the All-Russian Social Democratic Labour Party only months after the founding of the Jewish party. Within less than ten years, the Bund developed local chapters in almost every Jewish city and town in Eastern Europe. Jewish workers were acknowledged to be the best organised group within the All-Russian labour movement – even by their enemies.
As a mass organisation, the Bund played a major role during both the first Russian Revolution in 1905 and during the second revolution in February-March of 1917. The Bund was demonised by Vladimir Lenin since 1901 as a result of their basic disagreement about the role of democracy both in a socialist party and in a socialist government.
After the Bolshevik putsch of October-November 1917, there was a great deal of upheaval on the socialist side of politics and the Bund found itself facing as enemies former comrades who now had the full might of the state at their disposal. By 1921, most of the leading Bundists who had not left the Soviet Union found themselves imprisoned by these one-time comrades.
The granting of independence to Poland at the end of World War One led to the merger of the Polish Bund with the Galician Bund. During the next 20 years, large Bund organisations also operated in Romania, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, as well as in Belgium and France and in the newer colonies of the Jewish diaspora.
The leading role played by Bundists in Jewish trade unions, secular Yiddish schools, libraries, drama groups, choirs and the Yiddish press gave it entree to large numbers of Jewish families in non-Soviet Europe. In the 1938 election to the Warsaw “kehila” (the last one to take place before the outbreak of World War II), the electorate granted the Bund a majority of the available seats. Similar results were seen in other cities and towns during the late 1930s during municipal elections as well.
The Bund’s messages of social and economic democracy, cultural autonomy and secular Yiddish culture were countered by the religious sector of the Jewish community, the Zionist movement and the capitalist wing of the Jewish community, as well as by right wing and semi-fascist elements of Eastern European non-Jewish society.
As the self-declared political party of the Jewish working class, the Bund defended Jewish rights both in City Halls and on the streets. Anti-Semitism was fought with industrial as well as physical muscle. The Bund led a successful half day general strike of Jewish workers when the Polish Sejm outlawed various aspects of kosher slaughter – something that the party correctly judged to be a national issue rather than a religious one.
Large numbers of Bundists perished in the fires of the Holocaust, but not before they had played a leading role both in organising Jewish self-help and in organising uprisings in most of the Polish cities that were under Nazi control, as well as in various concentration camps.
The surviving minority of Bundists was allowed no role in post-war Communist Eastern Europe, so most khaverim left Poland for Western Europe, the Americas, Australia, South Africa and Israel. There they hoped to continue to help shape Jewish life in the now so much more important Bundist diaspora outside of Eastern Europe.
A majority of post-war Jewry was heavily traumatised by the fact that one of every three Jews alive in September 1939 had been murdered by the Nazis within a period of less than six years. Many supported the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
Most surviving Bundists continue to hold the Israeli government and army to the same high standards that they demand of other nation states. They also insist that Jews have the right to live in whatever country they choose and that they have a responsibility to develop Jewish life and culture wherever they choose to live.
Some have chosen to consider the Bund to be an enemy of Israel as a result, despite the fact that Tel Aviv has supported a well-organised Bund group since before 1948 – a group that even stood Bundist candidates to the Knesset elections during the 1950s.
There has been a Bund organisation in Melbourne, Australia, since the mid-1920s. It was revitalised by new immigrants during and after World War II. The Melbourne branch of the Bundist youth movement, SKIF, was founded in 1950. Australian Bundists have continued the tradition of being politically active and of course of being active in Jewish life.