Political party that sought Jewish national autonomy in the Diaspora. Following the 1905 Russian Revolution, a small circle of public intellectuals organized under the leadership of the historian Simon Dubnow and Yisroel Efroikin to form the Folkspartey (Folks Party) in Saint Petersburg in 1906. The party, whose leadership also included Meir Kreinin, S. An-ski, Ya‘akov Ze’ev Latzky-Bertholdi, Nokhem Shtif, and Joseph Tschernikov, advanced a platform based on Dubnow’s doctrine of Diaspora Nationalism (autonomism) as expounded in his Pisma o starom i novom evreistve (Letters on Old and New Judaism; 1907).
While it lacked the funds to recruit supporters in the Pale of Settlement, the Folkspartey had ideological significance. It demanded the democratization of the political order, strict parliamentarianism, national minority rights (including cultural autonomy) and the creation of national minority assemblies, autonomy for the territories of the Russian Empire, and the right to use Yiddish in public life. By 1905–1906 the doctrine of autonomism was adopted as part of the platforms for most Jewish political parties, including the Bund and, albeit without formal recognition, Zionists in the form of the doctrine of Gegenwartsarbeit (Work in the Present).
Dubnow’s Folkspartey inspired the creation of a Diaspora Nationalist party by the same name during the German occupation of Poland in World War I; it was established by individuals and organizations active in the Yiddish secular school movement, and included in its ranks a number of former Zionists and socialists, including its leader, the lawyer and Yiddish scholar Noah Pryłucki. Also among its organizers were prominent intellectuals such as Hersh Dovid Nomberg, Samuel Hirschhorn, Hillel Zeitlin, Lazar Kahan, and Saul Stupnicki, all of whom wrote for the popular Warsaw Yiddish daily Der Moment.
The party first emerged under the name Folks-Komitet (People’s Committee) during elections in June 1916 to the Warsaw City Council, a council widely seen as the embryonic parliament of a future independent Poland. The Folks-Komitet won four seats out of 90 in all, running on a platform calling for independent Jewish politics, national cultural autonomy on the basis of the Yiddish language and institutions of secular Yiddish culture, and complete political equality. It benefited from Pryłucki’s popularity as an outspoken public figure and widespread dissatisfaction with the United Jewish Electoral Committee (a bloc uniting Zionist, Orthodox, and assimilationist elements). It then formed an alliance with Polish nonsocialist parties, including the antisemitic National Democrats, that called for full civil and political but not national rights for the Jews.
Folkist success moved Zionists to reevaluate their strategy of cooperation with “antinational” elements and to increase their use of Yiddish in party activities, which some Zionists had feared would legitimate the existence of the Diaspora. In elections to the first Polish Sejm in 1919, the Folkists won two of the 415 seats (held by Pryłucki and Hirschhorn), and drew its votes mainly from the Jewish petite bourgeoisie, which it energetically worked to politicize and organize.
While initially seeking to maintain good relations with all Jewish parties, the Folksparty program, as expressed in party organs Dos folk and Oyfboy in addition to Moment, effectively grew hostile to both socialism and Zionism, and criticized these movements for providing inadequate and misguided solutions to the daily issues of Diaspora Jews. The party consequently lost the support of the Jewish Left, its chief partner in the building of Yiddish secular schools, which served as the foundation of its program for national cultural autonomy. Its obstinate course of independent political action to preserve its distinct identity and almost exclusive championing of Yiddish made it difficult and at times impossible to cooperate with Zionists, who were its main competition for middle-class votes and the largest Jewish representation in the Sejm.
In addition, the party’s at times antagonistic relationship toward Hebrew and mass Jewish settlement in Palestine cost it the sympathy of much of the traditionally inclined Jewish electorate. The Folkists’ secular nationalist stance naturally aroused the opposition of the Agudas Yisroel and its large Orthodox constituency. Folkist deputies consequently found themselves isolated in the Sejm, often without the support of the Jewish Koło (club of deputies), the Polish Left, or other national minorities. Finally, the party’s militancy was exploited by its enemies in the Polish Right, who used the Folkists’ aggressively nationalist rhetoric to foment anti-Jewish sentiment and successfully conspired to deprive Pryłucki of his seat in the Sejm in 1921 on a technicality (he was replaced first by Nomberg and later by artisan leader Khayim Rasner).
For economic issues, the Folkspartey endeavored to strengthen Jewish petty commerce and manual industry through the creation of schools, cooperatives, and credit facilities. Its deputies also frequently interceded to combat legal discrimination directed against Jews. Nonetheless, the Folkists had only modest success in winning control of the artisan and merchant associations. The years 1922–1926 were marked by growing disaffection within party ranks and by its marginalization within the socialist-dominated Yiddishist camp. Standing outside the Zionist-engineered National Minorities Bloc that was supported by most Jewish voters in 1922, the party sent only one delegate (Pryłucki) to the Sejm.
Folkist electoral strength was concentrated almost exclusively in the Polish capital and Łódź and at the parliamentary but not local level, where everyday concerns, often connected with religious life, were treated. The Folkists were virtually impotent in the Kresy (eastern border provinces), with the exception of Vilna. There, an associated party, the Folks-demokratishe Partey (People’s Democratic Party), was formed under the leadership of Tsemaḥ Szabad and became a separate organization in August 1923, with its central council in Vilna.
Dissatisfied with the course taken by the Folkspartey in Poland and with what were perceived as Pryłucki’s dictatorial ways, an opposition group within the party met with its Vilna counterpart to form a new independent party, the Vilna Democratic Folksparty, in 1926. Headed by Szabad, Nomberg, and Tschernikov, the new party placed greater emphasis on social problems and had a more positive attitude toward settlement in Palestine and the Hebrew language. It never aspired, however, to be a mass party. In conjunction with Agudas Yisroel and the Merchants Organization, Pryłucki’s Folkspartey allied itself with the government-affiliated list against the second minorities bloc—a move that won it little Jewish popular support. An unsuccessful attempt was made to reunite Folkist factions in Poland in 1931, and the party never regained its former status.
Groupings by the same name and similar ideology were also active elsewhere on the territory of the former Russian Empire, especially in the fleeting period of Ukrainian independence when Latzky-Bertholdi served briefly as minister for Jewish affairs. These parties remained active, however, throughout the interwar period only in Lithuania and Latvia.
Alexander Guterman, Kehilat Varshah ben shete milḥamot ha-‘olam (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1997); Aleksander Hafftka, “Życie parlamentarne Żydów w Polsce Odrodzonej,” in Żydzi w Polsce odrodzonej, ed. Ignacy Schiper, Arieh Tartakower, and Aleksander Hafftka, pp. 286–311 (Warsaw, 1932); Oscar Isaiah Janowsky, The Jews and Minority Rights, 1898–1919 (New York, 1933); Mark W. Kiel, “The Ideology of the Folks-Partey,” Soviet Jewish Affairs 2 (1975): 75–89.