Bernie Sanders: Socialist, Progressive, Jew
In the course of his mercurial rise to national prominence, Senator Bernard Sanders has diligently affixed the adjective “democratic” to the “socialism” that is the name of his desire for America. Unlike the semi-educated “millennials”and historical amnesiacs who now flock to him, he is old enough and smart enough to recall such monstrosities as Germany’s “National Socialism,” the “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” (and its numerous Eastern European satellites), and — lest we forget — the Oceania of Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, where Ingsoc, (Newspeak for English socialism) is the political ideology of totalitarianism. With that single adjective, Sanders seems to align himself (but only up to a point) with such estimable figures as Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, who founded Dissent magazine in 1954 primarily to declare their severing of ties to Bolshevism. They also made, in Howe’s words, “the indissoluble connection between democracy and socialism a crux of our thought.”
If, however, the connection is really indissoluble, why did Howe, and why does Sanders, find it necessary, compulsively, always to insert the qualifier “democratic”? Does this not suggest that socialism is inherently undemocratic? At least the socialist George Orwell recognized that in societies like the Russia and China of his day, where there is no private property and therefore no separate economic power, the ruling class looks upon political power as its essential and exclusive end; in a thoroughly socialist society, all jobs come under the direct control of political authorities. Orwell understood that a free market is the necessary, although not sufficient, condition of a free society. But Senator Sanders gives no indication that he comprehends how a free market keeps the organization of economic activity from the control of political authority and thus severely limits the coercive power of the state. (What Sanders does understand very well is that, to quote Orwell himself: “The mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist. . .” )
Sanders, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, has been much less careful to insist upon a “democratic” version of “progressivism.” It is the doctrine that embodies his campaign and renders his historically illiterate adversary, Hillary Clinton, incapable of making any response except to insist that she is just as “progressive” as he is, if not more so. Does Sanders perhaps mean by “progressive” anything like what the American Communist Party meant, for decades, when defining its allegiance to mass murderer Josef Stalin? Once again, Sanders is both old and smart enough to recall the Stalinoid taint of “progressivism.” Does it perhaps please him? Or – which is more to the point — what is the connection between Sanders’ progressivism and that which is relentlessly professed, embraced and celebrated by the radical groups and individuals who have made mob rule a regular feature of American life during the reign of Barack Obama? These include the “Occupy Wall Street” and “Occupy Yale” and “Occupy (fill in this space with anything else you covet) movements”; the race riots in Ferguson and Baltimore; the imposition of a reign of terror at scores, perhaps hundreds, of colleges and universities (starting with Missouri, then spreading through the Ivy League and lower); the “Black Lives Matter” movement (which in Seattle made Sanders himself a target and prevented him from speaking, an action that has not prevented several of the movement’s leaders from endorsing him for the Democratic nomination. Rare indeed are the accounts of these eruptions of mob rule that do not repeat, with hammering insistence, the word “progressive” to identify their organizers and tribunes, who eagerly embrace the label, even though “left-wing fascism” is the term favored by some of their disillusioned victims.
Sanders has been hugely successful in gaining endorsements from prominent black figures of the progressive persuasion. Cornel West, the perennially frenzied black academic who condemned President Obama himself as “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats,” has endorsed Sanders’s candidacy. He did so shortly after publicly summoning a number of prominent blacks to call for the elimination of Israel from the family of nations. Sanders did not flinch from the endorsement or regret its timing.
Nor is it only progressive public intellectuals in the black community whom Sanders has embraced. On February 11, he had himself photographed eating breakfast in Harlem with that most flamboyant of race racketeers, Al Sharpton. The fact that Sharpton had in 1991 fomented what the historian Edward Shapiro called “the most serious antisemitic incident in American history,” a pogrom in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, did not dampen Sanders’ eagerness for the photo op. Sanders is no stranger to this kind of racial violence. He was an organizer, in his youth, for the ironically named Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee, generally known as SNCC. He is also, it is worth noting, no stranger to Crown Heights, having grown up in the very same borough of Brooklyn. (Hillary Clinton, as usual, responded to Sanders’ move by aping it: on February 15, it was reported that she, too, would soon break bread with Sharpton.)
On the February 7 “Meet the Press” program, Sanders was pressed by moderator Chuck Todd to identify people or organizations he will rely on, should he become president, for guidance on foreign policy. He named just two sources, one an individual, the other an organization: James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab-American Institute, and J Street, the group launched with the surreptitious financial backing of billionaire George Soros (who, of course, earns an exemption from Sanders’ curse pronounced upon “the one percent.”)
Zogby first attracted national attention in 1979, when he campaigned on behalf of the National Emergency Committee to Defend Ziad Abu Eain to prevent the extradition to Israel of a member of Yasser Arafat’s Al-Fatah organization accused of taking part in a 1979 bombing in Tiberias which killed two Israeli teenagers and wounded 36 other Israelis. The effort failed, and Abu Eain went on to spend four years of a longer sentence in an Israeli jail (before being released in a prisoner exchange). Zogby has for many years, usually within the Democratic Party, worked to redress what he considers the excessive influence of Jews upon American foreign policy. He has also come to the defense of extremist Muslim groups such as the Muslim Brethren, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, arguing that these groups are merely “politically” or “religiously” opposed to the peace process.
J Street is a highly influential group of Jewish progressives who miss no opportunity to blacken Israel’s reputation, and very few opportunities to encourage attempts to delegitimize it; yet it insists on proclaiming itself “pro-Israel, pro peace.” It condemns nearly all Israeli attempts to deal with the constant burden of peril that the country’s citizens must bear. It has a “Rabbinic cabinet” whose members have included supporters of Hamas’ relentless bombings and rocket attacks; and it consistently lobbies the American government to oppose Israeli policies. “Not since the days of the Communist Party,” the sociologist Werner Cohn has written of J Street’s work to “kosherize” Israelophobia, “has there been a comparable spectacle of methodical disingenuousness in American political life.” Such policy advisers to a conjectural President Sanders as Zogby and J Street would make Israel and its supporters long for a return to the Obama administration.
Some instinct of self-preservation kept Sanders from including Noam Chomsky in that list, although, as mayor of Burlington (VT), he had introduced the perfervid Israel- and America-hater to the citizens of Burlington for the precise purpose of lecturing about foreign policy. In his introduction, Sanders praised Chomsky as “a very vocal and important voice in the wilderness of intellectual life in America…a person who [sic] I think we’re all very proud of.” Chomsky, too, has publicly endorsed his friend Sanders for the Democratic nomination; but his long association with Holocaust-denial might have caused even Sanders to pause before advertising their mutual admiration on national television. After all, Chomsky also has strong views about just which group of Americans should be named as the chief target of an aggressive campaign of class warfare against “the rich and privileged” whom Sanders is daily berating. “Antisemitism,” Chomsky has declared, “is no longer a problem, fortunately. It’s raised, but it’s raised because privileged people want to make sure they have total control, not just 98% control. That’s why antisemitism is becoming an issue.”
The anti-Jewish element of a very large proportion of “progressive” activities on our campuses can hardly have escaped Sanders’ attention, even though they have yet to be mentioned by the professional communicators who determine the topics of discussion for the interminable debates to which we have been subjected. Here is an excerpt from The Tower magazine story of February 2016 (“In the Safe Spaces on Campus, No Jews Allowed”) about the experiences of some fledgling Jewish progressives at the annual SOCC (Students of Color Conference) held at UC Berkeley in November 2015:
Rosenberg (a Jew of Iranian descent who requested a pseudonym so that he could speak freely about campus issues without fear of potential retaliation) said that growing up in the Bay Area had taught him to be an active member of social justice movements and progressive communities. ‘I was always encouraged to take initiative on issues and movements that didn’t directly affect me,’ he said. ‘I wanted to learn more about the struggles that my fellow students were going through.’ But their experiences as Jewish students at the Students of Color Conference would soon inspire a rude awakening: the campus progressives who were fighting for justice on college campuses for students of color weren’t only ignoring antisemitism and attacks on Jewish identity; they were sometimes the ones perpetuating it.
Since devotion to “the Palestinian cause” has become, as Sanders surely knows, the litmus test of progressivism, such stories have become the rule rather than the exception. The Jewish organization AMCHA has compiled a list of 47 Jewish events on university campuses disrupted by “progressive” hooligans between October 2010 and November 2015. The list makes no claim to completeness. The link between Jewish progressives and contemporary Jew-hatred has been massively documented in “Progressive” Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism, by Alvin Rosenfeld, director of Indiana University’s Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism.
One aspect of American exceptionalism (that favorite target of the Obama sneer) has always been the relative absence (compared, for example, with Europe) of antisemitism from the platforms and personnel of our major political parties. But the radicalization of the American Left, which now dominates the Democratic Party, severely threatens this noble tradition. It would be ironic indeed if the force that destroyed European Jewry (and European civilization in the process) were now to enter American politics through a back door opened, however inadvertently, by the first Jew to come within striking distance of being nominated by one of our major parties to run for the presidency.
Edward Alexander is the author of Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew (Indiana University Press, 1998). His most recent book is Jews Against Themselves (Transaction, 2015).