The Democrats’ Real Antisemitism Problem: Bernie Sanders
“Antisemitism is no longer a problem, fortunately. It’s raised because privileged people want to make sure they have total control, not just 98 percent control. That’s why antisemitism is becoming an issue.” — Noam Chomsky, 2002
“Over 99 percent of all new income generated in the economy has gone to the top one percent.” — Bernie Sanders, 2016
The Democratic Party’s serious antisemitism problem did not begin with its recently elected Muslim congressional representatives — Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian from Michigan, and Ilhan Omar, a Somali from Minnesota. It began with Bernie Sanders, the “Independent” Jewish senator from Vermont who nearly wrested the Democratic presidential nomination from Hillary Clinton four years ago. Now that Sanders has no Clinton to block his way to the Democratic nomination, and, as I write, is at or near the lead in the (enormous) pack of flawed aspirants to the Democratic nomination in money as well as popularity, the danger he represents to Jews, to Israel, and to America must be faced fully and honestly.
The eagerness with which Sanders leaped to the defense of the duo of antisemitic slanderers — they had accused Jews of dual loyalty, corrupting politics with their money, and hypnotizing their neighbors — was remarkable. He declared, on January 2019 that “We will stand by our Muslim brothers and sisters,” and he consistently lied about what his new friends had really said, which he turned into pablum: “It’s not antisemitic to criticize Israel for electing a right-winger like Netanyahu.” It was a standard Sanders performance: intellectual tawdriness and deep-seated dishonesty.
In April of 2016, Sanders, lagging far behind Mrs. Clinton in New York as that state’s primary election approached, was forced to suspend his national Jewish “outreach” coordinator — one Simone Zimmerman. It had been revealed that her ostensibly warm Jewish heart had a very cold spot reserved for Israel and American Jews, and that she was a disciple of Peter Beinart, the oxymoronic anti-Zionist “Zionist.” She also had a mouth filthier than is “acceptable” even in these dark times, though it has been approved for the aforementioned Tlaib. That Sanders had appointed such a person to such a position in the first place indicated where his own sympathies lay. In a debate in Brooklyn, for example, he declared: “I believe the United States and the rest of the world have got to work together to help the Palestinian people.” That in itself, to be sure, does not constitute evidence of antisemitic sympathies, only standard leftist doctrine.
James Kirchick, in a scathing April 24, 2016 article in Tablet Magazine entitled “Bernie Sanders’ Jewish Problem,” noted that Sanders was not only the single presidential candidate to refuse to speak to AIPAC, but had attacked Mrs. Clinton for not talking about “Palestine” enough when she did. (For that heroic gesture Sanders received ecstatic praise from Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, who was himself eager to show that he could compete with such Times Israelphobes as Thomas Friedman, Anthony Lewis, et al.) Kirchick depicted Sanders as a “Jew of shame” who might have come right out of the pages of Howard Jacobson’s satirical novel of 2010 entitled The Finkler Question, perhaps even out of the mouth of a character named Kugel who declares, when accused, that “I am a Jew by virtue of the fact that I am not a Zionist.” Sanders’ verbal squirming when he is accused by unabashed antisemites of being a Jew calls to mind the witticism, “When a man can no longer be a Jew, he becomes an anti-Zionist.”
When Mrs. Clinton, desperate to conciliate Sanders, directed the head of the DNC to bestow upon him five of the 15 positions on the Democratic Platform Committee, he hastened to fill two of them with well-known Israel haters, or what Sanders calls “helpers” of the Palestinian people, and a third with a politician who is a convert to Islam and once recommended Louis Farrakhan as “a role model for black youth” and “not an antisemite.”
Sanders’ recommended appointments for the Democrats’ policy committee revealed not only his belief that the key to American foreign policy is the Arab-Israeli conflict, but that Israel’s” intransigence” is the cause of the manifold miseries of the Middle East. First among Sanders’ “Palestine” trio was James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab-American Institute. He rose to prominence in 1979 when he campaigned on behalf of the National Emergency Committee to Defend Ziad Abu Eain, and prevent his extradition to Israel for taking part in a bombing in Tiberias that had killed two Israel teenagers and wounded 36 others. Zogby has for many years, usually within the Democratic Party, worked to redress what he considers the excessive influence of American Jews upon foreign policy. He is a firm believer in the Israel-Nazi equation, which of course turns Palestinians into “Jews”: How dare the Jews monopolize all that beautiful Holocaust suffering which the Palestinians, ex post facto, would very much like to share.
Sanders’ second appointee to the Democrats’ policy committee was Cornel West, the perpetually frenzied black academic who condemned President Obama himself as “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” West is the longtime associate of Michael Lerner, who pioneered the Palestinian cause within the Jewish community, and was once Hillary Clinton’s Rasputin in the White House. No doubt Lerner would be happy to return to a Sanders White House and instruct the “proud child of Polish immigrants” in the mysteries of “tikkun olam.”
West endorsed Sanders’ candidacy at an early stage of the 2015 campaign, and did so just 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 West’s endorsement or blush at its timing. This appointment, more than any other, expressed Sanders’ desire to epater les Juifs; the eminent sociologist Werner Cohn called it Sanders’ declaration of “a final break with the Jewish people.” Yet it went largely unnoticed and uncriticized.
The third “Palestinian” appointment was Keith Ellison, a Catholic convert to Islam who is a congressman from Minnesota, which also sent the venomous Ilhan Omar to Washington. (As a former resident of Minneapolis in the era of Hubert Humphrey and Gene McCarthy, I can only think that my old friends and relatives there have been eating a crazy kind of salad with their meat in recent years.) Although he has not made the end of Israel his raison d’etre, Ellison has long maintained warm and supportive relations with such apologists for Palestinian terrorism as CAIR, a front group for Hamas. He came to its defense against allegations by the FBI and members of Congress. In October 2006, he was the keynote speaker at a CAIR conference in Florida. In 2008, he called on listeners to a Tampa radio station to give their support to Sami al-Arian. Arian, a former professor at University of South Florida, had confessed two years earlier to conspiring to supply goods and services to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist organization responsible for numerous suicide attacks in Israel.
Sanders’ appointment of this trio expressed his confidence that devotion to the Palestinian irredentist cause is not only the litmus test of modern progressivism, but is now even dearer to the hearts of Democratic voters than abortion, gay marriage, “all gender” bathrooms, and other liberal ventures into the legalization of forbidden fruit. Sanders did show some awareness of foreign countries other than Israel and “Palestine” by giving one of the two remaining positions on the DNC’s platform committee to a global warming zealot who also advocates the “only one child per family” scheme, which has had such an exciting history in China.
There is, to be sure, one way in which Israel really is (as Sanders and his comrades believe) at the center of world affairs. It is the way of hallucination. “We live in an age,” observed David Nirenberg in his history of anti-Judaism, “in which millions of people are exposed daily to some variant of the argument that the challenges of the world they live in are best explained in terms of ‘Israel.’”
Sanders constantly repeats that all he desires in American Middle East policy is greater “even-handedness,” i.e., less “favoritism” on behalf of Israel. What this really means is that Israel must be deprived of its single powerful ally in the UN and in world affairs generally. On May 25, 2016, for example, the World Health Organization voted for a UN resolution to single out Israel as the only violator of “elemental, physical, and environmental health” in the world, and commissioned a WHO delegation to investigate and report on “the health conditions in the occupied Palestinian territory.” The UK, France, Germany, Sweden, and other EU states voted “yes” to singling out Israel as the world’s only violator of human decency in medical matters. The UN assembly did not address Syrian hospitals being bombed by Syrian and Russian warplanes, or millions of Yemenis denied access to food and water by the Saudi-led bombings and blockade; neither did it pass a resolution about Venezuelans being starved by their (Sanders-approved) “democratic socialist” government. Out of 24 items on the meeting’s agenda, only one, Item No. 19 against Israel, focused on a specific country. For good measure a WHO delegation was commissioned to investigate health conditions in “the occupied Syrian Golan.” No doubt these nations would have much preferred that ISIS take charge of health services in the Golan. In such situations, the United States remains Israel’s only reliable ally and support. “Even-handedness” has long been, as Sanders must know, a euphemism for abandonment.
But that does not interest him. That Israeli Jews have been under attack in a siege, military and ideological, that has lasted for generations is no more likely to interfere with Sanders’ telescopic philanthropy than is the current plight of Jewish students here in American universities to arouse his sympathy. These students are constantly assailed, physically as well as verbally, by the same thuggish “progressives” who have carried the “Bernie” banners and worn the “Bernie” shirts at anti-Trump riots from Chicago to Nevada.
One aspect of the American ”exceptionalism” that so often provoked Barack Obama’s opprobrium is the near absence of antisemitism from our national politics. It would be ironic if it were now introduced into the political arena by a Jew. Sanders, let us remember, is a disciple of Noam Chomsky, whom Mayor Sanders of Burlington liked to bring to a town that needed its own foreign policy 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 endorsed Sanders for the Democratic nomination in 2016 and will likely do so again. How could he not be pleased by the way in which his disciple has gone him one better by promoting a negative political campaign against “the one percent,” in the very best tradition of demagogic European assaults on the Tenth Commandment, the culminating one, against covetousness?
It should come as no surprise that a modern American Jew has opened the door to antisemitism in American politics. In 2008, shortly after I had written about the spread of anti-Israel venom in segments of the Democratic Party, the late Barry Rubin (an eminent scholar of Middle Eastern affairs) sent me a consolatory note: “Well, look at the bright side, we’re not doing so badly. Take away the Jews and Muslims in America, and people like Israel!”
We already have a plethora of hole and corner sects of Jews arrayed against Israel: Jewish Progressives against Israel; Holocaust Survivors against Israel: J Street (a Sanders favorite); Jews against the Occupation; Children of Holocaust Survivors against Israel; Jewish Voice for Peace; Survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto against Israel; Jewish postmodernists against Israel; Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors against Israel; Jewish Berkeley Professors against Israel; and so on and on, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. But Sanders’ campaign, no longer just for doctrinal control of the Democratic Party but for the presidency itself, has taken this zeal for politicide to a new level, one that will make it far more difficult for people to believe that Jews who despise Israel and are ashamed to have a state are as rare as singing mice and card-playing pigs.
Edward Alexander is professor emeritus of English at University of Washington. His most recent book is Jews Against Themselves.