Bernie Sanders and the Question of Antisemitism
The rise of Bernie Sanders presents American Jews with a terrible conundrum.
On the one hand, he is the first American Jew with a reasonable chance of gaining the presidential nomination of a major party, and thus a reasonable chance of becoming the first Jewish president.
For American Jews, this ought to be a cause for celebration. But thus far, it has not been, with Sanders’ Jewish support in the primaries remaining miniscule in contrast to non-Jewish candidates like Joe Biden.
This paradox is likely because of the incontrovertible fact that Sanders has done more to legitimize antisemitism than any Democratic presidential candidate in recent memory. Indeed, he has surrounded himself with antisemitic surrogates, allies and advisers, including Linda Sarsour, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Cornel West, James Zogby and others, using his Jewish identity as a shield for their racism and echoing their insidious ideology and accompanying rhetorical defamation.
Nowhere is this clearer than on the issue of Israel. Sanders has attacked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “racist,” failed completely to abandon or condemn his allies who are openly anti-Zionist and oppose the existence of a Jewish state and slandered Israel and Zionism’s American supporters, such as AIPAC. Despite vague references to supporting Israel’s right to exist, Sanders has shown himself at best obtuse and at worst collaborative with those who reject precisely that.
This in and of itself alienates Sanders from the American Jewish community. Notwithstanding the constant claims by Sanders supporters like the Jewish anti-Zionist group IfNotNow, Sanders’ views remain marginal among American Jews. Surveys have shown that the overwhelming majority of them — possibly as high as 90% — are at least nominally Zionist, with very positive views of Israel, the belief that Israel is important to their Jewish identity and unambiguous support for the existence and security of a Jewish state.
At first, then, Sanders seems to be something of an inexplicable phenomenon. But one regrets to say that this is not at all the case. Unfortunately, the phenomenon of the antisemitic Jew or the Jewish collaborator with antisemitism is not unusual in Jewish history. From the dawn of the diaspora, there have been people of Jewish ancestry who have been involved in and even instigated horrendous incidents of antisemitism.
In the first century, the Jewish Roman general Tiberius Julius Alexander brutally crushed the Jews of Alexandria. In the Middle Ages, Jewish convert to Christianity Nicholas Donin used his knowledge of the Talmud to convince Christian authorities to engage in mass burnings of the supposedly offending document. In the early modern era, Jewish heretic Jacob Frank led his followers into mass conversion to Catholicism and then provided assistance in a blood libel case, helping to legitimize a ruthless persecution of Polish Jews.
The 20th century was hardly an exception to this phenomenon. After the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, Jewish communists led the suppression of Jewish life and religion in the Soviet Union, a policy that remained in effect until the fall of the communist regime. In its early stages, even the Nazi movement had a handful of Jewish supporters. And, of course, there have been Jewish apologists for even the most unspeakable acts of Palestinian and Arab anti-Jewish violence, including the linguist Noam Chomsky, who Sanders openly admires.
What then drives Sanders? Where does his seemingly obtuse combination of professions of pride in being Jewish and collaboration with antisemitism and antisemites come from?
The answer might be found in Sanders’ most explicit description thus far of what being Jewish means to him. During a recent appearance, he was directly asked this question, and replied, “I can remember very vividly, as a kid, looking at picture books about what happened in the Holocaust. As it happens, my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler.”
“My brother and I, and our wives, went to Poland to the town he was born in,” he recounted. “He fled terrible poverty and antisemitism. The people in town, very nice people, took us to a place where the Nazis had the Jewish people dig a grave and shot them all. Three hundred people in there.”
“In the neighborhood where I grew up, the people had tattoos on their arms from having been in concentration camps,” Sanders said. “I learned at a very early age what, if you like, white nationalism — which is what Nazism is in the extreme — is about. I think at a very early age I learned that it is absolutely imperative — not just me — that all of us do everything we can to stop racism and white nationalism.”
This statement is quite striking for a simple reason: It has almost nothing to do with Judaism and Jewish identity.
Indeed, it makes clear that to Sanders Jewish identity means only one thing — the Holocaust. The Holocaust and the memory of the Holocaust are, no doubt, essential aspects of modern Jewish identity, but for Sanders they appear to be the entirety of his Jewish identity. There is essentially nothing else.
And this, one regrets to say, is, more than anything, extremely sad. For Sanders, Jewish identity is nothing but a half-decade of the worst slaughter ever undergone by the Jewish people. For him, in other words, there is no Jewish life, only Jewish death.
And this goes beyond mere tragedy. It essentially denudes his Jewish identity of almost any Jewish content. For Sanders, there is no Torah, no commentary to go and learn, no revolts against tyranny, no centuries of thought and contemplation, no great poetry and music, no extraordinary intellectual and scientific accomplishments, no resurrection of statehood and self-defense, none of the extraordinary vitality — secular and religious — in the face of the most terrible circumstances, no vast epic of defiance and redemption crossing centuries and millennia.
For Sanders, all of this means nothing. In effect, it does not exist. In his reduction of what it is to be Jewish to nothing but destruction, he defies what may be Judaism’s most essential admonition: “Therefore, choose life.” Presented with life and death, the blessing and the curse, Sanders chooses death and the curse.
And this may be why, in the end, Sanders derives only the universal from specific Jewish suffering. To him, Judaism is merely the struggle against “white supremacy.” This struggle is admirable in and of itself, but it admits no other possibilities. It refuses to acknowledge that the Jews in particular face other threats. That antisemitism can come from almost anywhere, even from Sanders’ own allies and supporters. It blinds him to an essential truth: The Jews are more than being for others, they must also be for themselves. If they are not, who will be for them? This is something, it appears, that Sanders either cannot or will not comprehend.
In this, we may extend to Sanders some measure of sympathy, because it means that, ultimately, he has nothing. In embracing Jewish death, he denies himself Jewish life, Jewish creativity, Jewish solidarity and even, for lack of a better word, Jewish destiny.
This makes him, in the end, a tragic figure. But unfortunately, it also makes him dangerous, because in his ignorance he has empowered the very forces to which he believes himself implacably opposed. In his blinkered sense of Jewish pride lies an essential Jewish degradation, and it makes him blind to the fact that, in his empowerment of those who would degrade the Jews, he ultimately degrades himself as well.
In this, however, lies the possibility that Sanders may be redeemable. There ought to be an effort to educate him, to bring him back into the fold. This is, unfortunately, likely to be futile, but the attempt must be made. If it is successful, it may help arrest what now appears to be the possible takeover of a major political party by antisemitism.
If it fails, then American Jews will know with absolute certainty that they must take a stand, and Sanders must be fought with the vigor and determination that the Jewish people have always displayed in their long and heroic struggle to remain who they are. To be that which, sadly, Bernie Sanders appears to have chosen not to be.
Benjamin Kerstein is the The Algemeiner‘s Israel correspondent.