When national radio host Diane Rehm asked the democratic socialist senator from Vermont and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders about his non-existent Israeli citizenship, many of his fellow Jews could only hear one thing: an accusation of dual loyalties. Rehm, usually a diligent journalist, was prompted to ask about this alleged dual citizenship by a years-old, dubious, anti-Zionist document, without checking this claim’s validity.
“Members of the media, in particular, have an obligation to be familiar with the narratives and tropes of bigotry and oppression against all minority and oppressed groups, and take particular care before asking members of these groups questions based on them,” said Spencer Sunshine, a fellow at Political Research Associates, which monitors racism and extremism. “Adding insult to injury, in Rehms’s update, she says she should have asked him instead of stating it. But why should she have asked him to confirm whether an anti-Semitic rumor was real? The update implies that it’s okay to publicly ask U.S. elected officials who are Jewish if they have dual citizenship with Israel, even in the absence of any credible evidence.”
On its own, this might seem like an isolated incident, a mere slip-up that amounts to nothing. But put it together with a string of other incidents, and it sounds more like the racist accusation Barack Obama has faced since his first presidential campaign that he was born in Kenya, and thus ineligible for the White House.
An essay Sanders penned in 1972, which he says was fiction, has been widely blasted for saying that women have desires to be raped. As one NPR post said, people can decipher this essay any way they want — many have said it’s misinterpreted and is actually about denouncing societal gender roles. But the idea that Jews are dangerous sexual predators dates at least as far back as Nazi propaganda films. So when readers insist on reading the essay in a way that paints Sanders as a sexual predator, should we not detect in their insistence a hint of this idea?
Then there’s the recent accusation that Sanders, while a socialist who advocates for higher taxes on the wealthy and more protections for workers and the environment, simply doesn’t address racism and inequality. In fact, Sanders has a long history of being vocal on civil rights and spoke recently about the injustice of the American prison system, something that acutely affects people of color. And since economic inequality is so deeply tied to racial inequality, it’s nearly impossible to dismiss Sanders’s discussion of the former as having no bearing on the latter. Once again, this sounds like the tired old myth, put forth in the circles of places like Nation of Islam, that somehow seemingly progressive Jews are wolves in sheep’s clothing trying to hoodwink African-Americans into trusting them.
And how could anyone forget how the right-wing National Review went to great lengths to denounce Sanders as a “national socialist”? Denouncing his politics simply wasn’t enough. Its editors had to concoct a mythology in order to connect him with National Socialism, the ideology of Nazi Germany, rubbing his face in the fact that members of his family were killed during the Holocaust.
No one in the mainstream has come right out and said that Sanders’s Jewishness makes him suspicious, but his treatment in the media and by critics on the left and right should be closely monitored. It was hard enough for the United States to elect its lone non-Protestant to the presidency, John F. Kennedy, a Catholic, who had to face the accusation that he’d be loyal to the pope rather than to the people. As progressives, and especially progressive Jews, wonder whether Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama have had to face special scrutiny as a woman and as an African-American respectively, so too they must be on guard for special treatment of Sanders, particularly as he surges in key polls.
That’s going to present an even bigger challenge to the people on the American political scene most known for complaining about anti-Semitism, namely Zionists of the Likud variety who are quick to paint even the most mild criticism of the Israeli government as Jew-hatred. Sanders, as of this writing, is the only Jew in the presidential race, and accusations that smell of real anti-Semitism are all but guaranteed as time goes on.
So it will be interesting to see whether that crowd will withhold its vitriol in his case, or whether it will be able to come to the defense of a cranky, class-warring progressive when he needs it.