In a certain sense, the cover story of this week’s Village Voice, titled “The Heretic” (subheading: “In a Zionist Age, the Bern Kicks It Old Shul”), represents a milestone victory for Benjamin Netanyahu. It’s also, to a lesser degree, a gift to Hillary Clinton.
For the Israeli leader, the article represents a wholehearted embrace, in a fading but still significant journal, of his doctrine that Zionism and American liberalism are inherent enemies.
Not that the article’s author, Jesse Alexander Myerson, a self-appointed spokesman for the Millennial Generation, stands on Netanyahu’s side of that barricade. On the contrary, he writes: “My generation is already primed to abandon Zionism.” What’s more, “in our rejection of Zionism and our revival of socialism, young Jews are reclaiming our birthright.” If Bibi’s building a barricade, Myerson’s mounting the other side. What they share is an urgent desire to rewrite Israel’s history and erase its socialist roots.
As for Clinton, Myerson’s article offers her the gift of turning her rival, Bernie Sanders, into a Jewish “heretic,” a putative opponent of Zionism, Israel and mainstream American Jewry. Not that the Vermont senator has spoken against any of those things. On the contrary. But he’s emerged as the champion of the American left and a hero to Millennial progressives, and for Myerson, apparently, that’s enough.
There’s so much wrong with all this that it’s hard to know where to begin parsing it. It’s probably best to try describing Myerson’s argument, then to show where it goes off the rails, and only then to examine why this matters.
Myerson’s argument goes something like this: First, the “New York of Sanders’s childhood was full of Yiddish socialism.” Second, that Jewish spirit of ignoring heaven and “fighting for emancipation here on earth,” though it might sound “profane, even blasphemous,” lies at the heart of Jewish tradition, going back to the Bible.
Third — and here’s where we get serious — “when the State of Israel was partitioned to life, anti-communist politicians and business interests in the West, especially the U.S., set out to destroy the left, a thriving core of Jewish life, and reorient Jewish American thought toward an increasingly reactionary Zionism.”
Many Jews “still veered left” and joined the civil rights movement, Myerson says, recalling the famous example of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. But that petered out as Jews moved to the suburbs and “assimilated into that American Dream of upwardly mobile whiteness.”
Right around that same time, “Israel undertook an aggressive expansion and occupation in Palestine,” referring to the Six-Day War of 1967. Starting at that point “the internationalism of the pre-war American Jewry was supplanted by nationalism,” its egalitarianism by “exceptionalism” and its “agitation against war” by “ceaseless colonialism in Palestine.”
And how is all this supposed to connect to Bernie Sanders? First of all, when interviewers ask the candidate about his religious beliefs, he tends to cite ideas about the shared humanity that binds all people together. This, for Myerson, makes Sanders the heir of the Hebrew prophets. True, when specifically discussing his Jewish identity, Bernie tends to bring up the Holocaust. But that, Myerson says, is simply Sanders “giving commentators what they seemed to want to hear from a Jewish candidate.” The real Sanders is “a Jew of a different era — the kind of Jew that Zionists would very much like us to forget.” That is, a child of New York’s Yiddish socialism.
Then, too, Sanders has drawn some complaints from “pundits” that he’s “not publicly Jewish enough.” This puts him in the noble tradition of what Trotsky biographer Isaac Deutscher termed the “non-Jewish Jew,” with roots going back to the Mishnah-era sage-turned-apostate Elisha ben Abuyah.
Finally, amid all this quasi-history, Myerson offers this one bit of what looks like actual evidence: that Sanders “declined the opportunity to join every other presidential candidate in addressing Zionism’s most exalted assembly,” namely last month’s AIPAC policy conference. “Instead, he addressed the question of Israel at a high school in Salt Lake City, Utah, in a speech that included such taboo-breaking observations as ‘There is too much suffering in Gaza to be ignored.’”
What to make of all this? Some of it is plain misinformation, pure gornisht garnished with speculation and fantasy. Take, for example, how Sanders “declined the opportunity” to address AIPAC. In fact, Sanders asked to address the conference. Campaigning hard in the West, he couldn’t fly east and asked to speak by video hookup, as candidate Mitt Romney had done in 2012, and as Netanyahu was scheduled to do the next day. AIPAC refused. Sanders then asked that the text of his speech be distributed to AIPAC delegates. That didn’t happen either. That’s why he delivered the speech in Salt Lake City.
As for those “taboo-breaking observations” in the Utah speech — the ones that supposedly demonstrate Sanders’s heretical non-Zionism — here’s how Sanders opened:
“Let me begin by saying that I think I am probably the only candidate for president who has personal ties with Israel. I spent a number of months there when I was a young man on a kibbutz, so I know a little bit about Israel.
“Clearly, the United States and Israel are united by historical ties. We are united by culture. We are united by our values, including a deep commitment to democratic principles, civil rights and the rule of law.
“Israel is one of America’s closest allies, and we — as a nation — are committed not just to guaranteeing Israel’s survival, but also to make sure that its people have a right to live in peace and security.”
He went on to state that “as friends — long term friends with Israel — we are obligated to speak the truth as we see it,” to be “honest and truthful about differences that we may have.” And what are those differences? Nothing that presidents haven’t been saying since the Reagan administration: that America is committed to Israeli-Palestinian peace, that peace will require compromise as well as “the unconditional recognition by all people of Israel’s right to exist” and “an end to attacks of all kinds against Israel.” Peace will require “the entire world to recognize Israel.”
But, Sanders continued, “peace also means security for every Palestinian. It means achieving self-determination, civil rights, and economic well-being for the Palestinian people. Peace will mean ending what amounts to the occupation of Palestinian territory, establishing mutually agreed upon borders, and pulling back settlements in the West Bank.”
That’s not anti-Zionism. It’s not even non-Zionism. It is, essentially, Labor Zionism. To ignore all those words and simply quote Sanders on suffering in Gaza, and then to paint that as violating a taboo, doesn’t just distort the truth — it falsifies it.
There’s a similar distortion in Myerson’s pitting of Jewish civil rights history as somehow opposed to Zionism. Rabbi Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., was a proud, outspoken Zionist. Rabbi Arthur Lelyveld, a Labor Zionist movement leader, was beaten nearly to death by racists armed with tire irons in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, during the 1964 Freedom Summer. Among the thousands of young Jews who went South during those years there were hundreds or more who saw the mission, like Lelyveld, as an expression of their Zionism.
Ditto the notion that Sanders’s rooting of his Jewish identity in the Holocaust is somehow just giving commentators what they want to hear. For anyone who heard Sanders’s emotional testimony during the March 7 CNN debate, when he recalled how “my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust” — murdered not in some historical past but during Sanders’s own childhood, when he must have watched his father receive the news — it must take a special sort of callow cold-bloodedness to dismiss all that as political posturing.
Some of Myerson’s history isn’t distorted or falsified, but simply invented. Take the plot by “anti-communist politicians and business interests” after 1948 to “destroy the left” and replace it with “an increasingly reactionary Zionism.” In fact, Israel’s most important American allies during its first two decades were the AFL-CIO and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The business community was generally neutral or hostile, mainly due to fear of alienating the Arab states that controlled the West’s oil supply.
This shouldn’t surprise us. Israel and the international Zionist movement were controlled from the 1930s until 1977 by a socialist party, David Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party, later renamed the Israel Labor Party. It’s the Israeli affiliate of the Socialist International, the worldwide confederation of labor and social-democratic parties.
There was a fierce debate over communism taking place within the Israeli leadership in those early years of the Cold War, but it wasn’t about how to destroy the left. The question Mapai struggled with was whether or not to maintain membership in the Soviet-dominated World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). Western unions, led by the AFL-CIO, had left en masse in 1949, amid the siege of Berlin, and were forming a rival, anti-communist labor alliance, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. Israel and Finland were the last two non-communist countries whose unions were still in Stalin’s WFTU. And Finland was in the process of being expelled.
Israeli labor movement leaders were torn between their desire to quit, given their disgust at the increasingly obvious brutality of Stalin’s dictatorship, and their reluctance to be associated with the growing intolerance of Western Cold War anti-communism.
The consensus among Israel’s leaders, impractical though it proved to be, was that their proper place was in a hoped-for third bloc of Asian and African countries that was neither communist nor capitalist. As one Mapai leader put it during one of their interminable debates over the dilemma, “we must fight for democratic socialism.”
The lengthy debate is carefully documented in Uri Bialer’s essential 2008 study, “Between East and West: Israel’s Foreign Policy Orientation 1948-1956.” If you’re curious, you can read the relevant chapter online here.
Did any of this labor ferment, Jewish or otherwise, touch Bernie Sanders during his Brooklyn childhood? There’s no evidence that it did. In fact, there’s no evidence that he was aware of, much less influenced by, the world of New York Yiddish socialism. For one thing, that world was already in sharp decline in the early postwar years when Bernie was growing up. For another, both he and his brother Larry have testified that their childhood home was Democratic-voting but politically unengaged.
Bernie’s introduction to socialism came not in New York but as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, where he first encountered and joined the Young People’s Socialist League. YPSL (pronounced “Yipsel”) was the youth wing of the Socialist Party of America, the American affiliate of the same Socialist International that included Ben-Gurion’s Mapai party. It was led not by Yiddish revolutionaries from Poland but by the Midwestern Presbyterian minister Norman Thomas.
YPSL was an odd, old-fashioned presence on the stormy landscape of the New Left in the early 1960s. It was devoutly anti-communist at a time when anti-communism had been discredited on campus by McCarthyism, the ban-the-bomb movement and the growing Vietnam conflict. It was challenged by a new, more militant group, a breakaway from the Socialist Party called Students for a Democratic Society.
And YPSL was, odd though it might seem today, more uncritically pro-Israel than the Labor Zionist youth groups affiliated with and funded by the Israeli labor movement, the Marxist-lite Hashomer Hatzair and Ben-Gurion’s own Habonim.
That was Sanders’s socialist education as of 1964, when he went to Israel after graduation and spent several months on Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’amakim. This at a time when kibbutz volunteering was almost unheard of among American youth, except among Labor Zionists.
It probably wouldn’t be too much of a stretch, then, to say that Bernie Sanders’s socialist education didn’t come through the non- or anti-Zionist traditions of Yiddish socialism but, on the contrary, through his brushes with Labor Zionism. To be fair, though, this particular conclusion is as speculative as most of Myerson’s narrative. We’ve yet to hear much detail from Sanders himself. Perhaps we’ll hear more as the New York primary heats up.
Does any of this matter in the larger scheme of things? Alas, it does. Myerson’s garbled version of Zionist and Israeli history is gaining currency on college campuses, as anti-Israel activism grows noisier and angrier. But it’s still a sectarian narrative, repeated mainly in the shouted cadences of the radical left.
His linking of anti-Zionism with the prophetic tradition of social justice is more insidious. It creates the false impression that Zionism is a false implant, somehow opposed to the best in Judaism, rather than an essential part of that tradition. That’s the anti-Zionist message spread by some Jewish BDS groups. It’s gaining adherents at an alarming rate, turning well-meaning young Jews into enemies of the Jewish state.
Jesse Myerson isn’t what you’d call a towering figure among Jewish Millennials, but he’s not chopped liver, either. A 2008 graduate of Bard College, he was a prominent figure in the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement. An occasional contributor to Rolling Stone, The Nation and Salon.com, he set the Internet on fire in January 2014 with a Rolling Stone piece calling on Millennials to reject private property. He followed up a month later with an MSNBC appearance and a Salon piece in which he defended communism and cemented his reputation as one of the Millennial left’s leading provocateurs. Now he’s reinventing himself again as a voice of anti-Zionism as prophetic Judaism. He’s a force to be reckoned with.
How wide is this sort of anti-Zionism spreading? Well, it’s just appeared on the cover of New York’s oldest, most admired alternative weekly, given away free by the tens of thousands in sidewalk boxes all over the nation’s largest city. If you’re trying to mainstream Jewish anti-Zionism, to widen the worrisome rifts between Israel and American Jews, that’s progress.
At the same time, if you want to make Bernie sound like an enemy of the Jewish community — or to discredit Jewish liberalism more broadly so as to solidify right-wing Likud dominance — Jesse Myerson has just offered you a gift, festively wrapped in the colorful paper of the Village Voice.
Oh — and in case you’re wondering: Yes, that cover image is indeed a cartoon of Sanders being bombarded by a bagel. Ha ha.
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J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).