Of Course They’re Accusing Bernie Sanders Of Anti-Semitism – Because He Supports Palestinians
Given Bernie Sanders’ endurance as a top-tier presidential contender, and his support for Palestinian rights, it was almost inevitable that conservatives would start labelling his campaign anti-Semitic. Last week’s election in Britain—and the alleged similarities between Sanders and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn—provided the pretext.
“Linda Sarsour Is Too Antisemitic For The Women’s March, But Not For Bernie Sanders,” declared a February 10 headline in The Federalist. Three days later, The Washington Examiner followed up with, “Bernie Sanders has an anti-Semitism Problem.” Commentary added, “Bernie Sanders Has a Big Jeremy Corbyn Problem.”
The effort to implicate the most successful Jewish presidential candidate in American history in Jew-hatred is now well underway.
What’s most striking about The Federalist, Examiner and Commentary articles is what they don’t say. None offers a single example — from Sanders’ almost forty years in elected office — of him ever uttering an even arguably anti-Semitic sentence. That may seem a low bar. But it distinguishes Sanders from Corbyn, who in 2013 said that Zionists, despite “having lived in this country for a very long time, probably all their lives, don’t understand English irony.”
It distinguishes Sanders even more dramatically from Donald Trump, who invokes anti-Semitic stereotypes more blatantly and more frequently than any American politician in modern memory. From Trump’s 2013 reference to “Jonathan Leibowitz – I mean Jon Stewart,” to his 2015 declaration to a Republican Jewish Coalition crowd that, “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money” to his closing 2016 campaign ad, which featured three Jews — George Soros, Lloyd Blankfein and Janet Yellin — alongside language about “global special interests” that “control the levers of power” to his suggestion that American Jews view Benjamin Netanyahu as “your prime minister,” to his statement to a Jewish audience, just this month, that “You’re brutal killers, not nice people at all. But you have to vote for me…You’re not gonna vote for the wealth tax,” Trump is almost incapable of speaking about Jews without calling them either avaricious or disloyal.
I promise you that I’m much smarter than Jonathan Leibowitz – I mean Jon Stewart @TheDailyShow. Who, by the way, is totally overrated.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 24, 2013
Yet, astonishingly, The Examiner suggests it is Sanders’, not Trump’s, campaign that “is rapidly turning out to be the most anti-Semitic in decades.”
The other thing The Federalist, The Examiner and Commentary stories don’t say is that Sanders’ rise has made the Democratic Party unsafe, or even uncomfortable, for Jews. 87% of British Jews, according to one oft-cited poll, consider Corbyn anti-Semitic. In a submission to Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Jewish Labour Movement detailed numerous acts of anti-Semitic harassment against Jewish party members and claimed that Corbyn “has made the party a welcoming refuge for anti-Semites.”
Nothing remotely similar has happened in the Democratic Party. Far from fleeing the party since Sanders’ rise to national prominence in 2016, Jews voted Democratic at a higher rate in 2018 than they had in the previous midterm election, in 2014. A pre-election poll this fall found Johnson’s Tory party defeating Corbyn’s Labour Party among Jewish voters by 58 points. In the US, by contrast, Sanders’ favorable rating among Jews exceeds Trump’s by 25 points.
There are certainly Jewish Democrats who disagree with Sanders on both economic policy and policy toward Israel. But there’s a reason pollsters don’t ask American Jews whether they consider him anti-Semitic: Most would consider the question absurd.
The Federalist, The Examiner and Commentary articles consist almost entirely of guilt by association. These guilt by association claims fall into three categories. Category number one consists of obscure Sanders staffers who said anti-Semitic things and either quickly left the campaign or quickly apologized. In 2010 and 2011, for instance, a man named Darius Khalil Gordon, who later became Sanders’ deputy director of constituency organizing, talked on Twitter about wanting to make “Jew money.” When the tweets were revealed, he soon left the campaign. This year, Sanders’ deputy press secretary, Belen Sisa, suggested that the “American-Jewish community has a dual allegiance to the state of Israel” and then profusely apologized.
But national campaigns amass vast numbers of supporters and employees, some of whom say problematic things. In 2016, to choose an almost random example, it was revealed that a pastor who backed Ted Cruz had suggested that God sent Hitler to punish Jews who refused to convert. What matters is how campaigns react: In Sanders’ case, the response was exit and apology.
By contrast, Trump — despite Jewish protests — keeps lavishing honors on the Reverend Robert Jeffress, who has said Jews are going to hell. He even invited Jeffress to this month’s White House Hanukkah Party.
The second kind of guilt by association Sanders stands accused of consists of Sanders associating with people who haven’t said anything anti-Semitic at all; they’re just critics of the Israeli government. The Federalist cites Simone Zimmerman, a former Sanders staffer who launched a “vulgar attack” on Benjamin Netanyahu. It offers no evidence that Zimmerman — a prominent young Jewish activist — said anything anti-Semitic. The Federalist also mentions Sanders advisors Matt Duss and Faiz Shakir, who once worked at the Center for American Progress, where another staffer used the term “Israel firster” before apologizing and leaving his job. The Federalist never suggests that during their time at CAP, Duss or Shakir ever said anything anti-Semitic themselves. This isn’t even guilt by association; it’s guilt by association by association: Sanders employs people who once worked with someone who accused Jews of dual loyalty. Meanwhile, Trump levels the dual loyalty accusation himself.
Category number three consists of Sanders’ most prominent Palestinian and Muslim supporters: Linda Sarsour, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. (This isn’t surprising. You’d be hard pressed to find a single high-profile Palestinian or Muslim American who actively campaigns for Palestinian rights who hasn’t been called anti-Semitic by the American right). The Examiner attacks Sarsour — a woman who has raised money to rebuild desecrated Jewish cemeteries — for saying Israel is “built on the idea that Jews are supreme to everybody else.” Sarsour’s comment was indeed problematic; Israel privileges Jews over non-Jews but it doesn’t assume that “Jews are supreme to everybody else.” And Sarsour apologized, explaining that she was merely referring to the logic underlying Israel’s recent nation-state law, which says Jews — but not Palestinians — have the right to national self-determination. (The Examiner and Federalist also mention that Sarsour left the Women’s March, but neither offers any additional evidence of her anti-Semitism).
The Examiner also attacks Omar for famously suggesting that AIPAC’s influence was “all about the Benjamins” (a statement that, while substantially true, played into long-standing stereotypes about Jews and money, though far less directly than Trump’s own statements, and for which Omar apologized.) And it attacks Tlaib for supporting one equal state in Israel/Palestine (without explaining why that is more bigoted than supporting one state that holds millions of Palestinians as permanent non-citizens under military law, as many Republicans do).
This is what supposedly adds up to Sanders’ anti-Semitism problem. It’s a line of attack that will be recycled again and again in the coming months.
It will be recycled by the very conservatives who attack liberals for being too quick to fling charges of bigotry at their political adversaries.
It will be recycled even though it is Trump — not Sanders — whose nativist rhetoric contributed to the most murderous attack on Jews in American history.
And aside from leaving the presidential race, there is only one thing Sanders can do to make these attacks stop: abandon his support for Palestinian rights, which, for The Examiner, Commentary and The Federalist, constitutes his real, and unforgivable, offense.