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Debate | Is Bernie Sanders good for the Jews?

After sailing to victory in Saturday’s Nevada caucus, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has emerged as the clear frontrunner in the race for the democratic presidential nomination. It’s a historic moment for American Jews; Sanders is the first Jew to get this far. But American Jewish voters could hardly be more divided over his success. For some, he’s a source of pride and naches, a callback to Jewish socialism and the embodiment of Tikkun Olam, while others view Sanders’ socialism with trepidation, and his association with people who have offended the Jewish community as disqualifying.

We asked two Forward contributors, Joel Swanson and Ari Hoffman to debate the question Jews are debating at Shabbos meals across the nation: Is Bernie Sanders good for the Jews?

JOEL SWANSON: Hi, Ari. Thanks for agreeing to debate.

On the one hand, the question of whether Bernie Sanders is good for the Jews seems odd. For the first time in American history, we have a Jewish candidate (or possibly two) who stands a real chance of winning a major party presidential nomination. And while he has talked more openly about the historic nature of his candidacy in recent weeks, including discussing the impact of the Shoah on his worldview, for the most part he has not foregrounded his Jewish identity in his political life. In fact, his political rise has mostly come from the support of non-Jewish voters.

Shouldn’t we see it as a positive step that Jews are sufficiently integrated into American political life that a Jew is now seen as just another candidate?

On the other hand, the fact that we’re asking this question at all reveals a deep well of anxiety among American Jews.

Polling shows that American Jews feel less safe than we did a few years ago, and anti-Semitic violence is on the rise. There are legitimate fears among Jews that the rise of a Jewish socialist will awaken longtime far-right phantoms about “Judeo-Bolshevism.”

But doesn’t the fear of rising anti-Semitism make it all the more important that a Jewish politician is running for president, increasingly talking about being “proud to be Jewish?” Doesn’t that visibility matter now more than ever? And if we wait until a time when we aren’t anxious about anti-Semitism to support a Jew for president, won’t that mean we never have a Jewish president? After all, if there’s one thing we know about Jews, we can always find a reason to be anxious.

ARI HOFFMAN: The pleasure is all mine. While we can’t promise Vegas fireworks, we’ll do our best. Speaking of anxiety, Democratic voters thus far seem to have precious little of it when it comes to choosing Bernie Sanders as their standard bearer.

I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel the pride you’re describing, and not a little bit of wonder, too. I love a good story, and even Philip Roth’s imagination couldn’t have come up with this yarn. To paraphrase another great storyteller, there is more in heaven and earth than any of us thought politically possible.

But much of that evaporated on Sunday, when Sanders reneged on his earlier willingness to speak at AIPAC. With the wind at his back, he sang a different tune over the weekend, announcing his intention to skip the annual bi-partisan policy conference because of AIPAC’s association with “bigotry.”

From a candidate who has spoken at a fundamentalist Liberty University and just accepted an endorsement from a noted anti-vaxxer, the idea that AIPAC — which has been inextricably intertwined with Democrats for years and has a robust progressive wing — is beyond the pale is absurd.

It indicates something much darker: that Sanders is harnessing the populism on the left to run against Jews and their institutions. The vast majority of us, liberal Zionists of some stripe or other, have been cancelled.

The AIPAC gut punch confirmed my worst fears, which come down to three things. The first is Sanders’ core ideology of retrofitted class warfare. Jews have rarely fared well in worlds painted in black and white, because their experience is colored in rich hues of gray. They are wealthy and also vulnerable, successful but precarious, immigrants and big machers. Every Jew should get nervous when the pitchforks come out.

Is Bernie Sanders for the Jews?

Democratic presidential hopeful Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders speaks during a Get Out to Caucus Rally at Springs Preserve Amphitheater in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 21, 2020. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) Image by Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

Second, I worry that Bernie’s Jewishness, while acutely felt, enables him to see out of only one eye. Hatred of Israel and hostility to Jews is thriving in progressive precincts, and Bernie sees only tiki lights in Charlottesville. His allergy to the use of American power leads him to somehow see the United Nations as part of the solution to global anti-Semitism, rather than one of its primary abettors. His understanding of the Holocaust as a tragedy viewable exclusively through the lens of “racism” limits his ability to understand Israel and so much of the richness of what is being built there, or the challenges it faces.

Someone who loves the Israel of 1963 but is unmoved by the Israel of 1967 or 1973 is a dubious guide to its realities in 2020.

Third, I worry about the people around Bernie. Behind a Sanders shield, I fear that those who wish Jews harm will find cover and alibi.

No presidential campaign, let alone one headed by a Jew, should have anything to do with Linda Sarsour. But Sanders’ elevates her. No campaign should touch Amer Zahr, a comedian whose shtick is rancid anti-Semitism. But he, too, is a surrogate for Sanders.

It doesn’t end there. At this point it’s difficult to even keep track of Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib’s anti-Semitic slips; yet they have both been given a Sanders spotlight. Jews of all stripes should not stand for this, and I worry that the most famous one in the country is standing with them.

If we are not for ourselves, will Bernie be for us?

JOEL SWANSON: I’ll start with the AIPAC news, a topic that deserves a whole debate on its own. For now I’ll just note that you accuse Bernie of running “against Jews” by refusing to go to AIPAC, and yet AIPAC is hardly representative of American Jews writ large; its conferences attract about 20,000 attendees, an impressive number to be sure, but no more than the number of anti-Zionist American Orthodox Jews who gathered in New York to protest against Orthodox Jewish conscription into the IDF.

Furthermore, Bernie offered to speak to AIPAC in 2016 via video link, but the conference declined his request, even though they allowed Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich to address via video in 2012.

Finally, AIPAC has become a lot more partisan in just the past year alone. For a group that calls itself nonpartisan, they recently ran ads against some Democrats that they themselves ended up apologizing for. And that comes after they helped fund Super PAC ads attacking Bernie in Nevada. If AIPAC wants Democrats to attend, maybe they shouldn’t run ads attacking the Democratic Party, the party to which most American Jews belong.

Beyond the question of AIPAC, I think what you’re getting at here is that Bernie’s Jewishness is highly universalist rather than particularist, which represents a strain of Jewish politics very much antithetical to the kinds of Jewish politics we see practiced in Israel right now, though both are very much rooted in different elements of Jewish history and culture.

Bernie cares about economic equality and social justice because his understanding of Jewish history leads him to stand up for who he sees as the dispossessed and the marginalized, which he thinks the world failed to do for the Jews during the Shoah. The lesson he takes from Jewish history is that Jews are safest when they do not prioritize specifically Jewish politics, but when they build alliances with other minority communities who will stand for each other.

That’s why he calls himself both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. He refuses to accept that the interests of these communities, who have both experienced exile and dispossession, need to be pitted against each other.

And that’s ultimately why I find Bernie’s Jewish identity hopeful. While the situation might be different in Europe, in the US today, the most deadly anti-Semitism comes overwhelmingly from the far-right. Whatever you think about some left-wing activists on college campuses, they aren’t killing anyone.

And there’s good data that shows that on the far-right, which again is the source of the most violent anti-Semitism in the US now, hatred of Jews is correlated with hatred of Muslims.

We have a common enemy. That’s why Bernie Sanders’s remarkable support from the American Muslim community is important. He’s helping to build bridges and alliances between two communities who are both feeling threatened in the age of Trump, communities whose interests in the US are often aligned, even if Israel and Palestine have too often divided us.

ARI HOFFMAN: The universalist siren song is as old as it is inspiring, and if we drop it from our playlist, the rest would be just noise. But I can’t help feeling that we need to listen a little more closely to Bernie’s beat. It calls to mind a specific historical antecedent.

A few days before Christmas in the fateful year of 1789, in the throes of the most wild revolution history remembers, Stanislas Marie Adelaide, the comte de Clarmont-Tonnerre, gave a speech on “Religious Minorities and Questionable Professions” in which he asked what was to be the status of the Jews now that the French world had been turned upside down? Clarmont-Tonnerre had an ingenious answer: the newborn French government would “accord everything to the Jews as individuals, and nothing to them as a people.”

Something similar seems to be at work in the brand of universalism the Sanders movement offers to Jews: As individuals, Jews are welcome, but “as a people”, they shouldn’t strive for more than the progressive agenda.

This brings us to the Israel question, which I myself have argued can crowd out other important subjects. But we must confront it, because if the price of universalism is disavowing the Jewish State in form or substance, the cost is too high.

And here my concern about some of Sanders’s rhetoric and his surrogates cashes out; in word and deed, they have indicated that they are willing to accord support to Sanders as an individual, but nothing at all to the Jews as a people.

This argument that Jews are safest when they set aside Jewish concerns seems risible to me. And perhaps no one has died on campus yet, but the situation, from middle schools through colleges, is dire.

One more point: Sanders has struggled to attract Jewish support, registering at just 11%, an inchoate indication that the broad majority of Jews don’t see their values and orientation captured in the extreme universalism, economic radicalism, and vociferous criticism of Israel Sanders espouses. When it comes to the Judaism he incarnates, Sanders can only be described as an elitist.

JOEL SWANSON: So, I’ll take the 11% number first, since I’ve seen it cited a lot to argue that Bernie doesn’t have a lot of support from actual Jewish voters.

First, that poll was taken before the primaries began, and shows that a plurality of Jewish Democratic voters favor Joe Biden. I expect Iowa and New Hampshire may have changed that a bit!

Also, it just shows that most Democratic voters are not choosing Bernie as their first choice, not that they actively dislike him; most Democratic voters like more than one of their choices. There is also the fact that American Jewish voters are older on average than the median Democratic voter, and Bernie does better with younger voters.

Finally, I suspect a lot of American Jews are nervous about whether a Jew can actually win an election, and if Bernie starts winning, they may start supporting him. We’ll see, I guess.

But to take your larger point, the quote from Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre, “To the Jews as a nation, nothing; to the Jews as individuals, everything,” is quite relevant, though I have a somewhat different take on it.

When the Count made that statement, the revolutionary French assembly was debating whether to emancipate the Jews from the legal restrictions placed on them, and the Assembly decided that the Jews could be emancipated if they accepted French citizenship as the basis of their identity, relegating their Jewishness to the private sphere only. In other words, the aspects of Jewish peoplehood and ethnicity were denied in the public sphere, and Judaism could only be a religion practiced in the privacy of the home, similar to Protestantism, another minority religion in Catholic France.

So up until World War II, French Jewish politics was about being French only in public, and Jewish in private. You couldn’t have a politics based on Jewish identity or Jewish peoplehood, only a French politics rooted in French national values.

Is Bernie Sanders good for the Jews?

FEBRUARY 23: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and his wife Jane Sanders arrive onstage for a campaign rally at Vic Mathias Shores Park on February 23, 2020 in Austin, Texas. With early voting underway in Texas, Sanders is holding four rallies in the delegate-rich state this weekend before traveling on to South Carolina. Texas holds their primary on Super Tuesday March 3rd, along with over a dozen other states Image by Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It seems to me that the very antithesis of this French politics in which one’s identity is a purely private affair, and not the basis for political action as a group is actually identity politics, which the right side of the political spectrum loves to denigrate.

According to right-wing criticism, identity politics is bad because it bases our political arguments on what is in the interests of certain group identities such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, instead of making universal arguments for all people.

But your conception of Zionism as a politics of Jewish peoplehood, in which the Jews as a people demand national statehood, seems to me to be a form of Jewish identity politics, while Sanders seems to be energizing another, non-Zionist forms of Jewish identity politics — Bundism, which demand Jewish politics rooted in Jewish peoplehood without supporting a Jewish state. This is what the new Jewish left that has arisen around Sanders is demanding: a new Jewish identity politics, in which Jews make political arguments not by ignoring their Jewishness entirely, as 19th century French Jews did, but by arguing for American Jews to have rights as a minority ethnic group, and then building coalitions with other minority identity groups.

That’s a different model of Jewish identity politics than Jewish statehood, but it’s still a Jewish politics based on Jewish peoplehood, not a checking of one’s identity at the door before entering the political sphere, as in France.

It’s an exciting new development. And if you are arguing for Jewish statehood as part of Jewish peoplehood, it seems to me you have to accept other identity politics arguments, as well.

This brings me to one final point: The new Jewish left, which often rejects Jewish statehood entirely, is actually critical of Bernie on this question. Bernie explicitly supports Jewish statehood, and has called on the left “to acknowledge the enormous achievement of establishing a democratic homeland for the Jewish people after centuries of displacement and persecution.” It’s true he supports a Palestinian state, and has called for an end to the occupation of the West Bank, but he makes that argument on the grounds that ending the occupation is necessary to preserve a Jewish, democratic state — not destroy it.

True, he has called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a racist, but you hear worse in Tel Aviv every day. He’s basically an ordinary liberal Zionist, and if that makes him anti-Israel, then a large portion of Americans are anti-Israel, too.

ARI HOFFMAN: Point taken about the 11% number, which might be too noisy to take as scripture. But I still think it points to a real wariness to how Sanders has handled Jewish issues: the infamous remarks about his “Polish” ancestors, the near total suppression of his Judaism in 2016, and the substantive issues we’ve been discussing here. Like any other group, the Jewish vote needs to be earned, especially in the Democratic primary. The mere fact of Sanders’s Jewishness has so far not done that work.

I have no doubt that you’re reading of what you call “the new Jewish left” is accurate, and anyone can see that there is a certain intellectual foment brewing there. I just happen to fervently disagree with its premises and conclusions.

The truth is that the “minority rights” that constitute the grand prize in the progressive sweepstakes is dictated by the grid of oppression and grievance, and the rules read from the intersectional hierarchy of suffering and power. That is not a field Jews can compete in, let alone win.

In fact, the deck is stacked for them to lose. When Jews have attempted to assert themselves in these kinds of environments, they’ve been routed; I’m thinking about the Women’s March, the Dyke March, and elsewhere.

Jews thrive when merit trumps caste and opportunity is elevated over grievance. I worry that the weather in the heartland of Sanders’ support blows in the other direction, and its gusts are only picking up speed.

So what to do? I think he needs a Sister Souljah moment. He needs to speak to the left in a serious way about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, and voice support for Israel in a way that is more than perfunctory or a mere throat clearing for accusations of racism and occupation.

He needs to speak to the liberals who want Trump gone but are not willing to check their Zionism at the door. He needs to disown Sarsour yesterday. Instead of swooning at the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn, he must do everything possible to inoculate against that prospect.

This is especially urgent because of the increasingly rosy prospects of Bernie’s political revolution. I’m skeptical of the claim that Bernie is indistinguishable from a liberal Zionist when the entire premise of his politics is to displace the Democratic establishment that were the keepers of that flickering flame. The “Democratic establishment” was the home of American Jews for a long time. If you burn it down, there’s no guarantee that what comes next will be sturdy enough for the storm.

The old Democratic Party was pretty good for the Jews. I’m far less sanguine about the Sanders update.

Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist at the Forward.

Joel Swanson is a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying modern Jewish intellectual history and the philosophy of religions. He is not, contrary to what this column may suggest, endorsing Bernie Sanders or anyone else for president at this time, and he is indeed fully confident that nobody in the world is waiting for his presidential endorsement to determine their vote. Find him on Twitter at @jh_swanson.


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