iane Rehm-aged doyenne of public radio and recipient of the Peabody, the National Humanities Medal, and sundry other status markers—had a question for Bernie Sanders. The date was June 10, 2015. The Vermont senator and self-identified socialist had just announced his candidacy for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton. Sanders’s loyalties to the party he sought to lead but had only just officially joined had become a subject of some concern to Democrats. But Rehm wanted to talk about a different kind of loyalty.
Rehm: Senator, you have dual citizenship with Israel.
Sanders: No, I do not have dual citizenship with Israel, I’m an American. Don’t know where that question came from. I’m an American citizen. I have visited Israel on a couple of occasions. No, I’m an American citizen, period.
Rehm: I understand from a list we have gotten that you were on that list. Forgive me if that…
Sanders: No, that’s some of the nonsense that goes on in the Internet. But that is absolutely not true.
Rehm: Interesting. Are there members of Congress who do have dual citizenship, or is that part of the fable?
So: A Jewish public figure was simply assumed by NPR’s most celebrated chat-show host to have dual citizenship with Israel. After he corrected the host, the Jew was told that his name was on “a list.” When he denied it a second time, he was asked to fork over some names of those who do have suspect loyalties to America.
As Sanders suggested, the “list” she had cited was gleaned from an anti-Semitic Facebook page. Rehm later apologized. That was the end of that. But it was only the beginning for Sanders when it came to questions about his Jewishness.
He started out the campaign as more than a long shot. He was treated as an “issue” candidate, with his issue set being: soak the rich; break up the banks; nationalize health care; inequality, inequality, inequality. But Clinton spent the year beset by scandal. And Sanders’s issues had real power. He caught her in the early-state polls. The two candidates fought Iowa’s caucuses to a draw, and Sanders won New Hampshire by a landslide. In doing so, Bernie Sanders became the first Jewish candidate to win a major-party primary.
And he didn’t mention it. At all.
Sanders routinely mentions his father’s background as a Polish immigrant but omits his father’s Jewishness, olav ha-shalom. When asked about Clinton’s own chance to make history as the first woman president, Sanders retorted obliquely that it would be historic for “somebody with my background” to become president, too. He did not say what background that was. Not until he was directly asked about it by CNN’s Anderson Cooper at a Democratic debate in early March did he feel compelled to express his pride in his Jewishness, though he immediately used the acknowledgment as a political tool to attack “extremism” of the kind he says the Republican party engages in.
So Sanders proclaims his socialism while trying to avoid his Jewishness. Why does he behave this way? Joseph Berger, of the New York Times, offered this observation: “Mr. Sanders, those who know him say, exemplifies a distinct strain of Jewish identity, a secular offshoot at least 150 years old whose adherents in the shtetls of Eastern Europe and the jostling streets of the Lower East Side were socialists, anarchists, radicals and union organizers focused less on observance than on economic justice and repairing a broken world.”
But that’s not quite right. So how about this, from the Forward: “The Key to Bernie Sanders’s Appeal Isn’t Socialism. It’s Yiddish Socialism”? Cute, but meaningless.
Only a comment from the New York rabbi Michael Paley in Berger’s article got close to the truth—though neither the newspaper nor Paley seemed to understand the significance of what was said:
Paley, who worked with Jews in central Vermont when he was a Dartmouth College chaplain, recalled once talking with Mr. Sanders about “non-Jewish Jews,” a term coined by a leftist biographer, Isaac Deutscher, to describe those who express Jewish values through their “solidarity with the persecuted.” Mr. Sanders seemed to acknowledge that the term described him, Rabbi Paley said.
As Inigo Montoya might have put it: “That term ‘non-Jewish Jews’—I do not think it means what you think it means.” A lifelong socialist like Bernie Sanders surely knows. Indeed, Deutscher’s term “non-Jewish Jew” offers a key to understanding why Sanders the Jew long ago discarded ethnic-identity politics in favor of class warfare.
From its inception as a working political doctrine, socialism was bad for the Jews. Indeed, the long arm of the world’s first socialist state killed off its most prominent Jewish founder with an ice pick. Why, then, would Jews like Bernie Sanders be socialists? Well, with Sanders’s now-undeniable popularity on the left, the new spin is that he isn’t really a socialist at all.
Marx was charting a path some of his co-religionists would follow after his death—in Johnson’s words, “the particular type of political Jew which had emerged in radical politics during the second half of the 19th century: the Non-Jewish Jew, the Jew who denied there was such a thing as a Jew at all.” Isaac Deutscher was best known as the biographer of Leon Trotsky, the non-Jewish Jew to end all non-Jewish Jews.
Born in 1879, Trotsky grew up in a country intent on solving the “Jewish problem” in its own horrific way. In the Russia of Trotsky’s youth, permanent Jewish residency in Russia was restricted to the Western provinces known as the Pale of Settlement. Jews’ permitted vocations were reduced, as was their access to secondary and higher education. Jews were also denied the vote. And there were the pogroms, as the historian Anita Shapira writes:
The Church and the government made no effort to rein in the mob, and Jews suspected both of collaborating with the rioters. While the damage was mainly to property, the shock was great: mass rioting against Jews had not occurred in Eastern Europe during the previous century. The assumption had been that the strengthening of the absolutist state ensured public order and security. Now it suddenly appeared that, whereas in most of Europe and in America the Jews were citizens with equal rights, the Russian masses could still go on the rampage while the government either stood passively by or was itself involved in the rioting.
The radicalization of young Jews in this restrictive and vicious atmosphere followed as a matter of course. But the revolution they championed would bring them no deliverance. Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin equated Jewish particularism with treason. Jews were once again singled out for suspicion and victimization—but now they were getting it from both sides. They were hounded by the Soviets and hated by anti-Communists for their association with the Bolsheviks. Trotsky himself became a target of Joseph Stalin’s wrath, so much so that Stalin had him murdered in Mexico in 1940.
So, from its inception as a working political doctrine, socialism was bad for the Jews. Indeed, the long arm of the world’s first socialist state killed off its most prominent Jewish founder with an ice pick. Why, then, would Jews like Bernie Sanders be socialists? Well, with Sanders’s now-undeniable popularity on the left, the new spin is that he isn’t really a socialist at all.
“Sanders is not a socialist,” declares Marian Tupy in the Atlantic. “Sanders is, in many ways, a good social democrat,” according to Jacobin magazine editor Bhaskar Sunkara, adding: “He’s a generic liberal—actually maybe a bit better than most, but not by much—when it comes to foreign policy.” And according to Slate’s Jordan Weissmann, “Bernie Sanders isn’t really all that much of a socialist.”
Actually, no. Sanders really is a socialist.
When he arrived at Brooklyn College in 1959, he was amazed to discover, in his words, “real live socialists sitting right in front of me!” His first such encounter was with the Eugene V. Debs Club—named for the first socialist candidate for president of the United States. Soon, according to Sanders’s biographer Harry Jaffe, his roommate would come back to their dorm room to find the socialist reading material Sanders preferred to his schoolwork.
After a year, Sanders transferred to the University of Chicago, where he threw himself into the burgeoning radicalism swirling around Hyde Park. He joined the Young People’s Socialist League and took a leadership position in the Congress of Racial Equality, and he would lecture his roommate late into the night on the ills and evils of capitalism.
In 1963, Sanders took a break from school to volunteer for the reelection campaign of Chicago Alderman Leon Depres. It was his first taste of electoral politics, and it was under the wing of a man who claimed one of his formative experiences had been visiting Trotsky in exile in Mexico in 1937. Sanders then threw himself into Marx’s writings and after graduation dipped his toe into the world of labor unions.
In 1968, Sanders moved to Vermont, where he would settle into a life of politics. Jaffe quotes an opinion piece Bernie wrote in 1969: “The Revolution is coming, and it is a very beautiful revolution. It is beautiful because, in its deepest sense, it is quiet, gentle, and all pervasive. It KNOWS.”
In 1980, Sanders won the Burlington mayoral election in an upset. The town had fewer than 38,000 residents at the time, but Sanders would use his office to launch a national platform with, strangely enough, a focus on foreign policy. As Michael Moynihan revealed in the Daily Beast, Sanders thought the brutal Marxist Sandinistas of Nicaragua could provide an example to American local governance.
Sanders went further: “Is [the Sandinistas’] crime that they have built new health clinics, schools, and distributed land to the peasants? Is their crime that they have given equal rights to women? Or that they are moving forward to wipe out illiteracy? No, their crime in Mr. Reagan’s eyes and the eyes of the corporations and billionaires that determine American foreign policy is that they have refused to be a puppet and banana republic to American corporate interests.”
He established a sister-city program with Puerto Cabezas in Nicaragua, met with the Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in New York, and even said that the Sandinistas’ ruthless, dictatorial crackdown on freedom and dissent “makes sense to me.” And, of course, Sanders made a sentimental visit to Cuba and issued a gushing report: “I did not see a hungry child. I did not see any homeless people. Cuba today not only has free healthcare but very high quality healthcare.” Sanders established a sister-city program with Yaroslavl in the Soviet Union. In 1988, he and his wife honeymooned there.
Sanders isn’t shy about his socialist conviction, and for good reason: He’s finding success on the national stage now because many voters are increasingly less shy about it, too. In a February poll, nearly 6 in 10 Democrats said socialism has a “positive impact on society.” A YouGov poll in January found that 30 percent of respondents had a favorable view of socialism.
This helps explain why he is all-in on socialism but mum on his Jewish identity: The very energy that has made Sanders’s seizure of the national stage possible is also what makes his Judaism unwelcome to his own core supporters in the Democratic Party.
How, exactly, would Sanders pay for making college free and debt-free? You guessed it: ‘The cost of this $75 billion a year plan is fully paid for by imposing a tax of a fraction of a percent on Wall Street speculators who nearly destroyed the economy seven years ago.’
One Occupier ranted: “The smallest group in America controls the money, media, and all other things. The fingerprints belong to the Jewish bankers who control Wall Street. I am against Jews who rob America.” Speakers at the “occupations” of parks throughout the country railed against Jewish bankers and equated Jews with banking and banking with war.
Anti-Zionist signs were common; anti-Israel organizations backed OWS, which embraced the hate. Neumann described the scene:
On October 28, Zuccotti Park hosted “Kaffiyeh Day at Occupy Wall Street”—the kaffiyeh being the Arab headdress associated most famously with Yasir Arafat—and protesters waved Palestinian flags and chanted “Free Free Palestine” and “Long live Palestine! Occupy Wall Street.”
The old anti-Semitism of the new leftist populism was hardly confined to Occupy Wall Street. Indeed, one mark of the left today is that anti-Israel extremism serves as an initiation rite into the world of credible left-wing protest movements. Black Lives Matter, a grassroots group that rose up in opposition to police violence against minorities, soon embraced the seemingly irrelevant issue of Palestinian “resistance” to the Jewish state, with its adherents releasing a star-studded video aimed at Palestinians titled “When I See Them, I See Us.”
Sanders needs to whip up the passions of such activists. Case in point: his campaign plank to make college free. Not just free, but “debt-free” too, for the kids currently burdened by student loans. Waving away basic tenets of economics, Sanders complains that “it makes no sense that you can get an auto loan today with an interest rate of 2.5 percent, but millions of college graduates are forced to pay interest rates of 5 to 7 percent or more for decades.”
How, exactly, would Sanders pay for making college free and debt-free? You guessed it: “The cost of this $75 billion a year plan is fully paid for by imposing a tax of a fraction of a percent on Wall Street speculators who nearly destroyed the economy seven years ago.”
It all comes back to the bankers. And, therefore, for the activist left, it all comes back to the Jews. In November, student activists called for a Million Student March to protest college tuition fees. Students in the City University of New York system advertised their event by posting the following note on Facebook:
On November 12th, students all across CUNY will rally to demand a freeze on tuition and new contracts! We must fight for funding for our university, and for CUNY to be accessible to working class communities in NYC as the public university system. The Zionist administration invests in Israeli companies, companies that support the Israeli occupation, hosts birthright programs and study abroad programs in occupied Palestine, and reproduces settler-colonial ideology throughout CUNY through Zionist content of education. While CUNY aims to produce the next generation of professional Zionists, SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine] aims to change the university to fight for all peoples [sic] liberation.
Here is their list of demands:
–An End to the Privatization of Education!
–Cancellation of all student debt!
–15$ minimum wage for campus workers!
An End to Racial and Economic Segregation in Education!
–Racialized college-acceptance practices
–Work Program requirements for students on public assistance
–Rapid gentrification and privatization of public school property
–Transparency in Administration!
–Gender Resource Centers and perpetrators of sexual assault expelled
–Demand CUNY divests from Israel, companies that maintain the Zionist occupation, private prisons, and prison labor
–Pay Parity for Adjunct Professors
–A fair contract for CUNY Professors
What does any of that have to do with “Zionists”? The answer goes back to Marx: “The contradiction which exists between the effective political power of the Jew and his political rights, is the contradiction between politics and the power of money in general. Politics is in principle superior to the power of money, but in practice it has become its bondsman.”
In other words, money talks. And in Marx’s view and the view of his descendants, it speaks the language of the Jew, who represents power. If that power is going to be devolved back into the hands of the people, where it belongs, it must be wrested from the Jew.
The fact that “Zionist” has become a term of loathing on the Sanders left might explain why he is uncomfortable about another interesting biographical detail. As his campaign caught fire, curious reporters dug up the fact he had lived on a kibbutz in 1963. Asked about it, Sanders refused to say which kibbutz it was—and never has. Israeli journalists turned themselves into detectives to uncover the secret, and Haaretz finally dug up the name of the kibbutz: Shaar Haamakim. According to the Times of Israel, Shaar Haamakim was connected to “a communist, Soviet-affiliated faction.” Of course, kibbutzes were collective farms, so they were often culturally leftist. Sanders apparently joined one of the more radical ones.
“Bernie’s socialism was about trying to give people a better society,” his old friend Richard Sugarman told Tablet, an attitude that was at the “heart of his thinking about Israel.” Sanders’s brother Larry told Tablet that Bernie thought at the time he found what he’d been looking for; the kibbutz proved “you didn’t need big bosses, you didn’t need massive wealth” and that socialism “could work.”
Perhaps that’s one reason Sanders didn’t want to talk about his time on the radical kibbutz: Shaar Haamakim was supposed to prove to the world that socialism was the way, but it’s long gone now, a relic of the past left behind by a country (of his fellow Jews, no less) that embraced capitalism and prospered for it.
When Haaretz went looking for the name of Sanders’s kibbutz, it also unearthed an interview Sanders did with the paper in 1990, when he was a congressman. Sanders was already known as a harsh critic of U.S. Cold War policy, especially in Central America. But the interview showed that Sanders faulted Israel, too: He was “embarrassed by Israel’s involvement,” because the Jewish state had been acting as “a front for the American government.”
It’s hard to imagine much has changed. Sanders’s Jewishness might have generated the “dual-loyalist” list that so intrigued Diane Rehm, but in fact he’s almost certainly closer to his party’s Israel critics than he is to Charles Schumer. His list of foreign-policy advisers includes James Zogby of the Arab-American Institute—for 30 years a leading anti-Israel voice in Washington—and the conspiracy theorist Lawrence Wilkerson, who was once chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. The level of Wilkerson’s antipathy toward Israel was evident after it became clear that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons on the Syrian opposition in 2013. Wilkerson went on Current TV and insisted that “this could’ve been an Israeli false-flag operation.”
Sanders’s discomfort with his own Jewish roots may be intertwined with his ideological distaste for the Jewish state—even as his decision to downplay them on the campaign trail may stem from the understanding that the more extreme elements of the leftist base in the Democratic Party traffic in anti-Semitic stereotypes and would be less likely to support an openly Jewish candidate.
Bernie Sanders has made history—as a Jew. But he’ll be the last one to say so, because when socialism actually triumphs, the revolution is not beautiful, it is not quiet, it is not gentle. And it is never good for the Jews.