What kind of Jew is Bernie Sanders?
That’s a question usually asked by two kinds of people: Jews and anti-Semites.
For the anti-Semites, for whom Jews neatly fall into categories of blood-sucking capitalists or fifth-column commies, the self-described democratic socialist makes it easy.
The question is harder for Jews. For some, his is a familiar trajectory, from his parents’ immigrant background to his childhood in Brooklyn to the left-wing politics he embraced as an adult. That biography even makes him a Jewish role model to some; as the millennial writer Aaron Freedman wrote in these pages a few weeks back, Sanders is “deeply representative of the silent majority for whom social justice movements take the place of synagogue and Israel is more often a cause for kvetching than kvelling.”
Other Jews, mostly older or more conservative, find Sanders suspect. His left-wing positions on Israel, his universalistic politics, his secularism, the far-left company he keeps — even his non-Jewish wife — put him in the pariah category of “self-denying” or worse, “self-hating” Jew.
Sanders presses all these buttons in an essay for Jewish Currents, the newly reinvigorated journal of the Jewish left, titled “How to Fight Antisemitism.” It may be his most forthright statement yet on his own Jewish identity, and a fascinating rebuttal of anti-Israel currents among his own followers.
In the essay Sanders invokes his Jewish biography, describing how his father emigrated from Poland and how relatives who remained behind were murdered by the Nazis. “The threat of antisemitism is not some abstract idea to me. It is very personal,” he writes.
Not surprisingly for a Democratic presidential candidate, he links the current rise in anti-Semitism and specifically the massacre at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue to Donald Trump, whom he holds partly responsible for inciting “a dangerous political ideology that targets Jews and anyone who does not fit a narrow vision of a whites-only America.”
That part of the essay is unambiguous and predictable: He vows to “confront this hatred, do exactly the opposite of what Trump is doing and embrace our differences to bring people together.”
It’s when he talks about Israel and anti-Semitism on the left that things get interesting.
He acknowledges that “some criticism of Israel can cross the line into antisemitism, especially when it denies the right of self-determination to Jews, or when it plays into conspiracy theories about outsized Jewish power.”
Conversely, he asserts that some critics of Israel have been unfairly tarred as anti-Semites, and he asserts the right of progressives to criticize the Jewish state. It is “very troubling to me that we are also seeing accusations of antisemitism used as a cynical political weapon against progressives,” Sanders writes. “We should be very clear that it is not antisemitic to criticize the policies of the Israeli government.”
But after defending Israel’s critics, Sanders draws a red line and rejects the movement to delegitimize Israel. He recalls his time on a kibbutz, and after doing so offers a full-throated defense of Israel’s right to exist: “I think it is very important for everyone, but particularly for progressives, to acknowledge the enormous achievement of establishing a democratic homeland for the Jewish people after centuries of displacement and persecution.”
That’s no small statement in certain progressive circles.
Critics of the essay, like former Brooklyn pol Dov Hikind, have already complained that Sanders himself has accepted support from figures, like Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), whose anti-Israel rhetoric has crossed the line or who reject Israel’s legitimacy or both. Sanders’ critics note that many of his supporters embrace the movement to boycott Israel, which most mainstream Jewish groups consider anti-Semitic, especially in the main organizers’ rejection of the Jews’ right to self-determination.
Sanders’ critics on the Jewish right or even center are also not going to be pleased with his framing of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially when he writes of the “painful displacement” of the Palestinians. But here too he doubles down on his liberal Zionism: Acknowledging injustice done to the Palestinians, he writes, “does not ‘delegitimize’ Israel any more than acknowledging the sober facts of America’s own founding delegitimizes the United States.”
That’s not a popular view on the far left, whose members include some contributors to Jewish Currents who consider Jewish “ethnic nationalism” anathema and the binational solution increasingly appealing. Uncle Bernie could have pandered to the kinderlach, but instead uses his platform to defend the idea of a Jewish homeland.
So what kind of Jew is Bernie Sanders? His Jewish identity is as familiar and as authentic as his accent: a “proud Jewish American” who is fiercely secular and unapologetically Zionist. When he writes of the “proud tradition of Jewish social justice,” he invokes a universalism that is as Jewish as Samuel Gompers and Helen Suzman, the Workmen’s Circle and Hashomer Hatzair.
He may not be your cup of tea, but he is no outlier. And he may just be the only person who can speak to progressives and make a case for the achievements and legitimacy of Israel.