The quixotic bid by Sen. Bernie Sanders — a 73-year-old Jewish socialist — for the presidency of the United States, evokes a mythical long-ago for some Jewish leftists; a time when even the poor wore suits to demonstrations, carrying “red diaper” babies; when socialism was as common as stickball, speaking its dreams with a street-corner accent, as does Sanders. He represents Vermont in Congress but also his childhood Brooklyn, a workingman’s borough of blue collars and unions, hand-to-mouth paychecks, immigrants, socialist Yiddish broadsheets and a Yiddish radio station whose very call-letters, WEVD, honored Eugene V. Debs, a founder of the legendary Wobblies (Industrial Workers of the World) and five times a candidate for president, each time defeated but never thinking himself a loser.
They were mostly secular, but with messianic dreams. There was plenty to dream about: an end to the misery of tenements, sweatshops and industrial abuse; an end to tragedies such as the young women dying by their sewing machines or jumping out of windows during the Triangle Fire of 1911. Three times, beginning in 1914, the Lower East Side elected a Debs disciple, Meyer London, a Lithuanian-born Jew, to represent them in Congress.
London was ambivalent about Zionism, refusing to introduce a congressional resolution supporting the Balfour Declaration. In 1918, the resolution passed in spite of him, and he was defeated soon after.
Old Jewish arguments never die, and don’t fade away. In 2010, 84 years after London died, his cousin, Tony Judt, the British essayist, wrote in The New York Review of Books that London lost his seat because of “an ignominious alliance of wealthy New York Jews disturbed by his socialism and American Zionists aghast at his well-publicized suspicion of their project.” In truth, most Lower East Side voters were hardly wealthy in 1918, but they were aghast.
All that is Sanders’ inheritance, too. He openly admits to not being religious, is married to a Catholic woman, and the Religious News Service says he is “the presidential contender most willing to dissociate himself from religion.” After graduating the University of Chicago in 1964, Sanders spent several months working on a kibbutz. But Sanders, the Senate’s only Independent (though he’s running as a Democrat), boycotted Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent speech to Congress. Nevertheless, during the Gaza war of 2014, when confronted by a fiercely angry anti-Israel town hall meeting in Vermont, where Israel was accused of civilian “massacres,” Sanders sharply reminded them that Hamas had been launching rockets into Israel, had hid those rockets in Gaza population centers, and built military tunnels into Israel. When the anti-Israel crowd tried to shout him down, Sanders told them to “shut up” and let him finish.
In 2008, another presidential candidate was called a “socialist,” and friends and enemies of Barack Obama agreed it was a slur. In 2011, John Nichols’ history of American socialism called it “The ‘S’ Word.” That same year, a Pew survey found “socialism” to be the most polarizing and pejorative of any political label, with 60 percent of Americans having a negative reaction to the word.
Nevertheless, deep within that survey were hints of a socialist renaissance: 49 percent of young people (18-29) thought “socialism” positive, as did 55 percent of blacks and 44 percent of Hispanics.
Income disparity, a socialist complaint as far back as Debs, is suddenly not Sanders’ issue alone. According to the Associated Press, “Of all the buzzwords and phrases popping up early in the presidential campaign, ‘income inequality’ must be close to the top of the list. And it’s not just Democrats” saying so. “Republican candidates, too, are playing up the notion that people at the bottom of the economic ladder are getting a raw deal while the rich get richer.” And not just presidential candidates but mayors, such as New York’s Bill de Blasio, who has been speaking about income inequality across the country as if he were a candidate, criticizing the incumbent. After all, reports the AP, during Obama’s first term, “Incomes for the highest-earning 1 percent of Americans rose 31 percent” (adjusted for inflation). “For everyone else, it inched up an average of 0.4 percent.”
During the Depression, a Fortune magazine poll found 35 percent of Americans saying government should impose “heavy taxes on the rich.” Today, that number is up to 52 percent (according to a 2015 Gallup poll), and up to 32 percent of conservatives.
Not long ago, a socialist couldn’t get elected president of his shul, let alone president of the United States. But Chabad.org recently posted, “successive rebbes indicated that socialism and Judaism are not entirely at odds.”
This year, Sanders’ legislative program called for a “revolution” in college tuition, actually no tuition at all for freshmen and sophomores in public colleges, and reforms of federal student loans. He introduced legislation to “break up the Wall Street banks,” saying, “No financial institution should have holdings so extensive that its failure could send the world economy into crisis.”
The rights and dignity of workers has long been at the heart of the Jewish socialist agenda, and few organizations have been at the barricades longer than the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC), formed in 1934, bringing together the Workmen’s Circle (Arbeiter Ring), the Jewish Labor Bund and United Hebrew Trades. The JLC’s associate director, Arieh Lebowitz, is quick to remind us that as a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization the JLC cannot endorse candidates, but with a Jewish socialist running for president, well, there’s no law against telling the old stories, is there?
“From the beginning of the 20th century until the time of [Franklin] Roosevelt,” says Lebowitz, “a lot of working-class Jewish voters voted only for socialist candidates.” Then the New Deal adopted “ideas first proposed by the socialists,” such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, rights to housing, increased regulation of Wall Street. Even at that, a lot of people didn’t feel comfortable voting for Democrats, so they set up the American Labor Party,” and nominated Roosevelt on that ticket.
Voting for Roosevelt on the Labor ticket gave Jewish socialists permission, in a sense, to later vote for Roosevelt on the Democratic line. “It’s my sense,” says Lebowitz, “that the socialists never regained the majority of Jewish voters.” Jews also became more middle class, moving away from the blue-collar trades. Add to that the soaring rates of assimilation, and “We’re all playing somewhat different roles than we did decades earlier,” he added. “Maybe some people don’t want to call it socialism, but the right of workers to organize and get better working conditions is still relevant.”
What helped make socialism a dirty word, says Lebowitz, was its flirtation with and forgiveness of Soviet communism. The issue, he said, split Jewish socialists like “the Hatfields and McCoys.”
The feud continued for decades. In 1929, Arab riots in the Yishuv (pre-state Israel) killed 130 Jews, a “pogrom” said the socialist Yiddish paper, the Morgen Freiheit. Then, to placate communists, the Freiheit turned and pinned the blame on “Zionist-fascist” provocations. According to the Marginalia Review of Books, socialists angered by the new editorial policy “almost drove the Yiddish daily out of business. Vendors refused to sell the newspaper, businesses pulled their advertisements, and nearly all of its best writers quit in protest.”
Ten years later, in 1939, the movement was divided by the Hitler-Stalin pact that directly led to the annihilation of Polish Jewry (including most of the Sanders family). A 2009 documentary, “At Home In Utopia,” shown on PBS, told the story of an entirely socialist cooperative apartment complex in the Bronx. Boris Ourlicht, whose family lived there, told the filmmakers that it was considered perfectly acceptable for Boris and other young men to set up a soapbox in the early evening, when people would be getting off the subway, “and start talking about how wonderful the pact was.” The Soviet treaty with Hitler, they said, was good for “peace.”
In 1953, just weeks after the notorious “Doctor’s Plot” that rounded up Jews on fabricated charges, and with thousands of Jews freezing in Siberian prison camps, Stalin died. Yossi Klein Halevi, in his book “Like Dreamers,” writes how Kibbutz Ein Shemer, affiliated with Hashomer Hatzair, “went into mourning.” The Purim play was cancelled. The Hashomer Hatzair newspaper, whose logo read, “For Zionism – For Socialism,” had “a heroic image of Stalin” on the front page, with the headline, “The Progressive World Mourns.”
And so “socialism” still rankles many Jews, though too many of the economic problems that motivated the socialists remain. Says Lebowitz, “Pete Hamill used to say, don’t call it socialism, call it stickball.” Lebowitz added, “social justice” is really the same thing. There are now 47 organizations from every denomination, and from no denominations at all, in the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, “pursuing social justice from a Jewish perspective,” says Lebowitz, “using Jewish vocabulary, Jewish texts, Jewish history, Jewish resonance.”
And now one of their own is running for president.
When he was a young man in Brooklyn, Bernie Sanders was intrigued by stickball.