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Unlike Corbyn, Bernie Sanders is not an anti-Semite The American Right's smears smack of cynicism

Is he America's great hope? Credit: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Is he America's great hope? Credit: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

February 26, 2020   4 mins

The mainstream Anglo-Jewish community rejected Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in December and named Corbyn himself as an anti-Semite, rotting the party from its head. The community was accused of using anti-Semitism not to protect itself, but to slander the opposition.

I believe that Corbyn is an anti-Semite. I also believe that the Tories, who don’t care about immigrants, exploited this. It is gruesome to watch the campaigning video of Boris Johnson in the Grodzinski Bakery in Golders Green, selling doughnuts and calming Orthodox Jews, and then to read that the Dubs amendment to offer sanctuary to refugee children was rejected by his government. Simply put, they used us. Why wouldn’t they?

If Corbyn’s racism was exploitable by the Right, it is awful to watch this strategy crossing the Atlantic to fell Bernie Sanders. He is called the Jewish Corbyn. He isn’t. He is called an anti-Semite. He isn’t. The charge is absurd. Even so, it has begun.

Bernie Sanders’s father, Elias ben Yehuda Sanders, left Galicia, Poland at 17, in 1921. He was fleeing pogroms; later, most of Galician Jewry was murdered at Auschwitz. “The threat of anti-Semitism is not some abstract idea to me,” he has said. “It is very personal. It destroyed a large part of my family.”

Jewish birth doesn’t exempt you from being anti-Semitic — read the blogs of the Tony Greenstein, the son of a rabbi, now expelled from the Labour Party for his “noxious behaviour” if you disagree — but Sanders calls himself “a proud American Jew” and I believe him; he is a proud Jew in the Socialist tradition. Two things made his politics, he says: growing up in poverty in New York and the murder of his extended family in Poland.

There are two charges aimed at Sanders. The first is that he is not supportive enough of Israel. What kind of Israel is he not supportive enough of? A Greater Israel with ever-expanding settlements, with all hope of peace extinguished, in which any violence is forgivable as long as it is not towards a Jew? I would hope not; that is Trump’s kind of support and it is not, for me, support. It is, rather, enabling of the very worst elements in Israel; a summoning of something awful.

Sanders is a garden variety liberal Zionist. He supports a two-state solution, and credibly. Corbyn could never manage this, even if it was his party’s official policy. Sanders, though, wrote this in an essay for Jewish Currents: “The founding of Israel is understood by another people in the land of Palestine as the cause of their painful displacement. And just as Palestinians should recognise the just claims of Israeli Jews, supporters of Israel must understand why Palestinians view Israel’s creation as they do. Acknowledging these realities does not ‘delegitimise’ Israel any more than acknowledging the sober facts of America’s own founding delegitimises the United States.”

It is hard to disagree with this analysis; rather, it is comforting to read such sense and empathy. Even so, he is embroiled in a fight with American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac). He refuses to attend their conference this year, although he did offer to give a speech in 2016 (and was rejected). “The Israeli people have the right to live in peace and security,” he says. “So do the Palestinian people. I remain concerned about the platform Aipac provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights. For that reason, I will not attend their conference”. Aipac called the remarks “odious” and “shameful” and invited Mike Pence to speak instead. Please suppress your laughter.

The second charge against him is the company he keeps, and it is true that some of his associates — the congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar — do not share his support for a two-state solution and have sometimes fallen into anti-Semitic tropes. In 2012 Omar tweeted that Israel has “hypnotised” the world (she apologised) and Tlaib has falsely blamed Israel for the death of a Palestinian child (she retracted).

What do you say to these unpleasant associates? You could say that Sanders has other associates anti-Zionists would despise, such as the kibbutzniks he stayed with in Haifa in 1963. He later wrote: “It was there that I saw and experienced for myself many of the progressive values upon which Israel was founded. 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.” Sanders needs to build a progressive coalition to defeat Trump; and we must accept, the Left being what it is, that many are anti-Zionists. But they — and this is the crucial difference with Jeremy Corbyn’s situation — are following a Jewish liberal Zionist now and I read that as victory.

This is not enough for Sanders’s Jewish enemies. They say he doesn’t practise religious Judaism — why should he? A Jewish acquaintance who stayed with Sanders on the Haifa kibbutz made a ludicrous intervention in print, saying that Sanders refused invitations to his children’s bar mitzvahs. He also complained that, when they stayed on the kibbutz, Sanders sat under a tree reading Karl Marx with his “rootless Jewish soul”.

These squabbles are normal within the Jewish community, where competitive Judaism is a sport, like chess, and the ancient debate about whether Jews should be particularists — in this case, unquestioning Zionists — or universalists — in this case, avid Socialists — rages on; how best, is the unanswerable question, do we remain safe?  Sanders’s politics, I fear, is the real cause of the hostility, and this angers me; the claims of his “anti-Semitism” are spurious and cruel. Mike Bloomberg, the non-practising Jewish capitalist, has escaped such claims of “non-Jewish Jewishness”.

I have spent too much time trying to explain what anti-Semitism is, and what it isn’t. Seeking peace in the Middle East and having the integrity — and the charisma — to attract anti-Zionists when you are a liberal Zionist, and always have been, isn’t anti-Semitism. It’s good politics and cause for hope. Do American Jews really trust that the racism that Donald Trump summons — for cynicism — will not overwhelm them too? If they do, they are mad.

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.


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