Who cares if Bernie Sanders is Jewish?

February 13, 2016 by Ben Cohen - JNS.org
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It would be churlish to deny the remarkable achievement of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in decisively winning the recent New Hampshire primary…writes Ben Cohen/JNS.org.

Sen. Bernie Sanders. Credit: Michael Vadon via Wikimedia Commons.

Sen. Bernie Sanders. Credit: Michael Vadon via Wikimedia Commons.

For months, Sanders has been depicted as an eccentric whose limited appeal will be crushed by the ruthless Hillary Clinton political machine. But there he was at the podium in Manchester, laying out an agenda—an increased minimum wage, “breaking up” the big banks, a gutting of the criminal justice system—that sounded, in places, akin to what the followers of the Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky called “transitional demands.” (By which they meant a strategy to expose the democratic limitations of capitalism through levelling demands that cannot be met without a socialist revolution.)

It was stirring stuff, enhanced by Sanders’s strong Brooklyn accent and his facial expression, which betrays that he’s spent much of his life going from one left-wing meeting to another. In particular, he reminded me of another leading Jewish socialist whom I knew when I was growing up in England—the late Ian Mikardo, a Labour Party parliamentarian who represented a working class, east London constituency.

I met “Mik,” as he was known, through Poale Zion, a socialist Zionist organization affiliated with the Labour Party. The son of Jewish immigrants from western Ukraine, Mikardo embraced both the Labour Party and Zionism as a young man. For him, there was no contradiction between these two commitments; one might even say that for Mikardo, socialism and Zionism were joined at the hip.

What resulted was a strong, proud Jewish identity that stayed with him for his entire life. Declaring yourself a Jew, a socialist and a Zionist was always a brave thing to do, especially during the Cold War, when the Soviets and their official doctrine of “anti-Zionism” exercised undue influence on much of the left.

Which brings me back to Sanders. Most Americans would not have been struck by his description of himself as the son of a “Polish immigrant.” But some Jews were, and not necessarily those on the right. Seconds after that remark, Chemi Shalev of the leftist daily Haaretz tweeted, “Is it parochial to be irked a bit by Sanders describing himself as the son of a ‘Polish immigrant?’”

I suppose it is parochial, but I’ll admit that I too was irked. “Ian Mikardo would never have played down his Jewish origins,” was my first thought. My second thought was essentially frustration at Sanders’s apparent ignorance of the society that his forebears came from. Poland in the early 20th century was indubitably not America, something Sanders’s father, Eli, would have been painfully aware of. The notion of a “Pole of the Jewish faith” was hardly a widespread one. The nature of Poland at that time determined that when Eli Sanders came to America, he did so as a Jew, not as a Pole.

Since that speech, there have been several reports in the Jewish and general media that have highlighted two factors. Firstly, that Sanders is largely indifferent—note well, indifferent, not hostile—to Judaism and Jewish identity. Secondly, that most Americans don’t care that he’s Jewish, and most American Jews aren’t now preparing to break out the streamers in case he becomes this country’s first Jewish president.

In the cold light of day, there’s nothing objectionable about either of those points. Identity politics already exercises too great a hold on the political imagination of today’s America, so in that sense we should find Sanders’s insistence that we speak about the “issues” rather refreshing. Apart from anything, it means we can dispense with the argument that Sanders can’t possibly be inimical to Israel’s interests because he’s a Jew. We’re supposed to focus on the issues, remember?

Jewish or not, the foreign policy of a Sanders administration would make the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency seem like a halcyon period by comparison. To begin with, Sanders isn’t really interested in the rest of the world—like most leftists these days, he has abandoned the principle of internationalism. Working conditions at Walmart animate him. Syrian children murdered by poison gas are someone else’s problem.

Ben Cohen

Ben Cohen

Think back to his New Hampshire speech. Interestingly, the only time Sanders didn’t get a loud cheer was when he said that the Islamic State terrorist group had to be destroyed, which speaks volumes about his supporters. But he followed that up by saying that the nations of the Middle East bear the prime responsibility for achieving that outcome because—pace Obama—we cannot be the world’s policeman. And actually, in his case that’s true—if you conceive of the nations of the Middle East as a cohesive bloc, not only can you not be the world’s policeman, you shouldn’t be either.

On top of that, the milieu that is influencing Sanders’s thoughts on foreign policy—when he can be bothered to think about it at all, that is—is one that is nakedly hostile to Israel. On the Middle East, he listens to J Street, a Jewish anti-Israel group that strangely masquerades as “pro-Israel,” and its ally the National Iranian American Council, which is the closest thing the Iranian regime has to a lobby in Washington. So it hardly takes a soothsayer to figure out that a Sanders foreign policy would be grounded in isolationism, together with a willingness to let Russia, China, and Iran run amok in the name of reining in American imperialism.

The Sanders phenomenon speaks to a wider problem, namely the growth of extremism in American politics. And because extremists of different stripes have more in common than they are prepared to acknowledge, seeming polar opposites can end up being very similar. I can’t perceive a significant amount of light between Sanders and Donald Trump on foreign policy; both are isolationists, and both regard the world outside America as another galaxy.

If there’s anything to be said here in Sanders’s favor, it’s that he’s less giddy than Trump is at the prospect of meeting Vladimir Putin. But when it comes to substance, both candidates—one declaring that we need a socialist America, the other declaring that we need to make America great again—will preside over the continuing loss in global credibility that has become so stark under Obama.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of TheTower.org & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for JNS.org on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).


5 Responses to “Who cares if Bernie Sanders is Jewish?”
  1. Otto Waldmann says:

    Terribly sorry, but America the World policeman is there – and everywhere – to stay. Don’t just argue with me on this one, but tell it to the Pentagon and those other thirty something American Agencies involved in it.
    Bernie has got Buckley’s at the White House, yet he is allowed to create the necessary distinctions between an America less inclined to be great again ( see our Bernie !!) and something very akin to the policeman we have just decided that is everywhere to stay ( see both Clinton and Trump ).
    His Jewishness is something that nobody can deny and, just because it has not burst yet on to the electoral scene , it does not mean that your/our regular Yankie does not harbour antisemitic ancestral feelings. Just imagine a Sanders President and count the seconds before the first ( foyst) of so many nasty antisemitic graffiti would cover the White House wall to wall and not just on the outside…

  2. LIZZIE MOORE says:

    Yes, dead right, Leon. The grandfather of a close friend of mine in Israel: he witnessed a Polish Catholic bishop driving in a convertible with the new Gestapo chief of the region, pointing out to the Gestapo all the Jewish houses in this Polish town. Shalom, Lizzie

  3. Erica Edelman says:

    He doesn’t sound like POTUS material to me. Being socialist and caring about the workers at Walmart is one thing but isolationist is quite another. There are plenty of Jews against Jews on this globe and it’s not healthy. Nope, this man is too much of a lefty. We need a nice, peaceful, calm type of moderate/centrist Jew if we are going to have a Jew as POTUS – a man for all seasons who can ASSIST Netanyahu (not ignore him, be ambivalent or be “indifferent”). A Jew who cares about the workers at Walmart AND the Syrian kids. America can NEVER view itself as a separate entity nation. Going that way is not the way to go – that’s just way too much extremism. But nor does America have to play policeman. We don’t live in an all-or-nothing kind of world. So Jewish or not, our next POTUS has to be a man for all seasons. A real mensch, if you will.

  4. Leon Poddebsky says:

    Many Polish people never considered Sanders’ “Polish immigrant” parent to be a Pole.
    Many Polish people used to say to Jews, ” Go back to your own country, ‘Palestine.'”

  5. michael Burd says:

    Beware of Leftist, Socialist Jews acting as Palestinian useful idiots.

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