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The Blindspot in Bernie Sanders’ Anti-Semitism Manifesto

Bernie has been America’s greatest truth-teller on economic inequality, so why can’t he be truthful about anti-Semitism?

Paul Berman
November 25, 2019
Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images
Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images
Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images
Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders’ curious little manifesto on anti-Semitism in Jewish Currents on Nov. 11 reminds me why I could not possibly support the man—and why I sometimes feel a stab of regret about it. There is an impulsively decent quality in him that erupts now and then in rebellious outbursts of unexpected political principle, typically in ways that might offend his ideologically more cartoonish followers, but that render him pleasing, in my own eyes. And the mini-manifesto in Jewish Currents—the piece that Yair Rosenberg discussed in Tablet some days ago—offers an example.

It comes halfway through when Bernie recalls that, back in 1963, he lived the kibbutznik life in Israel. He was able to see and experience what he describes as “many of the progressive values upon which Israel was founded.” And he says: “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.”

The striking phrase is, of course, “particularly for progressives.” Most Americans do acknowledge the enormous achievement. But, as everyone has noticed, a noisy percentage of the people who suppose themselves to be progressives believe, on the contrary, that Israel ought to be regarded as a white supremacist settler colonialist state, or an imperialist excrescence, or a center of world racism, and ought to be erased from the map—which are positions that sometimes award themselves the polite name of honest criticism.

But Bernie in Jewish Currents, with a knack for nuance, rightly says, “It is true that some criticism of Israel can cross the line into anti-Semitism, especially when it denies the right of self-determination to Jews, or when it plays into conspiracy theories about outsized Jewish power.” He declares: “I will always call out anti-Semitism when I see it. My ancestors would expect no less of me.” His statement is good, then. It is solid. It is non-Jeremy Corbyn-like.

But everything else in the mini-manifesto is a disaster. Oh, maybe not everything. It has been said that Bernie makes a mistake in calling for the United States to return to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, on the grounds that anti-Israel manias and sympathy for outrageous tyrants long ago rendered the council a lost cause. But wouldn’t it be better to debate than to sulk? Hillel Neuer’s independent committee, UN Watch, participates in the Human Rights Council events, and strikes many a blow for common sense, and there is reason to suppose that a sufficiently feisty United States delegate seated at the table would be able to do the same, except more virally.

And it is good to hear that President Sanders will be a lot quicker than Donald Trump to appoint a special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. And he is right, of course, to say, “My pride and admiration for Israel lives alongside my support for Palestinian freedom and independence,” in a sentence that nicely presages a future era when, with American encouragement, Israel and Palestine will likewise live alongside one another (though how will America be able to encourage anything of the sort, if America has meanwhile withdrawn from the region?).

Everything else in the Jewish Currents piece, though, is undone by the habit of implying one thing (namely, that anti-Semitism comes in versions that progressives might hesitate to recognize) and presuming the opposite (namely, that anti-Semitism comes only in versions that progressives are eager to recognize). He reminds us that, according to the FBI statistics, anti-Semitic hate crimes in the United States have been growing. He mentions the arrest a few weeks ago of someone who planned to blow up a Colorado synagogue. “The New York Police Department,” he tells us, “reported in September that anti-Semitic hate crimes in New York City have risen by more than 63% in 2019 and make up more than half of all reported hate crimes.” He concludes: “This wave of violence is the result of a dangerous political ideology that targets Jews and anyone who does not fit into a narrow vision of a whites-only America.”

And yet, as everyone knows, every large Jewish institution in America has had to double-barricade its doors to guard against murderous attacks that might indeed come from white nationalists, but might also come from one or another faction of the worldwide jihad. And, as for the statistics in New York, these owe to a nasty vandalism that appears to be mostly the work of whites, but is combined with a surge of street violence against Hasidim by isolated African Americans and Latinos, whose views and motivations are a mystery even to their own consternated neighbors. But Bernie feels more comfortable confining his accusation to the white nationalists.

In this way, he falls into a well-known pattern of the European left, in certain of its tendencies, which leads people to pretend that, in Europe, too, anti-Semitism is a matter strictly of the ultra-right, 1930s-style. The actual reality is a multistrand affair. But people who boast of their progressivism hesitate to speak about the Islamists, on the grounds that racism can only come from privileged social classes, and not from subordinate classes, and certainly not from the oppressed immigrants.

Or the European progressives believe that Jewish reports of anti-Semitism are, by definition, a right-wing slander, except when the reports point at the traditional ultra-right. Or they believe that Islamism is itself a halfway progressive movement, in spite of a few barbarous elements, and ought to be protected until it smooths out its edges.

Or the progressives keep an eye out for political opportunity, which leads them to hope that, if only they shut up on certain topics, they will be able to recruit the Islamist-influenced masses to their own parties and movements. Or they labor under the shadow of the 19th-century anti-Semitic left and the red-brown style of the Soviet anti-Zionism of the 1970s and ’80s. And, by refusing to see what is before their eyes, they end up illustrating one of the odder qualities of anti-Semitism, which is its invisibility to everyone but the victims.

The American scene right now offers anti-Semitism in five varieties, to wit: (A) the white nationalist version, which is lately the most violent, rendered worse, as Bernie says, by excitements of the Trump movement; (B) the Islamist version; (C) the Louis Farrakhan version, which is frightening without having been violent, so far; (D) the New York multiethnic street version, which no one seems able to explain; and (E) the version that bubbles up from the anti-Zionism of the progressive left, which, in the student quarters, is oppressive without being violent, and is frightening because it has a greater possibility than any of the other varieties of ascending someday into political respectability and power.

But Bernie speaks only of anti-Semitism (A), with oblique references to anti-Semitism (E), and otherwise he keeps his counsel, which is odd. He has been, after all, America’s greatest truth-teller, when it comes to pointing out the extremes of economic inequality—a hero, in that respect. And yet the hero finds it difficult to say something comprehensive on a theme of anti-Semitism—conceptually difficult, I suppose, because of the simple-minded untrue left-wing truism that racism can only descend from above, and cannot ascend from below. And plainly he finds it politically difficult.

He does need, after all, his endorsements, not just from the nurses’ union, but from national political figures, which means the congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, together with Linda Sarsour, who may have been thrown out of the leadership of the Women’s March but has been, even so, rehabilitated as a “surrogate” in his campaign. So he has to tread lightly. When he says in Jewish Currents that “it is very important for everyone, but particularly for progressives, to acknowledge” Israel’s achievement, he appears to be admonishing those people explicitly, his own endorsers, and their admirers.

But the names go unnamed. And Jewish Currents turns out to be his magazine of preference—Jewish Currents, a venerable magazine, but decidedly a small one (which, by the way, happens to have its own very troubled history long ago in regard to the anti-Semitism of the left, dating back to the days before the magazine commendably broke with the Soviet Union).

And yet—this is what makes me sigh—he does blurt out truths now and then. It is not only his remark about the need for progressives to appreciate and applaud Israel. His larger foreign policy doctrine has contained, buried within his general instinct for an American retreat, a similar blurted and extraordinary truth, calling unpredictably for America to embrace the Cold War wisdom of Winston Churchill, of all people, and to fight pugnaciously against totalitarians and tyrants all over the world. With himself in the lead!

But the blurts fail to add up, and such is the man. In the same year that he called for a robust American resistance to Vladimir Putin, which was 2017, Bernie joined Rand Paul in being the only United States senators to vote against new sanctions on Russia. And in the same year, 2019, in which he has warned the progressive left against lapsing into anti-Semitism, Bernie Sanders has become the only candidate in the crowded campaign to surround himself with political figures who have never been able to shake off their reputations for anti-Semitism.


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Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.