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Can Bernie Sanders Fix America’s Broken Anti-Semitism Conversation?

The presidential trailblazer just took a historic first step toward national dialogue about anti-Semitism. But its success will depend on whether he’s willing to confront some hard choices.

Yair Rosenberg
November 12, 2019
Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images
Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images
Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images
Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Writing today in the leftist journal Jewish Currents, Sen. Bernie Sanders offered a manifesto for confronting anti-Semitism in our time. Before grappling with its specific contents, it’s important to note the historical significance of this moment: For the first time, a Jewish candidate for president—the most successful one in American history—has spoken out at length on anti-Semitism to the public. That’s something worthy of celebration, and in Sanders’ case, commendation.

In the past, Sanders has been reluctant, for understandable reasons, to delve too deeply into his Jewish identity or explicitly address anti-Semitic ideas. Here, he has tackled the subject head-on. Precisely because this may be his first foray into a more public stance on these issues, it’s worth examining the substance of Sanders’ piece, and seeing what it does well—and where it falls short.

As is his wont, Sanders bluntly states some essential truths. He unflinchingly characterizes the white supremacist menace that stalks the globe, from America to New Zealand. He separates criticism of Israeli policy from anti-Semitism, noting that support for Israel and support for Palestinians are not mutually exclusive: “My pride and admiration for Israel lives alongside my support for Palestinian freedom and independence. I reject the notion that there is any contradiction there.” He points out that it is possible to “acknowledge the enormous achievement of establishing a democratic homeland for the Jewish people after centuries of displacement and persecution” while also recognizing how this achievement was experienced by Palestinians. Two complex truths can coexist at once.

Surprisingly, Sanders even challenges many fellow leftists in insisting—like President Obama before him—that “some criticism of Israel can cross the line into antisemitism, especially when it denies the right of self-determination to Jews,” a seeming rejection of the anti-Zionist one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict embraced by many on the global left (but spurned by most Palestinians and Israelis) in favor of the two-state solution.

Though many partisans will naturally reflexively reject much of what Sanders writes, most of his piece is both reasonable and unobjectionable. That said, it’s worth focusing on the one vital point that Sanders gets wrong, not because it overwhelms what he got right, but because he has an entire campaign to sharpen and improve this message in response to constructive criticism—and it’s crucial that he does.

The essay’s major miscue comes when Sanders outlines a seemingly innocuous list of steps he will take to combat anti-Semitism. One of them, he writes, is that he will “rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council” because “the United States should not be sitting on the sidelines on these important issues at the UN; we should be at the table helping to shape an international human rights agenda that combats all forms of bigotry and discrimination.”

There’s just one problem with this proposal: The council is institutionally anti-Semitic. Since its founding in 2006, it has formally condemned the world’s only Jewish state over 70 times, more than all other states in the world combined. Needless to say, this is not because Israel is astronomically more evil than its non-Jewish counterparts. It is because Israel is Jewish, and is being treated by the UNHRC much like Jews are treated throughout the world: as a target for abuse and a convenient scapegoat for society’s broader failings.

It is no coincidence that the current membership of the council is a veritable rogues gallery of serial human rights violators like China, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela—all of which have never been formally condemned by the body—and no surprise that these bad actors would use Jews as diversions from their conduct. Indeed, already back in 2008, a little-known young ex-congressional staffer named Ronan Farrow called for the council’s abolition in light of its hijacking by bigoted anti-Israel authoritarians. What is surprising is that Sanders would fail to mention this complication when advocating an American return to the council in an essay about anti-Semitism. After all, far from a step that would impede anti-Jewish prejudice, rejoining the UNHRC would risk legitimizing an institution that has fueled it. Perhaps Sanders sees that risk as the lesser of two evils, and like President Obama views an American role on the council as essential for curbing its anti-Semitic bias, but if so, he makes no mention of this trade-off to his readers.

It’s not that Sanders is unaware of the problem. In 2017, a letter was sent from the U.S. Senate to U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, calling on him to combat his institution’s well-documented mistreatment of Israel. “Most troubling is the United Nations Human Rights Council,” the document observed. “Charged with shining a light on gross human rights violations, the UNHRC—whose membership currently includes some of the world’s worst human rights violators—instead devotes time to unwarranted attacks against Israel.” The letter was signed by all 100 U.S. senators, including Bernie Sanders.

Yet not only did he not raise this issue here—again, in an essay about anti-Semitism—he has never mentioned it on the campaign trail.

That omission matters, because it points to a broader blind spot that Sanders shares with many across the political spectrum when it comes to anti-Semitism: the tendency to avoid confronting it among ideological allies. This behavior is understandable from a partisan perspective, if problematic from a moral one: It’s much easier to point out the failings of our foes than it is to raise them among our friends.

But this double standard is wrong morally and pragmatically, particularly when it comes to anti-Semitism that masquerades as criticism of Israel. It’s indefensible because bigotry is bigotry even when the target, like Israel, is “no angel,” and even when those perpetrating it align on your side of the political spectrum. And it’s wrong pragmatically for anyone who seeks to advance the Palestinian cause, because as long as criticism of Israel is entangled with anti-Semitism, both well-meaning Jews and non-Jews will distance themselves from that conversation, as repeated presidents have distanced themselves from the U.N. Human Rights Council. When anti-Semites capture the Israel conversation, everyone—Jews, non-Jews, Palestinians, Israelis—loses.

Sanders makes a similar omission—eliding the anti-Semitism among some who call themselves anti-Israel—elsewhere in the essay. He writes, “The forces fomenting antisemitism are the forces arrayed against oppressed people around the world, including Palestinians.” This is a politically convenient formulation, but it is demonstrably untrue. Like the United Nations Human Rights Council, there are many actors who use their support for the Palestinian cause as the pretext for their sometimes murderous anti-Semitism. Contrary to Sanders, “the forces fomenting anti-Semitism” are not just those on the right who hate Palestinians, but also some on the left who claim to support them. This transideological appeal is one reason that anti-Semitism has proven so widespread and so durable.

A serious approach to anti-Semitism from the left, then, cannot simply be about opposing anti-Semitism from the people the left already opposes. It needs to acknowledge, identify, and credibly combat anti-Semitism from non-right-wing sources, including those who uncomfortably may share progressive positions or dub themselves mere “critics” of Israel.

As another Jewish senator, Democrat Brian Schatz, put it at the 2018 J Street conference:

It’s easy for us to look at another country or another political party and say: ‘Enough! Do better!’ It is a tougher conversation when the problem is in our own tent. But we know that we cannot look the other way when people who would otherwise be our progressive allies speak out of ignorance, or fear, or convenience, and they cross a moral line.

While Schatz was addressing the left, the American right has a similar problem: Its current political establishment is extraordinarily sensitive to any hint of anti-Semitism on the left, yet utterly unable to address anti-Semitism in its own backyard, including from its own president.

As a result, the contemporary American conversation about anti-Semitism is reduced to political partisans trying to bounce others from parties that they weren’t invited to. You don’t have to have tried doing this yourself to know that it does not end well. Sanders, however, can change this conversation—if he’s willing to.

That’s because the point here is not to draw some sort of equation between anti-Jewish hatred on either side of the political spectrum. It’s about who is best positioned to fight particular forms of anti-Semitism and help eradicate them. And on the American left, that person is Sanders. Just as Sanders, a Jewish politician who spent time on an Israeli kibbutz, is uniquely positioned to speak up for Palestinian statehood, he—as the country’s leading progressive Jewish political voice—is uniquely positioned to expose, confront, and expunge anti-Semitism within left-wing circles.

In part, this is because he himself has repeatedly experienced that anti-Semitism in progressive spaces. During his 2016 run, he was interrogated by a host on NPR—no alt-right bastion—about his nonexistent Israeli citizenship, in a shocking public airing of the traditional dual-loyalty smear. After he opened up slightly about his Jewish background in a primary debate, a left-wing journalist took to Twitter to complain that “CNN just asked Bernie a question about his Judaism and not a follow up about the ‘Jewish state.’ #unbelievable”, as though Sanders—an American Jew—was somehow responsible for a country thousands of miles away. And at a campaign event in Harlem’s Apollo Theater, Sanders was confronted by a man wearing a Black Lives Matter pin who questioned him about his “affiliation to your Jewish community,” given that “the Zionist Jews … run the Federal Reserve, they run Wall Street, they run every campaign.”

Given this experience, Sanders is perfectly positioned to educate his ideological allies about the perils of anti-Semitism in their midst and personally help stamp it out in the progressive movement. And given Sanders’ status as an international leftist icon, this intervention would have global—not just local—significance. But as his essay today demonstrates, he is not yet willing to publicly broach those harder conversations. It’s a reticence that has led Sanders to avoid jettisoning dubious surrogates like Linda Sarsour, who has worked alongside Louis Farrakhan and used his Nation of Islam paramilitary group for Women’s March security, high-fived Christological anti-Semites on Twitter, and slurred a prominent Jewish journalist as a neo-Nazi.

There is plenty of time left in this campaign, however, for Sanders to find the words to guide and challenge his own camp, and raise up the politically inconvenient and often-ignored manifestations of anti-Semitism in America. If he can’t, his advocacy on the issue—while symbolically significant—will likely remain just that. But if he does, he’ll set an enduring example for the entire country.

Is he up to the task?


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Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.