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Weekend at Bernie’s

Let’s talk about the shysters, con men, and frauds surrounding the Democratic front-runner

James Kirchick
January 31, 2020
Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan, and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, hold hands on stage during a rally at Cass Technical High School on Oct. 27, 2019, in DetroitPhoto: Scott Heins/Getty Images
Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images
Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Michigan, and presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, hold hands on stage during a rally at Cass Technical High School on Oct. 27, 2019, in DetroitPhoto: Scott Heins/Getty Images

“I am very proud to be Jewish and look forward to being the first Jewish president,” Sen. Bernie Sanders declared to the annual J Street conference last October. It was an unusually straightforward statement from the presidential candidate who distinguished himself on the progressive left, for a while anyway, for eschewing identity politics in favor of the rhetoric of class struggle. Sanders was criticized the last time he ran for president, in 2016, for downplaying or even hiding his Judaism, like when he described his father—most of whose family was wiped out in the Holocaust—as a “Polish immigrant,” even though the chances of mistaking the Brooklyn-born socialist and Larry David doppelgänger for an ethnic Pole seemed slim.

Four years later and running for the White House again, Sanders has embraced public discussion of his Jewishness, apparently on the grounds that it is a useful way to deflect changes of anti-Semitism. Asked at the J Street conference how he would respond to critics who say the Democratic Party has become hostile toward Israel, Sanders cited his identity as a tactical plus. “Being Jewish may be helpful in that regard,” he answered. “It’s going to be very hard for anybody to call me, whose father’s family was wiped out by Hitler, who spent time in Israel, an anti-Semite.”

There is something disquieting lurking beneath the surface of this answer. Why would anyone call Bernie Sanders, of all people, an anti-Semite? No one thinks Sanders himself is an anti-Semite, any more than they think that he is the son of a blond-haired, blue-eyed Polish immigrant named Jan.

Bernie Sanders, the guy who is proud to be Jewish, is nobody’s problem. Everyone loves Zayde Bernie and his orations about celery tonic, the darkness of the day that the Dodgers left Brooklyn, and how the answer to the problems of the workingman is socialism. If nothing else, Bernie Sanders is a reminder of the good old days. Listening to him may be an exercise in nostalgia, but it sure beats listening to trust-fund socialists in Bushwick get all worked up about their latest tweets over $9 beers in faux workingman’s bars.

The problem with Bernie Sanders isn’t Bernie Sanders. It’s the way that the 78-year-old socialist, who has already suffered one heart attack on the campaign trail, is being used by an assortment of anti-Semitic frauds and weirdos who have glommed onto his campaign, using Uncle Bernie like an ATM that dispenses free passes for anti-Semitic bigotry (and campaign cash).

It’s all of a piece with what 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton recently referred to as “the culture around” Sanders. “It’s his leadership team. It’s his prominent supporters. It’s his online Bernie Bros and their relentless attacks on lots of his competitors, particularly the women,” she told the Hollywood Reporter. With Sanders being the most high-profile Jewish politician in the country and the most successful Jewish presidential candidate in American history, that his campaign has become a vessel for such ugliness is a phenomenon worth exploring.

Let’s take a spin through the carnival of bigots surrounding the senator. Reprising her role as a Sanders surrogate is Linda Sarsour, a woman who espouses Saudi Arabia as a model for American feminists, cheered the clitoridectomy of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and hasfawned over Louis Farrakhan.

Sanders surrogate Amer Zahr has written of a “Jewish jihad” against Palestinians and defended Zahra Billoo, who was forced to resign from the Women’s March board over her support for Hamas. 

Progressive internet grifter andSanders surrogate Shaun King—whose representation of his own identity has comeunder scrutinypraised Sanders for “speak[ing] out against apartheid-like conditions in Palestine even though it’s not popular” in a video that the Sanders campaign posted on its website.

Last November, Sanders welcomed the endorsement of Minnesota Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar. When Omar asserted that her House colleagues had been bribed by the Israel lobby and imputed dual loyalty to American Jews, Democrats across the country condemned the Minnesota lawmaker. Of all the candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, Sanders defended Omar the most vociferously, labeling criticism of her “outrageous” and “racist.”

Sanders’ eagerness to leap to the defense of someone flinging charges of dual loyalty at American Jews was notable considering how he was himself the target of such an insinuation in 2016, when NPR’s Diane Rehm cited a list she found on the internet as evidence for his “dual citizenship with Israel.”

It also raises the troubling possibility that Sanders is using his own Jewishness to mainstream some of the worst actors in the Democratic Party’s progressive wing–either out of the same naivete that led him to honeymoon in the Soviet Union or a wager that their support is necessary to bring about his desired political “revolution” in America. “What [Jeremy] Corbyn has done with the [British] Labour party is not dissimilar to what we’re trying to do with the Democratic party,” he told a British audience in 2017, two years after Corbyn became leader and the anti-Semitic miasma that surrounded him had become a subject of significant media attention. In the U.K. general election, Sanders’ campaign all but officially endorsed Corbyn, as did one of his most high-profile surrogates, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

While Sanders claims not to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, he has singled out the Jewish state for censure in other ways, lambasting the current Israeli government as “racist,” the sort of language he never uses to describe Hamas or the Palestinian Authority. His campaign is chock full of BDS supporters, like Michigan Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. Last summer, Omar and Tlaib chose not to join the largest ever bipartisan congressional mission to Israel, opting instead to accept the invitation of a Palestinian group that advocates the Jewish state’s destruction, propagates the blood libel, celebrates terrorists who have murdered Israeli children, and published the treatise of an American neo-Nazi group on its website.

When it comes to fighting anti-Semitism in America today, Sanders shows little interest in his native Brooklyn, where poor Jews are being regularly beaten, stabbed, and attacked. Instead, he advocates that the U.S. return to the United Nations Human Rights Council, an abject farce of an institution, which recently selected Venezuela to membership and is itself one of the world’s most reliable forums for anti-Semitic agitation. 

“The forces fomenting antisemitism are the forces arrayed against oppressed people around the world, including Palestinians,” Sanders recently wrote, “the struggle against antisemitism is also the struggle for Palestinian freedom.” The first half of this sentence is warmed-over Marxist class analysis that occludes the ways in which those lacking economic “power”–French jihadists, say, or British trade unionists–are “fomenting anti-Semitism.” The second half, which ties anti-Semitism to the lack of a Palestinian state, licenses the idea that the latter rationalizes the former. It is altogether fitting that Sanders would publish this apologia in Jewish Currents, the revived organ of American Jewish Stalinists—recently joined by Peter Beinart—whose editors once smeared the Soviet despot’s Jewish opponents as fascists who “must be destroyed.”

One wants to believe that Bernie Sanders isn’t aware of the insidious role his campaign is playing as a vector for anti-Semitism to spread on the American left. Perhaps, under the influence of younger advisers, he is being used as a prop. Whatever the story, one thing is clear: Either Uncle Bernie is being taken to the dry cleaners by a bunch of anti-Semitic bigots on the left–or, even worse, he is the dry cleaner.


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James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.