Don’t give Bernie too much credit for his anti-Semitism essay
Last week, the Brandeis Labor Coalition held a kickoff event for the nascent campaign to cut off Brandeis’ contract with Sodexo, on account of Sodexo’s contracts with private prisons and other institutions that violate human rights. A few organizers were brought in from a national activist group to help. At the start, one of these organizers spoke about how happy he was to have found as his political home one that was “anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-Zionist.” One of those things is not like the others.
Many reprehensible things have been done in the name of Zionism, the movement to establish a home for the Jewish people in the land of Israel. But it is not a wicked ideology like fascism or racism. Really, it’s not an ideology at all, so much as it is a survival strategy by a battered, refugee people whose numbers still have not recovered from a genocide in the middle of the last century. There is nothing wrong with opposing certain Israeli policies, but if you look at the last century and your go-to villians are the Zionists, you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere. Stop and consider how you got there.
Two weekends ago, I was at the J Street conference in Washington, D.C. J Street is an organization that advocates a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the conference, I heard from advisors to the Palestinian president, leaders of the struggling Israeli left and a number of United States presidential candidates, most notably Senator Bernie Sanders. Bernie made news during his appearance at the conference when he said that some of the military aid that the U.S. gives to Israel ought to be going to humanitarian aid in Gaza.
This was the most any viable U.S. presidential candidate has advocated for in changing the American-Israeli relationship. And Bernie has an understandable motivation. In 1963, Bernie volunteered on a kibbutz — a labor-Zionist agricultural settlement in Israel — where he was able to see firsthand “many of the progressive values upon which Israel was founded.” Bernie believes that “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.” If anyone in American politics has a claim to Zionism, it’s Bernie Sanders. And if anyone can criticize the Zionist project out of love, it is he.
The quotations above are from an article that Bernie published a few hours before I wrote this, on Nov. 11, 2019, in the leftist publication “Jewish Currents.” His words are exactly what I want people like that “anti-racist, anti-fascist, anti-Zionist” to hear. And they’re a useful text to point to when Berniecrats say that Zionists have no place in their movement. But I recommend that people read Bernie’s piece in full. It is nothing close to a call-out of the sort of toxic language around Israel, ubiquitous in progressive spaces, of which that organizer’s comment is one pretty mild example.
The two statements I quoted are the only two in the 1,449 word essay that question the orthodoxy of Bernie’s base — namely, people on the left. And the paragraph that those statements make up serves a structural function that shouldn’t be ignored: it allows Bernie to segue from the first half of the essay, which situates anti-Semitism as a part of white supremacy, to the second half of the essay, which defends criticism of Israel as part of the Palestinian cause.
Of course, both of those things are worthwhile. The man who shot up a synagogue in Pittsburgh last year was motivated by white nationalist conspiracy theories, as was the shooter in Poway. And of course Palestinians, who are stateless in a land controlled by Israel, have human rights like anyone else. But Bernie’s supporters know those things. What they might not appreciate is that antiracists are often anti-Semites ; that criticism of Israel is not inherently anti-Semitism, but it can be and it very often is.
Take, for example, the case of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labor Party. Corbyn is a committed antiracist — so, with regard to Bernie’s first point, Corbyn’s doing great. Corbyn is also a critic of Israeli policy and a champion of the Palestinian cause — but as we know from Bernie’s second (correct) point, that doesn’t make him an anti-Semitism . But maybe this does: In 2006, Corbyn campaigned for the release of two convicted terrorists who had bombed a building housing Jewish charities. In 2009, he said that Hezbollah — a terrorist organization that has bombed, among other things, a Jewish community center in Argentina — was “committed to peace [and] social justice.” A month later, he organized an event with someone who said that “Jew-worshiping” is Europe’s “alternate religion.” These are just the first three examples from a timeline that includes forty-seven others, compiled by a Jewish advocacy group.
Those incidents are indefensible. But they are defended consistently using the language that Bernie used in his “Jewish Currents” essay. Jeremy Corbyn cannot be an anti-Semite, Labour leaders say to British Jews, because anti-Semitism is a right-wing force, and Jeremy Corbyn is a committed left-wing antiracist! And, when Jews respond that Corbyn’s “friends,” as he calls them, in Hamas and Hezbollah vow to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth, they say: Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic !
So how would Bernie respond? He writes in his essay that “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.”
This is a good, but impressively vague, description of the sort of anti-Semitism facing British Jews from the Labour Party, as well as the pernicious tropes about the American Israel Public Affairs Committe (AIPAC) and U.S.-Israel aid that are part of left-wing discourse in the U.S.
Bernie writes, “I will always call out anti-Semitism when I see it. My ancestors would expect no less of me.” This would be reassuring if only it were true. When it comes to anti-Semitism from the right, Bernie has facts, figures, and importantly names: Donald Trump, Bernie correctly says, has had Jewish blood on his hands from the moment he made a deal with the white supremacist devil. But what of Jeremy Corbyn, who counts murderous anti-Semites as his “friends?” Bernie has endorsed him.
Or consider Linda Sarsour, the controversial activist who resigned from the leadership of the Women’s March after widespread reports of anti-Semitism within the organization. Sarsour is against the existence of a Jewish State, presumably raising Bernie’s red flag of denying Jews self-determination. But she is an official surrogate for Bernie’s campaign. When Sarsour resigned from the Women’s March, they managed to find someone worse to take her place: Zahra Billoo, who said that the Israeli Defense Force was the moral equivalent of ISIS, and that it “kills children as a hobby.” Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) retweeted Billoo’s non-apology for these statements, called them smears and added: “Stay strong.” What of Tlaib? She is also a campaign surrogate. If Bernie wants to be part of the solution to anti-Semitism, he can start by not being part of the problem. It is not just Bernie’s “ancestors” that have expectations of him, but also his living and threatened Jewish contemporaries in Israel, the U.S. and the United Kingdom.
This past Thursday, the Jewish Chronicle published a full-page, front-page plea to non-Jewish Britons to listen to the Jewish community’s fear of Jeremy Corbyn. Bernie would have done far more good just sharing that article than he did by writing his own. Of course, that might alienate some of his partners.
It is awkward to call out people in your coalition — that’s why no one did it the other day at Brandeis, even though I debriefed after the event with a number of other Jews who shared my concern. But when it comes to fighting anti-Semitism, if a little awkwardness is too much to ask of the most prominent Jew on the left, then really, what sort of a commitment can he possibly have?