Bernie Sanders' Israeli Cousin: He's an Honest Politician, I'm 100% Behind Him

While old-timers at Kibbutz Sha'ar Ha'amakim in northern Israel are racking their brains to recall Bernie Sanders from a volunteer stint in the 1960s, Haaretz tracked down a first cousin of the Democratic presidential hopeful at a moshav in the Negev.

Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during a campaign rally at the Franklin Pierce University Fieldhouse in Rindge, New Hampshire, U.S., on Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016.
Bloomberg

In Moshav Arugot in the northern Negev, the joke is that if Bernie Sanders is elected president of the United States in November, the inauguration ceremony must be held in the agricultural cooperative’s community center. The reason is that moshav member Michal Hai is a first cousin of the man who may be Wall Street’s worst nightmare.

Hai immigrated to Israel from the United States about 40 years ago, living first in Kibbutz Kissufim before settling down at Arugot. She reconnected with Sanders recently, when he came to a small, regular family reunion that Hai has been attending for some years. Hai was the only member of the family to “make aliyah” to Israel. Her daughter, who also lives on the moshav, has followed Sanders’ campaign on her Facebook page for two years, starting even before he officially entered the race. But both mother and daughter keep a low profile on the family connection: They refused to meet in person with a reporter, were reluctant to talk when we called on Saturday and the daughter asked that her name not be used.

Hai did agreed to answer a number of question over the phone about the Sanders connection, and said, “I can say that I’m 100-percent behind him — not because he’s my cousin, but because of his positions.”

Are you a socialist?

“Absolutely, it fits in with the fact that I’m a former kibbutz member.”

And do you think he has a chance to win?

“You know what, as time passes I think there’s more and more of a chance. I hope that he really will win — and then the United States, and maybe the entire world, will be lucky to get an honest and frank politician during his term.”

These traits of honesty and frankness — are you familiar with them as a family member?

“I know him in the family as an honest man, and I’ve also been following his political career a little — via YouTube, the Internet and reading a book he wrote. His opinions and ambitions haven’t change all these years, so we can believe that what he says is what he plans to do.”

Have you met him in recent years?

“Yes.”

And does he remain modest despite his political career?

“Very modest. Not necessarily from my meetings with him. I see it from YouTube and from the articles in all kinds of places — the fact that he travels by bus, flies tourist class and lets everyone take a selfie with him.”

I understand that he hasn’t visited Israel in recent years.

“Not since he was here in the 1960s, at least as far as I know. Maybe he was here and I don’t know.”

I understand that you met him at a family get-together recently.

“Not exactly a family get-together. We were a few cousins who met in the United States.”

And are you children in contact?

“Not really. My children aren’t the same age as his children. I know my son is in touch with other cousins his own age.”

Do you remember him as a child?

“He’s quite a few years younger than I, so that I would see him, he was there, but I was closer to his older brother. After all, children play with, and pay attention to, only with those of their own age.”

Were you surprised by his political success?

“It’s not surprising. I knew that he was very active in the civil rights movement as a college student. But in those years I was actually no longer in the picture, because if I’m not mistaken, I immigrated to Israel shortly after his bar mitzvah. During visits to the United States we met infrequently and I was aware of his activity. I have only good things to say about him.”

What about you? If you had stayed in the United States, is there a chance you would have gone into politics?

“Me? Absolutely not. But I support his positions.”

Do you still have a working farm on the moshav?

“We have a farm but we’re old already and don’t work in the field. Our neighbors cultivate our farm.”

At the time when Sanders was on Sha’ar Ha’amakim, were you in contact?

“No, I was in the United States at exactly the same time when he was here — I heard about him being in Israel only later.”