The assignment should have been a no-brainer: Find out what kibbutz Bernie Sanders volunteered at in 1963 or 1964. The presidential candidate has described the time he spent on an Israeli collective farm as a formative experience. Not surprisingly, many Israelis have been wondering which exact kibbutz had such an impact on the Jewish socialist and rising star of the U.S. presidential campaign.
If I got lucky, I might track down some old-timers at this kibbutz, eager to share their memories of the young, idealistic Brooklyn boy who got his hands dirty for the first time on Israeli soil. Was he a loner, or did he make an effort to mingle? Did he complain about the hard physical labor? Perhaps one might recall his hot romance with the gorgeous young kibbutznik who refused to return to the United States with him.
The identity of Sanders’ kibbutz turns out to be one of Israel’s best-kept secrets. My quest to find out which of the 256 kibbutzim it was began with a call to the spokesman of the Kibbutz Movement. Sorry, he says, we have no idea what kibbutz he was at, but you might uncover something at Yad Tabenkin, the archive center of the United Kibbutz Movement.
A trip to the archive, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, proved fascinating but futile. At the bottom of a huge pile of documents, in a folder titled “Volunteers: 1958-1964,” one U.S.-postmarked letter looked promising. But on second glance, it turned out it wasn’t “Bernie Sanders” signed at the bottom but rather “Bernice Stamder.” Bummer.
My next stop was Yad Ya’ari, the archive center of the rival Kibbutz Artzi movement. No luck there, either.
It was time to take the search overseas. Messages requesting the name of Bernie’s kibbutz were sent to the email and Twitter accounts of his media advisers. No responses were forthcoming. An old friend, who once worked as a staffer for him, offered to help out but cautioned, “I know a few people in the Bernie orbit. But they’ll want to know how this story could help them – since he had a little Internet rumor going around that he’s a dual U.S./Israeli citizen.”
When I didn’t hear back from this friend, I concluded that nobody in the “Bernie orbit” could be persuaded that digging out information about his old kibbutz would help the campaign.
I next approached Huck Gutman, a professor of English at the University of Vermont, and a longtime Sanders friend and associate. Gutman coauthored “Outsider in the House,” Bernie’s political memoir.
“Alas, no. I do know that he spent time on a kibbutz,” he emailed back. “You might query his brother Larry, who lives in England.”
Larry Sanders (no, really) has been living in England since 1968. He’s a Green Party activist who failed to become an MP in the last election. Larry emailed that both he and his brother were on different kibbutzim in 1964-65, but he didn’t remember the name of either.
“Might you remember a region of the country?” I wrote back. “The Galilee? The Negev? A certain terrain? Anything that might help narrow down the search?”
This time, Larry was able to provide a little more information. “I am embarrassed by how little I remember,” wrote Bernie’s 80-year-old elder brother. “I am pretty sure it wasn’t the Negev. It had a number of South American members. I remember Bernard being impressed by one of the kibbutznik’s explanation of how they would transform Argentina. Without any reason to believe I am right, I would guess near the Mediterranean coast.”
I promptly compiled a list of about a dozen kibbutzim that might fit the bill and sent it to Larry with the following question: “Do any of these ring a bell?”
No, he wrote back, adding, “I don’t think a name is stuck anywhere in my brain.”
I got back in touch with Gutman, hoping he might have some other leads. Again, though, he drew a blank: “The only person I know who knew Bernie then was Larry!”
Back to local sources. Perhaps an old-timer in the Kibbutz Movement might recall which kibbutzim were particularly popular among American and South American volunteers in the early ’60s. This brought me to Shlomo Chaver, who headed the social department of the Kibbutz Artzi movement back then.
Chaver apologized for not recalling the name Bernie Sanders and not remembering whether there were specific kibbutzim popular among American volunteers back then. But the questions did prompt one memory. “Years ago, I was attending a workshop organized by the Jewish Agency for people like me who worked with volunteers,” he recounts. “We were told it was really important to be nice to the kibbutz volunteers, because you never know if one of these volunteers might end up becoming a senator or even president of the United States some day!”
Meanwhile, the search continues.
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