Look at Bernie Sanders, Then Look at Isaac Herzog

The senator from Vermont proudly calls himself a 'democratic socialist,' while Israel’s Labor leader assails his party rivals as 'radical leftists' and 'anarchists.'

Uzi Baram
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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in California on Tuesday, May 10, 2016.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in California on Tuesday, May 10, 2016. Credit: Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Uzi Baram

On my last visit to New York I met my usual circle of friends, most of whom are long-retired politicians and media people. They expressed their shame at the success of Donald Trump and their reservations about Hillary Clinton’s personality, as well as their amazement at the relative success of the senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders.

The sons and daughters of my acquaintances support Sanders wholeheartedly. According to my friends, some of whom are well-known Republican activists, they cannot dissuade their children from supporting Sanders.

This isn’t your standard candidate. He’s not exciting and didn’t evoke passions even as he was reelected again and again in Vermont. He refers to himself as a democratic socialist and never ran on behalf of the Democratic Party, only joining it after being elected to the Senate. In past years, a phenomenon like him was unthinkable in the United States, but the collapse of the Soviet Union and the failure of conservative capitalism have reawakened social democracy in a country that previously expunged any “leftist deviation.” Sanders’ hold on voters is stronger than expected. Public opinion polls show that he would beat any Republican candidate, including Trump, in contrast to Clinton who is limping along, partly due to the challenge Sanders poses to her.

The revival of the Democratic left in the U.S. is the opposite of the trend in Israel. Here, not only is public opinion leaning farther and farther to the right, but the Zionist left is ashamed to present itself as such lest the justified opposition to a radical left will shatter it as well. When Isaac Herzog assails his opponents within his party, he calls them “radical leftists” or “anarchists.” He tries to extricate himself from his predicament by hinting that he represents something that is not the left.

However, Herzog should know that defining someone as leftist in today’s Israel is not dependent on the old classifications or on the positions of Yair Lapid. The vulgar right, prominent mainly in online social media, attaches a “leftist” label to people who have nothing in common with the left. President Reuven Rivlin, whose political worldview is miles apart from that of Herzog, is labeled a leftist since he dares support equality for Israel’s Arab citizens, and because he defends the courts and is concerned about Israel’s image. Moshe Ya’alon is probably tagged as a leftist now as well.

Herzog must understand that he can’t fight the turbid wave sweeping over us now with the language he’s been using. Left-wing Zionism is an honorable badge that should not be hidden away as the extreme right attempts to take over public discourse.

The Zionist left believes in Israel as a Jewish-democratic state, in complete equality of civil rights and in a pluralistic education system, not a religious one and not one with messianic overtones. It supports state intervention in the economy and in social issues and is opposed to insane privatization that may destroy the country. The Zionist left sees a two-state solution as a fundamental and seminal concept. If one stands for these truths it will be possible to attract many good people.

The rabble-rousing, incendiary right now assailing the left grew out of the school of thought of extremists like Benzion Gopstein, Rabbi Dov Lior and Baruch Marzel. For them, anyone who doesn’t recognize the exclusive rights of Jews here is an Israel-hating leftist.

It’s too bad that while Sanders supporters are confronting American reality, looking for more egalitarian solutions, here people believe that changing terminology and condemning “deviants” will redeem the Zionist left in its difficult days.