There’s something particularly endearing about the way American Jews seem to be rejoicing in the current success of Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primaries for the Democratic presidential nomination. Even those who have no intention of voting for him, or any Democratic candidate, seem to want a piece of him and celebrate his groundbreaking victory in the New Hampshire primary as one for all Jews. It doesn’t matter that Sanders doesn’t seem interested in making too much of his background, describing himself as the “son of a Polish immigrant.” He will remain one of us.
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Some cynics may dismiss this yearning to embrace Sanders. But compared to the callousness with which most of British Jewry greeted the forlorn attempts of Ed Miliband – the leader of the U.K. Labour Party until last year’s general election – to engage with his own Jewish roots, it is certainly preferable. Miliband was never Jewish enough, never sufficiently at ease in a synagogue or at Jewish functions, certainly never pro-Israel enough (though he made a point of making Israel his first official visit as leader of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition). He was always found lacking.
Sanders makes no effort, yet gets very different treatment. The contrast speaks volumes about the difference between the two Jewish societies separated by the Atlantic.
Jewish writers are now making efforts to place the socialist Sanders in a wider context of Jewish history. Some of these comparisons are rather facile – such as nominating him as an honorary member of the Bund (the secular Jewish socialist movement that had a brief period of popularity among East European Jews a century ago). The social and cultural context in which the Bund’s Yiddish socialism existed are so far removed from today’s America and have little relevance to whatever ideals Sanders is espousing. There is, though, a case to be made for seeing him as a latter-day embodiment of a tradition of Jewish activists who cast aside tribal loyalties to fight a wider battle for universal equality.
However, there is a danger in trying too hard to identify Sanders as a Jewish socialist, as opposed to a socialist who happens to be Jewish. If you so want to own grouchy old Uncle Bernie, you also have to take ownership of the other big Jew in the race – and that isn’t Michael Bloomberg, who is rumored to be toying with the idea of running as an independent candidate. Whoever emerges as the Democratic candidate – Hillary Clinton or the astonishing Sanders – will face a candidate backed by hundreds of millions in donations from Jewish businessmen, chief among them Sheldon Adelson. And this is true of whoever the Republican candidate is. Even Donald Trump, who prides himself on not needing donations, will avail himself if nominated.
Unlike Sanders, Adelson makes no bones about his identity and the fact that his philanthropy and political donations are aimed at safeguarding the interests of the Jews and the Jewish state. He certainly is part of a long Jewish tradition, one much older than socialism: Adelson is a shtadlan, an intercessor – a man who uses his money, influence and access to the high and mighty on behalf of his Jewish brothers.
The fact that much of what Adelson does is actually harmful to Jews and Israel’s democracy is beside the point. He is a shtadlan par excellence. It may seem outlandish comparing the uncouth casino mogul to the great shtadlanim of history – the devout Sir Moses Montefiore or the cultured Rothschild dynasty – but he is their modern-day equivalent, much more than Sanders is the successor of Yiddish union organizers.
Adelson versus Sanders embodies a much wider struggle for the soul of Diaspora Jews. Not just Jewish socialism against Jewish money, but also universal values against unwavering support for Israel. It is the dilemma over whether the battle against anti-Semitism has been won: Either we have entered a new chapter of history, or we must never let our guard slip for a moment and any period of calm and prosperity could be temporary. History, of course, teaches us that reality is never as simple as either side wants us to believe.
Jewish socialism died a sad death (just like socialism in general). It flourished for a few short decades, but died when Hitler gassed its rank and file and Stalin shot its leaders in the back of the neck. Those who managed to escape to the United States and Britain spent their time agitating against the machine in Yiddish or heavily accented English, and lived to see their children sell out to capitalism and become nice bourgeois liberals. And then Zionism, which colored itself red in Israel’s early years, delivered the coup de grce to Jewish socialism by making it only about the Jews. There was no limp-wristed guff about the brotherhood of men. Even if the current momentum behind Sanders’ campaign sweeps him all the way to the White House, it won’t be the rebirth of Jewish socialism.
On the surface, it would seem that the tradition of rich Jewish shtadlanim is alive and well. Jews have never been so well represented on the Forbes billionaires list, and many are prepared to use portions of their fortune on what they at least see as the best interests of the Jewish people. But are they really as powerful as many Jews would like to believe and the anti-Semites are convinced they are? Were they ever?
In an interesting new biography, John Cooper documents the life of Nathaniel Rothschild, the first Jewish peer in the House of Lords. It focuses in particular on Rothschild’s efforts on behalf of Russian Jewry at the end of the 19th century and in the years leading up to World War I. The conclusion seems to be that for all Baron Rothschild’s influence in the spheres of politics and finance, he failed to achieve any significant successes on behalf of the Jews suffering under czarist rule. In no way should this be a criticism of his efforts.
The deck was always stacked against the shtadlanim. For every pogrom and anti-Semitic edict they succeeded in preventing, dozens of others took place. No matter how much money and time they spent, they could never do much more than mitigate the awful circumstances.
Neither were their achievements so significant. Emancipation, when it came for the Jews of Europe, was due to much wider developments of enlightenment and human rights. The Balfour Declaration was addressed to Nathaniel’s son, Walter (the second Baron Rothschild), but it was just a piece of paper. As much as it still enrages the pro-Palestinian camp, it didn’t play a part in Israel’s establishment since the British government never honored the declaration.
Montefiore may have funded the first Jewish neighborhoods built outside Jerusalem’s Old City, and the French branch of the Rothschilds founded the first major agricultural settlements on the Coastal Plain. But it was the hardy (socialist) pioneers from Eastern Europe who shunned the baron’s neat colonies, striking out instead for the malarial valley and the Negev, who laid the true foundations for the state. Baron Edmond de Rothschild spent twice as much founding the Carmel Winery in 1882 as his father James did to purchase Chteau Lafite, but it took over 100 years until the Golan kibbutzniks became the first to produce decent Israeli wine.
The shtadlanim’s philanthropy may have financed a wide range of important programs in Israel, but their money also corrupted a generation of Israeli politicians – one of whom, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, went to prison this week for bribery. And Adelson’s money hasn’t been so effective on the political scene, either. His candidates lost and he failed to change U.S. policy on Israel. Even in Israel, where his protégé Benjamin Netanyahu is prime minister, he hasn’t had much effect. Netanyahu’s longevity in power is due to his own perpetual campaigning, not the hundreds of millions Adelson wasted on his Bibi-worshipping freebie Israel Hayom, which is as dismissed by right-wingers as it is reviled by the left. No, the age of the shtadlanim may not be over, but they have never been so powerless – and they never were that powerful to begin with.
But it’s not really about Sanders and Adelson; it isn’t even about American politics. These two old men are just changing figureheads in a much older divide. For a much younger generation of Jews in the Diaspora who are attracted either to the message of fighting for universal equality or strenuously advocating for Israel, this is about a whole lot more.