As Hillary Clinton finally takes on the mantel of presumptive Democratic nominee, and despite Bernie Sanders’ vow to fight through to the convention, we’re seeing a shift in election punditry.
During February and March of this year, the big question was Bernie's Jewishness. Was he Jewish enough? Too Jewish? Tremendous effort was put into tracking down the determinedly nameless kibbutz at the very bottom of his CV. Today, the tone of Bernie think pieces has changed (for the most part) to more measured appraisals of his candidacy: How has Bernie’s campaign changed the Democratic party? Will we see a continued movement or has the radical flame Berned out?
But in one corner of the Jewish blogosphere, it seems, ‘Bernie the Jew’ is still a hot topic. On June 7, the ultra-conservative National Review magazine published a piece called "Bernie Sanders, the Non-Jewish Jew and Non-American American" by Dennis Prager. The tone was hardly elegiac; indeed Prager’s boiling anti-Bernie rant prompted the Forward’s Helen Chernikoff to tweet a comparison of Prager to Austrian mayor Karl Lueger, inspirer of Adolf Hitler and practiser of strategic anti-Semitism. It was Lueger who famously pronounced, “I decide who is a Jew.”
Forget the Bund or track meets or growing up poor in the now famous three room rent-stabilized Brooklyn apartment. According to Prager, “If you want to understand Bernie Sanders, this is what you need to know: He is the quintessential modern identity-free man. He is a non-Jewish Jew and a non-American American.”
Prager goes on to link Bernie to a list of the far-right’s favorite bogeymen: Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky, Noam Chomsky and George Soros. Add Saul Alinsky and you’ve got the whole set. Far beyond dog whistling, this is a klaxon to Jew-haters on the Right, no code needed. “They were (or are) all radicals, were born to Jewish parents, had (or have) no Jewish identity, and do harm to both Jews and non-Jews.” Internationalist, rootless: “non-Jewish Jews are far more likely to work to weaken Christianity in American than Jewish Jews” The only thing Prager leaves out is the part about using their blood for matza.
It’s ironic that Prager uses non-Jewish Jew as the hook onto which he hangs his tirade. Isaac Deutscher, Talmudic ilui (genius), anti-Stalinist, biographer of Trotsky and eminence grise of the academic Marxist Left, coined the term ‘non-Jewish Jew’ for himself, and others like him. The ‘non-Jewish Jew’ captured a paradox at the heart of the modern Jewish experience: “The Jewish heretic who transcends Jewry belongs to a Jewish tradition.”
At a time when many radicals in fact did try to leave behind their Jewish selves rather than harmonize their politics and their heritage, Deutscher embraced all parts of himself, as difficult as that was. Even as a teenager his intellectual life was marked by an attempt to bring different worlds together, writing poetry in Yiddish and Polish, translating from a multitude of languages, including Hebrew and Yiddish. Making sense of what it meant to be a humanist Jew in the modern world animated Deutscher his entire life.
Of course, Prager takes non-Jewish Jew and turns it into an epithet. This is the most vile kind of red baiting, drawing explicit connections between Jews and dangerous, leftist, subversive ideologies – and then 'anointing' Sanders with the whole toxic mix. It’s OK, I suppose, in Prager’s mind, because, as he points out, they’re not all bad. Prager positions himself as one of the good ones, a conservative Jew who celebrates Christianity, and America.
As offensive as it is, Prager's line of attack is dangerous not just because it is red baiting, or because it seeks to exclude a large portion of American Jews who don't share the same values as the uber-conservative Prager. Rather, it betrays a kind of nihilistic world view, one which sees no potential in Jews who are not already exactly like him.
But most Jews are not like Prager. Even those who are like him are likely to change positions over time. If it can be said that there is any one experience shared almost universally by modern Jews, it is the journey, the movement between and among states. Whether if it's as a migrant from country to country, or moving from religious to non-religious (and vice versa), or even returning to Jewishness altogether (as so many new Israeli citizens have done) it is this dynamic quality of Jewish life which defines us, and which teachers like Prager ignore, at their own peril.
Bernie’s story is, in fact, quintessentially Jewish, and American. Prager’s eagerness to throw him away (and the thousands of American Jews with similar trajectories) strikes me as, dare I say, deeply un-Jewish.
When, according to Jewish tradition, God gave the law to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, the revelation was witnessed not by one person, or a group of disciples, but by an entire nation. This collective nature of revelation and thus peoplehood is key to Jewish theology, the first link in the chain of transmission, our mesorah. It implies the absolute value of each Jewish soul who witnessed the giving of the law, and that included not a few golden calf worshippers among them. The Israelites went from being slaves, to exiles, to idol worshippers to bearers of a divine mission.
Whether you believe the story literally or figuratively, we are descended from a mutable, imperfect nation who, unsurprisingly, look a lot like we do today. And yet, God still saw the Israelites, all of them, as worthy of his gift of the Torah. In an age of exclusion, denigration and political excommunication, not least but not only among Jews, it’s a lesson we would all do well to remember.
Rokhl Kafrissen is the author of A Brokhe/A Blessing, a Yiddish English gangster ghost romance in three acts. Her writing on Yiddish and contemporary Jewish life has appeared in publications around the world.
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