Opinion |

Bernie Sanders' Cynically Self-serving Guide to Fighting anti-Semitism

Be prepared for a complete lack of self-awareness, strange ahistorical assertions - and a jarring similarity to the selective framing of anti-Semitism championed by one Benjamin Netanyahu

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally at the University of Minnesotas Williams Arena on November, 3, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally at the University of Minnesotas Williams Arena on November, 3, 2019 in Minneapolis, MinnesotaCredit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

There’s something very tedious about the discourse around anti-Semitism in the United States these days.

At any given moment, a prominent politician, journalist or leader of a major Jewish organization says something, anything, on the subject; then immediately the ideological bean-counters are all over it, measuring how much condemnation each side of the political spectrum has received for its prejudice.

This tendency was particularly pronounced a couple of months ago, when New York Times journalist Bari Weiss published a heartfelt and eloquent book, "How To Fight Anti-Semitism," spurred by her own very personal experiences having grown up in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood, scene of the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre of 11 Jews last year.

Like any book, certainly on such a difficult topic, it has its flaws, and shouldn’t be seen as the definitive account of contemporary anti-Semitism. But I doubt it was intended as such.

I think Weiss’ aim was to give American Jews a much-needed hizuk (moral support) and to well-intentioned non-Jews, an inkling of what their Jewish friends are facing and feeling. It does both of those admirably well.

A young boy looks at the fenced off entrance to the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on the first anniversary of the shooting at the synagogue that killed 11 worshippers. Oct. 27, 2019Credit: Gene J. Puskar,AP

Reading the book, I found myself fascinated by the way it was being reviewed. In many cases, it felt as if the reviewers weren’t at all concerned with Weiss’ message how U.S. Jews should, in this day and age, deal with the myriad manifestations of hatred towards them.

Instead, reviewers seemed to be interested only in deconstructing Weiss’ descriptions of the various forms of anti-Semitism, and weighing them up against each other: which was underplayed, which over-emphasized. As if anti-Semitism should be measured in a form of mathematical equation, rather than dealt with as a sickness that afflicts all societies and all political camps.

Weiss (whom I’ve never met, though we’ve briefly corresponded a number of times in the past) doesn’t need me to defend her. She has her own powerful platforms, and she makes effective use of them.

But I was reminded of her book and the chorus of criticism, mainly from the left, but also from the right, when I read this week an essay in The Guardian, first published in Jewish Currents, by the contender for the presidential candidacy of the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders, entitled "Fighting anti-Semitism is at the heart of the left’s struggle against oppression."

And while I opened by saying that measuring the left-right quotient in these matters has become increasingly tedious, I was flabbergasted by the complete lack of self-awareness in the piece.

It would probably appall him to hear it, but anti-Semitism, according to Sanders, reads more than anything else like the highly selective version of anti-Semitism of Benjamin Netanyahu, both in his earlier writings and more recent speeches. It is not anti-Semitism as experienced by its Jewish victims, but anti-Semitism as a useful tool in the hands of politicians, for tarring their specific rivals.

Netanyahu’s pronouncements in recent years on anti-Semitism have been aimed at rallying right-wing Israelis against the triple threats of radical Islam, personified by Iran, international criticism of Netanyahu's own policies, and to reassure his nationalist allies around the world, chiefly Donald Trump and Viktor Orban, that they have his personal kashrut stamp. Sanders, in his essay, is equally partisan.

Sanders specifies that the hatred of Jews can only come from the white supremacist far-right and grants blanket absolution to members of his own camp. They are progressives, and therefore cannot be suspected of harboring ill-will towards Jews. He warns against heeding "accusations of anti-Semitism used as a cynical political weapon against progressives."

It is a one-dimensional worldview which only sees anti-Semitism as being "used by the right to divide people from one another and prevent us from fighting together for a shared future of equality, peace, prosperity and environmental justice."

He doesn't credit it with particular distinguishing characteristics at all: it's just "like other forms of bigotry – racism, sexism, homophobia" and "the forces fomenting antisemitism are the forces arrayed against oppressed people around the world."

Sanders (or one of his aides, given that the rigors of a presidential campaign don’t leave time for essay-writing), accurately describes one form of murderous Jew-hatred that is manifest in 2019. But it also does worse than ignore all other forms in which Jews are victimized.

It actively narrows the space from which other Jews can confront anti-Semitism: the only legitimate space to do that is open solely to his ideological partners.

Sanders' essay is addressed to them, to his camp, not to all American Jews. Only to those who are prepared to uncritically accept his views on everything else. It is as cynically self-serving as anything Netanyahu could have written. The Vermont senator justifiably criticizes President Trump, for seeking to "divide Americans by using false allegations of anti-Semitism, mostly regarding the U.S.-Israel relationship," but then does exactly the same thing.

Unlike the rest of the essay, which despite its omissions, is at least to the point, the section dealing with Israel is a mishmash of history, politics, liberal Zionism (though whoever wrote the essay is savvy enough not to use a term much hated on the left) and Sanders’ own rose-tinted nostalgia for his kibbutz days (perhaps two different staffers wrote the piece?)

It all leads up to the contorted conclusion that "the struggle against anti-Semitism is also the struggle for Palestinian freedom."

This is a strange ahistorical notion. Anti-Semitism existed long before the two nations began to contest the same strip of land and almost certainly will endure after their conflict is resolved. Statehood and equal rights for Palestinians certainly won’t make white supremacists (who are, after all, the sole propagators of anti-Semitism in Sanders’ book) stop hating Jews.

Solidarity rally in New York's Union Square with Gaza's March of Return. April 6, 2018Credit: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/Ligh

Certainly, the desire to fight anti-Semitism and to end the occupation and continuing injustice to millions of Palestinians can come from the same values. That doesn’t make it the same struggle.

Sanders tries to thread the needle by admitting that "some criticism of Israel can cross the line into anti-Semitism, especially when it denies the right of self-determination to Jews," (an assertion he may find would define some of his more prominent Democratic and progressive backers and surrogates as anti-Semites). And that is one of the main reasons you can’t unite the two struggles into one.

There doesn’t have to be a contradiction, as Sanders says correctly, between Jewish self-determination in a sovereign state and freedom for Palestinians in their own state. We should be supporting both.

But not all of us are. The fight against anti-Semitism is on behalf of all Jews, including those who hate Palestinians, or just fear that giving them even an inch will doom Israel. Just like the struggle for freedom is of all Palestinians, including those who insist that Palestine is from the river to the sea and Jews can go and self-determine themselves in Brooklyn.

Muddying the waters between the two struggles has more usually been a right-wing tactic; insisting that everyone in favor of Palestinian freedom is at the very least an enabler of anti-Semitism, if not outright a Jew-hater. It’s what Trump and Netanyahu and their supporters have tried to do. Sanders does so from the left – requiring that Jews, to be worthy of both fighting against and being protected from anti-Semitism, need to conform politically.

Given the fact that Sanders claims to have very warm feelings towards Israel, if not for its current government, is evidence of either intellectual dishonesty - or more likely in his case, intellectual laziness. And it’s part of his attempt to circumscribe the fight against anti-Semitism within rigid ideological lines.

Sanders in his essay doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t know before about anti-Semitism, but he does tell us something about Sanders. That despite what his cults' acolytes believe, he is just another politician, and not that different from Netanyahu and Trump. They, like him, cynically see the fight against anti-Semitism not in the terms of protecting Jews, all Jews, but just as another way of serving their agenda.

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