In Search of Kibbutzniks Who Remember Bernard Sanders

Haaretz heads to Sha’ar Ha’amakim where the Democratic presidential candidate spent several months as a volunteer in 1963.

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Illustration showing photo of Bernie Sanders in which  a traditional kibbutz 'tembel' hat has been photo-shopped on his head, and a black and white photo insert showing Sanders as a young man.
Illustration. Bernie Sanders in a traditional kibbutz 'tembel' hat and, inset, Sanders as a young man. Credit: The Kibbutz Movement's Facebook page
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

Carefully mounting a small ladder, Shlomo Barak reaches up and pulls out some crates filled with dusty documents. Perhaps here, in the archives of Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’amakim in northern Israel, traces of Bernie Sanders’ past can be found.

On Thursday, the mystery of which kibbutz hosted the Democratic senator back in the 1960s was solved when a search in the archives of Haaretz revealed, in an article from 1990, that Sanders had spent several months in 1963 volunteering at Sha’ar Ha’amakim, as a guest of the left-wing Hashomer Hatzair youth movement.

Bernie Sanders' 1990 interview to Haaretz's Yossi Mellman
Bernie Sanders' 1990 interview to Haaretz's Yossi MellmanCredit: Haaretz Archive

Now Barak, the chief archivist of the kibbutz was searching for some more concrete traces of Sanders’ brief stay. The crates he removed contain old typewritten letters, correspondence with universities abroad regarding groups of volunteers, Hebrew notebooks from the Hebrew ulpan and many photos of bare-chested, muscular male volunteers, and smiling female ones. The search brings up nothing. Documentation of the ulpan and of volunteers goes back only to 1968. Large numbers of volunteers began arriving at the kibbutz only after the Six-Day War, say kibbutz members. Before that, volunteers were part of groups from universities.

Although Barak does not find any relevant documents, our imagination runs wild when he says that some archived items were scanned and then mistakenly deleted.

“He was here,” Ami Harpaz from the kibbutz library declares decisively. He suggests we contact Albert Ely, a 79-year-old kibbutz member who will “surely remember.” Ely arrives a few minutes later and does in fact remember Sanders — but only by name.

Albert Ely, 79, a veteran member of Kibbutz Sha'ar Ha'amakim.
Veteran kibbutz member Albert Ely, 79, of Sha'ar Ha'amakim remembers that Sanders went by the name 'Bernard,' not Bernie. Credit: Rami Shllush

“All the Bernards were French and he was an American,” Ely explains, noting that Sanders definitely went by Bernard and not Bernie in those days. “There were a hundred volunteers that year and it’s hard to remember all of them. People are talking about it but no one remembers precisely. Anyone who knew is dead by now,” says Ely.

Questioning the kibbutz clinic’s nurse at the time also proves to be fruitless. Ely. concludes that Sanders must have worked either in the fruit orchards or in the fish ponds.

Bernie Sanders at a campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire, Feb. 5, 2016.
Bernie Sanders at a campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire, Feb. 5, 2016.Credit: AP

At lunchtime the members gather around tables in the communal dining room and all conversations revolve around a single topic: Sanders. Kibbutz secretary Yair Merom says that WhatsApp groups on the kibbutz are buzzing. “The old-timers have been searching [for traces of Sanders] since the early morning hours. So far we can’t find anyone who remembers him,” says Merom, adding that they were alerted to the story after reading it in Haaretz. “It’s very exciting and we’re checking it with our older members. Whether or not he was here, he’s invited to visit us.”

In the dining room Yehoshua Drori, 74, also tries to remember. They were both 22 at the time. Drori wasn’t on the kibbutz then but he says that two types of people took an interest in the volunteers: young people looking for partners and older ones who were looking for potential hosts overseas. “There was no documentation and no registry of names,” says Drori’s wife, Irit. “Today I realize how foolish that was – important people could have come out of here.”

Kibbutz members eating at the dining room of Sha'ar Ha'amakim, where the talk of the town is Bernie Sanders.
Kibbutz members gather in the dining room of Sha'ar Ha'amakim, where the talk of the town is Bernie Sanders. Credit: Rami Shllush

A group at another table tries to think of other kibbutz documents that might be searched, and in the meantime some correspondents from a foreign network arrive. Another woman remembers the name of Sanders’ ex-wife but nothing else. Then people remember the name of someone who left the kibbutz but who worked in the fish ponds at the time.

Drori calls him, but sounds pessimistic even as he dials. “That work was only done by single men who were crazy enough to go into that cold water” he says. Only six or seven people worked there so they should remember. This call didn’t help either. The fish pond guy doesn’t remember either. Now the orchard workers have to be questioned. There were hundreds of workers there and the chances of success are slim, say the kibbutzniks.

Nevertheless, no one is giving up. The kibbutz movement launched a Facebook campaign to try and obtain information on Sanders’ kibbutz past. Meanwhile, members of the closed kibbutz Facebook group are trying new directions. One person writes that if no one can remember Sanders, maybe it’s time to examine children who were born that year.