Ghosts of Golda Meir and Joe McCarthy Haunt Sanders, Trump and the Wisconsin Primaries

Are Paul Ryan’s photo-ops with Benjamin Netanyahu an innocent sign of a beautiful friendship or a clever ploy en route to the GOP nomination?

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Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders waves to the crowd at a campaign rally in Madison, Wisconsin April 3, 2016.
Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders waves to the crowd at a campaign rally in Madison, Wisconsin April 3, 2016. Credit: Reuters
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

A victory in Tuesday’s Wisconsin primaries is crucial for candidate Bernie Sanders politically, but it would also be poetic justice, historically, for the veteran Jewish socialist. Wisconsin has an illustrious socialist past, including the election of three mayors in Milwaukee as well as the first socialist member of Congress, Victor Berger, an Austrian born Jew. Berger was one of the founders of the moderate Milwaukee brand of “Sewer Socialism” – which was meant as a compliment to their efficient running of things – and was said to have inspired Eugene Debs, America’s socialist idol and Sanders’ personal hero.

Both Berger and Debs were imprisoned because of their pacifist opposition to American participation in the World War I. In fact, while serving time in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary in 1920, Debs waged the most successful of his five runs for the presidency, picking up no less than 38 percent of the Jewish vote in the process. That was the last election that a Republican presidential candidate – Warren Harding – received more Jewish votes than a Democrat. And its highly doubtful whether, in a three way race, Sanders in 2016 would get more than a fraction of the votes that Jews, many of them Eastern European immigrants, gave to the non-Jewish Debs.

PM Golda Meir speaking at the United Nations, Oct. 22, 1970; later, on the eve of the Yom Kippur War, she said, "Our situation has never been better."Credit: AP

And Milwaukee, of course, was also the place where Golda Meir came of age, learned her socialism and turned into a potent spokeswoman for the precursor of the Israel’s founding Labor Movement, Poalei Zion. In the raging argument which would save the Jews, socialism or Zionism, Meir chose the latter: she went on to become Israel’s first female leader, almost 50 years before Clinton got in line to be America’s. Sanders walked in the opposite direction, in the footsteps of Debs, for whom “the most heroic word in all languages is REVOLUTION” as he wrote in 1907. “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence” he said, as if it were today, in his 1918 trial.

Albert Kuhli, ‘Golda Meyerson (Golda Meir) in Poalei Zion Chasidim pageant’ 1919, Milwaukee, WisconsinCredit: State Historical Society of Wisconsin

Wisconsin radicalism, of course, is a two-way street. The state’s current governor, Scott Walker, has been a fiery conservative crusader against trade unions, abortions, Obamacare and other liberal evils. Wisconsin Republicans also gave the world the infamous Senator Joseph Raymond McCarthy, who bears an eerie physical if not ideological resemblance to Texas Senator Ted Cruz, one of the most conservative presidential contenders in recent GOP history and the arch-nemesis of its controversial front-runner, Donald Trump.

Most historians do not view McCarthy as anti-Semitic, but his anti-Communist agitation and the preponderance of Jews among his suspected Communist agents allowed anti-Semitic groups to come out of the woodworks and openly purvey the Jews=Communists canard. And if that may sound familiar in 2016, this is what historians Lucy Dawidowicz and Leon Goldstein wrote about Jewish reactions to McCarthy’s infamous probes: “The images McCarthy conjured up among Jews were frightening visions of storm troopers goose-stepping down Broadway, of an America taken over by red, white and blue reincarnation of Hitler’s Brown and Black Shirt. The Senator from Wisconsin seemed to symbolize it could happen here.”

Senator Joseph McCarthy.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

As reported in the book Jews Against Prejudice: American Jews and the Fight for Civil Liberties by Stuart Svonkin, Dawidowicz and Goldstein went to write: “However exaggerated their fears, most Jews recognized McCarthy as a demagogue bent on exploiting for his own aggrandizement the nation’s abhorrence of Communism and anxiety over Russia (for which one might substitute 'abhorrence of radical Islam and anxiety over immigration,' CS). They sensed in McCarthy’s anti-Communism qualities similar to Hitler’s, though he was not anti-Semitic and even tried to show his philo-Semitism. They feared his cynical opposition to liberalism and his contempt for due process. Many felt threatened in their security not only as American citizens but also as Jews, associating McCarthy with anti-Semitism.”

McCarthy’s was elected to the Senate in 1946, in a campaign in which he first bested the sitting GOP representative Robert La Follette Jr. by falsely accusing him of war profiteering. His father, Robert La Follette Sr., is the only Wisconsin politician to have run for president, garnering 17 percent of the vote in 1924 on behalf of the Progressive Party. The second Wisconsin-born politician who might be a presidential contender – as early as this year, if many GOP insiders will have their way – is Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representative who, coincidentally or not, was having his photograph taken this week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, meeting with a U.S. congressional delegation led by House Speaker Paul Ryan, fourth from left, April 4, 2016. Credit: Kobi Gideon/Israeli Government Press Office

Ryan has denied any wish to be a GOP candidate in the current cycle and has disavowed any complicity in plots to have him anointed in a contested Republican Convention after Trump, presumably, fails to secure the 1237 delegates needed to assure him of the party’s nomination. Many political observers, however, believe that Ryan “doth protest too much,” as Queen Gertrude told her son Hamlet in a not-altogether-different context. A photo-op with GOP idol Netanyahu could be taken as an innocent gesture of a beautiful friendship, but also as the smart move of a sophisticated politician boosting his credentials before bowing to the party’s will and saving it from oblivion.

Wisconsin is the Stalingrad of Trump’s GOP opponents and Cruz is the sniper charged with stopping the Enemy at the Gates. Elections prognosticator Nate Silver gives Cruz a 95 percent chance of winning the primary; those opposing Trump are praying for a rout. An unequivocal loss could eat into Trump’s expected margin of victory in the upcoming April 19 primaries in New York and potentially slow him down enough in subsequent contests to scuttle his already diminishing chances of securing the necessary 1,237 delegates.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to guests during a campaign stop at the La Crosse Center on April 4, 2016 in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Credit: AFP

And if Trump doesn’t come to Cleveland with 1,237 delegates, chances are he won’t leave the city with the nomination either. If it comes to that, neither will Cruz: if they’re already embroiled in a convulsive confrontation with Trump, many Republicans will opt for Ryan, who stands a theoretical chance of winning the November elections, than with Cruz, who doesn’t. John Kasich, in this scenario, will be deemed nebbish, a noch shlepper. Go look it up.

Sanders is also looking to score big in Wisconsin, and to use it as a springboard to take New York, where he has been steadily whittling down Clinton’s once formidable lead. From there he will take it, as Buzz Lightyear says, “to infinity and beyond.” According to NBC news, Sanders needs to win 66 percent of all remaining delegates in order to reach the 2,383 needed for a Democratic majority, while Clinton needs to take only 33 percent, but that is no cause for despair. “I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due time they will and must come to their own,” Debs said in 1918. As the prophet Habakkuk said about a different Jewish messiah, “Even if he lingers, he will come.”

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