A few months ago (around June 2015, I guess), I was approached by my childhood best friend, a Brazilian like me, who also lives in the U.S. with her American husband, concerning a fundraiser for the incipient Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders.
“Can you imagine?” she sounded very excited. “If he wins the nomination, he could be the first Jewish president of the United States!”
I dismissed her.
“Who is this Bernie Sanders guy?” I asked Alan.
At that time, Hillary Clinton was not only the indisputable front-runner, but also the one and only Democratic candidate. Then Sanders appeared as a disposable option — an old, insignificant postulant to the presidential race from distant Vermont.
This week, as Sanders left the White House after a meeting with President Obama, I was fairly shaken. Against all initial odds, the old man had come far, with his 49% in the polls.
I was reminded of my father, a Zionist idealist who in 1950 left everything behind and emigrated to Israel, days after his marriage to my mother. In one of the wonderful letters he wrote her during their brief courtship, he said: “In Eretz, we won’t feel like foreigners anymore. And we will be free from worries about money.”
My father, one of the founders of Ein Dorot, a kind of preparatory kibbutz in São Paulo, Brazil, also wrote that “good things in life are difficult to obtain, but we must be strong enough to overcome all obstacles, when we are sure that what we seek is fair, and is what we really want. Which I am.”
Life in Afikim, the kibbutz in which I was born, six miles from the Sea of Galilee, was not so easy, and the overcoming of obstacles not so fulfilling. My mother got sick, and my parents decided to return to Brazil, much to my father’s dismay, or so I thought for a long time. Much later, my aunt told me that, in fact, my father was deeply disappointed with the political machinations of the kibbutz, an institution that proved at that time to be quite distant from his idealistic dreams.
Back in Brazil, my father made a living as a store owner, a businessman, until he died in a car accident in 1972. He was 44 years old. Although he often talked about it — and in my imagination, I believed that he thought a lot about it — he never moved back to Israel.
In 1970, I spent a year volunteering on a kibbutz, early enough in the socialist history of the country to experience the unbounded sharing of assets and the delightful unnecessariness of money on a daily basis. But when I visited Israel again in 1989, the situation was different. On the kibbutz where my cousin lived with her family, people were talking about “owning” a car (heresy!), traveling to Europe, and were, horror of horrors, using a credit card to buy food at the kibbutz grocery store. I don’t know where these things stand today.
My point is, socialism is quite passé, and it has proven not so positive for the progress of human society, which is strongly based on ambition and competition. At least, this is my opinion. And I don’t believe socialism would be any good for the United States, a strong capitalist nation based on free enterprise, freedom of initiative, and capital gains, very personal gains.
Now, speaking of other Bernie talking points, I have a thing or two to say.
First of all, free college and free everything were widely exercised in Brazil over the last few years. The university that belongs to the state used to be one of the best, but it’s pretty much in decline right now, thanks to lack of resources, and also due to the political influence in the choice of professors and chairmen. As for the social practice of giving stuff away for free and “helping the poor,” these have resulted in the widest and deepest case of corruption the country has ever seen. Nowadays, every initiative or investment proposal has to “pay a price” to the powers that be; but I’m sure these two factors are not so directly associated as I make them appear to be. I’m just a suspicious, heartless shrew, I know.
Second of all, concerning Obamacare, I have an even more “intimate” experience. As a new immigrant, I discovered I was forced by law to acquire health insurance under the program, and if I didn’t, I would be subjected to a fine. But the best option I could find required that I paid $650 a month, almost the same amount as my rent, something I couldn’t afford. Not to mention that I trust my health and don’t want to be forced into buying anything. So I decided to “go rogue” and risk the penalty, which is significantly cheaper. Fine! My good health for 2016 I place in the “hands of God,” and a year from now, I’ll be eligible for Medicare, I hope.
Moreover, I have to confess that I’m deeply turned off by Bernie’s accent and his weird articulation of some words; but who am I to criticize, right? Alan can most assuredly tell you. In a few instances, by the way, Bernie and Alan have so much in common that I have even dubbed them “Big Bernie & Little Bernie”: two Jews of the same age, both ex-hippies, etc.
Alan, of course, could never be President of the United States. As we all know, short people are not allowed in the Oval Office.
On the other hand, in times like ours, the idea of having a Jew in the White House is truly attractive. I know, I know, although he was raised like every one of us, not only in the Jewish faith but in Jewish principles and ideas of integrity, Sanders barely mentions his Jewish background, nor does the media emphasize this aspect of his ancestry and family tradition. Which, as we all know, is something that defines you.
It kept me thinking. When running for office, Obama always denied his Muslim roots, but as president, he rarely fails to make it very clear, at least in his diplomatic efforts. Maybe the same thing will be true with Sanders, who knows. It demands a huge effort, in fact, to separate oneself from the culture in which one was raised. Even if this influence may be subtle, it never fails to impose itself when decisions are made.
God knows how badly we Jews need an ally in the White House. Oh well. It does not mean I’m going to jump in and endorse Bernie’s candidacy all of a sudden. I’m still traumatized by the way I so strongly rooted for Obama in both elections… Alan managed to convince me that I should feel personally guilty for the current administration’s lack of support for the State of Israel… This was, by the way, his winning argument to make me change my mind, and finally cross to “the other side.”
At any rate, my primary point for this week’s chronicle, before I was carried away by Bernie’s visit to the White House, was how confused and deceived I’ve been by political appearances lately. This has left me paralyzed, still unable to choose a candidate. Only a few days from the Iowa caucus, everything seems to be the opposite of what I hear and feel. After all, in no way, considering my socialist and idealist upbringing, would I opt to criticize the charming, sensitive, progressive, and convincing nature of Obama’s rhetorical efforts. And what a good speaker he is, tears and all! However, it is mostly empty speech, and worse, produces meaningless results. The sad state of our present world is the most compelling proof of that, and for the moment, that’s what I have to say.
As for you, my friend, who gave me the honor of your attention up to this point, perhaps fooled by my tricky title, I’m so sorry, but I’ll have to disappoint you. No, I don’t have the answer to the biggest enigma, the “most well-kept secret” of this electoral race, I mean, the name of the kibbutz where Bernie Sanders stayed in the mid-1960s, which might “have helped shape his political views.” My deepest apologies on that matter!