Aaron Raimi
Jewish Rights Activist, Writer, and Zionist

A Tale of Two Jews: The Bernie Sanders Litmus Test

Illustration by Silvia Quach, Staff Illustrator (https://thebottomline.as.ucsb.edu)

A Bernie Sanders nomination and/or Presidency will serve as a litmus test for what side of the Jewish spectrum you fall on. This might sound foolish to a Jew as there is much diversity in the Jewish community, from ideological and religious diversity to ethnic and political. But the fault line at which Jews stand is how they view their Jewishness and their identity.

The cliché of 2 Jews, 3 opinions is not mirrored in this singular black and white dichotomy of Jewish identity – universal vs. national. As with many concepts in Judaism, there always stands a dueling nature of ideas and multiple interpretations of those ideas. But the main paradox in Judaism is its adherence to a nation that simultaneously strives for universal ideas for the goodness of humanity. This paradoxical relationship is mirrored in Jewish concepts such as or la goyim (light unto the nations) and tikkun olam (repair the world). Both concepts derive from the idea that the nation of Am Yisrael, the Jewish people serve and strive to be a bastion of goodness and light for the rest of the world, and to spread that light and goodness in order to make the world more G-dly, and morally and spiritually elevated. But both concepts are also predicated on the idea of a unified Jewish people, a collective nation that strives for Ahavat Yisrael (love a fellow Jew as yourself) and seeks to be one people, one tribe, and one nation. Without strong Jewish unity as one nation, these concepts are essentially null and void.

But these concepts that are both universal and national, or worldly and, or global and tribal, md have been at the heart of Jewish political division for the past 130 years and even longer in some regard. This division has taken place in dueling revolutions such as Bolshevism/Communism vs. Zionism, whereas the former were universalist, Yiddishite Bundists, and the latter were nationalist, Hebrew-speaking Zionists. And the rise of Bernie Sanders and the manifestation of his worldview through his view of Jewish identity highlights that division so succinctly that it will serve as a very black and white view of how American Jews see themselves.

In the eyes of Bernie Sanders and his Jewish supporters, their Jewishness is strictly universal without any room for nationalist sympathies or tribal loyalty. The concept of tikkun olam which is obsolete if there is not Jewish unity is at the heart of the Bernie Jew. For a Bernie Jew, tikkun olam is not predicated on the need for a strong Jewish nation to heal and repair the world. The healing and repairing of the world are at the heart of being a Jew. The manifestation of this concept for Bernie Jews is a universalist, secular, humanist political ideology that stands in diametric opposition to observant/orthodox Judaism, Zionism, and G-d-centered religion. The Bernie Jew believes that the messiah and proceeding utopia that is presented in the Torah is at best a foolish idea. The real utopia can be constructed through man-made means, that humanity alone can bring about peace, justice, and end human suffering. This is the mindset of the universalist Jew – the Jew who interprets Jewish concepts devoid of any national aspirations.

This mindset is what provides the ground for a Jew like Bernie to be outspoken about his Jewishness when it is for a human cause rather than a Jewish cause – universal healthcare, open immigration, equal distribution of wealth for all. The focus on Jewishness as a universal mindset rather than an ethnic, religious, nationalist, and cultural identity enables different views on anti-Semitism. Whereas in the case of a universalist Jew, the Jewish state does not represent the Jewish people and an anti-Semite only takes one ideological and physical form in the case of white supremacist neo-Nazis, the nationalist Jew takes great offense to the tropes and rhetoric used by Bernie’s surrogates and supporters about Jews and the Jewish state. Linda Sarsour, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Thalib, Louis Farrakhan and Matt Duss frighten many Jews, particularly the more nationalist ones, just as Richard Spencer, Steve King, and David Duke do.

Bernie’s controversial surrogates and supporters and his track record or lack thereof in Jewish causes and problems provides a level of bewilderment and outrage when he pronounces that he is a “proud Jew”, or when he says that he will not speak at AIPAC due to its “bigotry” and “hatred”, when it is the heartbeat of politically-minded American Jews both on the left and right. When the unifying rallying cry for Jews regardless of political or religious affiliation was to free Soviet Jewry in the 1980s due to persecution and outlawing of practicing Judaism, Bernie took a trip to the USSR in 1989 which he described as “a very strange honeymoon”, and maligned American foreign policy and made a moral equivalency between the former and that of the USSR’s foreign policy, and did not use his platform to advocate for the persecution of Soviet Jews.

The anti-Bernie Jew views their Jewishness in the national sense – a sense of peoplehood that is held together by a common land, bible, G-d, and tribal identity. The anti-Bernie Jew manifests their identity through their Zionism, attachment to Israel, attendance to Synagogue, observance of halacha and Judaism, and political support of moderate candidates that are both on the right and left. And while many anti-Bernie Jews maintain various levels of universalism to their Jewish identity, the nationalist part outweighs it, especially in relation to a Bernie Jew that is purely universal. The anti-Bernie Jew is weary of any political candidate that embraces a hardcore political ideology from the left or right that will exacerbate societal divisions and problems which has resulted far too many times as Jews being the scapegoat for said problems.

The anti-Bernie Jew views their Jewishness as a member of a particular tribe with a duty to improve the world for their tribe and the world, not as one detached individual part of a global collective with no ethnic, religious, or cultural identity. The anti-Bernie Jew values are steeped in family, tradition, nation, community, G-d, and goodwill or mitzvot for others through private or religious means, rather than political or governmental. The anti-Bernie Jew does not place a political agenda before the goodwill of their people; anti-Semitism in all its forms from any race, religion, or political ideology is unacceptable and may not be excused whether it is from their political allies or enemies.

Without leaving out context, a Jew does not have to view Judaism as strictly national or universal, but in the case of Bernie Sanders, that choice is almost impossible. In an ideal world, there wouldn’t be a polarizing Jewish candidate running for President who only views his Jewish identity from a singular universalist lens. In that ideal world, Jews view their identity (and most Jews already do) as having elements of both national and universal that don’t have to be in opposition with one another, rather a complex harmony of both that doesn’t have to be a zero-sum choice. But with Bernie’s full-scale embrace of universalist, socialist ideals, combined with his surrogates who many Jews view as anti-Semitic, and his you’re with us or against us revolutionary rhetoric, American Jews will have to choose which side of Jewish tug-a-war they’re on.

About the Author
Born in San Diego, Aaron Raimi is a Zionist and Jewish rights activist and current student at Santa Monica College majoring in Political Science. Having previously attended UCSB, Aaron was a Hasbara Fellow there and advocated for Israel and the Jewish people while defending the Jewish state from ideological and academic warfare in the form of BDS and anti-Zionist Professors and students. Aaron's long-term vision for Jewish activism on campus is to change the paradigm in which Zionism is viewed from a negative to a positive, and Jewish students to proudly embrace their identity, culture, and history.
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