Bernie Needs to Better Address Anti-Semitism

(Tom Brenner/Getty Images/AFP)

After this weekend, it is more clear than ever: Senator Bernie Sanders is the front-runner to win the Democratic nomination for president. According to FiveThirtyEight’s models, Senator Sanders has a 45 percent chance of winning a majority of pledged delegates, which is by far the highest chances of any of the other candidates (though ‘no one’ does slightly trail 45-41). The 78-year old earned a decisive victory in Nevada and is in good standing to also compete in South Carolina’s upcoming primary. 

Though he has been running for the Democratic nomination for president for a long time over the last two election cycles, never has Bernie come this close. He has run a campaign based on big ideas. And he has been very clear that he has not thought long and hard about these ideas, saying in October 2019, for instance, that “I don’t think I have to [come up with an exact detailed plan] right now.” for how he will pay for his signature Medicare for All plan. And this does not appear to bother him all too much, as he is very eager to exclaim that it is “impossible to predict” how much it will cost. In some regards, he has so far run an unserious campaign. 

His campaign has been especially unserious when it comes to anti-semitism. They view anti-semitism in a purely political paradigm and think that the American left and their campaign is by and large immune to one of the oldest bigotries in human history. 

The Sanders team has been more than willing to let figures who harbor anti-semitic views be surrogates and supporters of his campaign. On October 9, comedian/writer/law professor Amer Zahr announced that he was “officially named as a surrogate” for Bernie Sanders. Zahr has gone much further than most ostensibly “pro-Palestinian” activists and has ventured into defending terrorism and delving into anti-semitism. During the 2014 war between Hamas and Israel, Zahr declared that the terrorist organization’s ceasefire proposal was “completely reasonable.” He has engaged in anti-semtic blood libels against Israel, saying in 2019 that “Israel uses Palestinians as lab specimens in their prisons.” He has claimed that Israel is just like ISIS. And his inclusion is curious. He does not bring a lot to the table. He is an obscure comedian and has only ten thousand or so followers on Twitter. His reach is not so large that his surrogacy was really needed, yet here we are. 

Linda Sarsour, meanwhile is the opposite. She has a huge following and is incredibly influential in lots of circles. The former leader of the Women’s March is now a national surrogate for Bernie’s campaign and has a clear affinity for the Senator from Vermont, as evidenced by her Twitter profile picture of her and Bernie smiling. There are seemingly endless instances in which she has engaged in anti-semitic speech and behavior. In December 2019, Linda Sarsour puppeted a favorite line of former KKK leader David Duke when she said that Israel was “built on the idea that Jews are supreme to everybody else.” David Duke, infamously, wrote a book titled Jewish Supremacism; according to the ADL in 2005, Duke frequently engaged in “conspiratorial depictions of Jewish power and alleged Jewish hatred for non-Jews, a combination he refers to as ‘Jewish supremacism.’” Sarsour and Duke using the same vile language makes sense, as Jew-hatred “predates the modern left and right,” according to Yair Rosenberg, a senior writer for Tablet Magazine. But the Bernie campaign has no problem with this. 

Sarsour has quite a history of lauding famed anti-semite Louis Farrakhan, who has said, amongst many things, that “satanic Jews.. have infected the whole world with poison and deceit.” Sarsour has also gone out of her way to defend and dismiss accusations of anti-semitism against Louis Farrakhan, The Nation of Islam, and other Womens March leaders who were accused of anti-semitism. Like many recent anti-semitc incidents from the left, Sarsour has also accused Jews of dual loyalty to Israel. 

Rep. Ilhan Omar also decided to employ the dual loyalty smear to Jews, when in 2019 she questioned Jewish Americans’ “allegiance” towards Israel. This was preceded by her notorious 2012 comments in which she Tweeted that the Jewish state “has hypnotized the world,” a classic anti-semitic trope. When pushed on this comment once she was in Congress, Rep. Omar responded that “I don’t know how my comments would be offensive to Jewish Americans.” A supporter of the Boycott Divest and Sanctions movement (many Jews consider BDS itself anti-semitic), Rep. Omar believes that BDS “is the kind of pressure that leads to that peaceful process.” But when it comes to Iran, she advocates the opposite of sanctions and boycotts, and rather engagement. Rep. Omar, Yair Rosenberg notes, “has a clear moral double standard for imposing sanctions on a country. She makes [important and worthy] arguments against sanctions on Iran, then turns around and backs a movement that advocates them against a far lesser violator, Israel.” An outspoken freshman member of Congress, Rep. Omar’s October 2019 endorsement of Bernie is quite noteworthy and was fairly obvious. And her frequent dabblings in anti-semitism are just as noteworthy. 

What is all the more noteworthy is Sen. Sanders absolute silence on his supporters and surrogates’ anti-semitism. But it’s not like he is a self hating Jew, as some right-wing blowhards want you to believe.  In a November 2019 essay for Jewish Currents, Bernie made it clear when he wrote “I am a proud Jewish American.” Earlier this month, he spoke at a town hall in regards to his Jewish identity, saying that “it impacts me very profoundly.. When I try to think about the views that I came to hold there are two factors. One I grew up in a family that didn’t have a lot of money…and the second one is being Jewish.” Sanders said that his upbringing in Brooklyn, where he enocountered many Holocaust survivors, shaped his political worldview. That “at a very early age… I was aware of the horrible things that human beings can do to other people in the name of racism, or white nationalism, or in this case, Nazism.” 

So he clearly cares and thinks deeply about his Judaism. And Bernie’s Judaism, as Joshua Leifer observes, “is firmly within the American Jewish mainstream.” And unlike in 2016, where he only addressed his Judaism once, he has spent time during the 2020 cycle weaving in his identity- as a secular, egalitarian Jew into his political message. At the J Street conference last October, Bernie made the point that “if there’s any people on earth who should be trying to bring people around a common and progressive agenda, it is the Jewish people.” 

In the Jewish Currents article that Bernie penned, he said “it is true that some criticism of Israel can cross the line into anti-semitism, especially when it denies the right of self-determination to Jews, or when it plays into conspiracy theories about outsized Jewish power. I will always call out antisemitism when I see it.” But he has not done that. Rep. Omar, Linda Sarsour, and Amer Zahr are but three concrete examples of people within Bernie Sanders’ camp who have time and time again let their criticism of Israel cross the line into anti-semitism. 

This is the problem. Bernie is a supposedly bold leader and consistent truth teller, but his stubborn dogmaticalness makes him unwilling to call out obvious anti-semitism amongst his ideological allies. But this is exactly where, as Yair Rosenberg observes, Bernie is best positioned as “the country’s leading progressive Jewish political voice… to expose, confront, and expunge anti-semitism within left-wing circles.” Senator Brian Schatz (Hawaii), another Jewish liberal politician, pleaded at the J Street conference in 2018 that “we cannot look the other way when people who would otherwise be our progressive allies speak out of ignorance or fear or convenience and they cross a moral line.” But Bernie’s silence appears to show a divergent view. 

The Sanders’ campaign’s outlook is that anti-semitism is a problem, but that it only is a problem that emanates from the right. Most recently (very recently) in America, anti-semitism has been more deadly from the right, with Pittsburgh and Poway (the Jersey City and Monsey attacks from December 2019 both seem to have some Black Hebrew Israelite inspirations) but to think of it as only a phenomenon from the right is incredibly shortsighted and wrong.  

As Adam Serwer of The Atlantic observed, “anti-semitism is older than any political framework we use today. It’s older than the invention of race. It doesn’t follow the rules people are used to applying to make sense of such things.” People should not, as Serwer points out “be categorically insisting that they and their cohorts are all but ideologically immunized from anti-semitism.” To a point, though, Bernie’s assertion that anti-semitism is only an issue on the right is understandable. Bernie Sanders is a liberal politician trying to win votes from other liberal people, so it makes sense for him to not confront ideological allies but rather draw his aim on right wingers. It’s just such a small-minded and morally questionable decision. 

Bernie Sanders is running to be the President of the United States, and that ought to mean going beyond safe ideological arguments and instead being a bold leader. Blaming anti-semitism solely on the right is safe politically, while confronting anti-semitism in all its forms (especially as a Jewish nominee for President) would be the morally right thing to do and a breath of fresh air. 

The Sanders campaign’s unwillingness to acknowledge anti-semitism on the left, and especially amongst their surrogates is incredibly concerning. And they need to address it. Bernie Sanders will (more likely than not) be the candidate who will have to take on President Donald Trump this fall. Bernie Sanders needs to be running a campaign that is inclusive for as many Americans as possible. For the sake of our country, we must defeat Trump and the Republicans, and we can only do that by being honest with ourselves.

About the Author
Brett L. Kleiman is currently a student at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, where he studies political science and international relations. He is a research intern at the Institute for the Study of Modern Israel and is the former president of the Emory Democrats. Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Brett attended The Robert M Beren Academy for 12 years. From September 2015 to June 2016 Brett lived in Israel through Young Judaea's gap year program, Year Course. Brett is interested in Israel, America, diplomacy, podcasts, Game of Thrones, The Wire, politics, reading, sports, and peace.
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