Words Matter. Don’t Call Senator Sanders a Self-Hating Jew

I don’t think that Senator Bernie Sanders is a self-hating Jew and it is harmful to refer to him as such. Don’t get me wrong.  I understand why people refer to him as a self-hating Jew.  This past Shabbat I addressed the topic of Jewish identity and as an introduction to my speech, I noted that in a recent town hall for democratic presidential candidates, Senator Sanders said his Jewishness was one of the two main factors that shaped his outlook and specifically the Holocaust shaped his outlook since much of his extended family perished in the Holocaust.  He also released a campaign video in which he says that he is very proud to be Jewish and that he looks forward to becoming the first Jewish president in the history of the country.

When many of us heard that Senator Sanders claims to be proud of his Jewishness, we probably laughed or recoiled at the thought.  After all, we associate Jewishness as, at the very least, being a strong supporter of the state of Israel.   When he refers to the current Israeli government as racist and oppressive, when he pledges to rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council if he is elected president, which has a chronic bias against Israel, when he supported Jeremy Corbyn in England despite the fact that 85% of Jews asserted that he was an anti-semite and when he named Linda Sarsour as a surrogate for his campaign, many of us recoil at the notion that he is a proud Jew with classic Jewish values.

And that was before his tweet that “I remain concerned about the platform AIPAC provides for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights.  For that reason I will not attend their conference.”

AIPAC put out a strong statement in response:

“Senator Sanders has never attended our conference and that is evident from his outrageous comment. In fact, many of his own Senate and House Democratic colleagues and leaders speak from our platform to the over 18,000 Americans from widely diverse backgrounds—Democrats, Republicans, Jews, Christians, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, progressives, Veterans, students, members of the LGBTQ+ community—who participate in the conference to proclaim their support for the U.S.-Israel relationship.

By engaging in such an odious attack on this mainstream, bipartisan American political event, Senator Sanders is insulting his very own colleagues and the millions of Americans who stand with Israel. Truly shameful.”

I applaud AIPAC’s strong response in denouncing Senator Sanders’ tweet.  We live in a political climate when U.S. bipartisan support for Israel is being threatened by a faction in the Democratic party and it remains to be seen how influential this faction will be in altering the strong U.S. – Israel relationship.  Senator Sanders and like-minded senators and congressmen are waging a battle with the establishment in the Democratic party for the soul of the party as it affects this relationship and we hope and pray that U.S. support for Israel remains bipartisan and AIPAC continues to be an event that brings together all Americans, both Republicans and Democrats, to support this special relationship.

That being said, I don’t find Senator Sanders to be a self-hating Jew.  We live in a world of political and religious self-definitions, where political and religious definitions are not imposed from the outside but are defined subjectively.  We live in a world when I, a pro-AIPAC orthodox Rabbi, can stand up from the pulpit and say that my Judaism shapes my worldview, and Senator Sanders, a non-orthodox liberal J-Street Jew, can assert the same thing and the reason why this happens is because Judaism means different things to different people.  He defines his Jewishness primarily in one way, namely taking care of the weak, vulnerable and helpless.  I define my Jewishness in a far more complex manner than that.  I can passionately assert that I believe that his definition of Jewishness is inaccurate or incomplete.  I can assert that his policies are disastrous for the Jewish state.  However, I have no evidence to indicate he hates his Jewish identity.

I understand why people say that.  What they are really saying is that his policies and beliefs are the antithesis of either Torah values or basic Jewish values, which include strong support for the state of Israel.  However, I think we need to move away from such statements.  Such claims don’t merely attack policies or beliefs, but reject one’s very identity, casting him as an “other.”  And it is a dangerous precedent to reject those with different beliefs as being the “other.”  How many Republicans denounce certain Democrats as un-American based on their political views? How many Democrats denounce Republicans for the same reason?  Rejecting people as the “other” for their beliefs instead of passionately demonstrating the weakness of their arguments helps fuel a culture of extremism and violence.  As Jews, we must serve as an “or la-goyim,” a light unto the nations and model appropriate behavior in this current culture of extremism.

So, yes, bravo to AIPAC for its strong statement denouncing Senator Sanders’ tweet.  Bravo to all those who publicly renounce and condemn anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements in any shape or form.  But remember, we can be just as effective by denouncing statements or beliefs of those with whom we disagree without rejecting the authors of those statements as the “other.”

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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