How Bernie Sanders’ socialist ideas were developed on the kibbutz

February 11, 2016

A yarmulke with “Bernie Sanders” written in Hebrew, worn at a campaign event in Iowa last month.



[Note by Tom Gross]

Senator Bernie Sanders became the first ever Jew (albeit now a secular one) to win an American presidential primary election on Tuesday, with his massive win over Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire.

This has sparked quite a lot of interest in the Jewish and Israeli media.

I attach below an article from today’s Haaretz and also a piece from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that is carried in several Israeli media.

Haaretz notes that “The utter absence of identity politics-style solidarity [by Jewish Americans] with Sanders stands in stark contrast to the African-American groups’ thrilled reaction to Barack Obama’s smashing of barriers in his 2008 presidential campaign.”

Haaretz writes that in his victory speech on Tuesday night, Sanders referred to himself as “the son of a Polish immigrant” – not as a Jewish-American; nor as the son of a Jewish Holocaust escapee from Poland whose family was murdered.

Sanders had a Jewish upbringing, attended Hebrew school, and had a bar mitzvah ceremony. In 1963, in cooperation with the Labor Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, he and his first wife volunteered and lived for several months at Sha’ar HaAmakim, a kibbutz in northern Israel. In 1999, he acted in the film “My X-Girlfriend’s Wedding Reception,” playing the role of Rabbi Manny Shevitz.

The candidate’s older brother, Larry Sanders (who works as a social worker in England), said that Bernie met Argentine volunteers on the kibbutz who were interested in the viability of such an agrarian communal system on a bigger scale, and this helped develop Bernie’s socialist ideas.

The Jewish left seems, naturally, to be proud of the fact that Sanders is in some ways so culturally Jewish with his heavy Brooklyn accent, and the fact he is a graduate of Brooklyn’s remarkable Madison High School, the alma mater of Jewish Nobel Prize winners, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, among others.

The left are noting that the fact Sanders is Jewish has (perhaps for the first time in America, with its previous periods of anti-Semitism) appeared to make no difference to his electoral prospects: that “the most remarkable thing about the first credible campaign for the White House by a Jew is that it’s completely unremarkable.”

The right are also arguing that the fact that Sanders is Jewish is irrelevant, since many “Socialist Jews” before him (for example, they say, during the Russian revolution) have acted counter to Jewish interests and some have even been anti-Semites. No one is suggesting that Sanders is in any way anti-Semitic; however, it is being noted on the right that his foreign policy team is comprised of persons with positions hostile to mainstream Israeli positions of both the Likud and Israeli Labor and centrist parties.

Although there has so far been no anti-Semitism towards Sanders, if a Jew should in an way still identify with Judaism or publically support Israel, or not change his name to a less Jewish name as the Sanders family appear to have done, then being Jewish may still be a political liability: which is why commentators say being Jewish may be a liability should New York City’s former mayor Michael Bloomberg decide to run as an independent candidate for president – as indeed I hope he will if the Democratic and Republican candidates turn out be Sanders and Donald Trump.


(I have noted before in passing in these dispatches that the children of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are married to Jews and had at least part Jewish weddings.

This previous dispatch from last summer also explored Trump’s and Sanders’ Jewish ties.)

-- Tom Gross



A reader provides this additional Jewish perspective on Bernie Sanders:


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Bernie Sanders is the first Jew to win a presidential primary. So why aren’t Jews kvelling?

Sanders continues to play down his Jewishness, calling himself the son of a Polish immigrant in his victory speech, and the Jewish establishment has a hard time considering him one of its own.

By Allison Kaplan Sommer
Feb. 11, 2016

With his win in New Hampshire, Senator Bernie Sanders has officially become the first Jew to win a U.S. presidential primary.

It is a historic achievement by any measure – but it is also a victory that is something of an orphan, celebrated enthusiastically neither by Sanders himself, who, in his victory speech, referred to himself as “the son of a Polish immigrant” – not as a Jew – nor the organizations that represent the American Jewish community.

Why? First and foremost, because the two have kept their distance from one another for decades. Sanders has stayed far away from organized American Jewish life both personally and professionally, and the U.S. Jewish establishment in turn had a hard time regarding as one of its own a secular socialist congressional iconoclast who has never belonged to a synagogue, never appeared at pro-Israel rallies or AIPAC events, and has refrained from returning to the Jewish state since his now-infamous kibbutz stint in the 1960’s.

The utter absence of identity politics-style solidarity with Sanders stands in stark contrast to the African-American groups’ thrilled reaction to Barack Obama’s smashing of barriers in his 2008 presidential campaign, or feminist excitement for many women as they watch Hillary Clinton forge ahead in her presidential campaign.

It is also a departure for the American Jewish community, which has never been hesitant to display its excitement when one of its own is highly successful in any field. Victories in electoral politics are a particular point of pride, since electability is also evidence of waning anti-Semitism in American society. The unexpected success of the Sanders campaign bears out recent polls that show that today, more than 90 percent of Americans would vote for a Jewish president – even a scruffy-looking far-left 74-year-old with a heavy Brooklyn accent.

Yet, far more enthusiasm and excitement emanated from the Jewish community back when Senator Joseph Lieberman was named the 2000 Vice Presidential candidate by Al Gore, and then when Lieberman made a short-lived bid for the presidency himself in 2004, in which he never took a single primary.

That is because the well-connected Connecticut senator, unlike Sanders, was both a committed religious Jew in his personal life and a loyal supporter of Jewish and pro-Israel causes in his political one. In fact, religion was so central to Lieberman’s political identity – that Anti-Defamation League chief Abe Foxman actually chided him publicly for going overboard, mentioning God and the role of faith in American life more frequently than Jews committed to separating religion and state were comfortable with.

It is a little-known but rather fascinating fact that Lieberman and Sanders, the only two Jewish men who have made serious bids for the White House have a close friend in common. In the ultimate illustration of “Jewish geography” – in which two Jews rarely have many degrees of separation – an Orthodox Jewish academic named Richard Sugarman has been remarkably close to both of them and has even shared a home with each of them at different points in their lives.

Sugarman was Lieberman’s roommate when the two young men were Yale undergraduates, during which time, according to a profile of Sugarman, Lieberman’s mother invited Sugarman home for the High Holidays. The roommates remained close after graduation, with Sugarman signing Lieberman’s ketubah (marriage contract) at his wedding, and Lieberman attending Sugarman’s father’s funeral.

During graduate school, Sugarman moved to Burlington to teach philosophy and religion at the University of Vermont. One day in 1970, he met Sanders on the train heading north from New York and the pair bonded over a discussion of economic inequality. They became friends and later when Sanders got evicted from an apartment between his two marriages, Sugarman invited him to move into his home. Their friendship has endured, and Sugarman, who first encouraged Sanders to run for mayor of Burlington – his first successful political bid – is today officially an advisor to the Sanders campaign.

One of his duties seems to be explaining Sanders’ Jewish identity – or lack thereof – to the media. In October, Sugarman told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that his friend is not “embarrassed or ashamed” of being Jewish, but he is a “universalist” and “doesn’t focus on those issues.” In November, Sugarman made a similar point to NPR – that Sanders is “not into identity politics, and I don’t think … this campaign is going to change him,”

His prediction has held true. Sanders has never referred to his Judaism except in jest – as in his Saturday Night Live appearance – or when asked directly about it by a reporter. In the latter circumstance, he usually refers to his family’s history with the Holocaust and his commitment to social justice and economic equality, but avoids talk of theology or observance.

When, last fall, Sanders was asked on-camera whether he believed in God – by, of all people, late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, he avoided directly answering the question, and invoked none other than the Pope in his answer: “I am who I am, and what I believe in and what my spirituality is about is that we’re all in this together. I think it is not a good thing to believe as human beings we can turn our backs on the suffering of other people, And this is not Judaism. This is what Pope Francis is talking about, that we cannot worship just billionaires and the making of more and more money.”

More recently, Sanders shook off the whispers that he may well be an atheist simply afraid to say the word, by telling the Washington Post that “I think everyone believes in God in their own ways,” he said. “To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.”

His answers embody the ethos of “tikkun olam” or “make the world a better place” embraced in some Jewish quarters as a legitimate basis for one’s Jewish identity. Rabbi Jonah Pesner, of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center has said of Sanders “Although he is not a particularly public candidate about his faith, he focuses on issues which resonate with the words of the Hebrew prophets. Many of us find language around income inequality very consistent with our own sense of Jewish social justice.”

But more traditional, pious Jews found it difficult to embrace the choice to spend Rosh Hashana, one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar, on the campaign trail, addressing Jerry Falwell’s evangelical Liberty University, standing on stage as a band performed music about the resurrection of Jesus.

For some of the communities’ most prominent and powerful Jews in business, banking and the financial industry – Sanders’ primary political message surely feels like a personal attack. Tal Schneider, an Israeli journalist and blogger currently in New Hampshire covering the race pointed out that influential power brokers have good reason not to feel particularly fond of their fellow Jew who stated in a debate that the business model of Wall Street is a fraud.

“It’s not out there explicitly, but when Sanders rails against Wall Street and the huge banking and corporate interests in the United States, there are many Jews in New York who sense a personal attack. Jewish businessmen who hold many of these positions of power,are not likely to be fond of Sanders’ rhetoric of “revolution.”

Jews who base their vote on support of Israel certainly have reason to hesitate when it comes to Sanders’ lack of any kind of foreign policy vision. Their reluctance was certainly heightened when it was revealed from where Sanders has been seeking “a broad perspective of the Middle East”: JStreet, Larry Korb from the Center for American Progress, and James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.

But there is one major group of Jews that have few qualms about Sanders. They may not be an official organization – but they are definable – the millennials. Despite the massive age gap, Sanders is a political figure with whom young Jews can identify: liberal, progressive, secular, more universalist than tribal, not afraid of the word “socialist,” and, increasingly, alienated from Israel in general, and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in particular.

Anyone who is looking for Jews who are truly “kvelling” over Sanders’ victory had best leave the established organizations alone, and head for the universities – where the kids who could be his grandchildren are truly “feeling the Bern” as the proud supporters of the irascible old guy with the Brooklyn accent who could easily be their Jewish grandpa.



Why Sanders’ victory is no big deal to Jews – or America
By Daniel Treiman
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
February 10, 2016

Bernie Sanders is having a month of historic firsts.

In New Hampshire on Tuesday night, he handily won the Democratic Party contest, becoming the first Jew to win a presidential primary. In Iowa, he became the first Jewish presidential candidate – the first non-Christian, even – to win delegates in a major party’s caucus or primary.

But that’s trivia.

What’s more significant is that he’s the first Jew to mount a credible campaign for the White House.

It’s not that credible Jewish politicians haven’t run for president before. There was Republican Senator Arlen Specter in 1996 and Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman in 2004. But they were out of step with their parties and their candidacies went nowhere. (Both later quit their parties.)

And if the prospect of Republicans nominating a pro-choice Jew in the 1990s or Democrats tapping a Jewish hawk in the Iraq War’s aftermath seemed far-fetched, the notion of a Jewish socialist with a thick Brooklyn accent giving Hillary Clinton a run for her money is really incredible.

Yet one aspect of Sanders’ improbable candidacy is, remarkably, treated as mostly unremarkable: his Jewishness.

Sanders doesn’t go out of this way to highlight his Jewish background, nor have his supporters or opponents made it an issue. The Jewish community has not rallied around him, nor has there been, until now, any Jewish groundswell of public pride or anxiety over his campaign. We have not heard calls for Jews to support their fellow Jew.

Contrast this with the prominence of gender in discussions of Clinton’s candidacy.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and feminist icon Gloria Steinem caused a stir several days ago when they seemed to rebuke younger women who back Sanders over Clinton.

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” Albright said.

Meanwhile, American Jews are united in comparative nonchalance about Sanders’ Jewishness. Partly that’s because few expected he would do so well. But it’s also because Lieberman already broke the Jewish glass ceiling. His 2000 vice-presidential run proved Americans were prepared to put a Jewish candidate a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Of course, Lieberman wasn’t just a Jewish candidate. He was a very Jewish candidate. He wore his identity on his sleeve: an Orthodox Jew outspoken in his support for Israel and other Jewish causes.

Sanders is different. He describes himself as “not particularly religious.” He is married to a non-Jewish woman. He is aloof from Jewish communal life. A Sanders campaign ad described the candidate simply as “the son of a Polish immigrant.”

Tellingly, last Rosh Hashanah, Sanders wasn’t in synagogue. He was in church – well, not church per se, but he was at Liberty University, the conservative Christian educational citadel founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. Sanders was there preaching his secular brand of social justice gospel. Democratic socialism, not Judaism, is his real religion.

But Sanders is also, in his own way, a very Jewish candidate.

Sanders cleverly acknowledged as much during his “Saturday Night Live” appearance alongside his comic doppelganger, Larry David. Playing a rabble-rousing socialist immigrant aboard an ocean liner bound for America, Sanders introduces himself as “Bernie Sanderswitzky, but we’re going to change it when we get to America so it doesn’t sound quite so Jewish.” To which David deadpans: “Yeah, that’ll trick ‘em.”

It’s not just Sanders’ Brooklynite bearing that marks him as inescapably Jewish. Nor is it the fact that he volunteered in Israel on a kibbutz. (After all, former Republican presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann also worked on a kibbutz, and her 2012 presidential campaign’s Judaic highlight was her mangling of the word “chutzpah.”)

Rather, Sanders’ personal and political story is emblematic of a whole generation of Jewish idealists.

Sanders was far from the only young Jew in the early 1960s to fervently embrace socialism, following in the footsteps of Jewish radicals from earlier eras. Like many Jews, Sanders was deeply invested in the black struggle for civil rights; he was active with the Congress of Racial Equality and attended Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. After college, Sanders was in the vanguard of the mini-migration to Vermont of socially conscious Jewish urbanites going “back to the land.”

Today, Sanders invokes his Jewish roots to explain his passion for combating bigotry.

In one of his campaign’s most memorable moments, a young hijab-wearing woman at a Sanders rally told the candidate she was worried about anti-Muslim rhetoric in American politics. Sanders beckoned her over for a hug.

“I’m Jewish,” he said. “My father’s family died in concentration camps. I will do everything that I can to rid this country of the ugly stain of racism.”

Sanders’ disconnect with organized Jewry, his attenuated religiosity and his marriage to a non-Jew are not atypical for American Jews, plenty of whom are unaffiliated, secular and intermarried. Sanders fits comfortably into the growing category that Jewish demographers dub “Just Jewish.”

At the same time, Sanders’ staunchly left-wing stances occasionally have taken him outside even the liberal mainstream of American Jewish politics. For instance, Sanders backed the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s historic presidential bids in 1984 and 1988, notwithstanding the black leader’s then-acrimonious relationship with the Jewish community.

On Israel, too, Sanders expresses positions that would put him at odds with Jewish communal leaders. He has strongly criticized Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and suggested that as president he would “maintain an evenhanded approach to the area.” Yet he has come under fire from anti-Israel activists, as when he was heckled at a 2014 Vermont town hall meeting for expressing sympathy with the Jewish state over the threat it faces from Hamas rocket attacks even as he condemned Israel’s conduct in Gaza.

Iowa and New Hampshire can’t tell us much about how Sanders will perform with Jewish voters, and Clinton has plenty of Jewish devotees. But these early contests do indicate that Sanders’ Jewishness isn’t hurting him with Democrats. If anything, Sanders’ fans find his disheveled-old-Jewish-socialist-from-Brooklyn image to be a charming badge of authenticity.

Still, there are those who think being Jewish can be a political liability. New York City’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who is toying with the idea of jumping into the presidential race, once expressed doubt that America would elect a “short, Jewish, divorced billionaire.” Bloomberg may be correct that being a billionaire or short could be a liability, but is he right about Jewishness?

Polling suggests that Jews may be America’s most popular religious group. Jews are warmly regarded by Democrats and Republicans, evangelicals and atheists. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that only 10 percent of Americans are less likely to vote for a Jew for president, compared to 20 percent who said they were less likely to vote for an evangelical Christian.

Perhaps it’s because everyone can seem to find something to like about Jews: To conservative evangelicals, Jews are the Bible’s “chosen people;” to secular and liberal Americans, Jews are liberal, secular types.

Sanders’ identity as a socialist may be much more problematic: 50 percent of Americans say they wouldn’t vote for a socialist. And the fact that he’s not particularly religious could be a liability: 51 percent of Pew respondents said they were less likely to vote for an atheist for president.

If Sanders’ Jewishness is not an issue, perhaps it’s because Jews are so well-integrated into contemporary American life. Indeed, Sanders is not the only presidential hopeful with intimate Jewish ties. His rival for the Democratic nomination has a Jewish son-in-law who donned a yarmulke and tallit at his wedding to Chelsea Clinton. The winner of New Hampshire’s Republican primary, Donald Trump, has a daughter who converted to Judaism and goes to an Orthodox synagogue.

What’s remarkable is how unremarkable this is.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.