Why Bernie’s Democratic Socialism Doesn’t Make Him Anti-Zionist

It makes no sense to portray Sanders as leading a charge against Israel.

This article was first published in The American Prospect and appears here by special permission.
Here’s a certain version of history: Once, in a different era, the era into which Bernie Sanders was born, “New York was full of Yiddish socialists.” Jews, or very large numbers of them, continued leaning left until the late 1960s, when right-wing Zionism took over as the moving spirit of American Jewish life. Universalism, sadly, gave way to exceptionalism. Sanders, though, is an “evangelist” of the old socialist tradition, “the kind of Jew that Zionists would very much like us to forget.”

In very brief form, that’s the account in Jesse Myerson’s cover story in the Village Voice a few days ago. A colleague sent me a link, which reached me on a stopover between North America and my small Hebrew-speaking country in the Middle East.

It’s a strange read. Let’s leave Sanders aside for now. Seen from Israel, or from much of Europe, the only thing remarkable about Sanders’s social democratic stance is that it’s considered remarkable in America rather than being an accepted part of mainstream politics. No, the problem with the article is partly in the historical account, which doesn’t have a lot to do with the lived past. Underlying that flaw is the neat opposition of universalism and particularism.

Yes, there were once many socialists speaking Yiddish or Yiddish-accented English in New York and other American cities. Some were anti-Zionists. There were communists and other heirs to Eastern European Jewish radicalism who expected the world-in-the-making to eliminate the “Jewish problem” among other oppressions. There were Bundists, who combined socialism and Yiddish cultural nationalism. And there were many who believed in both socialism and Zionism. I doubt that anyone could give you a statistical breakdown, even a rough one.

Besides all that, American Jewry included non-Zionists and anti-Zionist liberals, alongside Zionists of all stripes. By the mid-‘40s, though, it seems clear that most American Jews favored creation of a Jewish state.

Yet most American Jews have gone on being left of center politically. Let me point to just one iconic figure mentioned by Myerson: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel indeed marched at Selma in the front line with Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He also wrote a book-length paean to the State of Israel.

Today, more American Jews are critical of Israeli policy than you’d guess reading news of an AIPAC convention, and a lot fewer of them have become non-Zionists than you’d guess while reading a statement from Jewish Voices for Peace. Meanwhile, Gallup reports that Sanders has a 60 percent favorability rating among American Jews.

Myerson posits a dichotomy between Jews supporting a politics of “universal equality and justice” as represented by Sanders and particularism as represented by Zionism. In real life, the dichotomy doesn’t hold up. To some degree, that’s because human beings are good at holding inconsistent ideas. But in this case, contradictions and ironies are built into the ideas.

Here’s one problem: Jewish history and Judaism can and should be read as demanding a commitment to universal justice. The Jewish concept of justice, as Heschel wrote, isn’t a blind figure holding a scale. It’s a driving force, an incessant demand. As rabbi and Talmud scholar Aryeh Cohen shows in his book, Justice in the City, Jewish legal tradition obligates a polity to feed, clothe, and house people—not just members of your society, but also strangers who arrive at your gate.

But if you feel this tradition matters, that it should survive, what creates people 50 years from now who will be committed to it? To do that, you need a group preserving the shared history. You need rituals and connectedness. Particularism is needed to preserve this kind of forceful universalism.

That is, unless you feel that the Jewish past has done its job by delivering this generation of Jews to the promised land of American liberalism or reborn socialism. In that case, particularism has fulfilled its role. Now Jews can be universalists like all others, fading into the wider society.

But here we hit another problem with the universalist-particularist split. You can’t join a purely universalist society. There’s no society that speaks, say, the universal language of Esperanto—which anyway is based on European languages, not others. When, as a member of a minority, you shed your particular identity to assimilate, you join a somewhat larger particularistic society. A sort of domestic colonialism is at work: The majority culture presents itself as “normal,” and the minorities accept it rather than keep their tribal separateness.

It’s no accident that the political concepts of universal rights and the nation-state came into the world more or less together. Revolutions granted universal equality, erased old distinctions, and expected all citizens to become part of the new universal culture, which happened to be quite specific. In France, that meant being French. It still does: Even today, in the name of enlightened secularism, a Muslim woman can’t teach in a French public school wearing a hijab.

In a chain reaction, ethnic groups discovered that the way to preserve their culture and identity was to have their own states, in which they defined the norm. Universalism demanded particularism.

Jewish history and Judaism can and should be read as demanding a commitment to universal justice. The Jewish concept of justice, as Heschel wrote, isn’t a blind figure holding a scale. It’s a driving force, an incessant demand.

One basic part of Zionism is that Jews wanted a place where being Jewish is simply normal. To be personal: Somewhere in my 20s, I concluded that I’d prefer to live in a country where impassioned speeches demanding justice are made in Hebrew. Later, as a parent, I wanted my children to have a knowledge of world cultures. So I was pleased that my daughter’s high school assigned Anna Karenina—and that she read it in Hebrew.

Things get messy, though. Particularism can metastasize. It can turn into a desire to have no one around who is different, or to make those who are different into people of lesser rights. This is the mood of Israel’s government. It’s built into the occupation. (No, I don’t think it’s inherent in Zionism. But please, don’t ask for everything in one place. That’s the subject for a book, not a column.)

The mood, in any case, if hardly unique. In America, the leading Republican presidential candidate’s real slogan is “Make White Christian English-Speaking America Great Again.”

Jews have a sharp memory of a time when the disease was virulent in the extreme, when “enlightened” Europe was terminally ill, and when the other people, to be killed or driven out, were Jews. This is another reason that even Jews who have grown up in the safe harbor of America generally want the refuge of Israel to exist for others.

When I read in January that the United States had so far taken in exactly 2,647 Syrian refugees, out of 4.5 million, what flashed in my mind was a passage from Sarah Wildman’s superb, heartbreaking book Paper Love. The book about the lover that her Jewish refugee grandfather left behind when he got a visa to America in 1938. In those days, Wildman writes, America’s immigration quota from Germany was 25,000—but “the actual number remained well below 10,000 per year.” Thinking about this, I am angry at the repeated scandal of American behavior, and reminded what a difference it would have made if Jews had had a state 10 years earlier than we actually did. And then I want to join the next protest in Israel against the government’s refusal to grant asylum status to Eritrean and Sudanese refugees, because I want universal justice to be expressed in this particular place.

I don’t claim that all those seemingly inconsistent American Jews have thought this all through. I do think it helps explain why being both left-of-center politically and being pro-Israel isn’t so illogical—indeed, why it’s more illogical to be purely universalist or unbendingly particularist. It also helps explain how someone, a lot of someones, can be pro-Israel and very critical of Israeli policies at the same time.

So far, the one candidate in this American presidential campaign to express this kind of support for Israel is Bernie Sanders. It’s a shame that he did so in a speech given at the very edge of the political stage. But if the speech was sincere, it didn’t make him an anti-Zionist. It suggested he is just the kind of Zionist needed in American politics.

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