Tanya Gold

Bernie Sanders’ trial by Novara media was depressing to watch

The 82-year-old was forced into a semantic debate with Ash Sarkar on Israel’s war in Gaza

February 21, 2024 15:10

She sat neatly in black with a white Peter Pan collar — fashion is sometimes telling. She was dressed like a judge, exuding moral purity, because that is what she was that day: Ash Sarkar, the Madame Defarge of Novara Media. The defendant, meanwhile, was Bernie Sanders, 82, US Senator for Vermont and the longest serving Independent in US congressional history. He sat in the studio blinking. If this were the Revolution and not a small internal trial, Madame Sarkar might have picked up her knitting needles, and Sanders’ bloodied head would be in a basket at her feet.

Sanders is the elder statesman of the American progressive left. He came second in the race to be Democratic nominee in 2016 and 2020 and is a lifelong activist for civil rights, equality, the environment, and political transparency: everything the young progressives of Novara should love. He was there to plug his book, It’s OK to be Angry About Capitalism. He didn’t know he was on trial. He talked about his book. He said that the richest 1 per cent of the American population owns more than then the poorest 99 per cent, and three people own 50 per cent of American wealth, and they have amazing and disproportionate political power.

There’s something narcotic about listening to Sanders. He is still an optimist, and convincing. “How do we bring people together country by country and internationally to tell the oligarchs that this world belongs to all of us, not just a few people?” he asked her. “It ain’t easy, believe me” He said Donald Trump doesn’t even believe that climate change is happening. Like his politics or not — and I do — Sanders is a serious man, and he knows it: that is why he is still out there at 82. I can also never look at him without thinking of Larry David. They look like twins who were separated at birth, and that charms me.

But Sanders is also a Jew, and a liberal Zionist: this was the focus of the trial. Sarkar asked him three times if he would call what is happening in Gaza a genocide. Three times he declined to answer. (“Thou shalt deny Me thrice”). He refused to endorse an economic boycott of Israel. He told Sarkar, instead, that the Israeli action was “disgraceful” and “horrible”, and he's leading the action to cut military funding to Israel in the US Senate. Sanders believes in a two-state solution in Israel and Palestine. Netanyahu doesn’t, and that is one of the reasons Sanders, who believes Netanyahu is part of a dangerous global trend for authoritarian nationalism, despises him. “I do not want to see the United States complicit in what Netanyahu and his right-wing lunatic friends are doing right now to the Palestinian people,” he said. He wants humanitarian aid and a humanitarian ceasefire now and “some type of long-term solution”.

This response is not good enough for the hard Left, and their dependence on shoutable slogans for Saturday afternoon rallies that frighten Jews. (Jeremy Corbyn marching in front of a painting of a Jewish baby being fed Palestinian blood by America was last week’s nadir. Not that we are allowed the privilege of fear: the historian William Dalrymple mocked to his 1.2 million Twitter followers a Jewish woman who spoke of it). Sarkar didn’t dwell on the support Sanders is giving Palestinians, which exceeds that of the young British Left, who appear to be for war. It’s the wrong kind of support. Sanders must use the word “genocide”.

Why didn’t he? The obvious theory is because he doesn’t believe that it is a genocide. Sanders, whose father Elias Ben Yehuda Sanders was born in what is now Poland, where most of his immediate family were murdered in the Shoah, knows what a genocide is, what a war crime is, and what a war is. Or perhaps he thinks it is a genocide but, as a Jew and liberal Zionist, he is not willing to name Israel a demonic state and put all global Jewry at risk. But I doubt it. If he believed it, he’d say it.

Still, she asked. I think the use of the word genocide here is less a truth than a cruel taunt to a man who lost family in the Shoah. It’s also, to paraphrase Howard Jacobson, comforting. If Jews are genocidaires, the victims of the Shoah are owed nothing, and all is well.

The end was predictable. The denial went viral, and Sanders, visiting Liverpool, was greeted by the Merseyside Pensioners Association giving a “proper Scouse welcome” to a “genocide denier”. The Communists stood with them because Sanders, after losing the democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton in 2016, urged voters to back her against Donald Trump. Splitter! That was Bernie in the UK 2024. I hope his optimism survives it.

February 21, 2024 15:10

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