Bari Weiss

What to make of Bernie Sanders?

He comes out fine if the bar is as low as not being an active antisemite, but is this really the best America's Jews can hope for?

March 02, 2020 13:00

As the Senator from Vermont looks ever more likely to clinch the Democratic nomination for president, that is the question that American Jews are asking themselves with a growing sense of urgency.

The Jewish Chronicle offered an answer of its own this week: At least he ain’t Jeremy Corbyn.

“Mr. Corbyn,” wrote the JC, “is an antisemite who would rather Israel did not exist. Mr Sanders is not remotely anti-Semitic and has repeatedly and sincerely defended Israel’s right to exist.”

If the moral bar is set this dangerously close to the ground—Corbyn palled around with Jew-hating terrorists, Sanders didn’t—the senator, indeed, comes out looking fine.

Is this really the best that the world’s largest diaspora Jewish community can hope for? I think we deserve better from the would-be leader of the free world. Not just as Jews, but as Americans.

It is true that Sanders is not an antisemite. Indeed, as he likes to remind us, he is “very proud to be Jewish” — a notable reversal from identifying himself as “the son of a Polish immigrant” in the last election cycle.

But what matters isn’t what’s in his heart. What matters is that his career has been dedicated to negating the core values that have made Jews safe and secure everywhere from Leeds to Los Angeles.

Stories of Jews thriving on both sides of the pond differ in detail but share the same emotional backbeat: the ability to rise on the basis of hard work and a commitment to the flawed but brilliant system of liberal democracy.

This is the story of the Miliband brothers, the sons of Jewish refugees from Poland who climbed to the pinnacle of British politics.

It’s also the story of Joseph Lieberman, a second-generation American born the son of a shopkeeper who became a senator and a candidate for the vice presidency of the United States.

The gentleman from Vermont, however, has never had much time for, well, politics: the slow and steady and frustrating process of incremental change that always falls short of utopia but has allowed for the freest societies in the history of the world.

Look at his record — as mayor, as congressman, as senator — and you won’t find much, because he has little patience for liberalism’s way of doing business. He praises the accomplishments of Castro’s Cuba and we are told to ignore what we can plainly see: that he, too, dreams of a revolution that will fundamentally reshape America.

Jews, as history so clearly shows, never fare particularly well in revolutionary times. We’re frequently among the first to gravitate to the new and radical cause — and often among its first victims. Just ask Stalin.

There is another reason to reject Sanders’s presidential bid and support any other Democrat in the field: he has chosen to surround himself with a coterie of surrogates who have no affection for Jews or Israel.

They include Linda Sarsour, who was booted from the leadership of the Women’s March for fostering an environment hostile to Jews, and comedian Amer Zahr, who has compared Israel to ISIS.

Their bile seems to have rubbed off on Sanders himself: Earlier this month, he refused an invitation to speak at Aipac’s annual conference, characterising the world’s largest pro-Israel lobby as offering a platform to “bigotry.”

Meantime, he seems to have no problem appearing on Fox News or speaking to Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.

One might also ask why people on the senator’s team volunteered time to help elect Corbyn’s Labour Party, and why people in his movement publicly urged Brits to vote for him — not least Sanders’s most important surrogate, New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that for Sanders, as for Corbyn, open hostility to Jews and Israel does not rate.

All of this leaves many Jews — among whom Sanders has the lowest favorability rates of any Democratic candidate — in a wrenching bind.

Many of us can never pull the lever for Trump, a man who has done so much to denigrate the office of the president, corrode the sanctity of our national institutions, and to trash the norms that keep bigotry at bay. We would do just about anything to get him out of office.

And yet to vote for another populist raging against the enemies of the people feels like a Catch-22.

One lesson of Donald Trump’s presidency is that a leader does not have to hate Jews in his heart to create a political climate that presents a grave danger to us and other minorities.

I’d suggest that the lesson of Corbyn is not that he was a singularly malicious figure, but that he was emblematic of a populist politics on the rise around the world that, left or right, never bodes well for the Jewish people.

Bari Weiss is an op-ed editor and writer for the New York Times. Her first book, How to Fight Anti-Semitism is just out from Allen Lane

March 02, 2020 13:00

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