Sanders reignites potent strain of progressivism

In the 2016 presidential election campaign, there have been many astonishing developments to date.
June 15, 2016

In the 2016 presidential election campaign, there have been many astonishing developments to date. At this key moment of transition before the general election season, it makes sense to reflect on them, especially on two of special import to Jews.

First is the candidacy of Donald Trump. Our very capacity to understand the phenomenon is constrained by its utter unbelievability — the fact that it defies all known political rules with which most of us are familiar. Perhaps the best recourse to grasping the surrealism of it all is through a fertile literary imagination. A number of observers have already pointed to the great Philip Roth, who in 2004 conjured up a chilling narrative of alternative history in his novel “The Plot against America.” Roth, in this masterpiece of counter-factuality, has aviation hero Charles Lindbergh run for president and defeat Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940. Running on a pro-Nazi and isolationist platform, the fictional Lindbergh repeatedly hints at the unseemly particularism and subversive danger posed by America’s Jews. In the course of the novel, the Lindbergh administration, aided and abetted by a repugnant, media-seeking rabbi, announces a government plan of forced assimilation by sending Jews to the interior of the country. 

Now there is no evidence that Trump has a plan of this sort (or, for that matter, of any sort). He has insulted many groups during his improbable run, but not the Jews. He has a Jewish daughter who is married to the son of a well-known and wealthy Orthodox family from New Jersey. So what’s the worry?

It is not only that Trump’s “America First” sloganeering calls to mind the arch-isolationist America First Committee of the late 1930s, of which Charles Lindbergh — both in Roth’s novel and in real life — was a main spokesman and which constantly flirted with fascist sensibilities. It is that as a skilled marketer, Trump is a master of the dog whistle, emitting messages that most of us don’t hear, but which are avidly received by niche audiences. For example, it has been amply noted that Trump has received a warm reception from white supremacists, one of whom, Andrew Anglin of The Daily Stormtrooper website, confessed that the Republican candidate is “giving us the old wink-wink” by peddling his own xenophobia and retweeting theirs. The fact that he has been embraced — and seems to have a persistent allergy to condemning — former KKK leader David Duke, a devout anti-Semite, is deeply worrisome. And the breathtakingly hateful responses that New York Times editor Jonathan Weisman received when he retweeted the famous anti-Trump piece by conservative analyst Robert Kagan, “This is How Fascism Comes to America,” leave one chilled to the core. 

As much as we can and should remain vigilant — as much as the cup is half-empty when we witness the anti-Semitism lurking on the periphery of The Trump Show — we should be heartened by the striking absence of anti-Semitism around the remarkable run by Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination. The story here seems to be that there is no story. In the first instance, Sanders, who is the first Jewish candidate to win a presidential primary, is a very particular kind of Jew. Quite unlike Joe Lieberman, the observant Jew who was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, Bernie Sanders speaks little of faith and manifests little by way of Jewish ritual practice. 

And yet, far more than Lieberman, Sanders betrays the traces of a strong Jewish ethnic identity in his unmistakable Brooklyn accent, which is its own form of dog whistle. Those who recognize it can’t help but identify it with an unmistakable Jewish world of yore; those who don’t pay no attention. This points to the fact that the two politicians are both Jewish traditionalists, but in very different veins. Lieberman connects to the long lineage of halachhic observance, Sanders to the more recent 20th-century world of Jewish political activism. 

But it’s not just any kind of political activism, since Bernie Sanders is a self-declared democratic socialist! One can’t overstate how remarkable it is that a Jewish socialist has galvanized millions of Americans with virtually no trace of anti-Semitism. This says something about the present moment, which is very different from preceding eras.

Over the past century and a half, the association of Jews and socialism in Europe and the United States has assumed a sinister, conspiratorial tone. The infamous and widely disseminated “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” referred to the association, alongside other dangerous stereotypes of Jews. The designation “Judeo-Bolshevist” reared its head during the first world war and was adopted by the nascent Nazi Party as a chief target of its lethal plans. And in this country, Joseph McCarthy and his cronies induced terror after the second world war in their inquisitorial pursuit of suspected Jewish Communists, who were accused on the basis of secret and often invented evidence. (It’s little comfort to hear that Newt Gingrich, who is mentioned as a possible Trump vice-presidential nominee, has just called for a revived House Un-American Activities Committee.)

While anti-Semites have been consistently wrong in their theories of a Jewish quest for world domination, it can’t be denied that Jews have been drawn to socialism. On the Continent and in the United States, Jews were prominently represented in leadership positions in socialist movements, as well as constituting a disproportionate percentage of the rank and file. The Lower East Side of Manhattan, home to hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants, was a grand laboratory of Jewish socialism, fostered by the mass circulation Yiddish Forverts newspaper (which survives today as The Forward). As the voice of Jewish socialism, the Forverts encouraged the working class, Jewish and Gentile, in its struggle to overthrow the yoke of capitalist oppression. 

Explanations of the Jewish romance with socialism have varied. For some, it is a latter-day embodiment of the call for justice of the ancient Hebrew prophets. For others, it is an internalization of and response to the long history of persecution of Jews as a small and reviled minority. 

Whichever explanation we favor, and both contain elements of truth, one fact remains clear: Bernie Sanders is heir to this tradition. He comes from a world of poor and working-class Jewish immigrants who gave birth to red- and pink-diaper babies. Orthodoxy in that ambience demanded not abstinence from treif nor from intermarriage, but rather ceaseless struggle on behalf of the downtrodden and underdog. The well-known biographer of Trotsky and Stalin, Isaac Deutscher, memorably referred to representatives of this new religion as “non-Jewish Jews.” Almost all of those whom Deutscher identified as part of this tradition — from Spinoza to Marx and Rosa Luxemburg to Freud—couldn’t overcome the stigma of their Jewishness, even as they dedicated themselves to the advancement of universal values. Anti-Semites wouldn’t let them escape their origins. 

This is what is different about the Bernie Sanders moment in early 21st-century America. Sanders gives voice to universal (read “socialist”) values in an unmistakable Jewish inflection, but without articulating any explicit Jewish inspiration. Nobody, or at least very few, try to sniff him out as a disloyal or self-interested Jew. Instead, young progressives and middle-aged Rust Belt Democrats flock to him by the millions. Like a handful of Yiddish words, bagels and “Seinfeld,” the form of Jewish tradition that he represents has been assimilated into the American mainstream. It fuses seamlessly with the version of progressive populism characterized by the likes of Sen. Robert La Follette, Studs Terkel and Woody Guthrie. It preaches the values of “social, economic, racial and environmental justice,” as Sanders proclaimed after the California primary results. And it is the antithesis of that xenophobic form of populism, still harboring traces of an older toxic anti-Semitism, that animates The Trump Show.

With Hillary Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee, Bernie Sanders will likely now fade from the stage of intense public attention, but he has reignited a potent strain of progressivism, with thick Jewish and American roots. It is this strain that Jews and non-Jews should recall and carry forward — and with new urgency in the face of a competing strain that threatens to intimidate, exclude and oppress in ways both un-American and un-Jewish. 

David N. Myers is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA.

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