After months of some ambiguity, Mr. Bernie Sanders, by his appointments of Cornel West and James Zogby to the Democratic Party’s platform committee, has now declared his de facto, hostile apostasy from the community of Jews.
Hostile apostates are not new to the Jewish people. Since antiquity there have been individuals who have left the Jewish community to defame and wage war against their erstwhile own. In previous times such actions were mostly under color of religious conversion — to Christianity or Islam — but for at least the last two hundred years apostasy from Judaism has been largely under color of some secular creed. (My friend Edward Alexander, among others, has devoted much of his recent work to describe these modern apostates.)
Early on in the current presidential campaign, Sanders has maintained a certain ambiguity in his relationship to Jews. Often stating that he is “for” Israel, he has also condemned the Israeli military as using “disproportionate” force. Early last year he could not find time attend Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. He also announced that he is “not a great fan of Netanyahu” (not stating what he may or may not think about any other foreign leader). Earlier this year he could not find the time — unlike all the other presidential candidates — to attend the AIPAC conference to which he had been invited, and which was probably the year’s largest gathering of American Jews. On the other hand, he did find the time, in the midst of a crucial campaign for the New York primaries, to make a rather bizarre trip to the Vatican. There he shook the Pope’s hand but apparently he did not ask the Pope to open the secret Vatican archives on the Church’s role during the Holocaust. (I had asked Mr. Sanders, in an open letter just before this trip, to make this very request on behalf of the world’s scholarly community.)
A month ago the Sanders campaign appointed Simone Zimmerman as its “Jewish outreach coordinator.” Ms. Zimmerman was well known for her extreme anti-Israel views, having written on her Facebook that “Bibi Netanyahu is an arrogant, deceptive, cynical, manipulative ass**** … F*** you, Bibi, for daring to insist that you legitimately represent even a fraction of Jews in this world.” Zimmerman’s appointment was widely noticed in the Jewish community and caused concern even among Sanders’ supporters. A day or so after the appointment, the Sanders campaign retreated and “suspended” Zimmerman, not apparently because of her views but because of the manner in which she had expressed them.
After months of more or less talking out of both sides of his mouth, Sanders suddenly and spectacularly ended all ambiguity this week. Not by anything he said but by what he did.
In a pre-convention agreement with the Clinton campaign, Sanders was allowed to name five people (to Clinton’s six) to the Democratic Party’s convention platform committee. Platforms of the two parties are neither binding nor enforceable in any way, but fights over platforms attract media attention and the outcomes have some symbolic significance. The five people named by Sanders are 1) Cornel West, a well-known Black professor/agitator, 2) James Zogby, head of the Arab American Institute, 3) Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a Black Muslim, 4) Bill McKiben, a writer and environmentalist, and 5) Deborah Parker, a Native American activist. Both West and Zogby are vigorous proponents of the BDS movement against Israel. There are no Jews in this group of Sanders appointees, nor is there anyone who is identified with either pro-Israel views or with Jewish aspirations.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Sander’s appointment of West must be taken as signaling his final break with the Jewish people.
West’s resume, at first glance, suggests that he is an absolute genius. He has degrees from the most prestigious institutions in the world and he has held the very highest academic rank at both Harvard and Princeton. Can a man with these (paper) credentials be as ignorant, as pretentious, as hateful and as anti-Semitic as his detractors will have him be ?
You be the judge. You may first like to read an essay by Leon Wieseltier, who finds that the many books and articles by West are “almost completely worthless.” Or you may look at an article by David Horowitz, who details West’s close collaboration with just about all the radical Black anti-Semites of our day. If that isn’t enough, you might like to explore West’s behavior after he had a disagreement with Harvard”s Larry Summers. West referred to Summers, with obvious anti-Semitic intent, as “the Ariel Sharon of American higher education.” Five Princeton professors, in a letter to the New York Times, tried to call West to order on this. “Such an analogy carries innuendoes and implications regarding both President Summers and Prime Minister Sharon that many on the Princeton faculty find highly inappropriate, indeed repugnant and intolerable,” they wrote.
Now it is true that West’s malice is not restricted to Jews. As reported by Chez Pazienza (in an article entitled “Colonel West Does Not Deserve a Say in the Democratic Party Platform”) West has been on a scurrilous warfare against Barak Obama:
During a live appearance on CNN, West claimed Obama had been “niggerized,” with the exact quote being, “The first black president has become the first niggerized black president.” When pressed by an obviously aghast Poppy Harlow, West elaborated: “A niggerized black person is a black person who is afraid and scared and intimidated when it comes to putting a spotlight on white supremacy and fighting against white supremacy.” … West’s personal obsession with Barack Obama had finally truly overwhelmed any good judgment he happened to have left.
Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist” although neither his philosophy nor his procedures resemble very much the socialism of traditional socialist organizations.
To begin, Sanders is not affiliated with a socialist party, nor is he in any way bound to collaborative activity with other self-described socialists. He is pretty much a solo player, which has led even people who are generally sympathetic to him to doubt his effectiveness. Nor are there any of the usual appurtenances of socialist political work. The International is not intoned by him or his co-workers. Nobody is a “comrade.”
Sanders appears to have had only fleeting connections to other socialists of the past. In no way can he fairly be called a Stalinist, nor, to listen to his speeches, does he seem to rely on the teachings of Karl Marx. Aside from some pie-in-the-sky demands like free college for all, his rhetoric is one of fairly simple-minded resentment and envy: the “millionaires and the billionaires” are at fault, as is, in his idiolect, “Wall Shtreet.” But there are more than a few echoes of totalitarian proclivities; in his past as in his present, he has found much to admire in the Stalinist dictatorships of Cuba and Central America. In brief, the creed by which Sanders has marked his opposition to the Jewish community is not so much the socialism of the twentieth century but rather a fairly idiosyncratic doctrine of strong resentments and naked class envy. (His favorite villains tend to be rich or famous Jews: Benjamin Netanyahu, Henry Kissinger, Sheldon Adelson.)
While Sanders has apparently had two Jewish parents, he seems to have no meaningful personal connections to the Jewish community. He had a number of wives and domestic partners, but none of these, as far as I could gather, have been Jewish, nor, apparently, are any of his children. He says that he spent some months as a youngster on an (unnamed) Israeli kibbutz, and he also says that he has (unnamed) relatives in Israel. But such Jewish ties seem to play little role in his life. There is no information of his ever having been associated with a synagogue or other Jewish organization. Does he observe any Jewish rituals or holidays ? Does Judaism play a role in his life as a husband or father ? Not very likely.
A person who has had Jewish parents is conventionally thought of as Jewish, especially if he has not formally embraced a non-Jewish religious faith. In Sanders’ case, I think this identification is misleading. I think that it is more descriptively correct to think of him as an apostate from Judaism.
There are no doubt many individuals in America today who, born Jewish, have drifted out of Judaism by way of their practices and associations. If we can call all such persons apostates, the case of Sanders is still somewhat different insofar as he actively hostile to the Jewish community, i.e. he is not just an apostate but a hostile apostate. Others, indeed, fall into this category, most prominently Noam Chomsky, whose enmities are of course much sharper than those of Sanders. But Sanders plays a role no other hostile Jewish apostate has played in the course of American history: he has achieved a public prominence and a public influence that is entirely unprecedented.
I dare say that American Jews and the Jews of the world will survive Mr. Bernie Sanders; we have survived far worse. But that is not to say that the Sanders phenomenon is either benign or harmless.