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Bernie Talks About Being Bernie

Terry H. Schwadron

Nov. 17, 2019

Win, lose or draw, I love Bernie Sanders, the somewhat disheveled, bespectacled Democratic Socialist revolutionary who challenges us constantly towards being better with passion as strong as morning coffee.

I even love the parodies of late-night comedians and Larry David that show that while his recognizable and voluble voice and arms are easy to mock, the depictions are almost always done with a healthy dab of respect. He is Bernie the mensch, even if not the president.

Whether Bernie persuades enough people and delegates to make him the Democratic candidate (or president), his insistences, from health care for all to fairness in the workplace, are refreshing reliable reminders of why we have political debate and why we need to remember our humility and humanity.

So imagine my surprised delight to find that, without public notice, Bernie had offered a 1,500-word self-identifying article about being Jewish to Jewish Currents, a New York-based magazine of growing, but relatively limited circulation mostly among politically liberal Jews in the area, recently remade to appeal in particular to younger readers. I too have contributed to the magazine and am a supporter.

The article — How to Fight Antisemitism — is an unusual, forthright statement by Bernie about growing up and identifying Jewish, something you are not hearing too much about on the campaign trail. It was timed with the anniversary of the Pittsburgh synagogue killings by a white supremacist who said he was following the teachings of Donald Trump, the president we have come to associate most directly with racist words and deeds and who been seen as encouragement for white supremacist efforts.

“The threat of antisemitism is not some abstract idea to me,” wrote Bernie, or whoever writes for Bernie. “It is very personal. It destroyed a large part of my family. I am not someone who spends a lot of time talking about my personal background because I believe political leaders should focus their attention on a vision and agenda for others, rather than themselves. But I also appreciate that it’s important to talk about how our backgrounds have informed our ideas, our principles, and our values.”

He sketches his family’s arrival in the United States from Poland, while those who stayed behind were later killed by Nazis. He quotes the rise of FBI hate crimes in this country, adding that “this wave of violence is the result of a dangerous political ideology that targets Jews and anyone who does not fit a narrow vision of a whites-only America.”

The heart of his article: “While antisemitism is a threat to Jews everywhere, it is also a threat to democratic governance itself. The antisemites who marched in Charlottesville don’t just hate Jews. They hate the idea of multiracial democracy. They hate the idea of political equality. They hate immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ people, women, and anyone else who stands in the way of a whites-only America. They accuse Jews of coordinating a massive attack on white people worldwide, using people of color and other marginalized groups to do their dirty work. . . . It is important to understand that that is what antisemitism is: a conspiracy theory that a secretly powerful minority exercises control over society. Like other forms of bigotry — racism, sexism, homophobia — antisemitism is used by the right to divide people from one another and prevent us from fighting together for a shared future of equality, peace, prosperity, and environmental justice. So I want to say as clearly as I possibly can: We will confront this hatred, do exactly the opposite of what Trump is doing and embrace our differences to bring people together. Opposing antisemitism is a core value of progressivism.”

At the same time, Bernie makes clear that support or lack of it for the current government in Israel is a separate issue from antisemitism. Indeed, he argues that the U.S. government should be doing more to amplify the case for fairness to Palestinians. “I reject the notion that there is any contradiction there. The forces fomenting antisemitism are the forces arrayed against oppressed people around the world, including Palestinians; the struggle against antisemitism is also the struggle for Palestinian freedom.”

Bernie argues that our own government is exploting fears by amplifying resentments, stoking intolerance and inciting hatred against ethnic and religious minorities, fanning hostility toward democratic norms and a free press, and promoting constant paranoia about foreign plots.”

Now I must say, this line of argument feels right and true, but it hardly feels like the kind of talk that necessarily helps win political campaigns.

Maybe that’s why I like the article and him. Bernie says, “we also have a tradition that points the way forward. I am a proud member of the tradition of Jewish social justice.”

It’s a refreshing message, particularly from a candidate who declines to talk much about himself.


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