One of the most important figures in American politics not only embraced his Jewish identity this week, but also spoke out against anti-Semitism. In a different context, that would be something about which every member of the Jewish community would have rejoiced. Instead, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s opinion article, titled “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” published in the otherwise obscure left-wing publication Jewish Currents did far more harm than good.
That’s why there’s good reason to be skeptical about the chances of a new effort to unite Jews against anti-Semitism championed at last week’s Jewish Leadership Conference, sponsored by the Tikvah Foundation. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, spoke of the need for Jews to realize the imperative to battle hate as a community in what he hoped would be a reprise of the same activist spirit that transformed history a generation ago during the movement to free Soviet Jewry.
One of the main obstacles to Hoenlein’s inspiring vision was illustrated by Sanders. The presidential candidate opened with a remembrance of last year’s Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, though falsely blamed the violence on Fox News and President Donald Trump. While he rightly denounced anti-Semitism from the right, he was in complete denial about the loud, influential voices of anti-Jewish hate on the left.
That’s hardly surprising. Some of those voices aren’t merely allied to Sanders on certain issues, but are actively promoting his presidential candidacy. The two pro-BDS members of Congress—Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.)—are supporting him. Among his campaign surrogates are Palestinian-American activists Linda Sarsour and Amer Zahr, who are both not only ardent backers of the anti-Semitic BDS movement but guilty of numerous slurs against Jews.
Sanders considers Trump guilty of fomenting anti-Semitism in spite of the fact that the president has not uttered any anti-Jewish comments from the White House; in fact, he has vocally condemned them. He has helped coarsen our public discourse with insults shot towards opponents, and it’s possible to argue that this has encouraged expressions of hate. But considering that he is the most pro-Israel president America has ever had, labeling the president as an ally of anti-Semites is absurd.
But Sanders has not a word of reproof for this group of political supporters, who have accused Jews of dual loyalty and buying Congress, as well as lobbied false accusations of atrocities aimed at Israel. Indeed, though Sanders supports the existence of the Jewish state—a stand he repeats in his column—he has also been guilty of gross exaggerations and distortions of Israel’s measures of self-defense against Palestinian terrorism. His evaluation of the long stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians is similarly distorted since he believes the lack of peace is solely the fault of the Jewish state. There is nary a word of criticism for the Palestinians, who have longed embraced anti-Jewish hate and terror, and have advocated a century-long war aimed at eradicating it.
As Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt noted in a scathing critique of Sanders, he is “blind to the anti-Semitism of his own side.” His claim that opposing it is a core value of being a progressive is only half-right. As Lipstadt said, it should be integral to progressive politics. But as Omar and Tlaib have demonstrated, that isn’t true. And Sanders’s example of not only giving them a pass for hate, but embracing them, compounds the problem.
Yet it goes deeper than one septuagenarian Socialist who is more worried about uniting the left against moderate Democrats and Trump than he is about anti-Semitism.
In this era of hyperpartisanship, politics and the debate about Trump have become the priority for virtually everyone. At a time when the only thing anyone seems to care about is being for or against Trump, Hoenlein’s desire to recreate the Soviet Jewry movement seems like a futile quest.
But before we dismiss his appeal, we should remember something important about the historic achievements of a movement that helped change the world.
While most people view that effort through the prism of its culminating event—the 1987 Washington rally attended by 250,000 people—its beginnings in the late 1960s and early 1970s were quite humble. In the early days of the movement, demonstrations were only attended by student activists and those viewed by the organized Jewish community as troublemakers. But by the time it was on the cusp of true victory, it was a movement that knew no partisan divisions.
It may be that we can never go completely back to that kind of unity. Still, we have to start somewhere, and Hoenlein’s address is as good a place as any to begin.
He is right that American Jews must change their way of thinking about these issues. There should, as he correctly pointed out, be no more “memorials to dead Jews,” when instead the community must “stand up for living Jews and a vibrant Jewish state.”
Fighting the indifference to anti-Semitism and the willingness of so many Jews to excuse hate from their political allies on both the right and the left is the sort of cause that requires a new, broad coalition that could, as the Soviet Jewry once did, take to the streets and halls of Congress.
Perhaps it will take another 20 years—when the destructive nature of our current partisan warfare has potentially subsided—for Jews to realize that uniting against anti-Semitism and the anti-Zionism that masquerades as human-rights advocacy must be prioritized. The re-emergence of a community that isn’t afraid to proudly and openly wear symbols of Jewish identity, as well as to defiantly stand with Israel, won’t be easy. But Jews have been underestimated before. Few predicted the victories of either Zionism or the Soviet Jewry movement when they began. The same can be true for a new push against anti-Semitism.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.