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Two kinds of anti-Semitism become part of the presidential campaign

Bernie Sanders is proving that it’s possible to be both a victim of Jew-hatred and someone who has also enabled anti-Jewish hate.

Vermont Sen. and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a rally in Durham, N.C., in Feb. 14, 2020. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Vermont Sen. and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at a rally in Durham, N.C., in Feb. 14, 2020. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The presidential campaign has already provided a lot of unpleasant moments, but what happened last week in Phoenix, Ariz., may have been the lowest point yet. During a rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a man unveiled a swastika banner and began voicing anti-Semitic epithets while performing a Nazi salute.

The man, a well-known local white nationalist, was ejected from the event. But the incident shined a light on the growing willingness of radical right-wing extremists to spout their bile in public.

Yet while the appearance in the public square of what Sanders rightly termed “a symbol of what everything this country stands against” is horrifying, decent people can draw some solace from the fact that the incident was widely condemned. Sanders’s presidential campaign may be on its last legs, but you don’t have to share his Socialist views or support his candidacy to be shocked by the activities of neo-Nazis who target him because he is Jewish. Even one such instance of open Jew-hatred is one too many and a sobering reminder that the virus of Jew-hatred has proven more resilient over the centuries than even the most deadly illness.

Sanders was clearly a victim of anti-Semitism in this instance, and that should rivet our attention on the need to combat white-supremacist trolls, as well as to be wary of the possibility that some of them are armed, dangerous and willing to carry out mass murders like the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre in October 2018.

But amid the national concern over the spectacle of a Jewish candidate being taunted in this manner and the sympathy it understandably generated for Sanders, little or no attention has been paid to one ironic angle to this story. Though Sanders’s justified anger about the swastika was widely broadcast, completely lost in the furor is the fact that the man who seeks to be the first Jewish president has actually embraced the support he has gotten from notorious anti-Semites.

To even raise the issue of Sanders’s anti-Semitic backers has been denounced by some as an attempt to change the subject, a poor example of whataboutism or just in bad taste. But there’s no avoiding the fact that while Sanders and many others on the left are justifiably outraged about instances of right-wing anti-Semitism, they are indifferent or even willing to rationalize or excuse anti-Semites who are fellow left-wingers.

Sanders has campaigned with Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). The pair is not merely the only open congressional supporters of the BDS movement that not only seeks to eliminate the one Jewish state on the planet, but whose rhetoric is drenched in the tropes of traditional anti-Semitism. They have both also engaged in rhetoric that is indistinguishable from Jew-hatred. Omar, in particular, with her efforts to demonize Jewish supporters of Israel as seeking to buy the support of Congress (“It’s all about the Benjamins”) has become one of the country’s most notable practitioners of anti-Semitism.

Yet Sanders has no trouble with either of them and has even praised them as role models, paying no mind to the fact that both are living examples of how anti-Zionism leads naturally to anti-Semitism.

Nor are they the only examples of anti-Semites in the Sanders realm.

Campaign manager Faiz Shakir is another supporter of BDS. Given that Sanders often says that he is a supporter of Israel but merely a critic of its government, it’s hard to understand why he would give such a senior position to someone clearly opposed to Israel’s existence.

Recently, the Sanders campaign also hired Phillip Agnew, another virulent BDS backer who has engaged in repeated slanders of Israel and a promoter of school curricula that calls for the Jewish state’s elimination and supports terrorist groups that seek to make that nightmare a reality.

Former Women’s March leader and Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour is a Sanders campaign surrogate, despite the fact of her long history of anti-Semitic utterances and willingness to make common cause with supporters of hatemonger and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

Another Sanders surrogate is Amer Zahr, a BDS supporter who has engaged in repeated slurs of Jews and Israel.

These facts don’t negate the fact that the Vermont Socialist has been targeted by anti-Semites because he is Jewish. Still, Sanders’s stubborn refusal to understand that anti-Semitism is present on the left as well as the right, undermines his credibility as someone seeking to combat hate.

It’s a common feature of political discourse that most people are blind to prejudice when it comes from political allies while denouncing it when the same comes from foes. Nor is this failing limited to the left; there are certainly those on the right who seem incapable of denouncing white nationalists or are too busy treating it as insignificant to lend their support to isolate such threats. Just as some on the left are only interested in hate that can somehow be tied—even if the connection is either doubtful or non-existent—to President Donald Trump, there are those on the right who only speak up against left-wing Jew-haters.

But surely, it is possible for rational persons to recognize and denounce both kinds of hate. But Bernie Sanders doesn’t seem capable of doing so. Even worse, he provides cover to Jew-haters who can boast they are advocating for the election of a Jewish president even as they engage in anti-Semitic hate and work for Israel’s destruction.

While it’s highly unlikely that Sanders will be the first Jewish president, he has, instead, achieved another more dubious distinction. While it doesn’t seem logical, Bernie Sanders has nevertheless proved that it’s possible to be both a victim of anti-Semitism and an enabler of the virus of Jew-hatred.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish New Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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