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Where was Bernie when Americans fought for Soviet Jewry?

Sanders is criticized for his attitude towards Cuba, but it matters that while other Jews were protesting Soviet anti-Semitism, the Socialist had other priorities.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during a C-Span interview when he was mayor of Burlington, Vt., in 1988. Source: Screenshot.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during a C-Span interview when he was mayor of Burlington, Vt., in 1988. Source: Screenshot.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Now that he’s the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders is finally being asked some tough questions about what it means to be a Socialist in 2020. But a key part of that query is not just a matter of economics. It also involves understanding his views about the world. Which is what led him to engage in some heavy-duty rationalizing for the Communist dictatorship in Cuba when asked about the subject in an interview this past week on “60 Minutes.”

His unwillingness to unequivocally condemn the Castro regime is hardly surprising. Sanders has been a fan of the Communist government of that tortured island since he was a young man. His support for left-wing, revolutionary anti-American regimes around the globe was a hallmark of his activist past.

The Cold War may have ended more than 30 years ago, but no matter how you slice it, the senator’s comments about Cuba, Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua or even the Soviet Union don’t age well. It’s never a good look for a would-be commander-in-chief to have been a fan of America’s enemies.

But, as his supporters say, why does this ancient history matter? We are living in a different world than the one that existed before the fall of the Berlin Wall. So while Cuban exiles are understandably up in arms about Sanders’s reflexive defense of Castro’s supposed improvements of Cuban life—and his claim that improved literacy rates were praiseworthy when all anyone there was allowed to read was Communist propaganda—there are more important issues at hand.

Yet understanding the man who could be the next president also requires placing him in the context of 20th-century Jewish thought. Despite his recent decision to talk about being proud of his Jewishness after largely ignoring that element of his identity during his decades in public life, Sanders’s love affair with Socialism marks him as reflecting a leftist mindset that was embraced by many Jews in this period. Utopian and universalist philosophies were seen as offering an answer to the Jewish dilemma of perpetual victimhood. Jewish Socialists thought that problem would be solved not by allowing Jews to gain the power to defend themselves in their own land, as Zionists believed. Rather, they thought the answer was transforming the entire world into a place where no one would suffer through the wonders wrought by collective economics and the dictatorship of the people.

Those who treat this subject as a grand romance to be only viewed through the prism of idealism and high hopes often forget the cost of those utopian dreams. As the authoritative history of the subject, The Black Book of Communism notes, Socialist regimes and movements were responsible for the deaths of approximately 94 million people in the 20th century. But in a country where history is devalued as a subject of study and little understood even when it is taught, it’s not surprising that now that a generation has passed since the collapse of the Soviet Union and its main satellites (Cuba being one of the last totalitarian holdouts), support for Socialism is making something of a comeback under Sanders’s banner.

Seen from the point of view of the Sanders campaign, the history of Socialism needs to be—to steal a phrase from George Orwell, one of that movement’s most perceptive critics—tossed “down the memory hole.” And with Sanders insisting that his version of “Democratic Socialism” has nothing to do with the record of the oppressive regimes that he once supported, most observers think they have a point.

Yet there is one element of this airbrushing of the past that those who dismiss concerns about Sanders ought to consider.

Sanders asks us to trust him with American foreign policy, and in particular, the Middle East peace process because, he claims, he is an advocate for both Israelis and Palestinians. He is now using his identity as a Jew to dismiss charges that he doesn’t care about the survival of the one Jewish state on the planet or the accusations that his embrace of anti-Semites like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and activists like campaign surrogate Linda Sarsour, ought to be disqualifying.

But there is one element to his past record that speaks to whether he deserves that trust.

Cold War controversies seem irrelevant today. But it’s worth asking why, when most American Jews were demanding freedom for Soviet Jewry and denouncing the anti-Semitic nature of the Communist regime, Bernie Sanders was not there. While Jews who cared about the fate of their brethren were demonstrating in the streets about Soviet tyranny and advocating for Prisoners of Zion, Sanders was denouncing American foreign policy aimed at pressuring his Russian friends. When some heroic Jews went to Russian to aid oppressed Jews and other dissidents, Sanders was traveling the world proclaiming his sympathy with Soviet allies and then honeymooning in the Socialist Motherland itself.

He may now depict himself as a champion of the underdog. But by the time Sanders became a public figure in the 1980s, the ideological romance of Socialism was long over, and all that was left was a struggle against tyranny in which his sympathies lay with the tyrants whom he imagined deserved support in their fight against American imperialism. There is no available evidence that he ever lifted a finger to fight for Soviet Jews.

We may not care today about the politics of the 1960s in which Sanders’s identity was forged; however, the struggle for Soviet Jewry was the great Jewish moral test of the subsequent decades, and it is one he failed. If he asks us to trust him now to ensure that the 7 million Jews of Israel are not endangered by his policies, it’s worth asking why he once thought defending Socialism was more important than the fate of millions of Soviet Jews. That is a question of morality, not ancient history.

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

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