Sorry, Forward, You’re Wrong About Bernie


I seem to have upset J.J. Goldberg, editor-at-large of the Forward, with my Village Voice essay “The Heresy and Evangelism of Bernie Sanders.” According to Mr. Goldberg, the piece represents a “milestone victory” for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a “wholehearted embrace” of his “doctrine that Zionism and American liberalism are inherent enemies.”

It’s obvious I have made myself shamefully unclear. Far from arguing that position, I believe its opposite: Zionism and American liberalism are peas in a pod. Each ideology clings desperately to an ideal: Zionism that Jewish nationalism might yield peace and justice in the Holy Land, American liberalism that capitalism might yield democracy and prosperity here. But history has long since obliterated both dreams, leaving behind systems that inflict violence and misery upon the powerless, albeit sometimes to the sounds of fretting from their very enablers.

Mr. Goldberg adheres to both ideologies, which puts him in good company among American Jews. Believing more than one thing is common human practice, but critics of my piece, like Mr. Goldberg, have pointed out that plenty of Zionists have also been socialists, as if that somehow invalidates my argument. Perhaps I should have given that group more space, but my contention is not that Zionists and socialists are distinct sorts of Jews locked in eternal struggle. Instead, I am accounting for how the dominant ideology of American Jewry shifted from socialism (Zionist and non-Zionist alike) to increasingly reactionary Zionism and trying to locate Bernie Sanders — from his upbringing to his campaign — in this new configuration. (Regarding his upbringing, Goldberg claims that “there’s no evidence that [Sanders] was aware of, much less influenced by, the world of New York Yiddish socialism.” He would do well to inform the good people at his own publication, which ran an essay in February describing Yiddish socialism as the “dominant political and cultural current among the working-class Jews of Brooklyn where Sanders was born at the end of the Great Depression.” Go know.)

My account highlights three developments: the ascent of American Jews from the working to the middle class, the Red Scare’s marginalization and criminalization of the Marxist left, and the energetic expansion of Israeli colonialism in Palestine. One could disagree about the explanatory power of these developments, or the truth of the ideological shift I’m pointing to, but the historical existence of socialist Zionists is not a tidy “gotcha.”

Jews are a diverse people, with many doctrines, attitudes, and ideologies — two Jews, three opinions, as the joke goes. Zionist and socialist ideologies once intersected in a great many Jews, but the twentieth century erased this possibility for any reasonable person. We cannot necessarily fault the Yiddish socialists of the early twentieth century for believing that Jewish nationalism could avoid the darker outcomes of other nationalisms. And although made much harder by the Nakba (Palestinians’ 1948 expulsion), it is even possible to see why the Jews of 1960s America supported the Israeli project, or at least saw in constant war the necessity of marshaling U.S. military strength for its protection. (For Sanders’s part, he was evidently advocating “no guns for Israel” in 1971.) But in the cold light of 2016, we can plainly see what our predecessors couldn’t: that Jewish ethnocentric nationalism is no different from other forms of ethnocentric nationalism, and that ethno-nationalist endeavors inevitably favor right-wing politics. To Sanders’s credit, his long career gives no indication he has embraced ethno-nationalism, which is why I described him — controversially, as it turns out — as a non-Zionist.

Mr. Goldberg repeatedly accused me of being ahistorical, but it is his yearning for Labor Zionism that fits this bill. Imagining that the Zionism of Yitzhak Rabin, the last Labor Israeli leader who tried for even a two-state solution, much less that of Rabbi Heschel or the pre-war Yiddish socialists, is an option for young Jews like me betrays a terrible delusion. The last two Labor prime ministers have left the party outright — Shimon Peres for Ariel Sharon’s more conservative Kadima Party, and Ehud Barak for the Independence Party, the better to be in coalition with Netanyahu. Goldberg ought to direct his inquisitive gaze at the very Labor Zionism he venerates, rather than an article in the Voice, if he is looking for the source of “milestone victories” handed to Netanyahu — whom he calls “Bibi,” as though he were a country club acquaintance rather than a brutal tyrant to an oppressed people.

However confused Goldberg may be about what decade it is, it has to be said he’s more or less got me pegged: My insistence on “linking… anti-Zionism with the prophetic tradition of social justice” implies that I think “Zionism is… somehow opposed to the best in Judaism.” Bingo! He is also correct to associate me with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, which I support. BDS is “gaining adherents at an alarming rate,” Goldberg hyperventilates, “turning well-meaning young Jews into enemies of the Jewish state.” The alarm this causes Goldberg is complemented by the apprehension he feels about the “worrisome rifts between Israel and American Jews” that are opening up.

He should have seen it coming. These rifts were prophesied as early as 1948 by the sage Hannah Arendt, when she predicted that the “Palestine Jewry would eventually separate itself from the larger body of world Jewry and in its isolation develop into an entirely new people.” Already, she could see that “a Jewish state [could] only be erected at the price of the Jewish homeland.” Goldberg’s sweaty, frenzied tone suggests that, as he watches Arendt’s forecast unfold, he is losing faith in the liberal Zionist project. That speaks well of him.