Bernie Returns Home to Brooklyn

Bernie Sanders is back in Brooklyn for his first 2020 campaign rally, but the New York socialist — who grew up in a working-class community and radical Jewish political tradition — never really left.

Bernie Sanders photographed as a young activist in 1961.

Anderson Cooper, moderating the March 2016 presidential debate, voiced the “disappointment” of Jewish leaders with Sanders’ keeping his Jewishness “in the background.” I’m no Jewish “leader,” but as a Jewish New Yorker, I find Cooper’s question to be a shame or shandeh, if you will.

But I also found it unintentionally amusing. Sanders couldn’t hide his Jewish identity if he tried. (See, for example, the way he removes Rs from the ends of words that end in R and adds them to words that don’t end in R so that terror becomes terra and idea becomes idear. Or the finger-wagging, which some have misdiagnosed as scolding sexism, even though it’s equal opportunity, is an example of what I like to call jewsticulating.)

Cooper wasn’t the only one questioning the integrity of Sanders’ Jewishness in 2016. An ultra-right-wing Israeli newspaper declared “Bernie Sanders is not a Jew.” And Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post warned, “If you are Jewish, don’t vote for Bernie Sanders.”

These comments display a not uncommon ignorance about Jewish identity and culture. Sanders not practicing religious rituals, not offering blind support for Israeli policies, not prioritizing the lives of Jews over the lives of non-Jews, earns him the label of “fake” or “bad” or “self-loathing” Jew. But his very policy positions are an expression, not a suppression, of his Jewish identity.

When Anderson Cooper repeated the right-wing narrative about Sanders’ Jewishness, he answered by grounding his background in the horror and loss of the Holocaust: “I am very proud to be Jewish, and being Jewish is so much of what I am…. My father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust.” As a “tiny child,” he told Cooper, “when my mother would take me shopping…we would see people working in stores who had numbers on their arms because they were in Hitler’s concentration camp.” From that, he learned a “lesson” about “what crazy and radical, and extremist politics mean.”

A childhood photo of Sanders and his family in Brooklyn.

Months earlier, at an event at George Mason University, Sanders called a Muslim student onto the stage after she said that the Islamophobic rhetoric from Republican candidates like Ben Carson and Donald Trump had made her “sick.” “Let me be very personal here if I might,” said Sanders. “I’m Jewish. My father’s family died in concentration camps. I will do everything that I can to rid this country of the ugly stain of racism which has existed for far too many years.”

The tradition expresses a generosity of spirit that connects one and one’s group to others for the common good. Jews and non-Jews alike often ignore the existence of this universalist tradition in modern Jewish identity. But it is a vibrant one that is often traced back to the sensibilities of poor and oppressed Jews exiled to the shtetls and ghettos of Eastern Europe, where hunger and scarcity prevailed along with compassion and cooperation. Being a Jew does not require engaging in particular religious practices, eating particular foods, attending a Jewish temple, having a Jewish mother, or resting on Saturdays. Nor does it mean, as AIPAC and its supporters tell us, blindly endorsing Israel’s policies.

Some trace this powerful justice strain to Amos and Isaiah. Most link its more organized political themes to the experience of the Jews in Eastern Europe as industrialism moved them from the confines of the shtetl to major cities, creating a large Jewish working class and, in short order, a radical labor movement.

When Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in Saint Petersburg on March 13, 1881, Jews were promptly blamed, leading to pogroms and official restrictions on Jewish housing, education, commerce, and employment — along with forced service in the imperial army, intended to “Russify” Jews. To escape brutal conditions, hundreds of thousands of Eastern European Jews migrated to the United States, most settling in New York City. They brought with them the radicalism of the Jewish Labour Bund Party and an array of socialist and anarchist organizations in which Jews were both rank and file members and leaders.

For Bernie, the meaning of economic hardship, racial persecution, violence, and trauma were deeply personal, but the lessons he took from them reflect not only the quality of his person but the humane values of the progressive Jewish community that “bred” him. As he told the 2017 graduating class of Brooklyn College, from the stress of his own family’s economic struggles, he has “never forgotten that there are millions of people throughout this country who struggle to put food on the table, pay the electric bill, try to save for their kids’ education or for retirement — people who face painful and stress-filled decisions every single day.” And, from his early exposure to the Holocaust horror, “indelibly stamped on me was the understanding that we must never allow demagogues to divide us up by race, by religion, by national origin, by gender or sexual orientation. Black, white, Latino, Asian American, Native American, Christian, Jew, Muslim, and every religion, straight or gay, male or female we must stand together. This country belongs to all of us.”

Bernie Sanders at David Sillen’s Bar Mitzvah, via David Sillen

When Bernie Sanders tweeted that he was holding his first 2020 rally in Brooklyn, he said it was to “show Trump and the powerful special interests what they’re up against” in the place where he was “born and bred.”

The struggles Bernie Sanders engages in and values he espouses can be traced back to his experiences in Brooklyn. Sanders only attended Brooklyn College for one year, leaving home for the University of Chicago after his mother died. But he’s been a champion of the free college education he received there and has featured it in his 2016 and 2020 platforms. Since the 1970s, New York and its university system have retreated from their promise to provide free higher education and the path to cultural, educational, and career advancement. Sanders will no doubt remind the city of its better self.

Sanders’s socialist organizing started when he was in Chicago but can be traced back to his experience at Brooklyn College, where his older brother, Larry, headed a progressive student group. He often traveled with Larry to the Lower East Side, engaging in efforts to save poor neighborhoods of color from rampant urban renewal. At Chicago, Sanders’ civil rights engagement was not limited to attending the March on Washington, as some detractors have claimed. He was active in the Young People’s Socialist League and was a campus organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and helmed their University of Chicago chapter. He went undercover to expose housing discrimination and led sit-ins to protest racial discrimination at university-owned properties. At Brooklyn College he engaged this issue again, advancing the universal programs that help all, but especially the most marginalized among us.

Most residents in Brooklyn, like most of New York City, are poor and working class, with large populations of immigrants and people of color. It was the socialist traditions of poor, persecuted Jewish immigrants to New York City that shaped him, guide him still, and that can still politicize these millions.

In the celebrated song “If I Were a Rich Man” in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, the archetypal poor shtetl teacher imagines the glorious home, wardrobe, and food that wealth could bring him and his family. The play and dream are based on a monologue by the town teacher in one of Sholom Aleichem’s folk tales of shtetl life. In the Yiddish tale, the teacher imagines what would happen “If I Were a Rothchild.” He’d feed and house family and then the dream takes flight, with him building a hospital for the sick, a home for the poor, and founding loan society (with low interest — “On you I won’t get rich!”), the money he would distribute (including to “Turks”), the strife and stress that would end. It’s the Jewish radical vision, in a nutshell.

Jews have no monopoly on the theory and practice of radicalism and social justice. Think of the progressive Baptist tradition, which saw social justice and human liberation as a mandate of the Gospel, and helped shape the vision of Martin Luther King Jr; the liberation theology of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the socialism of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement; the Islamic Zakat traditions concerned with equitable distribution of wealth and the general good. Each exists and often combines with its philosophical and political neighbors.

Today, we take time to honor the Jewish style and strain of progressive thought that permeated New York in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century and that inspired the righteous and loving political vision of Bernie Sanders, his campaign and the revolution rising around it.