The Arizona Tenants Union blog by and large discusses issues pertaining to tenants’ rights. But inasmuch as ATU is a progressive organization trying to promote a culture of organizing and activism in Arizona, from time to time I write blogs on subjects that I find particularly important or interesting. This is one such posting of a topic that is particularly meaningful to me: a discussion not only of Bernie Sanders’ radical roots but of mine as well.
BERNIE SANDERS AND THE RADICAL JEWISH TRADITION
Not much is spoken about Bernie Sanders being Jewish. And when it is spoken of, it’s simply mentioned that that’s his religion; it’s not discussed as being part of who he is. But in fact, Bernie Sanders comes out of a radical Jewish tradition that spans 150 years and three continents. Bernie’s history as a Jew, and in particular, his upbringing as a child of a Polish immigrant from a shtetl (a Jewish ghetto in Eastern Europe, away from the big cities), is inseparable from who he is and what he represents.
Bernie Sanders did something last week that really moved me. As many know, he found a way to boycott the AIPAC convention – he was the only candidate that did so. (For those who do not know, AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is the American Jewish lobby for Israel whose support is considered essential to any candidate.) Sanders, like most progressives, abhors Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, its actions in the Occupied Territories and its expansion of settlements. It is perhaps an irony that goes without saying that Sanders, the only Jewish candidate, is also the only candidate who is not in open support of Israel. In any event, Sanders politely declined the invitation, saying he had a previous commitment to speak in Utah, thereby diplomatically aligning himself with the people who called to boycott the convention. From Utah he gave a statement to the AIPAC – one that was essentially in support of the Palestinians and a two-state solution. But in the speech he said something extraordinary, which I paraphrase: “I have a deep relationship with Israel. I believe I can say that I’m the only candidate that’s ever lived on a kibbutz.”
To understand how deep this statement goes, it is necessary to understand the Jewish radical tradition that reaches back well into the 19th century. Jews were severely oppressed in Eastern Europe and forced to live in shtetls . But ironically, because of their oppression and the isolation , they were bound by a rich literary tradition in a single language, Yiddish, which spanned all the different European countries and had a decidedly left-wing bent to it. (This also supports the idea that Judaism is an ethnicity as well as a religion). During the time of the burgeoning Communist movement in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, secular Jews were at its forefront, largely because their history of oppression and shared culture made them receptive to socialist politics. In 1917 the Bolshevik revolution took place in Russia and a true socialist society was implanted, led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky, two Jews (actually, Lenin was part Jewish: his grandfather was from a shtetl). For a few years, the Soviet Union was the only truly egalitarian society the modern world has ever known. Education and health care were free. Private ownership of big factories (the “means of production”) was abolished so that workers realized the full value of their labor. Women were considered equal. Homosexuals did not face discrimination. A truly socialist state did develop (regardless of whatever propaganda you were taught in school to the contrary). Although the revolution only lasted a few years before it disintegrated, it came about, in part, as a result of the Jewish radicalism in Russia and has had an impact in the world which still resonates today.
Following the initial success of the Bolsheviks, radical workers movements sprung up all over the world. In the United States, after World War I and before 1924, when the borders were closed, there was a wave of Jewish immigration into this country. It was those Jewish immigrants who formed the most radical unions of the day, such as the Amalgamated Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York City. Jews were also at the head of the International Workers of the World (IWW), which was the ideological successor to the Russian Revolution in this country. At the same time, a left wing Jewish intellectual tradition started that included the people like socialist Rosa Luxemborg and radical anarchist Emma Goldman. During the Depression the Communist Party USA, which was actively organizing workers, was a mass movement and its leadership, too, was disproportionately Jewish. Although Communists in the United States clung to notions that the Soviet Union was still a socialist worker’s state long after the abuses of Stalin became known, they also continued to organize politically and Jews were prominent in the Roosevelt administration and in progressive social movements.
World War II brought a whole new wave of Jewish immigrants, a large proportion of whom were Holocaust survivors. This brought the next set of Jewish radicals into this country: their children, and the Jewish children who went to school with them, who understood the ravages of fascism instinctively and became the left wing intellectual and political leaders of 1950s and 60s social movements. The intellectual side included people like Allen Ginsberg, the great beat poet, and the political side included people like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, two prominent 60s radicals who were members of the “Chicago 8” and who underwent what became the trial of the century.
The radical movements of the 1950s and 1960s, including the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement, derived from the great radical movements in this country that preceded them, and took many forms. One piece of this was the formation of kibbutzim in Israel. These were little “socialist utopias,” self-contained communes that were run along the socialist principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” And Bernie Sanders, a baby boomer, whose parents were immigrants from the shtetl, lived in one.
Unfortunately and ironically, the Jewish radical tradition seems to have died. But Bernie Sanders is still alive and is an embodiment of it. It is important to understand that this Jewish tradition I’ve been speaking of is not religious but ethnic. Judaism is an ethnicity, as evidenced by a common language, Yiddish, and a common socialist worldview, and although it is intertwined with religion, it is separate from it. Radical Jews, probably including Bernie, are by and large atheist or agnostic. But what I’m trying to get across is this is who Bernie is: a radical Jew coming from a long tradition of Jewish radicalism; a child of an immigrant from a shtetl, steeped in socialist thought and coming of age in the tumultuous era of the 1960s.
One of the great ironies about Bernie Sanders is that the millennials who love and support him have no idea of any of this, not just of his background, but of the long history of social struggle that spans multiple continents and generations and underlies all political change since the Industrial Revolution. But even without the historical context, Bernie’s ideas are resonating with them. He’s transferring the tradition to the next generation, albeit in a form that has migrated from the ideals of the Russian Revolution. But for Bernie, his politics – his being – derive from the Jewish radical experience in Eastern Europe and America that propelled social movements over the last 100 years. To understand Bernie Sanders, you must understand this tradition, and when you do, you come to see an afterimage of it, reflected in the person of a 74-year-old man and suddenly coming to life again in a new form.