Did ‘Hashomer Hatzair’ shape Sanders’s views on socialism and Israel?

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Can you find young Bernie Sanders, who may be in this 1964 picture from his time on Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’amakim, posted by JTA‘s Ron Kampeas? (Click through for Kampeas’s guess.)

Since sleuths last week identified the kibbutz, which Sanders long refused to name, the Vermont senator has been attacked from the right because of the supposedly Stalinist ideology of Hashomer Hatzair, which founded the kibbutz and hosted Sanders there. The attack is a joke: young American Jews who belonged to socialist Zionist youth movements like Hashomer in the 1960s varied in their level of ideological commitment (some were dedicated, others just enjoyed the camps and group chevrah, or spirit) but none were in thrall with the Soviets by Bernie Sanders’s time.

But for many members, especially in those days, Zionist youth movements like Hashomer Hatzair weren’t just side-activities. For those who became leaders, it was (and is) an all-encompassing experience involving summer camps, weekly meetings in the city (Bernie’s Brooklyn was a stronghold for Hashomer and other groups like Habonim), eventual graduation to camp counselor and youth leader. For older kids, there were kibbutz summers and year programs. There were songs, folk dances, discussions, trips, plays, and lessons in planning activities. For the more active and dedicated members, the experience could be formative — far more than schools, synagogues or even family.

Hashomer Hatzair logo. Hebrew means, Be Strong and Brave
Hashomer Hatzair logo. Hebrew means, Be Strong and Brave

The Forward’s Ben Sales speculates on the life of a kibbutz volunteer such as Sanders in early ’60s. But the group photo above suggests Bernie wasn’t just a simple volunteer, but a member of an organized group trip. Hashomer’s year program (no one in those days would have used the Britishism “gap year”) is now (and may have been then) called Shnat Hachshara, “year of training.” Now it’s offered to high school graduates taking a year before college, but in 1963? (Sanders was 22.)

Though the precise dates of Sanders’s time on Sha’ar Ha’amakim haven’t been reported, it’s well known he joined Dr. Martin Luther King’s march on Washington on Aug. 28, 1963. (Possibly with a contingent of Hashomer chaverim down from New York, including several who were about to depart with him for Israel?) The dates of both 1963 and 1964 that have been mentioned for his Israel stay would be consistent with joining a program that started in September, as they typically do.

Did Bernie Sanders see any irony in marching with Dr. King to protest segregation, then going to live on a segregated kibbutz in Israel?

While no one on Sha’ar Ha’amakim may remember Bernie Sanders nor have kept records of his visit, if he took part in “Shnat” or a precursor program, it’s likely North American Hashomer Hatzair would have the information, and that many others on the program with Sanders would remember it well.

So as the political world ponders the true essence of Sanders’s well-concealed foreign policy views it would be interesting to know a few answers:

  • Was Bernie Sanders on Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’amakim as part of a Hashomer Hatzair leadership training program?
  • Did Bernie Sanders, in fact, “grow up” in Hashomer Hatzair? Did he attend or work as a counselor at Camp Shomria? Was he a leader in its Brooklyn ken (chapter)? Did he give thought to joining a gar’in (group of members who emigrate together to kibbutz)?
  • If so, how much of a role did his youth movement experience play in his current views?
  • And why doesn’t he want to talk about any of this?

Hashomer was far from “Stalinist,” but it was considered at the far edge of ideological consistency compared to other left-leaning Zionist youth movements like Habonim, in which I was a leader in the 1970s. (We were socialist too, but less rigidly — you could say we played Abbie Hoffman to Hashomer’s Jerry Rubin.) It was from a ’70s Hashomer member I first heard the term “politically correct” — aspirationally more than mockingly. No one could be an active member or leader, committed to the point of joining the Israel year, and not be deeply imprinted by the experience. And anyone who did would very likely have strong, firsthand views on Israel and Palestine.

But many youth movement members I grew up with, and likely many from Hashomer, have settled in their later years into a familiar “progressive except for Palestine” stance, bemoaning Netanyahu but supporting Israel’s “right” to “defend” itself against a captive population in Gaza, as Sanders has done, sending their kids to the same camps and segregated kibbutzim — or to Birthright.

Sanders told Meet The Press yesterday that he takes advice from two-state true believers J Street and from James Zogby’s Arab American Institute. For this he was attacked today in the Free Beacon (which quoted Noah Pollak calling these groups “leading anti-Israel apologists for terrorism”). On the other side, Hashomer graduate A. Daniel Roth writes in the Forward urging Sanders to embrace his kibbutz past and, in the wake of the two-state solution’s death, the binational state for Palestinians and Jews that Hashomer formerly espoused in the decades before 1948.

But since Sanders dodges most questions about Middle East policy, the experiences that formed his beliefs would be even more enlightening than knowing who advises him.

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Not that it’s central to your point, but am curious about your ideological distinction between Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, as if Rubin were further or more doctrinaire left. Missed that at the time, but I was just a kid. Rubin as I recall tried to become a yuppie entrepreneur,… Read more »

I would see no reason to hold his youthful activities against him, but it seems strange that he won’t talk about them. How can someone run for senator, much less President, and manage to avoid a significant part of his life? I guess the junior Geo. Bush did it, but… Read more »

@ Annie Regarding minute 26:07 https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1528&v=S5vOKKMipSA You replied: he doesn’t pretend to not to know what Zionist means, he’s asked ‘do you view yourself as a zionist speaking of israel’ and says “what does that mean [meaning what does that question mean] — wanna define what the word means? do… Read more »

Is there so much to discuss? If we discussed in the abstract, without naming a particular person, the idea of selling oneself as a pig in a poke for a presidential election everybody here would be rolling on the floor. How can any presidential candidate not start at the very… Read more »

“But the group photo above suggests Bernie Sanders wasn’t just a simple “kibbutz volunteer,” but a member of an organized group trip” How does it suggest that? You don’t even know if Sanders in in the picture. Do you know who the young people in the picture are? Are they… Read more »