Jesse Alexander Myerson has an excellent meditation on Bernie Sanders’s throw-back Jewish identity at the Village Voice. There is a romance in the piece: Yiddish socialists who fought their persecution in Europe brought the fight for emancipation to the U.S. and transformed our country (that was a long time before neoconservatism and neoliberalism also transformed our country). And the piece is religious, too, inasmuch as Myerson quotes Scripture.
But the ending is terrific. It clearly identifies the sociocultural changes inside the Jewish community that made Zionism an ethos for the affluent. And clearly links anti-Zionism with a Jewish progressive tradition, of which Bernie Sanders is a part. Anti-Zionism is coming in, folks. Myerson’s piece is on the front page of the Village Voice, with the headline, “Heretic.” The Zionist/ant-Zionist debate is beginning to happen.
Despite the appeal of Zionism, many Jews still veered left: Thousands joined the civil rights movement, appalled by the treatment of black people in the South, building on the legacy of the Jewish CIO organizers who had helped lay early groundwork for the sit-ins and freedom rides. Despite being limited in number in American society, Jews were overrepresented in activist circles: It is not a coincidence that a rabbi, Abraham Heschel, walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, or that two of the most prominent murder victims of the movement, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, were Jewish. A young Bernie Sanders was among them, too, committing civil disobedience in protest of housing discrimination in Chicago.
Many American Jews, however, took a stand on the wrong side of those struggles. In a single generation, formerly working-class Jews who’d been concentrated in the Lower East Side, Grand Concourse, and Flatbush had spread out to Great Neck, Scarsdale, and New Jersey, becoming suburban homeowners and “professionals,” assimilated into that American Dream of upwardly mobile whiteness. The “there goes the neighborhood” attitude that attended white flight boiled over during the 1968 NYC teachers’ strike, which pitted mainly suburban Jews against the black communities that had replaced them in what was now the “inner city.” At the same time, but thousands of miles away, Israel undertook an aggressive expansion and occupation in Palestine, making manifest the country’s ideological shift toward right-wing Zionism. That Zionism found voice in this country as well, becoming the most salient and powerful political philosophy for American Jews.
The magnitude of this change is difficult to overstate. The internationalism of the pre-war American Jewry was supplanted by nationalism. Our egalitarian commitment was replaced by exceptionalism. Our agitation against war was undermined by ceaseless colonialism in Palestine. Jews have been instructed that the cluster bombs and night patrols blanketing the Holy Land are necessary to preserve our heritage. We have to wonder: Has the shift to militant nationalism robbed us of a Jewish heritage worth preserving?
That’s a great question. And a religious one. Some young Jews may say, I don’t want any of this old time religion. Some may reject any resort to religious fables when dealing with present day human rights questions.