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Sanders walks free of the shadows of anti-Communism, Zionism and materialism

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The Jesse Alexander Myerson account (in the Village Voice) of the Jewish transition to conventional suburban materialism from left wing universalism and participation in the labor and civil rights movement is indeed instructive for what it tells us about the culture that gave rise to Bernie and a whole generation of New Leftists in the sixties. This was a cultural movement whose roots lay in the Communist party and its sympathizers in the 1930’s, thus heavily influenced by the struggles of the labor movement. But its Jewish members also found in this culture a secular religion that preserved much of the collective identity of their immigrant parents while allowing them to assimilate.

We should bear in mind that many of these first generation American Jews became educated with the hope not of moving to the suburbs as professionals but working in Roosevelt’s New Deal and fighting for social progress. So yes, Myerson is right that the Jewish CIO leaders, many of whom were former or even current members of the Communist Party, helped to prepare the way for the Civil Rights movement. For instance Moe Foner of 1199 was in touch with Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders like Bayard Rustin preparing the 1963 March on Washington. What we should bear in mind however is that Foner and other New York labor leaders were able, through compromises with the CIO, to escape the general persecution of leftists in the McCarthy era by finding a base in the New York City labor unions.

The late Moe Foner (c), photograph by Jim Tynan

The late Moe Foner (c), photograph by Jim Tynan

Elsewhere, notably in Washington D.C., not a single leftist remained in the government. In general, the chilling effect of the anti-communist movement of the post-war era should not be underestimated. It succeeded in eroding the vibrant culture that was created by Communist, socialists and fellow-travelers in the 30’s and 40’s–think, Pete Seeger, whose national hit recording of Tzena Tzena with the Weavers did not protect him from being blacklisted or from investigation for “Un-American activities.”

Throughout the era of protest against the war in Vietnam, the shadow of anti-Communism did not leave us. Ironically, Jewish identity and the support of Israel increasingly provided a safe alternative free of the threat of social opprobrium or even persecution. Yes, there were fundamental splits and anxieties that arose between Blacks and Jews. Furthermore, persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union and Poland, anti-Zionism as part of anti-imperialism, changed the picture in ways that placed impossible strains on the progressive coalitions of an earlier era. Put simply, left wing identity could no longer be safe, popular, and part of the general ambiance of Jewish assimilation.

The fact that Bernie marched through the era of conformity, anti-Communism, and materialism to maintain an identity as a democratic socialist without the fear of anti-Communist stigmatization or need to belong to a more respectable form of Jewish identity is one of the extraordinary features of his character. He seems to have preserved in amber some basic tenets of mid-twentieth-century secular Jewish leftism with its emphasis on labor and civil rights struggles, undeterred by those fraught moments in progressive history where these coalitions fell apart.

Listening to Bernie, you would think there was never a McCarthy. There was never a bloody battle over imperialism and Zionism between members of the anti-war movement on the steps of the Wisconsin Student Union in Madison, in June 1967. Now students in Madison are cheering for Bernie, who simply won’t allow those moments in our history to defeat the need he perceives to recover an original, purposeful socialist agenda that will bring American workers into the safety their counterparts in Europe have enjoyed since World War II. But I think the biggest obstacle Bernie overcame, and will face again if he is nominated, is that of American anti-Communism.

Reclaiming our heritage requires facing up to more than the problems in Israel–the ones here at home are pretty daunting. So let’s not forget why Zionism, Jewish nationalism, was a safer identity for many, even liberal, American Jews, the religious and the successful secular professionals alike: seeing oneself as a victim of aggression is a more comfortable identity than feeling culpable of supporting inequality, greed, imperialist wars, and racism. And no one can accuse you of being Un-American.

About Jessica Benjamin

Jessica Benjamin is a psychoanalyst in NYC and best known as the author of The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination​ (1988)​ . In 2004 she initiated with Eyad el Sarraj of Gaza "The Acknowledgment Project" in Israel-Palestine​. (See http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/acknowledging-the-others-suffering-a-psychoanalytic-approach-to-trauma-in-israelpalestine​ and movingbeyondviolence.org)

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10 Responses

  1. hophmi
    hophmi
    April 6, 2016, 11:02 am

    Again, it’s reductive to look at these things as binaries, as if there was some stark choice for Jews in the 1950’s between socialism and Zionism. It’s particularly silly when one considers that the Israel Jews supported in the 1950’s and 1960’s was a socialist state whose most well-known feature was its small agrarian communes.

    Myerson’s piece is just one inaccuracy after another. Al Shankar, the leader of the 1968 teachers’ strike, marched on Washington and at Selma, and also had Bayard Rustin’s support. Bernie Sanders is a Zionist, not a non-Zionist.

    • annie
      annie
      April 6, 2016, 11:50 am

      Again, it’s reductive to look at these things as binaries, as if there was some stark choice for Jews in the 1950’s between socialism and Zionism.

      i’m not understanding what part of the article you are referencing. what binaries? what implication of a stark choice between socialism and zionism? in fact, i thought the author made the opposite point when she wrote

      Jewish identity and the support of Israel increasingly provided a safe alternative free of the threat of social opprobrium or even persecution….

      Zionism, Jewish nationalism, was a safer identity for many, even liberal, American Jews

      it think this was because “the Israel Jews supported in the 1950’s and 1960’s was a socialist state”, not in spite of it. so could you please quote the segment of Benjamin’s article you are referencing please, wrt to your “stark choice”.

      • Mooser
        Mooser
        April 6, 2016, 8:04 pm

        “So let’s not forget why Zionism, Jewish nationalism, was a safer identity for many, even liberal, American Jews,”

        Enjoyed this article, thanks.

  2. Stephen Shenfield
    Stephen Shenfield
    April 6, 2016, 5:07 pm

    A major reason why many Jews used to support “socialism” (in one form or another) was their belief that socialism would remove the danger posed by anti-Semitism to themselves. In Russia, which was the homeland of most Jewish immigrants to the US, the socialists were the main opposition to the anti-Semitic tsarist regime. It was not the only reason but it was a very important one. Socialism and Zionism competed for Jewish support as alternative solutions to the “Jewish question.” So Jews switched from socialism to Zionism partly because “socialism” (in its Stalinist form) had failed to solve the Jewish question. That was a continuity across the switch.

    • lysias
      lysias
      April 6, 2016, 5:30 pm

      But in what sense had socialism in its Stalinist form failed to solve the Jewish problem? Because of the official anti-Semitism of Stalin’s last years? Communism, before, under, and after Stalin, opened careers to Russian Jews that had been closed to them before. Why didn’t that amount to solving the Jewish problem?

  3. JWalters
    JWalters
    April 6, 2016, 6:52 pm

    “[Sanders] seems to have preserved in amber some basic tenets of mid-twentieth-century secular Jewish leftism with its emphasis on labor and civil rights struggles.”

    The struggle for UNIVERSAL human rights has ALWAYS extended WELL beyond the Jewish community. I believe Bernie sees himself mainly as part of that larger community.

  4. Roberto
    Roberto
    April 8, 2016, 8:48 am

    Being anti-Communist is a moral duty, no less than being anti-nazi.

  5. Henry Norr
    Henry Norr
    April 9, 2016, 2:32 pm

    A belated comment: to my mind Jessica Benjamin’s whole analysis is flawed because it rests on a misleading premise right at the beginning: in her second sentence she contends that Bernie Sanders comes out of “a cultural movement whose roots lay in the Communist party and its sympathizers in the 1930’s.” The reality as I see it is that the environment Sanders comes out of is much older and broader: a tradition of progressive organizing around class issues that goes back at least to the struggles of New York’s garment workers in the first decade of the twentieth century. Yes, the Communist Party and its sympathizers were one strain in this tradition, perhaps the dominant one in the 1930s and 40s, but they were never the only one: before, during, and after the heyday of the CP, there were also a variety of ideologies and movements that, like Sanders, called themselves democratic socialists.

    And like the CP, these movements, especially in New York, were largely led by Jewish immigrants. One small detail: In a 1909 episode that became known as “the Uprising of the 20,000,” some 20,000 mostly female workers walked out of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and struck for 14 weeks – after swearing an oath in Yiddish. (That was two years before the murderous fire that made the factory famous.)

    I don’t know enough about the specific milieu Sanders grew up in to know whether or to what extent he was directly influenced by the Communist Party or by non-Communist democratic socialists, but his politics are clearly much closer to the latter. That’s why it’s puzzling that Benjamin focuses exclusively on the former. In addition to being misleading, that approach concedes too much to the right-wing critics who are certain to try to brand Bernie as a Communist should he gain the Democratic nomination.

    • Mooser
      Mooser
      April 9, 2016, 5:13 pm

      ” The reality as I see it is that the environment Sanders comes out of is much older and broader:”

      Thanks, Mr. Norr. I found that sentence (about Communism) a little problematic, too.

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