Sanders After Corbyn: The Jewish Question

Drawing By Nathaniel St. Clair

The hordes of Democratic Party pundits, anti-Trump Republicans, and former national security state functionaries who supply CNN and MSNBC with endless streams of jibber-jabber, along with their counterparts at The New York Times and Washington Post, are pulling out all the stops — trying to convince Democrats that only a “moderate” can defeat Donald Trump.

They speak for the dead center, and they are dead wrong.

They do have a ready audience, however; in part because apologists for the Democratic Party have been fairly successful at passing blame for Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016 onto everything other than her corporate and Wall Street friendly politics. Running against Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s politics epitomized moderation.

Alarmingly many potential Democratic voters just don’t get it. The Democratic Party’s leaders and publicists have seen to that; they peddle their snake oil well.

The hard truth, though, is that the “centrist” politics they promote helped get us to where we now are. Try convincing the targets of their propaganda operations otherwise, however; it isn’t easy.

That the next, long overdue recession continues to tarry does not help matters.

Neither has the election that the British Labor Party lost so ignominiously a few weeks ago. Its consequences will be dire — over there. Back here, they could be as inconsequential as elections in any of several economically or militarily more formidable US allies in Europe or the Far East. That would be not particularly consequential at all. But this will not be the case; they will matter a great deal.

UK elections matter more than those in other countries – in part because we have a longstanding “special relationship” with the Brits that we don’t have with, say, the French or the Germans or the Japanese, and because we are accustomed to thinking that “the English-speaking peoples” as Churchill called them — Americans, Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders — are somehow joined at the hip.

In the final analysis, though, if the UK under Boris Johnson diminishes itself further by leaving the EU, or even if it self-destructs by causing Scotland or Northern Ireland to break away, Americans will have little reason to take notice.

Corporate media, however, are doing all they can to make Americans notice enough to draw the wrong lesson from Labor’s electoral debacle. Their barely hidden objective is to convince potential Sanders or Warren voters in this Spring’s caucuses and primaries that promising “pie in the sky,” as they claim the Labor Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership did – in other words, promoting genuinely, not merely cosmetic, departures from the status quo — is an all but certain path to defeat.

Knowledgeable commentators who are not too blatantly in the thrall of Tory or Blairite ideology tell a different story. They explain how it was not Labor’s socialist (or social democratic) agenda that did the party in, but divisions within it over Brexit, and power struggles between the party’s left wing and its functional equivalents of mainstream Democrats. They tell us that Corbyn, a bona fide socialist and anti-imperialist, could have played his hand better, but that, in the end, he was defeated by circumstances largely beyond his control.

Brexit was the main culprit; it divided the Labor Party, just as it divided the UK generally. The ancien régime’s defenders took take full advantage of the fallout from the Brexit vote, something Corbyn was unable to do.

Moderates, in and out of Labor’s ambit, had it in for Corbyn for many of the same reasons that their counterparts in the United States have it in for Sanders and Warren. The election gave them an opportunity to act on their class-interest based animosity.

Like George McGovern, the Democratic candidate for president in 1972, Corbyn is an estimable figure whose candidacy was supported by large segments of his party’s base, but who was effectively undermined by his party’s establishment and by the media that serve it.

Does this bode ill for progressives on this side of the ocean? Are these latest British elections relevant at all?

Tip O’Neil, the Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1977 to 1987, famously declared: “all politics is local.” This is, at best, a gross exaggeration; politics, especially at the national level, is national too.

It can also be, or appear to be, international. Thus, Britain and the United States sometimes seem to march in tandem, Britain leading the way.

Margaret Thatcher begat Ronald Reagan, and New Labor begat Clintonism. More recently, the UK’s Brexit vote was followed by Trump’s election.

Sometimes, the far greater power, the United States, manages to take the lead. Thus, now that the dust from the Brexit vote has settled, the UK has a Trump of its own. Johnson is better educated than Trump, more worldly and smarter, but he is every bit as cartoonish and vile.

It is therefore understandable that Corbyn’s shellacking would be on peoples’ minds, especially at a time when, with nationalism and illiberalism everywhere on the rise, much of the world seems hellbent on taking a great leap backwards.

Trump is as much a symptom as a cause of this sad turn of events, but thanks in part to the bad example he sets, as president of what is still the world’s only superpower, authoritarian politics is taking hold the world over – in Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Brazil, India, Hungary, Poland, and the Philippines, among others. Too bad for the people who live in those places that these are countries in which liberal norms are notoriously less secure than in the US or the UK.

If all politics really were local, illiberal backsliding could be more easily isolated, minimizing the harm. But politics is not nearly local enough. And since efforts to derail progressive initiatives in the United States have, if anything, intensified of late, and since it is widely believed that the British election is of at least some relevance to American leftists pondering how best to proceed, it is of paramount importance to learn whatever constructive lessons we can from what happened to Corbyn and the Labor Left.

Forces intent on maintaining the old regime in the UK besmirched Corbyn, preposterously but nevertheless with some success. If and when their American counterparts adapt their methods, it is urgent that their efforts be resisted with all the militance we can muster.


Of the many candidates still vying to be the Democrats’ nominee for president, the billionaires and the moderates ought to be ruled out from the get-go. This is not the place to rehearse the many reasons why; but see my last piece, “Enough Absurdity; Time to Get Smart.” It is different with Sanders and Warren. Either one would be OK, though, in my view, Sanders would be a whole lot better.

He is more authentically left-wing, more Corbyn-like, as it were. If, and only if, the emerging Democratic Left plays its cards right, being like Corbyn is the very opposite of a recipe for defeat.

A Sanders candidacy would wean workers away from the Trump fold – not by advancing kinder gentler versions of the neoliberal policies that made Trump inevitable, but by undoing the conditions that made Trump and Trumpism possible.

Doing so would have a salutary effect on the entire body politic, even in the short run. In the slightly longer run, a Sanders presidency would help roust that great sleeping giant, the American working class, from its soft-on-moderates slumber, setting it free it to resume its historic mission. For remaking the world in ways that are ecologically sound, just, and fit for human habitation, we cannot currently do better than that.

I have three misgivings, however. Even taken together, they do not, in my view, make Warren the better choice, but they are worth reflecting upon and dealing with.

The first is that the time is past due for a woman to be elected president. The main reason why this is important, I think, is so that we can get beyond the point where it is important.

Others, of course, would disagree; they think that electing a woman is important, perhaps even all important, in its own right.

That was certainly the view of many Clinton supporters in 2016. At this point, though, even many of them realize that, despite all their brouhaha about “the glass ceiling” three years ago, the country is, and long has been, “ready” for a woman president. It is finally dawning, even on those who want a woman elected most, that, as James Carville, Clintonite extraordinaire, might put it: “it’s the politics, stupid.”

By that measure, Warren is not at all bad; Sanders, however, is a whole lot better.

My second misgiving has to do with age. This is a problem for Biden too, of course, and also for Trump, though, in his case, all the valences change – enough to allow finding comfort in the thought that as long as there are strokes, all is not lost.

Both Sanders and Warren are in their seventies, but he is roughly two presidential terms older than she. Clearly, at this point, they both have all their marbles and then some. But, as the saying goes, old age is not for sissies; anything can happen.

It is surely of some relevance that, for doing what needs to be done and what they both want to do, eight years, much less four, are not nearly enough; and that, going by the odds, Warren has a better chance than Sanders of still being in top form in eight or even four years’ time.

Being older than Warren and younger than Sanders, and approaching the point where friends and acquaintances are at least as likely to be dead or out of commission as still in their prime, the pertinence of this consideration is something of which I cannot help but be aware, and upon which I can speak with some authority.

Being every bit as Chosen as Sanders, I have some authority on that too, and I also cannot help but be aware of the Jewish Question. Hence, my third misgiving: it is that nominating him might not be, as we say, good for the Jews.

Before Trump, I used to think that in the United States, being Jewish was of no political consequence whatever. How could it be when, for example, Sheldon Adelson, a character straight out of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, could be all buddy buddy with some of the vilest Republican crackers in all creation, seemingly without objection or even notice from anybody?

Needless to say, it is perilous to be black or brown or Muslim in America; but Jews, it seemed, were safe. I was so sure of this that it didn’t even bother me that my fellow tribesman, Stephen Miller, Trump’s favorite hate monger, evidently thinks so too. It is practically axiomatic that anything that Miller believes is untrue.

It was different, of course, in places like Ukraine, the Democrats’ new favorite country, where old school fascism – and therefore classical anti-Semitism — though repressed within the Soviet Union, never quite expired.

Thus, when Communism imploded, it rose again there and elsewhere in eastern and central Europe, when, with the help of American meddlers, anti-Russian governments were established and took hold all along Russia’s borders.

But even with Steve Bannon and others of his ilk empowered during the Trump campaign, I never thought that anything like that could happen here – not, anyway, before Charlottesville.

Obviously, I was wrong. Long before the day of infamy when Trump and his trophy bride descended that gilded Trump Tower escalator, the Donald was busily kicking over rocks where the ancient demons had been lying dormant and out of sight.

Then, with him in the White House, those demons came back to life and flourished. And so, by now, we might as well be back in the 1930s, but for one salient difference: that there is a state of Israel now, and real anti-Semites love it. This doesn’t diminish the intensity of their hatred of Jews, but it does affect how they express it.

The Trump-induced resurrection of anti-Semitism coincides with and feeds into a developing crisis of legitimacy that threatens support for Israel and for Zionist politics generally. Trump did not bring this crisis on; it has been taking shape for decades. But by handing the most noxious Zionists the moral equivalent of a blank check, Trump and Jared Kushner, his settler-movement loving son-in-law, have effectively licensed them to act out in any way that they think will help their cause.

In enlightened secular circles, Jewish and otherwise, support for a culturally Jewish, Hebrew-speaking homeland for Jews, after centuries of persecution in Europe and especially after the Nazi genocide, continues to resonate.

Nevertheless, the idea that Israel can rightfully be an ethnocratic settler state no longer quite cuts it in the twenty-first century. Neither does the idea that the existence of a Jewish state in Palestine fulfills a “promise” that a God few still believe in made to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, characters who probably never existed at all, and who are almost certainly not direct ancestors of Jews alive today.

It doesn’t help either that what was once deemed “a light unto the nations” has become an international pariah state.

How could any right-thinking person, Gentile or Jew, not think of it that way – after the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians living within Israel proper, the imposition of an Apartheid regime over Palestinians in the territories occupied by Israel during the Six Day War, and the increasing awareness of the fact that Palestinians living within Israel’s internationally recognized borders are, for all intents and purposes, second-class citizens?

The Holocaust has had to become Israel’s legitimization myth – not in the sense that it didn’t happen, obviously it did, but in the way that Zionists have come to use it to justify subsequent wrong-doing.

There is, after all, only so much legitimacy that can be squeezed out of the horrific suffering of European Jews during the Nazi period, especially inasmuch as the World War II era is rapidly becoming an historical memory of no more immediate relevance to current thinking than, say, the Civil War period or World War I.

It doesn’t help either, with memories of Apartheid South Africa still in peoples’ minds, that Israel’s vaunted democracy has always been a Herrenvolk affair, a democracy for a master race, or that the Herrenvolk is again becoming a minority in the land it rules – not quite to the same extent that white South Africans were when they were running the show there, but to a considerable extent even so.

For decades, it was comparatively easy, psychologically, for liberal Zionists to live with the contradictory notion of a state that is both Jewish and democratic, when they know full well that whatever else a democratic state may be, it is a state of its people, of an undifferentiated citizenry, not of a particular religious or national group.

This contradiction has become increasingly difficult to gloss over in recent years. It is especially troubling that the Israeli occupation of the territories it seized more than half a century ago, in the Six Day War. is still going on, and that there is no end in sight.

Israel’s defenders have been trying for decades to confound anti-Zionism and all but the mildest criticisms of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism. Fortunately, but also remarkably in view of all the effort they have expended, they have had only limited success.

Lately, though, determined to restore the waning legitimacy of the Zionist idea, they have intensified their efforts, doing all they can to turn what had been a comparatively harmless logical howler, calling two very different things one and the same, into a pernicious ideological fetish.

And so now, they call even longstanding opponents of racism in all its forms anti-Semites. In Corbyn’s case, the charge, leveled straightforwardly, would be too implausible for anyone expecting to be taken seriously to claim. His enemies therefore charged with something slightly different – being soft on anti-Semitism within the party he leads.

Of course, the anti-Semitism his detractors had in mind was not anti-Semitism at all, but anti-Zionism. Inasmuch as Corbyn has been an anti-imperialist solidarity activist his entire life, and therefore a proponent of justice for Palestinians, this “charge” actually does have some basis in fact. The facts in question, however, are grounds for praise, not condemnation.

To be sure, anti-Zionism can and sometimes does morph into genuine anti-Semitism. If anything like that actually went on in Labor Party circles, it ought to have been dealt with aggressively and expeditiously by the party’s leader. Thus, if Corbyn was guilty of anything, it was of not handling such situations as aggressively or as promptly as he should have.

This is not at all the same thing as condoning them. Even in a world of “alternative facts,” that charge cannot be sustained.

Nobody really knows how much, if at all, the smear campaign directed at Corbyn contributed to Labor’s defeat; this is not the sort of thing that can be measured precisely or in uncontroversial ways. It very likely did do some harm, however. To the extent that it did, British Zionists have a lot to answer for.

Because they do, because their efforts on behalf of Boris Johnson – a bona fide racist, Islamophobe, and anti-Semite — succeeded at least somewhat, we can predict, with considerable confidence, that if Democrats run Sanders, a comparable smear campaign will be attempted against him.

It will be a case of “monkey see, monkey do.” And it will encourage real anti-Semites to strut their stuff in ways that will likely give even Stephen Miller cause for concern.

If Warren shows that she too has a decency streak and a backbone, she could be a potential victim as well. Unlike, say, Biden or Cory Booker or, for that matter, any of the other moderates, including the Boy Wonder, Mayor Pete, Warren may have it in her to do the right thing.

Up to this point, however, she has given Zionists little cause to after her. To her credit, she has resisted AIPAC’s advances. But so far, her politics has seemed to stop at the water’s edge.

Sanders is a different story. He is no Corbyn, but he has spoken out in solidarity with Palestinians, even when he could have more easily remained silent.

It is not hard to find reasons to fault his positions on Israel-Palestine over the years but, this side of “the squad” and a few others, he is as good as any Democrat at the national level gets.

Of equal or greater importance, he is helping, as he did with socialism, to change the national conversation – not as much as it needs to be changed, but to an extent that would have seemed unimaginable only a few years ago.

As it becomes increasingly difficult for corporate media to treat the Sanders campaign as if it weren’t happening, we should therefore expect that, before long, we will soon be hearing a lot about “self-hating Jews” and other nonsense that not long ago seemed, like anti-Semitism itself, to have gone extinct, but that has now revived as defenders and beneficiaries of the old order feel increasingly anxious and insecure.

This is what must be fought against — this time, though, with more boldness and strategic acumen than Corbyn and his allies were able to muster.

Evading the problem, say by nominating someone not Jewish – someone other than Sanders — is no way to deal with it; far better to bring the problem to a head and then to confront it head on.

At this point, evasion may not even be an option. Had Sanders been the candidate in 2016, before the Trump effect fully took hold, being a Jewish socialist would probably have been a good deal less disabling than having a Kenyan father was for Obama in 2008.

But that was then; the consequences of Trumpian rule are an unavoidable fact of life now. There is no turning the other cheek, no taking refuge in noxious Zionist nostrums; fighting back is the only way to deal with the real anti-Semitism Trump and Kushner and the others have let loose upon the fragile body politic of America today. It is the only way to deal with all things Trumpian.

Anti-anti-Semites, in this historical moment, therefore have a twofold task: first to assure that Democrats nominate a candidate who is worthy of being a target of a smear campaign, and then to see to it that he (or maybe she) not only prevails over it, but also exposes it for the reactionary nonsense it is.

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).