HISTORY OF BERNIE SANDERS = INSPIRING AMERICAN LIFE = FIRST JEWISH PRESIDENT
“SANDERS = First Jewish President”? by Jas Chana is an intern at Tablet.
SANDERS = Typical American Jew of his generation = He and his brother Larry grew up in a modest apartment located off Kings Highway = Aspired to become middle-class Americans
Father = A rural village in South of Poland immigrated to US = The town’s local Jews businesses were closed and confiscated. + Family was sent to concentration camps and were killed. = “Politics was not an aside [for us]. It was life or death.” — Larry Sanders
Aug. 29, 2013 Sanders + His brother + Their wives returned to Slopnice, Poland where the mayor, Adam Soltys, greeted them as dignitaries and showed them around the sleepy village. + Were shown the official documents and photographs of the house, preserved in Slopnice’s archives, which the visitors kept as souvenirs.
Municipality of Slopnice described Bernie as being “warm, cordial, and friendly” during his visit to reconnect with his father’s place of birth. It explained that he wanted to know exactly how daily life in the village had changed in the hundred years since his father left.
Larry = 7 years older than Bernie said = Two political figures who held the greatest influence were Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt. = “Politics could go desperately wrong, but it could also have a positive impact.”
Sanders viewed Roosevelt’s New Deal as an important symbol of prosperity as a beacon.
Bernie and Larry = Attended James Madison High School and Hebrew school on the weekends and studied the Torah – Stories did not hold great religious significance, BUT Justice and the way humans must distinguish right from wrong were plainly evident. = “[Scripture] was encountered on an unintellectual level, but nonetheless it went very deep.. We did not distinguish Jewishness from being American.” — Larry Sanders
1998 memoir “Outsider in the House” = Bernie credits his older brother with introducing him to “political ideas” as president of the Young Democrats club at Brooklyn College and, in “fulfilling his sibling duties,” he would “drag” his kid brother along to their meetings. The group’s first campaign was the halting of an urban renewal project in New York’s Lower East Side that would result in the eviction of low-income residents.
Larry + Bernie went door to door around Kings Highway requesting signatures from people in support of overturning the project – Despite racking up a considerable amount of local support their efforts were unsuccessful due to fraud.
Larry = Career in politics in UK representing the Green Party in Oxford West and Abingdon + Espouses the importance of universal health care and free college tuition.
SANDERS = Father was a paint salesman = The family had to budget meticulously to get through each month. Sanders is quoted as saying about his childhood: “It’s not that we were poor, but [there was always] the constant pressure of never having enough money….The money question to me has always been very deep and emotional.”
Brooklyn Jews = A brute determination to survive = Prevailing belief was that “[we are] here now” and “goddammit if [we] aren’t going to survive and prosper.” + Left-leaning, progressive, political thought was “in the air.” + “Most of our grandparents and parents had escaped either from Hitler or the Soviet Union. Everyone just took that view.”
Sanders = In high school was a talented athlete and a natural leader = High school’s freshmen would look up to him during their senior year track sessions.
Sanders = Ran for student-body president with campaign promise to “adopt” a Korean orphan + Provid scholarships for children whose families had been torn apart by the Korean war of 1950-53. = Sanders came in last of three but school followed through with his proposal and did in fact set up the scholarship fund.
Sanders = At Brooklyn College was miserable = “was constantly complaining about the teachers and that the school wasn’t academically rigorous enough.” = His mother died and Sanders decided to leave NYC and transferred to the University of Chicago where he eventually received a political science degree.
SANDERS = Chicago’s predominantly black areas surrounding the university = “thrown right in the middle of the civil rights movement.” — Larry
SANDERS = Joined student organizations like the Young People’s Socialist League and the Congress of Racial Equality.
Sanders = Writes in Outsider in the House that at the University of Chicago he largely neglected his formal studies, instead opting to spend hours in the library’s stacks poring over the works of Jefferson, Lincoln, Marx, Engels, Debs, and Trotsky. = “I read everything I could get my hands on—except what I was required to read for class.”
Sanders = Involved in a sit-in protest against the University of Chicago’s policy of racial segregation in off-campus housing. + Part of a march on Washington, D.C., to protest the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Sanders = Student job briefly for a trade union, the United Packinghouse Workers, as well as in a California mental hospital as a volunteer for the American Friends Service Committee.
SANDERS = Graduated in 1964 and briefly returned to NYC and started teaching children from low-income families for the new Head Start Program. But filled with a thirst for adventure decided to leave the city once again to travel abroad on trip in Israel with Larry. = “It was quite natural.” = ‘The kibbutz was marvelous. People could do things in which they had no background whatsoever.’ Both brothers decided to spend their time in Israel living and working on kibbutzim.
Neither Bernie or Larry were Zionists, but were impressed by their cousin, who lived in Israel, and who stressed the fundamental importance of equality to the Zionist vision.
Bernie = Was in Israel for six months total
Larry = Stayed 3 Years and met his first wife and lived on two kibbutzim: Matsuva in the north and Yotvata in the south.
Larry = Impressed with Bernie’s leadership on his kibbutz + Relished the “planning elements:” He loved the idea of people working together to complete every required task. Bernie would hurl questions at his fellow kibbutzniks, asking them, “What are you doing? What are your economic plans?”
Sugarman described Sanders as having a “prophetic sensibility of issues surrounding the connection between morality and economics.”
Sanders = Inspired by how willing people were described the egalitarian, agrarian nature of kibbutz life as a “less alienating form of labor… a utopian form of existence…Bernie’s socialism was about trying to give people a better society” — Sugarman
Sanders = Kibbutz life as “a very good way to raise children” because parents, men in particular, were given much more free time than they ever could have had in the city. = Kibbutz showed brothers that “you didn’t need big bosses, you didn’t need massive wealth” to live a decent life.
Sanders = Kibbutz wasn’t just about politics. “[Bernie] wanted to see Israelis growing vegetables!” Because they grew up in the city, both brothers felt a deep fascination with rural life and the ability to grow things.
SANDERS = As a Boy Scout Bernie would cry as the bus departed the campsite in upstate New York to travel back to Brooklyn. = Loved Nature + No political ambition = Inspired his move to Vermont in 1967 = Saw the Green Mountain State as simply “a much more pleasant place to be” than NYC.
Oct. 23, 1980 Alan Abbey (26) City Hall reporter for the Burlington Free Press, broke the news about Sanders’ entry into the race for the mayoral seat in Vermont’s largest city. “Historian and film-strip maker Bernie Sanders,” the article reads, “the Liberty Union gubernatorial candidate in 1976, said he is testing whether he can build a coalition of poor people, blue collar workers, and university students for the March 1981 election.”
SANDERS = In Vermont in ’60s and ’70s = Lived something of an impoverished existence. = At first lived in a converted sugar mill with dirt floors = Scraped a living together by working a series of odd jobs ranging from carpentry to freelance writing and discovered the Liberty Union Party, a small coalition of left-leaning Vermonters that offered local voters an alternative to the two-party system.
LIBERTY UNION PARTY = “Outsider in the House” = Sanders became a representative for the party after going to a small meeting. = “full of enthusiasm for what I believed was right and just, I offered my views on education, the economy, and the war in Vietnam.” = Sanders was chosen on the spot as Liberty Union’s candidate for the then-open seat on the U.S. Senate. Sanders had launched his political career and over the next decade, Sanders earned a reputation around Vermont for his tireless campaigning. He ran twice for a seat in the senate and twice for the position of governor—unsuccessfully each time.
SANDERS = “He was always a fringe player, as much an outsider as he is now in his presidential campaign.”
Sanders = Put his political career on hold in 1977 = Felt Liberty Union had reached a point of stasis and was not “attracting new members, new energy, or new leadership.”
Sanders = Founded a company he named the American People’s Historical Society to produce educational filmstrips intended to expose college-age youth to “extraordinary Americans” they wouldn’t have otherwise heard of. = His greatest work was a half-hour biopic of the “life and ideas” of Eugene Victor Debs, founder of the American Socialist Party. The film was distributed around American colleges and was even broadcast on Vermont public television.
Abbey described Burlington as a “standard blue collar,” declining industrial city, with a population made up primarily of Irish and French Catholics. He said that, at this point, the city could have gone either way: “upscale and hipster,” as it is today, or further into decline.
SANDERS 1980 = Resurrected his political career and run for mayor of Burlington after Sugarman, whom he shared an apartment with, “dragged” him to the city’s clerk office to rifle through the breakdown of results of the 1976 gubernatorial election. Sugarman revealed that although Sanders’ popularity waned across the state, it was fairly strong in Burlington itself. Sanders writes in Outsider: “Richard reasoned that if all our efforts were concentrated on our hometown, we might win the upcoming mayoral election.”
Incumbent government of Burlington = Immediately dismissed Sanders’ chances. Abbey said that this is because it was a “very creaky democratic machine” that had not had a truly contested race in years.
First Abbey wrote on Sanders, “The goal must be to take political power away from the handful of millionaires who currently control it through Mayor [Gordon] Paquette and place that power in the hands of the working people of the city who are the vast majority of the Burlington population.”
Sanders 1980s = Abbey comments, mayoral hopeful Sanders = Sanders of today, presidential hopeful, are saying “word for word” the same thing. “The only difference is he’s changed the word millionaire to billionaire.”
SANDERS = Campaigned throughout the bitterly cold Vermont winter of 1980 = Strategy was to knock on as many doors as he could, telling people—according to Outsider in the House—that “[he] would do [his] best to represent those in the city who had long been locked out of City Hall.”
Abbey sometimes accompany Sanders as he campaigned. Together they would go from “the bluest of the blue” neighborhood in Burlington, the Old North End, characterized by its rickety houses, walking up through the increasingly affluent neighborhoods to eventually reach Burlington’s wealthy New North End. Abbey would stand behind Sanders as he knocked on each door, furiously scribbling into his notebook as the disheveled candidate, dressed in a “frumpy winter coat,” discussed gritty issues, like the state of the sewage network and garbage pickup schedule, on the door steps of Burlington’s residents. Abbey said Sanders did not try to present any “grand socialist ideas”—rather, as Sanders puts it in Outsider: “I listened to their concerns and supported their grievances … as I stood in kitchens and stood on front stoops in low-income houses, I heard the bitterness in their voices.” According to Abbey, the message Sanders conveyed was a simple one: that “this is your city and it’s time to take it back.”
Sanders campaign = Picked up momentum reported in the Burlington Free Press, Sanders’ became known as “Total” because of his thick Brooklyn accent and grouchy, “full tilted” way of delivering his attacks against the current state of the city: “This is total travesty that … !” And the locals started to listen. “It was clear to me he was connecting to people,” Abbey said. “He was a newcomer and an outsider, but I saw people’s eyes and I saw them responding.”
SANDERS = SCARED the seemingly entrenched democratic governance in Burlington = Became unsettled.
Abbey = Reporting became closely associated with the Sanders campaign was berated by its Greek diner owner, a staunch Democrat who was known to be a “behind the scenes player” in the local politics = He lamented Sanders’ growing popularity and told Abbey Sanders would be “terrible” for the future of the city. = Sanders being Jewish did not emerge at all “except toward the end and only in a negative sense.” — Abbey — a series of mimeographed fliers began appearing around town = “The big story…Bernie Sanders and the parents of Alan Abbey attended the same high school in Brooklyn.” = A LIE “to tar [Sanders] with the ‘New Yorker’ brush” = Sanders and Abbey were Jews. = Abbey will never forget as an underhanded attempt by local Democrats to tarnish Sanders’ reputation and discredit Abbey’s coverage of the election using “latent anti-Semitism” in working-class “rural America.” = “Bernie never rose to the bait” and ignored the flier and resulting stir and won the election, beating Old Democratic Mayor by just 10 votes.
SANDERS = As Burlington’s “Socialist” mayor = “the red mayor in the Green Mountains” (Rolling Stone termed him at the time) was “really a revolution” for the city.
FACT: Jewish community in Burlington was small, and Sanders was not a part of it.
Sanders = Notoriously private about his personal life, wanting the focus to always be on the political issues at stake.
Abbey = Current commentary on Sanders’ presidential campaign is comparable to that of his mayoral campaign over 30 years ago. The common refrain being: “Of course he won’t win, but … ” — “The conditions are right.” + His “bedrock sincerity,” is currently resonating with the same sorts of disaffected groups as it did in the past. He added, “Don’t underestimate Bernie.”