As a left-wing, secular Jewish member of the Labour Party, I have recently been noticing a particular pattern of behaviour from Labour activists and members on social media.
Like many party members, I have been avidly following the Democratic primary in the US, and like many party members, I’ve followed Bernie Sanders, the self-proclaimed democratic socialist, since his insurgent campaign for the nomination in 2016.
Something about how Labour members talk about Sanders and his campaign has been bothering me for a while. Specifically, the tendency among the Labour right (and it is usually, though not exclusively, the Labour right) to dismiss Sanders as just ‘an old white man’. Without wishing to state the obvious, I know that this is true as far as it goes. Bernie Sanders *is* an old white man. But he is also Jewish, working-class, and the son of Polish immigrants.
The White House is currently occupied by the racist antisemite that is Donald Trump, and groups of his supporters have, in recent memory, marched through Charlottesville screaming ‘Jews will not replace us’. Against this backdrop, the symbolism that would come from America electing their first Jewish President in defiance of rising antisemitism in the US and around the world, is not to be sniffed at (before even considering Sanders’ transformative political programme).
Of course, some in Labour have understandable objections to Sanders (his campaign was arguably not intersectional enough in 2016, although there is evidence he has sought to improve upon this since), but dismissing him as merely an old white man, when he is a member of a minority – a minority much of the Labour right is usually justly keen to defend – sticks in the craw somewhat.
However, this doesn’t mean the left of the party is blameless when it comes to discussing Sanders’ candidacy either – something I noticed from the backlash to the below tweet from Noel Fielding:
I wish this country had a Bernie. Every country needs a Bernie x x https://t.co/2B6AEQ0re4
— noel fielding (@noelfielding11) October 5, 2019
Fielding expresses the wish that we had a figure like Bernie Sanders. The response of many online leftists, including ones who are normally fairly sound on antisemitism, seems to be to say ‘We already have one – it’s Corbyn’.
Now, I get where that impulse comes from – I came across Sanders before Corbyn stood for the leadership, and was initially drawn to both of them for similar reasons. In the 2017 general election, Sanders himself acknowledged the similarities. But. especially four years down the line, there are some notable differences.
For one, Bernie is arguably a more naturally skilled politician. While Corbyn languished on the backbenches for many years, Sanders was dubbed ‘The Amendment King’ for his ability to steer amendments and cross-party legislation through Republican-controlled Congresses. Although Corbyn has helped pass cross-party legislation since, this has mostly been through supporting bills drafted by other backbenchers, such the the Cooper-Letwin and Benn Bills, admittedly due in large part to reluctance on the part of Tory (and ex-Tory) MPs to be seen endorsing initiatives led by his leadership.
Another arguable difference between the two is perceived authenticity. Whereas Corbyn comes from a middle-class background, Sanders is the working-class son of immigrants, which arguably grounds his cause more solidly in personal experience. This isn’t to say that being middle-class need be a barrier to fighting for the socialist cause – there is no shortage of middle-class socialists who have great progressive achievements to their names – but it is hard to deny that personal experience of hardship lends perceived authenticity to progressive candidates in the eyes of many.
Bernie is also better than Corbyn at responding and adapting to constructive criticism – after Black Lives Matter crashed one of his events, he introduced a host of policies on racial justice, which up to that point hadn’t featured much in his campaign. For this Presidential run, he’s diversified his staff, and, in response to sexual harassment complaints on the last campaign, has signed up his staff to a specific policy on dealing with sexual harrassment, and instigated an independent complaints system for staffers and volunteers to use (a step that Labour has yet to take). Moreover, Sanders has not been embroiled in scandals around antisemitism, nor has he tacitly endorsed or been blind to antisemitism from his allies.
Whatever the reasons, I know there are many British Jewish leftists who like Sanders, but aren’t or are no longer fans of Corbyn. Likewise, while Fielding is not Jewish as far as I know, he may well have friends or family who are. Suffice to say whether on their records as political operators, their reactions to criticism, or in relation to antisemitism, there are key differences between Corbyn and Sanders.
I suppose my frustration is that, on either side of the Labour Party, there seems to be what I would call ‘Jewish erasure’ going on when it comes to Bernie Sanders. On the right, it’s erasure of both the fact that he is Jewish, and of the antisemitism present in America today – especially when they normally do all they can to show solidarity with the Jewish community against antisemitism in Labour.
On the left, it’s this seeming refusal to acknowledge that anyone could possibly be a leftist and like Sanders, but be less keen on Corbyn. Even brief consideration should lead people to realise that Jewish leftists have every right to feel more positively about a Jewish candidate who has not been embroiled in rows around his handling of antisemitism in his party.
Let me be clear: I am not accusing all those in Labour who have engaged in this Jewish erasure, when it comes to Bernie Sanders, of antisemitism – far from it. Many people I have seen inadvertently doing this online have often been real allies when it comes to antisemitism in Labour, and for that, as a Jewish Labour member, I am immensely grateful. Nor am I saying comparisons between Sanders and Corbyn should cease. But if someone praises Sanders in the way Fielding has, consider whether condemning it as a slight at Corbyn is appropriate, and understand why some may feel differently about them both.
Likewise, I would urge those who have dismissed Sanders as just an old white man to consider how, against the backdrop of antisemitism in America, that might feel for some Jewish leftists. There has never been a Jewish President of the United States before, let alone one so in tune with our values – with Labour values. I know, with both some ardent Sanders and Corbyn supporters, there can be a similar lack of nuance, a poor response to criticism, a bunker mentality, etc. But nonetheless, for many Jewish leftists on both sides of the Atlantic, Sanders’ candidacy is genuinely exciting, from the point of view of representation as much as anything else.
My plea to my fellow Labourites is a simple one: whether you love Sanders or loathe him, don’t dismiss the feelings and concerns of your Jewish comrades.