Judaism and Socialism: Understanding Sanders

Judaism and Socialism: Understanding Sanders

One Man’s View / By Eugen Schoenfeld

Bernie Sanders’ run for the presidency under a democratic socialist banner reflects an old, standing commitment of Jews and Judaism to socialism.

In fact, long before Sanders came on the national political scene as a seeker of the presidency, I proposed in a discourse that Jews’ propensity to a socialist political and economic perspective reflects both a Torah-based economic ideology and a worldview that has arisen from Jewish experience.

Most Jewish politicos at the start of the 20th century were leaders in the socialist movements in France, Germany and especially Russia, as well as among U.S. labor leaders (most significantly in garment industry).

Socialism was central in the rise of the Israeli kibbutzim. Most kibbutzim held to the motto “to each according to his need and from each according to his capability.”

The Jewish socialist movement, particularly toward the end of the 19th century, was a response to the economic restrictions imposed on Jews.

This point of view is well illustrated in a story about the first Jew, a rabbi, elected to the Silesian parliament. When the rabbi came to the legislature, all eyes were on him. Everyone was curious where the rabbi would seat himself. In the horseshoelike hall where the legislators conducted their business, the location of seats indicated political stance.

Those who sat to the right of the middle aisle were politically and economically conservative. The rabbi when he entered the hall seated himself not only to the left of the aisle, but even to the extreme edge of the left wing.

At the end of the session the Catholic priests and the Protestant ministers — the men of G-d — inquired why a rabbi, like them a man of G-d, chose to seat himself with the socialists and the atheists. Why didn’t he seat himself on the right side of the aisle with all G-d’s representatives? The rabbi’s response: “Precisely, because in Silesia, Jews have no rights.”

Although this story is a play on words, it accurately depicts the relationship between political conservatism and anti-Semitism. The political traditionalists, including the men of G-d, were the ones who legislated anti-Jewish laws. Two conservative institutions, the church and the army, were responsible for the Dreyfus affair in France.

Jews, for moral reasons derived from the Torah, also were opposed to the uncontrolled and crass capitalism that governed the U.S. economic and political world.

Max Weber, a noted German sociologist, in his book “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” proposes that the early spirit of capitalism was founded on a work ethic that carried with it a moral perspective. Rejecting the idea of work as punishment also reflected the search for a calling with a religious moral perspective. Income was G-d’s reward for asceticism and frugality, based on what G-d wants of us.

Coming to the end of the 19th century, however, capitalism began to shed its former ethical and moral underpinnings. Capitalism no longer sought to reflect humanitarian morals.

The making of money became a game with its own set of sans-humanitarian perspectives. It became a world of specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart, all stripped from ethical and moral meaning.

Weber sees the loss of humanism in robber barons — who see human beings merely from a utilitarian perspective as extensions of machinery. This view was beautifully depicted in Charlie Chaplin’s movie “Modern Times.”

This utilitarian view of the human in American capitalism cannot coexist with a biblical perspective of the human being endowed with a holy spirit. It cannot reflect a desired society that is based on the principle of justice.

Modern America reflects the spirit of Sodom, where justice was absent. Justice in the biblical sense reflects the sanctity of the human being, the right of the human to be given a chance to live.

This biblical view is seen in the laws pertaining to shmita (the seventh year) and the idea of the Jubilee, as well as the laws protecting the dignity of men and governing treatment when one must borrow money. All of these biblical and rabbinic laws and views stand in diametric opposition to the views of capitalism.

I stand in unison with Sanders regarding his apprehension about what crass capitalism has done to the sanctity of the human. I believe in human rights proclaimed in response to the Torah’s principles of justice, defining the right of the weak and poor to have, like all humankind, a chance at life and not to be treated as implements — as spiritless bodies and tools.

I hope that we realized anew, as we sat at the seder table and commemorated the principle of human freedom, the sanctity of the human individual.

I stand, however, in opposition to Sanders for his rejection of Israel.

Unfortunately, the left has become the doctrinaire home of anti-Israel opinions, and this trend is evident in Sanders’ view of the Jewish country. I reject him not only for the absence of ideas for implementing humanism into our moral sense, but also for shirking the collective Jewish responsibility to the continued existence of the historical Jewish land.

In this way I see him as the “rasha” described in the haggadah and as a danger to Israel and the Jews.

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