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Bernie Sanders’ Israel
Senator Sanders has a personal history with the “Stalinist kibbutz” movement whose villages were attacked outside of Gaza.
Senator Bernie Sanders has long been the standard-bearer of the American left and one of the most vocal advocates for Palestinian rights. Last month, many of his followers were disappointed that Sanders did not call for a ceasefire in Israel and Palestine, even as other left-wing Democrats did. (At least 10,000 people, and perhaps 20,000, have been killed by the present war.) This week, disappointment gave way to shock on the left as Sanders argued that Israel cannot sign a “permanent ceasefire” with the Palestinian guerrilla group Hamas, even as he called on Israel to “stop the bombing.”
Sanders’ stance is not so surprising to those who know his history. David Klion, an editor at Jewish Currents, reminded leftists of Sanders’ roots in the “liberal Zionist tradition” in a recent Nation article. “I think it is very important for everyone, but particularly for progressives, to acknowledge the enormous achievement of establishing a democratic homeland for the Jewish people after centuries of displacement and persecution,” Sanders had written for Jewish Currents a couple years earlier. “We must also be honest about this: The founding of Israel is understood by another people in the land of Palestine as the cause of their painful displacement.”
Klion mentioned briefly that Sanders had volunteered on a kibbutz, an Israeli commune, in 1963. It’s a shame Klion did not explain that volunteer experience in more detail, because it highlights just how personal the Hamas attacks of October 7 were for Sanders. The kibbutz that Sanders volunteered on was associated with ha-Shomer ha-Tza’ir, the “Young Guard,” a socialist-Zionist movement that also founded many of the Israeli villages on the Gaza border. Some of the Israeli victims were Sanders’ literal comrades.
The story of those border kibbutzim is the story of the Israeli left, which has gone back and forth between revolutionary nationalist militancy and seeking peace. The Young Guard was as far-left as a movement could be and remain within the Zionist camp. In its early years, the organization venerated Soviet ruler Joseph Stalin, a point that was used to attack Sanders during the 2016 election. Noam Chomsky, a prominent anti-Zionist academic, and Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief of The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg had both dabbled with the Young Guard as well.
Sha’ar ha-Amakim, the kibbutz outside of Haifa where Sanders worked, was founded by the Young Guard in the 1930s. Zionists had purchased the land from the landowning Sursock family of Lebanon, then evicted the Palestinian tenants with the help of British police. The Young Guard set up its commune there soon after. (At the time, the movement wanted a binational Jewish-Arab federation.) Sha’ar ha-Amakim was relatively untouched by the 1948 war that gave birth to Israel, and later became a model village for foreign visitors, including the young Sanders.
Hundreds of miles to the south, the 1948 war was a radicalizing experience for the Zionist left. The Young Guard founded several villages bordering the Gaza Strip, either in preparation for the coming war, or on land taken from Palestinians during that war. Nirim, Nir Oz, and Kerem Shalom — all villages attacked by Hamas on October 7 — were originally Young Guard outposts. Kibbutz Be’eri was set up by a related leftist movement. Young Guard pioneer Shlomo Margalit had explained the atmosphere around those villages’ construction in a 2013 interview.
“Before Nir Oz was founded here, there was a gap between Nirim and Nir Yitzhak through which there was a lot of infiltration from Gaza. The fedayeen [Palestinian guerrillas] would come across the border, ambush and kill people in the moshavim [collective farms]. The government therefore wanted to establish a stronghold here,” Margalit said. “There was a moshav before, founded in 1952, but too many members were killed by the fedayeen or left, so it was dissolved.”
Many of these villages were also part of the Fighting Pioneer Youth program, known by its Hebrew acronym NAHAL. The Israeli military sent troops to set up agricultural outposts in remote or dangerous regions, with the goal of turning them into civilian villages. Many of the first NAHAL outposts were along the Gaza border, including Nir Oz and Nahal Oz, a kibbutz around 20 miles south of Nir Oz.
In 1956, some Palestinian farmers snuck across the border and began to harvest Nahal Oz’s fields. When kibbutz guard Roi Rothberg tried to stop them, he was ambushed and killed by Palestinian guerrillas. Moshe Dayan, chief of staff for the Israeli army, happened to be in the area. He spoke at Rothberg’s funeral. His eulogy, often known by the title “Roi’s blood,” is one of the most famous speeches in Israeli history.
“We are a generation that settles the land, and without the steel helmet and the canon's maw, we will not be able to plant a tree and build a home. Let us not be deterred from seeing the loathing that is inflaming and filling the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who live around us. Let us not avert our eyes lest our arms weaken,” Dayan said. “This is the fate of our generation. This is our life's choice — to be prepared and armed, strong and determined, lest the sword be stricken from our fist and our lives cut down.”
Dayan himself embodied the left-wing hawk ethos. He was born on a kibbutz, belonged to a series of socialist parties, and was an absolute maximalist when it came to Israel’s territory. After Israel captured the Sinai from Egypt in 1967, Dayan famously quipped that he preferred the Sinai without peace to peace without the Sinai. When Egypt came close to retaking the Sinai in 1973, he reportedly considered a nuclear strike.
Like other revolutionaries, the socialist-Zionists had come to believe in perpetual struggle until victory. Their state underwent a brutal trial by fire in 1948 and the two decades of siege that followed. Socialists who had waxed poetic about Arab-Jewish cooperation now lived with the fact that they were locked in an ethnic war against their Palestinian neighbors. Then Israel won a sudden, seemingly decisive victory, conquering the rest of the Palestinian territories along with large chunks of Egypt and Syria in the 1967 war.
Many of the first settlers in the West Bank came from the left rather than the right. Yitzhak Tabenkin, who had helped found the kibbutz movement in the early 20th century, joined the Movement for Greater Israel after the 1967 war. He saw in the conquest of the Palestinian territories the potential for “the entire Jewish people, in its complete land, nearly all in communes, as part of a worldview alliance of communist peoples.” Only later did the right-wing ideal of religious suburbs come to dominate the settler movement completely.
While the settler movement grew, Israel learned the limits of force. A series of shocks — the 1973 war, the 1982 war in Lebanon, and the Palestinian uprising known as the First Intifada — inflicted heavy costs on Israeli society. Some men and women of Dayan’s generation decided to beat their swords into ploughshares. Yitzhak Rabin, a kibbutznik-soldier once known as the “Bone Crusher,” became prime minister in 1992. He signed the first peace accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization soon after.
Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by a Kahanist, a member of an Israeli right-wing nationalist movement. Today, the socialists are a largely irrelevant force in Israeli parliament, while the Kahanists hold multiple cabinet positions. On the eve of October 7, the Israeli right seemed to have demonstrated that the state could win security through force. The villagers along the Gaza border had a reputation as aging hippies, who cared about quaint pleasantries like Palestinian rights.
As with any victims of any violent upheaval, the survivors of October 7 reacted in very different ways. Some Israeli leftists have become advocates for harsh retribution. Others responded to incredibly traumatic experiences by doubling down on peace. Vivian Silver, killed by Hamas in Kibbutz Beeri, spent her last moments calling into a radio show to argue for peace. Yocheved Lifshitz, who was taken hostage in Nir Oz and later released, insisted on shaking hands with her captor on the way out.
Sanders lived through all of this: the socialist-Zionists’ transformation from fighters into diplomats, their move to the political margins, and the suffering they are now undergoing. It is no surprise that he would strongly support the creation of Israel, or that he would be more sensitive to Palestinian rights than other American lawmakers. Least surprising of all is that Sanders would not want Israel to make amends with Hamas after it terrorized his comrades.
Sanders’ view on Israel and Palestine is perfectly consistent with the socialist-Zionist tradition he was immersed in. As Klion points out, Sanders no longer represents the leftward edge of the American politics around the issue; people like Palestinian-American congresswoman Rashida Tlaib do. That is a more natural state of things. Palestinians cannot and should not have to expect anyone to be greater advocates for their cause than themselves.
Meanwhile, Israelis will decide among themselves what kind of costs they are willing to accept in war, and what paths they see to peace. Then and now, the socialist-Zionists are play a complicated role in that debate. The movement contains the seeds of a hawkish attitude even at its most dovish, and it contains the seeds of dovish attitude even at its most hawkish.
“Let us not cast the blame on the murderers today. Why should we declare their burning hatred for us? For eight years they have been sitting in the refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we have been transforming the lands and the villages, where they and their fathers dwelt, into our estate,” Dayan said in his famous funeral oration. “It is not among the Arabs in Gaza, but in our own midst that we must seek Roi's blood.”
This article was updated after Vivian Silver’s death was confirmed.
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