Bernie Sanders, Jack Benny, and Anti-Semitism

Is there such a thing as a flash-in-the-pan accusation of anti-Semitism? It would seem that in the case of Bernie Sanders, there is, or was.  While being interviewed on Young Turks in early June, Sanders dismissed a piece about him in Politico, penned by Michael Kruse, as “an anti-Semitic article.”

Was it a gut or knee-jerk reaction to criticism, or was it payback to Politico for reporting in March: “A spokeswoman for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign apologized…after questioning whether the ‘American Jewish community has a dual allegiance to the state of Israel’ -- a comment condemned by Jewish leaders across the political spectrum as [for?] having anti-Semitic overtones”? Or was Sanders hoping to win Jewish sympathy and support?

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

I have waited to hear more from Sanders about the alleged anti-Semitism of that article, but no further statements have been forthcoming.

As soon as Sanders cried “Anti-Semitism,” Thomas Lifson noted: “Until it became useful to him to claim…being a victim of anti-Semitism, there is no visible evidence of Bernie Sanders embracing his Jewish heritage, and plenty of evidence of him avoiding it.”  Lifson cited a revealing article by Daniel Greenfield about Sanders’s lack of sympathy toward Jewish concerns and challenges, including Israel’s need for arms when the Jewish State was under clear attack. Indeed, it would seem from Greenfield’s article and other research into Sanders’s stances and statements, that Sanders has always bent over backwards to excuse anti-Semitic rants if the ranters are fellow socialists.

Ironically, the Politico piece was sympathetic to Sanders and painted him more, not less, as a viable candidate in mainstream politics, at least more than his own stances allow him to be. Michael Kruse shows that Sanders and his wife Jane have accumulated a two million dollar plus fortune and that this self-proclaimed socialist is a fiscal conservative who, as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, managed the city’s resources well, investing an unexpected surplus in the paving of roads without having to hike taxes. 

Kruse’s article does more to give Sanders street cred with fiscal conservatives than does Sanders himself. It credits Jane and Bernie Sanders with astute real estate investment, though it does mention the mismanagement charges that surrounded Jane’s controversial tenure at Burlington College, but without belaboring that episode.

Indeed, Kruse’s article was meticulously researched and, as far as I can see, achieved a gold standard in objectivity, fairness and tone. The article even ends by declaring Sanders worthy of emulation, and by citing individuals, including a Republican, who say so.  Kruse’s article confirms that Sanders is being authentic when he says that he knows what it is like to be poor, unlike many other candidates who make the same claim.

Some say that Sanders was most upset with the illustration for the article which superimposed a money tree alongside his photograph. But if that illustration is anti-Semitic, then one must say that Norman Lear and his staff were guilty of anti-Semitism. Back in 1981, two episodes of the series Archie Bunker’s Place were devoted to the bizarre scenario of Archie Bunker, the ultimate bigot, arranging a bat mitzvah celebration for his niece, Stephanie (Danielle Brisebois), whose mother was Jewish. In this episode written by Mark Fink and Stephanie Miller, the bat mitzvah party features a “money tree” on which cash gifts were displayed. (This would, of course, be a violation of the Sabbath if the party was held on a Saturday, as well as of simple propriety.) But the episode actually chose to highlight the beauty of traditional cantillation from the Prophets by the bat mitzvah girl, and to use the vulgar tree concept as a symbol of Stephanie’s grace and maturity, particularly as regards her unscrupulous dad. 

Despite my discomfort with the money tree, I included this episode among the “redemptive” depictions of Jewish observances in my book, Over the Top Judaism, because of its movement from vulgarity to graciousness. If Norman Lear could use a money tree to make a point, why not Politico, especially when the article was so generally positive?

Yes, there are comments in the Politico article about Sanders being “frugal” and Kruse does observe that “Sanders fit in with many of the congenitally parsimonious citizens of his adopted home” -- a reference to New England frugality, which, as a born New Englander, I can testify is a thing!  But the quotation in the article that “frugality” is a “nice way of saying he’s a cheap son of a bitch,” comes not from the writer, but from a (Jewish?) friend of Sanders.

Of course, there is cheap and there is cheap. Frugality need not be a stereotype of Jews, and Jewish religious laws, with their origins in the Bible, do teach that people should not be over-charged or be willing to be over-charged because such over-reaching does not make for a just society.  (See, for example, Deut. 25:13-16 and Leviticus 25:14) Also, frugality has rightly been admired in American society, as in Benjamin Franklin’s advice that “a penny saved is a penny earned.” 

The best tribute to frugality in American society is that it has become the stuff of comedy. Consider the Jack Benny persona. Benny still holds the record for the longest laugh on radio (or TV) for the stick-up scene in which an armed robber demands, “Your money or your life,” and Benny pauses for a while before replying, “I’m thinking it over.”

In one skit, Benny’s butler, Rochester, answered the phone as follows: “This is the residence of Jack Benny, star of stage, screen, and radio, and will entertain at bar mitzvahs remarkably cheap.”

Indeed, the real-life Jack Benny identified with Jews in his life and in his jokes, letting it be known that his favorite drink was “Mogen Dovid on the rocks.” According to his biographers, Irving A. Fein and Milt Josefsberg, Benny was never ashamed or self-conscious about being Jewish. And he tried in every way to reflect well on the Jewish image, for in Talmudic teachings, unworthy behavior is a bad reflection on God and Torah and on one’s parents and teachers. 

In radio days, Benny worried when his writers and producers came up with a national “Why I Hate Jack Benny Contest.” He was afraid that instead of receiving clever material from all over the country, as they had hoped, they would receive anti-Semitic letters identifying his on-stage “cheapness” with the entire Jewish people. Jack Benny was relieved and even overjoyed to discover that only a few anti-Semitic letters were received, and that Jews and non-Jews alike identified his stingy character with loveable but excessively frugal people of all backgrounds. Unlike too many Jewish performers, Benny got pleasure out of not holding up fellow Jews to ridicule.

Not only did Jack Benny care about the Jewish image, but he identified strongly with Jews. Even though he was not observant (he was once described as a “ham and eggs man”), and the only thing that stopped him from broadcasting on Yom Kippur was his sensitivity to being criticized by fellow Jews, he was respectful of employees and fellow performers who were religiously observant. He identified with the State of Israel and with Jewish causes. He often spoke of his admiration for Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah. Though stingy on stage, he practiced zedakah, the obligation to share one’s wealth with the poor and with worthy causes. He donated large sums of money to both Jewish causes, including the State of Israel, and general charities.

Kruse’s article placed Bernie Sanders in a kind of hall of fame of frugality, to which Jack Benny’s comedy paid tribute and also challenged from the vantage point of the Jewish value of zedakah. Indeed, the biblical concept of zedakah, which literally means “justice,” including just sharing, demands justice toward one’s own people as well as toward others. One hopes that Sanders will practice the kind of zedakah that Jack Benny embodied, in both financial and moral support of Jewish, as general, causes and charities. 

If Sanders in fact identified with the Jewish experience in his concern about anti-Semitism, perhaps he will be more inclined to insist on zedakah, justice, for the State of Israel as much as for the right of its critics, some of whom have resorted to unmistakable anti-Semitic tropes for which they still admit no regret even after “apologizing.” 

And speaking about apologies, Sanders owes an apology -- and thanks -- to Michael Kruse and to Politico magazine.

Is there such a thing as a flash-in-the-pan accusation of anti-Semitism? It would seem that in the case of Bernie Sanders, there is, or was.  While being interviewed on Young Turks in early June, Sanders dismissed a piece about him in Politico, penned by Michael Kruse, as “an anti-Semitic article.”

Was it a gut or knee-jerk reaction to criticism, or was it payback to Politico for reporting in March: “A spokeswoman for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign apologized…after questioning whether the ‘American Jewish community has a dual allegiance to the state of Israel’ -- a comment condemned by Jewish leaders across the political spectrum as [for?] having anti-Semitic overtones”? Or was Sanders hoping to win Jewish sympathy and support?

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

I have waited to hear more from Sanders about the alleged anti-Semitism of that article, but no further statements have been forthcoming.

As soon as Sanders cried “Anti-Semitism,” Thomas Lifson noted: “Until it became useful to him to claim…being a victim of anti-Semitism, there is no visible evidence of Bernie Sanders embracing his Jewish heritage, and plenty of evidence of him avoiding it.”  Lifson cited a revealing article by Daniel Greenfield about Sanders’s lack of sympathy toward Jewish concerns and challenges, including Israel’s need for arms when the Jewish State was under clear attack. Indeed, it would seem from Greenfield’s article and other research into Sanders’s stances and statements, that Sanders has always bent over backwards to excuse anti-Semitic rants if the ranters are fellow socialists.

Ironically, the Politico piece was sympathetic to Sanders and painted him more, not less, as a viable candidate in mainstream politics, at least more than his own stances allow him to be. Michael Kruse shows that Sanders and his wife Jane have accumulated a two million dollar plus fortune and that this self-proclaimed socialist is a fiscal conservative who, as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, managed the city’s resources well, investing an unexpected surplus in the paving of roads without having to hike taxes. 

Kruse’s article does more to give Sanders street cred with fiscal conservatives than does Sanders himself. It credits Jane and Bernie Sanders with astute real estate investment, though it does mention the mismanagement charges that surrounded Jane’s controversial tenure at Burlington College, but without belaboring that episode.

Indeed, Kruse’s article was meticulously researched and, as far as I can see, achieved a gold standard in objectivity, fairness and tone. The article even ends by declaring Sanders worthy of emulation, and by citing individuals, including a Republican, who say so.  Kruse’s article confirms that Sanders is being authentic when he says that he knows what it is like to be poor, unlike many other candidates who make the same claim.

Some say that Sanders was most upset with the illustration for the article which superimposed a money tree alongside his photograph. But if that illustration is anti-Semitic, then one must say that Norman Lear and his staff were guilty of anti-Semitism. Back in 1981, two episodes of the series Archie Bunker’s Place were devoted to the bizarre scenario of Archie Bunker, the ultimate bigot, arranging a bat mitzvah celebration for his niece, Stephanie (Danielle Brisebois), whose mother was Jewish. In this episode written by Mark Fink and Stephanie Miller, the bat mitzvah party features a “money tree” on which cash gifts were displayed. (This would, of course, be a violation of the Sabbath if the party was held on a Saturday, as well as of simple propriety.) But the episode actually chose to highlight the beauty of traditional cantillation from the Prophets by the bat mitzvah girl, and to use the vulgar tree concept as a symbol of Stephanie’s grace and maturity, particularly as regards her unscrupulous dad. 

Despite my discomfort with the money tree, I included this episode among the “redemptive” depictions of Jewish observances in my book, Over the Top Judaism, because of its movement from vulgarity to graciousness. If Norman Lear could use a money tree to make a point, why not Politico, especially when the article was so generally positive?

Yes, there are comments in the Politico article about Sanders being “frugal” and Kruse does observe that “Sanders fit in with many of the congenitally parsimonious citizens of his adopted home” -- a reference to New England frugality, which, as a born New Englander, I can testify is a thing!  But the quotation in the article that “frugality” is a “nice way of saying he’s a cheap son of a bitch,” comes not from the writer, but from a (Jewish?) friend of Sanders.

Of course, there is cheap and there is cheap. Frugality need not be a stereotype of Jews, and Jewish religious laws, with their origins in the Bible, do teach that people should not be over-charged or be willing to be over-charged because such over-reaching does not make for a just society.  (See, for example, Deut. 25:13-16 and Leviticus 25:14) Also, frugality has rightly been admired in American society, as in Benjamin Franklin’s advice that “a penny saved is a penny earned.” 

The best tribute to frugality in American society is that it has become the stuff of comedy. Consider the Jack Benny persona. Benny still holds the record for the longest laugh on radio (or TV) for the stick-up scene in which an armed robber demands, “Your money or your life,” and Benny pauses for a while before replying, “I’m thinking it over.”

In one skit, Benny’s butler, Rochester, answered the phone as follows: “This is the residence of Jack Benny, star of stage, screen, and radio, and will entertain at bar mitzvahs remarkably cheap.”

Indeed, the real-life Jack Benny identified with Jews in his life and in his jokes, letting it be known that his favorite drink was “Mogen Dovid on the rocks.” According to his biographers, Irving A. Fein and Milt Josefsberg, Benny was never ashamed or self-conscious about being Jewish. And he tried in every way to reflect well on the Jewish image, for in Talmudic teachings, unworthy behavior is a bad reflection on God and Torah and on one’s parents and teachers. 

In radio days, Benny worried when his writers and producers came up with a national “Why I Hate Jack Benny Contest.” He was afraid that instead of receiving clever material from all over the country, as they had hoped, they would receive anti-Semitic letters identifying his on-stage “cheapness” with the entire Jewish people. Jack Benny was relieved and even overjoyed to discover that only a few anti-Semitic letters were received, and that Jews and non-Jews alike identified his stingy character with loveable but excessively frugal people of all backgrounds. Unlike too many Jewish performers, Benny got pleasure out of not holding up fellow Jews to ridicule.

Not only did Jack Benny care about the Jewish image, but he identified strongly with Jews. Even though he was not observant (he was once described as a “ham and eggs man”), and the only thing that stopped him from broadcasting on Yom Kippur was his sensitivity to being criticized by fellow Jews, he was respectful of employees and fellow performers who were religiously observant. He identified with the State of Israel and with Jewish causes. He often spoke of his admiration for Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah. Though stingy on stage, he practiced zedakah, the obligation to share one’s wealth with the poor and with worthy causes. He donated large sums of money to both Jewish causes, including the State of Israel, and general charities.

Kruse’s article placed Bernie Sanders in a kind of hall of fame of frugality, to which Jack Benny’s comedy paid tribute and also challenged from the vantage point of the Jewish value of zedakah. Indeed, the biblical concept of zedakah, which literally means “justice,” including just sharing, demands justice toward one’s own people as well as toward others. One hopes that Sanders will practice the kind of zedakah that Jack Benny embodied, in both financial and moral support of Jewish, as general, causes and charities. 

If Sanders in fact identified with the Jewish experience in his concern about anti-Semitism, perhaps he will be more inclined to insist on zedakah, justice, for the State of Israel as much as for the right of its critics, some of whom have resorted to unmistakable anti-Semitic tropes for which they still admit no regret even after “apologizing.” 

And speaking about apologies, Sanders owes an apology -- and thanks -- to Michael Kruse and to Politico magazine.