At the Apollo Theatre in New York, NY Saturday night, Bernie Sanders was confronted at the close of the event by an obvious anti-Semite, and he started off exactly right. Slate's Daniel Politi notes
“As you know, the Zionist Jews—and I don’t mean to offend anybody—they run the Federal Reserve, they run Wall Street, they run every campaign,” John Prince, 32, shouted. Sanders starts to frown, shakes his hand and holds up his hand: “Brother, brother, brother.” Prince continued: “What is your affiliation to your Jewish community? That’s all I’m asking.”
When someone starts by claiming "I don't mean to offend anybody," it's a sure bet he knows that he is offending someone, usually many people. Sanders recognized "That's not what you're asking."
Sanders apparently knows an anti-Semitic question when he sees one and quickly fired back: “That’s not what you’re asking" and, after the crowd settled down, "I am proud to be Jewish." Yair Rosenberg of Tablet Magazine (which evidently markets to American Jews) explains
But then Sanders did something odd. Rather than using the question as a teaching moment to address and rebuke its anti-Semitic underpinnings, Sanders instead immediately pivoted to his stump speech on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Talking about Zionism and Israel,” he said, “I am a strong defender of Israel, but I also believe that we have got to pay attention to the needs of the Palestinian people.” He never challenged the actual contents of the question, let alone labeled it anti-Semitic.
Do pay attention to the Palestinian people, Senator, but not in response to someone obviously anti-Semitic. "The Jews run" everything is a hackneyes stereotype, as old as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and it's a wonder Prince didn't add a reference to Jews controlling the world economy. Sanders understood- notice him wagging his finger- but transitioning into a reflection on the problems of the Middle East avoids the thrust of the question and even conveys a small measure of legitimacy on the character who asked it. Rosenberg, who clearly should be hired as a candidate's speechwriter, realizes Sanders should have responded
What you just heard was outlandish and unacceptable, but I am glad that you did, because it gives me an opportunity to utterly repudiate it. The lie that a secret Jewish conspiracy controls this country or others has been used to justify the persecution and murder of Jewish people for centuries, including my own family in the Holocaust. It is an ancient anti-Semitic canard whose bigotry is not lessened by prefacing it with the word “Zionist.”
I completely reject that question and the prejudice behind it, just as I have stood on stages like this one and rejected the systemic racism in our society and the rising tide of Islamophobia in this election. There are those who traffic in hateful stereotypes and seek to pit us against each other–black and white, gay and straight, Jew and non-Jew–and I will always stand against them, and for all of us.
If Sanders isn't very quick on his feet (and evidently he's not), he might instead have noted that most prominent Jews are secular and do not control anything on the behalf of Jews or Judaism. Were that a little wonky, he could have emphasized the historical alliance of Jews and blacks and its continuing need as part of the base of the Democratic Party to advocate policies of equality for blacks, women, gay people, and everyone still denied full rights as American citizens.
At worst, he should have lapsed into his familiar argument against Wall Stret, dedicated to accumulating as much as it can and largely oblivious to whether its victims are Jewish or Christian, male or female, white or black. But Israel?
The primary in Michigan is over. Dearborn and Hamtramck are in the rear-view window. It's New York city and New York state now, and any mention of the beloved Palestinians without a mention of the hated Hamas is to be avoided, especially when one is offered a free shot at anti-Semitism. When you get a hanging curve over the heart of the plate, take a whack at it. You don't know when you'll see it again.