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Sun Mar 3, 2019, 07:55 AM Mar 2019

Jacobin: Bernie Returns Home to Brooklyn

When Bernie Sanders tweeted that he was holding his first 2020 rally in Brooklyn, he said it was to “show Trump and the powerful special interests what they’re up against” in the place where he was “born and bred.”

KATIE HALPER 03.02.2019


For Bernie, the meaning of economic hardship, racial persecution, violence, and trauma were deeply personal, but the lessons he took from them reflect not only the quality of his person but the humane values of the progressive Jewish community that “bred” him. As he told the 2017 graduating class of Brooklyn College, from the stress of his own family’s economic struggles, he has “never forgotten that there are millions of people throughout this country who struggle to put food on the table, pay the electric bill, try to save for their kids’ education or for retirement — people who face painful and stress-filled decisions every single day.” And, from his early exposure to the Holocaust horror, “indelibly stamped on me was the understanding that we must never allow demagogues to divide us up by race, by religion, by national origin, by gender or sexual orientation. Black, white, Latino, Asian American, Native American, Christian, Jew, Muslim, and every religion, straight or gay, male or female we must stand together. This country belongs to all of us.”

The struggles Bernie Sanders engages in and values he espouses can be traced back to his experiences in Brooklyn. Sanders only attended Brooklyn College for one year, leaving home for the University of Chicago after his mother died. But he’s been a champion of the free college education he received there and has featured it in his 2016 and 2020 platforms. Since the 1970s, New York and its university system have retreated from their promise to provide free higher education and the path to cultural, educational, and career advancement. Sanders will no doubt remind the city of its better self.

Sanders’s socialist organizing started when he was in Chicago but can be traced back to his experience at Brooklyn College, where his older brother, Larry, headed a progressive student group. He often traveled with Larry to the Lower East Side, engaging in efforts to save poor neighborhoods of color from rampant urban renewal. At Chicago, Sanders’ civil rights engagement was not limited to attending the March on Washington, as some detractors have claimed. He was active in the Young People’s Socialist League and was a campus organizer for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and helmed their University of Chicago chapter. He went undercover to expose housing discrimination and led sit-ins to protest racial discrimination at university-owned properties. At Brooklyn College he engaged this issue again, advancing the universal programs that help all, but especially the most marginalized among us.

Most residents in Brooklyn, like most of New York City, are poor and working class, with large populations of immigrants and people of color. It was the socialist traditions of poor, persecuted Jewish immigrants to New York City that shaped him, guide him still, and that can still politicize these millions.

Today, we take time to honor the Jewish style and strain of progressive thought that permeated New York in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century and that inspired the righteous and loving political vision of Bernie Sanders, his campaign and the revolution rising around it.


Bernie Sanders at David Sillen’s Bar Mitzvah, via David Sillen
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