Okay, I’ll admit I haven’t paid much attention to the looooong silly season of U.S. presidential nominations south of the border, beyond the Donald Trump memes floating across the Internet. I’ve been more engrossed by our own national elections here in Canada, especially the prospect of pro-Israel left-wing leader Tom Mulcair forming our country’s first NDP federal government.
However, I couldn’t ignore the growing momentum of the David vs. Goliath campaign of Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont and lone U.S. socialist (as he’s often billed), and the whole #FeelTheBern viral campaign to wrest the Democratic nomination from Hillary Clinton. What intrigues me most, of course, in the many profiles of Sanders—including articles and bios that pre-date his presidential bid—are the casual mentions that the progressive Jewish politician volunteered on a kibbutz in Israel back in 1964. But the articles never, ever name the kibbutz.
|Only Sanders knows which kibbutz taught him socialism can work|
I was intrigued. So were others. The Hunt for Red Bernie’s Mystery Kibbutz was soon on. And yet so far, no luck. We’ve all struck out. Bernie Sanders and his press folks have declined to answer inquiries about which kibbutz he stayed on, perhaps because Sanders has already suffered from ridiculous accusations that he is a dual Israeli-American citizen.
So let’s piece together the clues so far to which of Israel’s 270 or so kibbutzim Sanders might have worked.
Jas Chana‘s “Straight Outta Brooklyn” for Tablet Magazine is an excellent primer to the life and times of Bernie Sanders. Chana outlines how, after graduating with a poli sci degree from University of Chicago and working for the Head Start program in New York City, Sanders and his brother Larry decided to travel to Israel for a bit of adventure. Here are key details from Chana’s story
Both brothers decided to spend their time in Israel living and working on kibbutzim. Bernie arrived in Israel first and was there for six months total; Larry showed up four months after Bernie’s arrival and didn’t leave until 1967. In that time, Larry met his first wife and lived on two kibbutzim: Matsuva in the north and Yotvata in the south. Unfortunately, no one I spoke to for the purpose of this article had any idea or recollection of the name of Bernie’s kibbutz. However, Professor Richard Sugarman, a religious-studies professor at the University of Vermont, one of Sanders’ closest friends, and the man who encouraged him to run for mayor of Burlington in 1980, told me it was one of the “oldest kibbutzim.”
Chana’s interviews with both Professor Sugarman and Larry Sanders give the profile the most detail in any story I’ve read about how the kibbutz experience might have shaped (or at least confirmed) Bernie Sanders’ beliefs in mutual aid and social justice. During his stay, Sanders was apparently curious about kibbutzniks economic plans, how socialism could work, how communal life gave parents more free time, and even just watching fellow Jews as farmers…. he had grown up in Brooklyn, after all. Sanders felt the kibbutz was “a utopian form of existence” (according to Sugarman) and proved that socialism could be put into practice (according to his brother).
But on which kibbutz—and from which federation—did he learn these lessons?
Naomi Zeveloff traipsed through Israel to find out—and the title of her article for Forward makes clear her lack of success. “The name of Sanders’s kibbutz might seem like a minor detail, but it’s important,” she writes. “Among other things, it could build on our understanding of his formative years.”
Her interview with Sanders’ brother gives a teasing clue, when Larry tells her that he thought Bernie had stayed on “a kibbutz near the Mediterranean where there were a large number of Argentine volunteers in the 1960s.” Through various sources, she zeroes in on three kibbutzim: Zikim and Sa’ad (near Gaza), and Ga’ash in central Israel. She spoke to several kibbutz representatives I’d also met during my travels (Dudu Amitai at Givat Haviva and former MK Avshalom Vilan). Unfortunately, because Sanders arrived in 1964, before the big influx of volunteers that followed the Six Day War of 1967 and the subsequent bureaucracy to track these new arrivals—Zeveloff could find no record of Bernie’s visit. She also had no luck contacting members at the three kibbutzim she identified. A dead end. So she has out a call for clues—both in Israel and through The Forward.
She hits all the right offices: the Kibbutz Movement, the archives of Yad Tabenkin and Yad Ya’ari. Nothing. Emails and messages to Sanders and his media advisers come up empty, too. Even Professor Huck Gutman, a longtime friend and co-author of Sanders’ political memoir, doesn’t know. “The only person I know who knew Bernie then was Larry,” he replies.
“I am pretty sure it wasn’t the Negev. It had a number of South American members. I remember Bernard being impressed by one of the kibbutznik’s explanation of how they would transform Argentina. Without any reason to believe I am right, I would guess near the Mediterranean coast.”
So Maltz rounded up a dozen kibbutzim that fit these clues and emailed their names to Larry. But no bells ring, although Bernie’s UK-based brother also admits: “I don’t the name is stuck anywhere in my brain.” Dead end.
So, let’s examine the sparse clues and see if we can “profile” the potential locations for Berne Sanders’ formative socialist—and Zionist— experiences:
- Not the Negev
- Near the Mediterranean Coast
- members from Argentina
- one of the oldest kibbutzim
Larry stayed on Matsuva near the Lebanese border (and the Mediterranean) and Yotvata just north of the Red Sea, so I’m tempted to rule out any kibbutzes in close proximity to either of these regions, as I think Larry would remember if his brother had stayed on a kibbutz near his own.
Using Larry Sanders’ others clues, we can triangulate a few possibilities, as Zeveloff did, of Argentinean kibbutzes near the coast… although I’m surprised that Mefalsim didn’t make her cut. It was founded in 1949 by Argentinian immigrants, not far from the coast… or from the Gaza Strip. That would make a curious coincidence, as Mefalsim is also just minutes north on Highway 232 from Kibbutz Be’eri, where Michele Bachmann—the other presidential candidate to do time on a kibbutz—volunteered in 1974. Mefalsim is technically in the northern Negev, so perhaps it should be disqualified for that reason—although it’s further north than Sa’ad, which did make Zekeloff’s short list. Still, I’ve got a note to a contact there to see if I can find out more.
The bigger problem?
Larry Sanders’ clues (Argentinean kibbutz near coast and not Negev) don’t square with the single mysterious detail from Professor Sugarman (one of the oldest kibbutzes). The kibbutz movement began in 1909, with Degania. By 1939, there were 73 kibbutzim, most of them concentrated away from the Mediterranean in the Jezreel Valley, the Hula Valley, the Beit Shean Valley or around Lake Kinnereth (aka the Sea of Galilee). More problematic: I don’t know any kibbutzim founded by South Americans before the Second World War; most were started with the immigration from South America after Israel’s independence in 1949.
Here’s the rub: If we assume both Larry Sanders’ clues to be true and Professor Sugarman’s hint, too, we end up (as far as I can tell) with a Venn Diagram with no overlapping middle. So who’s right and who’s wrong?
|Argentinean kibbutzes by the sea / oldest kibbutzim|
Larry Sanders admits his memory is fuzzy, but the detail about Argentinian kibbutzniks seems so precise, he can’t have fudged that. The two kibbutzes Larry lived on were founded by Germans and young native-born Israelis, so he hasn’t transposed his own kibbutz kibbutz experiences for Bernie’s.
And yet Professor Sanders is an acclaimed Yale-trained scholar of Jewish philosophy—i.e., not one to casually toss off half-remembered “facts” about an old friend’s time in Israel.
Dead end. Or at least a puzzling crossroads.
And so the quest to find Bernie Sanders’ kibbutz only grows more mysterious.
Dear fellow questers: Shall we put a wager on it? The first to find where American socialism’s last great hope once learned the ropes of communal life gets an extra week off from dining-room duty…
Ready, set, go!