While Senator Bernie Sanders’s chances of winning the Democratic presidential nomination look increasingly slim, his candidacy has sparked a newfound enthusiasm for socialism in America—to which Jews have not been immune. Meir Soloveichik contrasts this wave of socialist sentiment with the experience of Natan Sharansky, who survived the horrors of seeing Karl Marx’s ideas put into practice:
At the age of five, Natan (then Anatoly) Sharansky experienced his first miracle. Joseph Stalin, busily fanning the flames of the “Jewish doctors’ plot” conspiracy and planning a mass deportation of Soviet Jews, was suddenly [felled] by a stroke, and died days later. Young Anatoly’s father, a journalist who knew much that Soviet state propaganda would never reveal, secretly informed his son of the significance of what had occurred. . . . The stroke occurred on the holiday of Purim in the year 1953, and just as in the book of Esther, the anti-Semitic intentions of a modern-day Haman were suddenly undone.
[A]t the same time, . . . a very different Jewish reaction took place elsewhere. In Israel, kibbutzim associated with the militantly secular and ardently socialist Hashomer Hatsa’ir movement mourned Stalin openly and sincerely. “Joseph Vissarianovich Stalin is no more,” wailed the headline of the daily socialist Hebrew paper Hamishmar. The contrast could not be more striking: a future refusenik, destined to be the most prominent prisoner of Zion, lives in an evil empire and in his heart celebrates the death of a moral monster. Meanwhile, days after Purim, Jews in the first free state of Israel in two millennia mourned one of history’s greatest tyrants.
[I]t is difficult not to see Sanders and Sharansky as embodiments of two philosophical and political paths paved in the 20th century. Both men are prominent activists on the world stage; both seem to speak in the name of justice and human dignity. Yet they are mirror images of each other. Sanders spent time in Israel during its infancy, in a socialist kibbutz. He speaks fondly and proudly of that experience and utilizes it to criticize the Israel of the present day, and for its purported bigotry. One senses that he, like others of his ilk, resents the fact that the Jewish state is not the secular workers’ wonderland that some hoped it would be.
Sharansky walked a different path. Originally a Zionist activist without a devout connection to Hebrew scripture, he describes in his 1988 memoir Fear No Evil how his time in the Gulag inspired him to bond with the biblical God, and how this faith inspired him in his resistance to the very tyrannical society that Sanders spoke so kindly about. . . . In this, Sharansky’s own evolution parallels what Israel itself became over time—not only less socialist and more Western, but also more religious, more biblically connected. More, one might say, Jewish.