April 17, 2016
Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders “has pounded away for months at the injustice, the wickedness, even the racism of ‘income inequality.’” Photo: Michael Vadon via Wikimedia Commons.
Bernie Sanders, with the regularity of a steam engine, has pounded away for months at the injustice, the wickedness, even the racism of “income inequality.” If ever there was a Johnny one-note on the American political scene, he is it. Yet almost nobody, and least of all his hapless opponent Hillary Clinton, has thought to call into question the ethical validity or inflammatory character of the covetousness this political slogan urges upon the public, with a recklessness that has visited untold calamities upon Europe. (Among politicians, Charlie Rangel of New York did have the temerity to say, “OK, income inequality… But does he [Sanders] have anything else to say?”) Has religious illiteracy now reached the point in America where the Tenth Commandment has been so entirely forgotten that the most blatant repudiations of it go unnoticed? Here it is, for the sake of those who have forgotten (or never knew):
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.” — Exodus 20:17.
This last of the ten commandments, as Biblical commentators have often observed, differs from previous “negative” ones in that it prohibits not an action (murder, adultery, theft, false witness) but a state of mind—covetousness—that is at the root of most sins against our neighbors. No doubt John Stuart Mill, a far more literate liberal than Bernie Sanders, had it in mind when he complained that “’thou shalt not’ preponderates unduly over ‘thou shalt’” in Biblical morality.
The ethical wisdom of this commandment has all too often been demonstrated by the way in which covetousness expresses itself in the murderous character of “negative” politics, which directs the wrath of the covetous against a particular group. In Sanders’ typical stump speech, it is usually “Wall Street” or “the one percent.” In the rhetoric of the “Occupy Wall Street” and other “Occupy…” mobs that Sanders admires, it gets a bit more specific about attaching a name to “the one percent.” But most specific of all is Noam Chomsky, whom Sanders has praised as “a very vocal and important voice [sic] in the wilderness of intellectual life in America…a person who [sic] I think we’re all very proud of.” Chomsky, who has publicly endorsed his friend Sanders for the Democratic nomination, has strong views about just which group of Americans should be named as the chief target of an aggressive campaign of class warfare against “the rich and privileged” whom Sanders is daily berating. “Antisemitism,” Chomsky has declared, “is no longer a problem, fortunately. It’s raised, but it’s raised because privileged people want to make sure they have total control, not just 98% control. That’s why antisemitism is becoming an issue.” To this does covetousness very often lead. Is it even remotely possible that Sanders doesn’t know?
The rapidly accumulating evidence of Sanders’ intense hostility to Israel will, if he should gain the Democratic nomination, require examination of his contempt for what Emil Fackenheim, in a famous essay of 1967, called the 614th Commandment: “From this beginning confrontation [with the Holocaust] there emerges what I will boldly term a 614th commandment: the authentic Jew of today is forbidden to hand Hitler yet another, posthumous victory.” Since Passover is now approaching, perhaps Sanders will put to himself the following, Fifth Question recommended by Ruth Wisse. It too implies a commandment that Sanders might do well to consider:
“History will ask only one question of our generation: did you secure the state of Israel? Woe to a North American Jewry that does not ensure a rousing reply in the affirmative.”
Edward Alexander is the author of Irving Howe: Socialist, Critic, Jew (Indiana University Press, 1998). His most recent book is Jews Against Themselves (Transaction, 2015).