Did Bernie Sanders take his cues from Ben Shahn

Picture a secular Jewish socialist on fire for justice for the poor, the working class and the immigrant.

Now, cross off Bernie Sanders.

Refocus on Ben Shahn, the 20th-century American painter, muralist, photographer and a leader of the social realism art movement.

Shahn’s life work was infused with the political passions of his time. He expressed them by retelling the Hebrew Bible’s stories of slavery, exile and freedom in images of garment workers, cotton pickers, labor organizers, immigrants and refugees.

“The Meaning of Social Security” by Ben Shahn photo/library of congress

Just don’t label him a “Jewish artist.”

His work is about Jewish ethics, not prayer or ritual, said art historian Diana L. Linden, author of “Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene.”

A Lithuanian immigrant who came to New York in 1906 at age 8, Shahn was shaped by his early religious education and informed by his experiences and observations of “the social and political events and history of Jews in America,” she writes.

He died in 1969 at age 70. But his works — in museums and public buildings from New York to California, and in digitized collections online — speak to a universal audience, particularly in this riven 2016 election season.

Look to Shahn’s series of 23 paintings detailing the controversial trial and execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti. They were two radical Italian immigrants of the 1920s, convicted of murder on scanty (and now missing) evidence. Their death penalty was upheld by the power elite, represented in the best-known painting of the series “The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti” as white Christian exemplars looming over the open coffins of the two dead men, according to Linden.

If Shahn lived today, he’d likely be painting the aftermath of 9/11 and the fear and discrimination faced by Muslim immigrants, Linden suggested. Shahn’s career was committed to political art intended “to stir the masses to revolutionary action,” she said.

While never a Communist or an avowed atheist, Shahn was close to many who were, including his second wife, artist Bernarda Bryson. He also was fiercely devoted to First Amendment rights.

He observed the rise of Hitler from a distance with horror, deploying his art to battle the “fervent resistance to open immigration” that kept desperate Jews from a safe haven in the United States, Linden writes: The doors to freedom were shuttered by Americans’ fear of “unemployment, nativism and anti-Semitism.”

Despite his differences with the Roosevelt administration on immigration, Shahn was an ardent New Deal fan, winning mural commissions and working as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration. Images from those photos live on in many of his posters. And their messages — calling for just wages and civil rights — are as contemporary as today’s headlines.

Stroll into the lobby/lunchroom of a 1930s New Jersey elementary school and look up at Shahn’s “Jersey Homesteads,” one of his most famous New Deal murals. Shahn and Bryson’s son, the sculptor Jonathan Shahn, now 77, went to this school as a child.

The town, originally named Homestead, was created as a New Deal utopia for garment workers escaping suffocating tenements on the Lower East Side. The mural portrays people with solid bodies and heavy hands, and includes Albert Einstein, then living in nearby Princeton and a supporter of the town’s creation, and Raphael Soyer, an immigrant artist friend of Shahn.

The mural is a three-part story of Jewish refugees fleeing European anti-Semitism, laboring in American industry and agriculture, and ultimately building a new life in a New Jerusalem.

Shahn’s 1942 mural “The Meaning of Social Security,” at the Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building in Washington, D.C., resonates with religious values expressed in secular terms.

“In the face of mounting challenges, [Shahn] envisions the untapped promise of a responsive democracy,” said Peter Winant, director of the School of Art at George Mason University in a video spotlighting the work.

How Jewish is that? How contemporary? How might it echo a Sanders campaign speech?

Decade by decade, as Shahn moved through artistic genres and political and social upheavals, he sought to make art that could inspire action and galvanize people.

What unifies his work is the drive to prompt debate and social change, said Frances Pohl, an art history professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California, who has written two books on Shahn.

“It’s not a stretch at all to compare Shahn to Bernie Sanders,” Pohl said. “He would have a field day with [Donald] Trump!”