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The strange, anti-Semitic Internet rumor that Bernie Sanders has Israeli citizenship

How did Diane Rehm of "The Diane Rehm Show" get Sanders' citizenship so wrong? The Internet strikes again. ( Matt McClain/ The Washington Post)

Diane Rehm caught Sen. Bernie Sander (I-Vt.) totally off guard when she asked him in a radio interview Wednesday why he's a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen. He's not. She later apologized and said she got her information from "a Facebook comment."

Specifically, one like this:

Her information was, of course, wrong. Very wrong. Here's the exchange:

REHM: Senator, you have dual citizenship with Israel.
SANDERS: No, I do not have dual citizenship with Israel. I don't know where that question came from. I am an American citizen. I have visited Israel on a couple of occasions, but I am an American citizen. Period.
REHM: I understand from a list we have gotten that you are on that list. Forgive me if that ...
SANDERS: That's some of the nonsense that goes on in the Internet, but that is absolutely not true.
REHM: Interesting. Are there members of Congress who do have dual citizenship, or is that part of the fable?
SANDERS: I don't know.

We can answer that for you, Diane.

This "fable" that there are members of Congress with dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship is a cornerstone of anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, extremist theories that are as old as the Internet and then some.

"The list is not something that comes out of thin air," said Jonathan Vick, a cyberthreat expert with the Anti-Defamation League. "It is something that evolves over time."

Vick said the dark and not-so-dark corners of the Internet are filled with  lists purporting secret alliances with Israel between Jewish members of Congress, Jewish White House officials and virtually any Jewish American leader. A Google search for U.S. politicians with Israeli citizenship produces at least 7,000 results. Sanders, a Jewish Vermont independent who is running for president on the Democratic ticket, is one of the many victims of this misinformation.

"If you go and look back, every single administration has been accused in a similar fashion regarding their loyalties to the U.S.," Vick said, "and using Israel as a weapon in that argument."

Vick said there's lots of reasons to frame American leaders as holding dual alliances with Israel: to  object to U.S. foreign aid to Israel,  to delegitimize the country or its people, or to make a point about the pro-Israel lobby's influence on American politicians.

The specific myth that Jewish American politicians also have Israeli citizenship is a distortion of Israel's "right to return," a 1990 law that allows Jews living abroad to immigrate to the country. That's, of course, not the same thing as having Israeli citizenship, but Vick can see where it gets contorted in the bowls of the Internet.

"This line is blurred by these people who have this agenda to taint the Jewish members of Congress or the Obama administration at large," he said.

Vick thinks these fake dual-citizenship lists sprouted and twisted from actual, accurate and meant-to-be informational lists of Jewish members of Congress. One or two of those lists he can pinpoint were published as far back as 2009 and later watched morph into the list that Rehm eventually picked up this week.

Clearly, Vick has been tracking this phenomenon for awhile.

So, when the rest of the people who heard Rehm ask Sanders about his Israeli citizenship was scratching their heads about where she got her information, Vick was sighing in resignation. Here we go again.

In her apology, Rehm said she's glad that in making this mistake, she put that rumor to rest. Here's the full statement:

An Apology From Diane

On yesterday’s show, I raised the issue of dual citizenship with Senator and Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders. This is an issue that has come up over the years in American politics. One of our listeners suggested via our Facebook page that I ask Senator Sanders about Internet speculation that he has dual citizenship with Israel.

But instead of asking it as a question I stated it as fact. That was wrong. He does NOT have dual citizenship and Senator Sanders immediately corrected me. I should have explained to him and to you why I felt this was a relevant question and something he might like to address. I apologize to Senator Sanders and to you for having made an erroneous statement. However, I am glad to play a role in putting this rumor to rest.

— Diane

But that's a myth, too, Vick said. People will keep spinning American Jewish leaders' alliances for as long as they have points to prove about Israel. It's human nature.

"We're all looking for validation of whatever we believe, and that includes people in the extremist community as well," he said. "So they latch onto something that they perceive to be a truth even though there's a flaw in the logic and run with it."

Would you include Rehm in that category?

Vick: "We expect more from journalists. You just shake your head and you just say, 'Why? How?'"

Like we said, that's a whole other story.

Justin Moyer contributed to this report.