October 20, 2018

Bernie’s Jewish questions

Bernie Sanders is Jewish, but is he Jewish enough?

The question of Sanders’ Jewishness, interestingly, doesn’t come up much in the mainstream media’s coverage of his presidential campaign or in comments from him, his supporters or critics. But it’s a topic in the Jewish media.

Michael Cohen wrote about Sanders’ Jewishness in the online magazine Tablet after Sanders won the New Hampshire primary. The headline was “Judaism — On Background.” The subhead nicely summarized Cohen’s point: “Bernie Sanders’ Jewish heritage should be an outward source of pride, but the would-be president — and the mainstream media — continue to keep his roots mostly hidden from view. This hurts.”

JTA’s Ron Kampeas wrote, “As has been noted, Sanders sometimes seems inclined to take the opportunity to ignore his Jewishness. He has by no means denied being Jewish when queried. But in discussing the historic dimensions of his presidency in two recent debates, he alluded to his Jewish background without explicitly claiming it.” For example, he has said his father was an immigrant from Poland, leaving out the fact that his dad fled an anti-Semitic country.

Rabbi Valerie Lieber also raised the point in a commentary in the Forward: “So far, Sanders has downplayed his Jewish heritage almost to the point of renunciation. In the victory speech he delivered after winning the New Hampshire primary, he said, ‘I am the son of a Polish immigrant.’ He did not identify as ‘the son of a Jewish immigrant’ or, even more simply, as a Jew.”

Then, of course, there was the way Sanders spent Rosh Hashanah, speaking at Liberty University, the largest evangelical Christian college in the world. 

The closest he came to mentioning anything Jewish in his speech is when he said, “I am motivated by a vision, which exists in all of the great religions, in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam and Buddhism and other religions.” He continued, quoting from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “And that vision is so beautifully and clearly stated in Matthew 7:12, and it states, ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them to do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets.’ ”

On the infrequent occasions Sanders is asked about his Jewishness, he says it has been an important influence in his life, but he is not religious. He then moves onto another subject as quickly as he can. 

Joshua Chasan, senior rabbi at Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, Vt., the state Sanders represents, offered a much better insight into the senator’s feeling about Judaism. When asked by reporter Molly Walsh of the Burlington paper Seven Days about the importance of having a Jewish president, Chasan said, “It would be more important to have a president who cared about poor people. [Sanders] happens to be both. I feel very close to Bernie as a Jew because we come from the same place — a secular Jewish background, rooted in an early childhood experience of coming to grips with what happened at the Holocaust. He has spoken at the synagogue on a Saturday morning, and he described how that was a searing experience for him.”

Being a secular Jew describes and explains Sanders. Being one of them myself, I understand him. He defines himself by his public service, his politics and his determination to help the poor — not by his Jewishness. I define myself by my family and my life’s work, journalism, not especially by my religion. The religious may find this difficult to understand, or just plain wrong. But many Jews feel this way. 

The Pew Research Center’s 2013 study of Jewish life, an in-depth survey of the Jewish community, said, “American Jews overwhelmingly say they are proud to be Jewish and have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people. … But the survey also suggests that Jewish identity is changing in America, where one-in-five Jews now describe themselves as having no religion.”

The Pew report also said, “Secularism has a long tradition in Jewish life in America and most U.S. Jews seem to recognize this.” A total of 62 percent, Pew found, “say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture.”

Sanders does not reject Jewish life or his Jewish background. He and his brother, Larry, now a Green Party political leader in England, were raised by their parents in the Jewish, socialist, secular world of Brooklyn. He attended Hebrew school and celebrated his bar mitzvah. As young men, the Sanders brothers lived in Israel, each in a separate kibbutz

In 2013, Sanders and his wife, Jane, a Catholic, with Sanders’ brother and his wife, visited the Polish village of Slopnica, where the Sanderses’ father lived before coming to America. And, of course, Sanders is included in the book “The Jews of Capitol Hill: A Compendium of Jewish Congressional Members.”

In this election cycle, here are the two big questions: Will Sanders get the Jewish vote and campaign contributions if his battle with Hillary Clinton is still raging by the time the primaries hit the states with big Jewish populations, such as New York, California and Florida? And if he beats Clinton for the nomination, will Jews support him in the fall?

The extent of his Jewish support is an open question, largely because of Israel. Sanders has said that he has sought advice on the issue from J Street, the liberal Jewish organization opposed by Jews who favor the Likud Party, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the settlements. He said he has also consulted James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute, which is despised by many pro-Israel Jewish activists. Sanders will face tough questions on these associations as the campaign moves on.

Another question won’t be answered until after the election. If Sanders wins the presidency, will he build a sukkah on the White House lawn? All of us, religious and secular, are hoping he will. 

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).