December 8, 2019

Unpacking Bernie's Jewishness

“THE FIRST TIME Bernie Sanders ran for president, he didn’t talk much about being Jewish. In fact, he didn’t talk much about himself at all. His 2016 primary campaign, like his whole political career, was relentlessly focused on one topic: income inequality, and the moral outrage of a system in which the wealthiest one percent control an ever-increasing share of society’s resources. Compared to many other politicians, who foreground their personal narratives in their campaigns, he seemed to think his biography was beside the point.

This did not pass without notice—or criticism. The New York Times, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, and Commentary all ran articles either implying or outright arguing that Sanders was somehow secretive or embarrassed about his heritage. Sanders himself only directly addressed the issue once, when he was asked about it during a March 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton. CNN’s Anderson Cooper cited an article in the Detroit News accusing Sanders of keeping his Judaism in the background, and asked whether that was intentional. Sanders said it was not, adding, “Look, my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. I know about what crazy and radical and extremist politics mean.” He then declared: “I’m very proud of being Jewish. And that’s an essential part of who I am as a human being.”

Despite his distinctively Jewish accent and mannerisms, and despite the fact that no Jew has ever won more support in a presidential primary in either party, Sanders has never been as publicly associated with Jewish pride as, for instance, Joe Lieberman was when he was selected as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000 (“Chutzpah!” read TIME’s cover). The differences between the two are instructive: Lieberman is an observant Jew, while Sanders does not regularly attend synagogue or participate in organized religious life; Lieberman’s wife is Jewish, while Sanders’s is Catholic; Lieberman is a centrist with strong ties to corporate donors, while Sanders is a democratic socialist who only accepts small donations; and Lieberman is a staunch supporter of Israel, while Sanders has been outspoken in his criticism of the occupation and his support for Palestinian rights. Lieberman, in short, is representative of mainstream Jewish institutions in the country, while Sanders is representative of a different strain of Jewish life—one that is likely familiar to Jewish Currents readers, but marginalized in national politics.”

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