January 20, 2019

2016 Election Blog #8: The “Jewish” Bernie Sanders: Examining the Rise of a Democratic Socialist

One of the most frequent questions I receive on the lecture circuit involves the “Jewish” credentials of Senator Bernie Sanders. Last October, the Senator did an interview with The Forward focusing on his Jewish upbringing, but that piece would only provide certain basic information on his early life.[1]. Much remains to be both asked and assessed when one examines the Senator’s Jewish story!

How has Sanders Jewish upbringing informed his politics? In what ways does Sanders appeal to the Jewish electorate? And finally, is his candidacy “good for the Jews”?

Enter Bernie Sanders:

Sanders, who was born in 1941, grew up in a working class Jewish family as the youngest of two sons. His father immigrated to the United States from Poland; his mother who was from a Jewish immigrant family was born in New York City. His friends generally describe his introduction to Judaism as more secular than religious; nonetheless Sanders would have a bar mitzvah.

While in college, the young Sanders would serve as an organizer for SNCC (Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee) and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). While at the University of Chicago, Sanders would lead a campus demonstration seeking to end student housing segregation. In 1963, he participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. During his years in Chicago, the future senator would join the Young People’s Socialist League

Graduating the University of Chicago in 1964, Sanders would spend some time on a kibbutz in Israel before settling in Vermont. Holding a cross section of jobs during the 1970’s, he would enter the political world as a member of the Liberty Union Party. During the 1970’s Sanders would run unsuccessfully for mayor of the city of Burlington, Governor of Vermont, and for the United States Senate.

In 1981, Sanders would narrowly win the mayoral race with the support of a grassroots organization, the Progressive Coalition. During the 1980’s he would serve three terms as Mayor of Burlington. Under his leadership the city would be the first in the nation to fund community-trust housing. He would improve the Lake Champlain waterfront, revitalize the city’s downtown, and convert waterfront properties to a mixed-use district that encompassed public parks, housing, and business.

In 1987 U.S. News identified Sanders as one of America’s most successful mayors. In 1989 he would elect not to seek re-election. Over the next several years, Sanders would teach political science at both the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and at Hamilton College. In 1990 Sanders elected to run as an “independent” for Vermont’s one seat in the House of Representatives, wining that election and ultimately serving 16 years as a House member. In 2006 he would successfully run for the Senate, being re-elected in 2012 receiving 71% of the vote.

Personal Life:

In 1965 Sanders would marry Deborah Shilling; the couple would divorce a year later. He is the father of Levi Sanders, who was born to Susan Mott in 1969. In 1988 he would marry Jane O’Meara Driscoll, the former president of Burlington College and a Roman Catholic. Sanders considers his wife’s three children as his own and is more than happy to speak about his children and grandchildren with great pride.

Sanders as a “Jewish” Voice from the Past:

As I travel the country, individuals speak about being reconnected to their own Zionist socialist roots when hearing Bernie Sanders articulate his message. Younger attendees speak of Sanders as reminding them of their “Zayde” (grandfather), as this 74 year old provides an image of their own family stories. Others reference his New York dialect as rekindling their own roots and connections to “the City” (New York).

Sanders’ encompassing domestic agenda is compared by some of his admirers as having a direct link to the social justice message of Judaism. His focus on challenging big business and affirming his support for this nation’s working class has inspired a certain class of Jewish social activists.

Sanders on Israel:

Israel may represent a challenge for the Sanders’ campaign. While he has an impressive voting record of support for Israel, the Senator has not exhibited a particularly public level of engagement on behalf of the State of Israel. Rarely present before the pro-Israel community, Sanders has opted instead to retain his credibility with the progressive left wing of the Democratic Party. His politics in this context can best be described as an “even-handed” approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. One can find a number of his statements where he offers a dual message, applauding and/or opposing actions of both the Israelis and Palestinians.

As he would state:

“I believe in two simple principles. Number one, Israel has a right to exist in peace and security. The Palestinians are entitled to a state of their own with full political and economic power. That's the broad view that I hold and I will do everything that I can to make that happen.”[2]

Sanders and his Jewishness:

Has Bernie Sanders’ Jewishness hurt his campaign? At this point, such a concern does not appear to be problem. Indeed, his feisty image or aggressive speaking style has not been identified as negative “Jewish” traits. Quite the reserve, his emergence as a competitive campaigner is in part credited to his distinctive personal approach.[3] Indeed, his democratic socialist credentials seem to be the central factor in drawing attention to his campaign.

The concern that once gripped America’s Jews over the presence of a Jewish presidential candidate does not seem to be evident in the case of Bernie Sanders. In contrast to the 2000 presidential campaign, where Senator Joseph Lieberman’s bid to be Vice President appeared to draw far more attention to the Senator’s Jewish background and religious practice, the Sanders’ bid has not created such a public conversation.

The most recent poll studying American prejudices in presidential campaigns found that an overwhelming majority would be willing to vote for a Jew (91 percent), the number wasn’t always that high. Back in 1937, only 46 percent of Americans said they’d be willing to vote for a Jewish presidential candidate; 30 years later, that number had only increased to 82 percent. Perhaps more notably, the number of Americans who said they’d be willing to vote for a Jew was surpassed by those who would vote for a Catholic, black, or female candidate.[4]

While overall the Sanders’ Campaign has not encountered any major anti-Semitism, it did need to respond to this scenario:

“Back in June NPR host Diane Rehm confronted Sanders with the charge that he was a dual citizen of the United States and Israel, a conspiracy theory rooted in a baseless online rumor and has its roots in the old anti-Semitic canard that Jewish politicians can’t be loyal to non-Jewish countries.”[5]

By some measures, Sanders may be the least “Jewish” of at least some of the candidates in this race as he has carefully avoided playing “the Jewish card.” While Trump celebrates his daughter’s Jewish involvement, Chelsea Clinton, Hilary’s daughter, is married to Marc Mezvinsky, and numerous other candidates claim to have major Jewish funders in their camp, in comparison, Sanders appears almost removed from the Jewish community. Certainly, this is not to suggest that he has ever denied or walked away from his heritage and that he, as with other 2016 contestants. enjoys the support of a segment of Jewish voters.

Sanders and his Campaign Success:

Sanders has portrayed himself as an “outsider”. He comes to this position not because he hasn’t been a Washington “insider.” Indeed, in some measure due to his length of public service, he could be defined as the proto-type Capitol Hill establishment figure. Yet, his politics (Democratic Socialist) place him as an ideological outsider. Sanders has had particular success with millennials as demonstrated by the significantly large numbers of youthful attendees to his events.[6]

But it is in fundraising were one sees his unique position within this campaign, raising some 73 million dollars in the course of 2015, with some one million donors supporting his efforts. As his campaign director noted:

“This people-powered campaign is revolutionizing American politics. What we are showing is that we can run a strong, national campaign without a super PAC and without depending on millionaires and billionaires for their support. We are making history and we are proud of it.”[7]

Sanders and His Impact:

Sanders has received an array of endorsements from unions, political groups and publications. The Nation’s endorsement may be particularly instructive:

“Galvanized by his demands for economic and social justice, hundreds of thousands of Americans have packed his rallies, and over 1 million small donors have helped his campaign shatter fund-raising records while breaking the stranglehold of corporate money. Sanders’s clarion call for fundamental reform—single-payer healthcare,tuition-free college, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, the breaking up of the big banks, ensuring that the rich pay their fair share of taxes—has inspired working people across the country. His bold response to the climate crisis has attracted legions of young voters, and his foreign policy, which emphasizes diplomacy over regime change, speaks powerfully to war-weary citizens. Most important, Sanders has used his insurgent campaign to tell Americans the truth about the challenges that confront us. He has summoned the people to a “political revolution,” arguing that the changes our country so desperately needs can only happen when we wrest our democracy from the corrupt grip of Wall Street bankers and billionaires.”

Bernie Sanders has been around for a long time, yet only in 2016 has his story and agenda brought him to the center stage of American politics. In this year of political uncertainties, Sanders seems to fit in, offering Americans another perspective on how this society might be governed. His seniority, age 74, has proven to be attractive to a class of voters, just as his commitment to the socialist agenda has rekindled a renewed interest in his ideological perspectives. As the cycle of primaries is set to begin, the real test for a Bernie Sanders’ candidacy is about to unfold!


[1] http://forward.com/news/322284/bernie-sanders-opens-up-about-jewish-upbringing-at-last/
[2] http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/backstory-bernie-sanders-and-palestine
[3] http://forward.com/opinion/331771/dont-worry-bernie-being-jewish-wont-hurt-you-in-iowa/#ixzz3yTHJFXqG
[4] http://www.salon.com/2015/09/22/is_america_ready_for_a_jewish_president_the_anti_semitism_facing_bernie_sanders_partner/
[5] Ibid.
[6] http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/26/politics/bernie-sanders-millennials-iowa-hillary-clinton/index.html
[7] http://www.cnn.com/2016/01/02/politics/bernie-sanders-fundraising-hillary-clinton/index.html

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College –Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. See his writings on his website, “>indR