On Sunday night, Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders participated in a CNN town hall debate. Over an often-contentious two hours, the candidates responded to audience questions on everything from gun violence to American infrastructure. But one of the most revealing exchanges came at the end of the evening, when the contenders were asked about their relationship with God.
In a follow-up to the exchange, host Anderson Cooper asked Sanders to elaborate on his Jewish background, noting that the Vermont senator had drawn raised eyebrows from some Jews at his seeming reticence to discuss it. Sanders tackled the query head on:
No, I’m very proud of being Jewish. And being Jewish is so much of what I am.
Look, my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. I know about what crazy and radical and extremist politics mean. I learned that lesson as a tiny, tiny child when my mother would take me shopping, and we would see people working in stores who had numbers on their arms because they were in Hitler’s concentration camps.
I’m very proud of being Jewish. And that’s an essential part of who I am as a human being.
Vox’s Zack Beauchamp called the response “incredibly moving,” and it was well received online and in the CNN hall. But some on social media were not as enthused. CODEPINK, the extreme leftist organization that has participated in anti-Semitic conferences in Iran, among other exploits, used Sanders’s discussion of his heritage to bizarrely attack prominent Jewish journalist Jeffrey Goldberg:
After the tweet was flagged and widely derided for its transparent Jew-baiting, it was deleted without acknowledgement or apology.
Meanwhile, another ugly line of inquiry was pursued by anti-Israel writer CJ Werleman, who used Sanders’s reflection on his Judaism to attack him over Israel, tweeting this to his over 33,000 followers:
— CJ Werleman (@cjwerleman) March 7, 2016
It is not clear whether Werleman, a serial plagiarist, came up with this conflation of American Jews, Judaism, and Israel on his own, or with the notion that all Jews must be held accountable for the Israeli state, given that both ideas have wide provenance among anti-Semites. (Incidentally, Sanders has been quite critical of Israel throughout his political career.)
These disturbing responses by prominent voices to Sanders’s account of his Judaism call to mind an earlier incident on National Public Radio. In June 2015, host Diane Rehm confronted Sanders in an interview about his “dual citizenship with Israel,” something Sanders did not actually possess, but had long been asserted on anti-Semitic web sites.
After much criticism, Rehm eventually apologized for the incident, acknowledging that her staff had culled the information from lists published by anti-Jewish bigots. But she insisted nonetheless that she was “glad to play a role in putting this rumor to rest.” This odd addendum was sharply criticized by NPR’s ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen. “Far from putting anything to rest,” she wrote, “Rehm has now taken a falsehood from the fringes of the Internet and moved it into the mainstream conversation.”
Jensen’s point is not only a rebuttal to Rehm, but perhaps can also help explain why Sanders has been reluctant to bring his Judaism to the fore of his campaign. After all, every time the subject comes up, it seems not to clarify matters, but to give an opportunity for anti-Jewish bigots to misrepresent and malign.