Navigate to News section

Judaism—On Background

Bernie Sanders’s 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.

Michael A. Cohen
February 12, 2016
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders participates in the PBS NewsHour Democratic presidential candidate debate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on February 11, 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders participates in the PBS NewsHour Democratic presidential candidate debate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on February 11, 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.Scott Olson/Getty Images

On Tuesday night, as I watched the results come in from the New Hampshire primary, it dawned me that I was witnessing history.

Jews have won Senate seats and House races, captured governor’s mansions, even been given the No. 2 position on a presidential ticket, but this was the first time that American voters in a single state had decided, overwhelmingly, that the awesome power of the presidency should be placed in the hands of a Jew. Years upon years of playing the role of Joseph—now suddenly one small group of Americans were saying, “you can be Pharaoh too” (or in this case, the president.)

I waited for the major networks to acknowledge this historic moment…and I waited…and I waited. I cajoled CNN anchors with Tweets. I sent Peter Beinart, who got the analysis late shift, a note, asking him to say it on air. He promised to try and do it before shacharit. It never happened.

It started to feel a bit wounding. This should be a moment of pride for American Jews, especially when we’re hearing more and more stories of anti- Semitism showing up on college campuses. It felt important to acknowledge this historic achievement. One friend emailed me and expressed her disappointment was that it wasn’t getting more attention. “I do think in an election where we are making such a big deal over the potential for the first female president of the United States, it seemed more than a trifle ironic that very few people seemed to think the first Jew to win a primary was worth a mention,” she wrote. “We’re not exactly a group that’s had it easy over the past several centuries.”

Then the candidate himself, Bernie Sanders, came on stage to deliver his victory speech. I didn’t expect him to mention it. Sanders has largely eschewed talking about the fact that he’s Jewish. After all, this is a candidate who spent the High Holidays at Liberty University preaching to the goyim. Still, it was jarring when Sanders talked about his parents and used the words “Polish immigrant.” I mean, it’s a bit unusual for a Jew—no less a 74-year old Jew—to refer to himself as the children of Polish immigrants: The historical Jewish experience in Poland is not what one would exactly call “rosy.” Being a Polish Jew is not necessarily a point of pride; it’s just very odd for any Jew to invoke their Polish heritage rather than their Jewish heritage.

Sanders did it again on Thursday night at the Democratic debate in Wisconsin. He referred to the historic accomplishment that his victory would represent because of his “historical background”—a striking effort to avoid even uttering the word Jewish.

In fairness, Sanders not mentioning his Jewish roots is consistent with the way he’s talked about his faith over the years—which is to say, he hasn’t. Sanders is a socialist, so it’s not unusual that he would focus more on class than race or ethnicity or gender identify. It’s part of the reason, certainly, why Sanders was so late to the game in talking about issues affecting the black community.

At the same time, Sanders hasn’t denied that he’s a Jew (and good luck to him if he’s even thinking of trying). He has frequently has said that he takes great pride in being Jewish and he occasionally talks about how his faith influences his political views. Indeed, much of his candidacy feels like an extended experiment in tikkun olam. And at one point he did invoke it. When answering the question of a Muslim-American women in New Hampshire who is worried about anti-Muslim attitudes, he said: “I’m Jewish. My father’s family died in concentration camps. I will do everything that I can to rid this country of the ugly stain of racism, which has existed for far too many years.”

In general, however, Sanders has maintained a distance from the political issues traditionally associated with Jewish-Americans. He doesn’t talk about Israel (even though he briefly lived there in the 1960s on a kibbutz), and he doesn’t make a point of speaking to the American Jewish community. He’s never belonged to a synagogue, which probably makes him more like the average American Jew than Joe Lieberman, who spent far more time in a shul than most Jews I know.

Then of course there’s the generational question that will be familiar to Jews of a certain age. When Sanders was a young man in Brooklyn, the inclination of many was not to deny their religion, but also not to talk about it too much either. Assimilation rather than ostentatious pride was the dominant impulse. Let’s not draw too much attention to ourselves.

Or perhaps, the explanation is more cynical. Sanders clearly can’t hide the fact that he’s the poster child for every 74-year old Jew born in Brooklyn—the accent, the look, the way he talks with his hands. He is who he is. But at the same time he doesn’t necessarily need to accentuate the point. For someone who first ran for office in the early 1980s in a state with few Jewish voters, it perhaps made sense not to dwell on being Jewish. That may still be true today, even at a time of far greater tolerance toward Jewish Americans.

But none of that necessarily explains why Jews themselves aren’t taking more pride in Sanders’s win in New Hampshire, and in his recent upswing in momentum. In my informal survey of Jews on Facebook, I found only a handful or people who thought much about Sanders accomplishment. Surely there are many Jews who support Hillary Clinton or feel so assimilated into American society that Sanders winning a presidential primary doesn’t feel all that remarkable. I have vivid memories from 16 years ago of Jews expressing fear to me that if the Democrats lost the White House with Lieberman on the ticket, the Jews would get blamed. Of course, plenty of others expressed great pride in the achievement.

Today, it’s hard to imagine those same sentiments being expressed. For younger voters who may have very little experience with anti-Semitism, Sanders getting approval from the goyim is not a big deal. For older voters, the pride is more muted, particularly since Sanders doesn’t wear his Judaism on his sleeve.

Or maybe pride in Sanders accomplishment manifests itself in different ways. One friend said to me that while he felt no satisfaction in Joe Lieberman getting the VP nod in 2000 it’s different with Sanders. “I do feel some pride in Sanders’s success,” he told me. “He’s my kind of Jew [and] I have been surprised and delighted that an unapologetically lefty, East Coast Jew has resonated so broadly.”

In the end, it seems that a Jew winning a presidential primary is not something that seems to many Jews to be all that surprising or notable, which means there isn’t much fear of anti-Semitism, but perhaps not much sense of pride either. Present in Sanders’s candidacy, one might say, is both the curse and comfort of assimilation.

Michael A Cohen is a columnist at The Boston Globe.