On February 9, Bernie Sanders became the first Jew to ever win a presidential primary, beating his opponent Hillary Clinton by 22 percent in New Hampshire. He was also the first non-Christian to win a primary in our multicultural nation’s 240 year history.
Bernie himself often eschews the label in a public setting, as he did when he described himself as the son of Polish immigrants, not Jewish ones. He also says he is “not particularly religious,” and certainly hasn’t participated much in organized Judaism since his young adulthood. On Yom Kippur last year, the Jewish day of atonement, he spoke at Liberty University instead of going to synagogue.
Despite not striving to name himself a Jew, Bernie Sanders is undeniably Jewish. In the past, he has of course referred to himself as a “secular Jew,” but there’s more than that. The bulk of his father’s family perished in the Holocaust – a formative experience for Bernie. He is famous for his thick Brooklynite accent, a Jewish affair with no small amount of Yiddish sprinkled in. His politics and ethical views also follow in a proud Jewish tradition of social activism.
The American iteration of this tradition began within the Jewish community in the early twentieth century, when German Jews who had already established themselves in the United States created a strong network of social workers and charity organizations for their poorer Russian brethren, fleeing violent pogroms and arriving virtually penniless at Ellis Island.
However, this penchant for social activism soon spread out into the greater American community. Jewish women featured prominently in worker justice and unionization movements in New York City, helping to organize the first successful female labor strike in American history in 1909. The Forvert, a popular Yiddish daily in the early 1900s, was run by the great Jewish socialist Abraham Cahan.
Following the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman in Georgia, many members of the Jewish community began to work in anti-racism. Jewish publications reported on violence against black people and compared Jim Crow to the European pogroms. Jews were instrumental in the founding of the NAACP and the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Bernie Sanders himself participated in the Civil Rights Movement, joining the 1963 March on Washington and protesting segregated housing in Chicago.
Bernie’s worldview comes from this deep-set Jewish tradition of activism and social justice. His socialism is reflected by dozens of other prominent Jewish socialists, including Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, the aforementioned Abraham Cahan, and even Naomi Klein, who spoke at Amherst in September. His anti-racist convictions mirror those of Julius Rosenwald, Moorefield Storey, Albert Einstein, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
The Torah instructs us not to “stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is threatened.” Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel extrapolates that to, “Do not stand idly by if you witness injustice. You must intervene.” When Bernie sees injustice, whether racial, gender, or class, he intervenes. He is motivated – as are many Jews – by our own history of oppression to help those in similar straits.
When a Muslim student asked him about islamophobia in October, he referenced the Holocaust in his answer. “Let me be very personal here if I may. I’m Jewish. My father’s family died in the 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.” “Never again” is not a lamentation, but a call to action. It is a promise to fight against injustice wherever it may grow.
Of course, as Bernie becomes more popular – and especially if he wins the nomination – he will face increasing anti-Semitism. Most of the Republican candidates for president have already managed to insult or denigrate Jews, though none have yet focused on Bernie. Mike Huckabee, as I discussed last summer, compared the Iran nuclear accords with the Holocaust. Ben Carson asserted that the Holocaust could have been prevented had the European Jews been armed.
When speaking in front of the Republican Jewish Coalition in December, Donald Trump said, “I’m a negotiator like you folks. […]Is there anybody that doesn’t renegotiate deals in this room? This room negotiates them — perhaps more than any other room I’ve ever spoken in.” He later went on to comment that those present wouldn’t like him because “I don’t want your money. You want to control your politicians, that’s fine,” playing into the stereotype that Jews control the government.
During a Republican debate, Ted Cruz criticized Trump for his “New York values,” a critique that many, including Jezebel writer Joanna Rothkopf, took to mean “Jewish, black, gay values.” Rothkopf presented her read-between-the-lines of Cruz’s attack:
“There are many, many wonderful working [white, Christian] men and women in the state of New York. But everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal, pro-abortion, pro-Gay marriage [because black, Jewish, gay people live there], and focus on money [Jew Jew Jew] and the media [Jew Jew Jew].”
Cruz continued to dig his own grave, discussing Trump in New Hampshire three weeks later. “For him to make this attack, to use a New York term, it’s the height of chutzpah,” Cruz said, quoting a Yiddish word. Or, as SNL’s version of Ted Cruz put it, “Believe me, if I could say ‘liberal Jews,’ I would.”
Meanwhile Bernie Sanders joked with Larry David about his Jewishness in an SNL skit. Playing an immigrant on a steam ship, Sanders railed against the one percent, prompting David’s character to ask for an introduction. “I am Bernie Sanderswitzki,” he said to laughs and applause, “But we’re gonna change it when we get to America so it doesn’t sound quite so Jewish.”
“Yeah,” David replied, “That’ll trick ‘em.”
Of course, there’s no way Bernie could hide his Jewishness. It’s apparent in his family, in his voice, and in his politics, a tradition that he draws from regardless of what label he uses. Bernie is the embodiment of Cruz’s bogeyman, the New York Values, and that’s something he could never run away from. Nor, for that matter, would we want him too. That a presidential candidate is motivated by such strong Jewish traditions of social justice is a great thing for Jews and for the rest of America as well.