Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) campaigns in Cleveland.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I think it’s fair to state that in general, Americans (myself included) don’t really care what happens in the UK. But, when a Jew named Ed Miliband was up for prime minister in last year’s general elections, I certainly began caring. My first feeling was of exultation.
The very fact that a Jew was coming so close to such a high position of power seemed to me a triumph of democracy and Liberalism, and, yes, it was pretty cool to imagine a member of the tribe occupying the office of prime minister.
Yet as much as I admired Miliband’s rise, his Jewishness (and I am saying this as a Jew) caused me to feel apprehensive perhaps even more than it had inspired me. I began to think how the world would react to a Jew occupying the highest office of a country in which Jews are a minority. Jews comprise a very small percentage of the population (no more than two percent of any country, except Israel) and have, thus, mostly either been on the sidelines as advisers like Henry Kissinger or Haim Solomon, or have not ventured beyond legislative and judicial positions.
What will happen when they are center stage, attempting to represent an entire country of which they are such a small part? As Miliband’s campaign came down and he was forced to resign, I did not see the need to see this thought process through any further.
Admittedly, this came as a relief to me. But now, at the end of Super Tuesday, though trailing behind Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders is still alive and well, and I find this apprehension returning with a vengeance.
Unlike Miliband, Sanders really appeals to me as a politician. Ironically, and it pains me to admit it, both as a Jew and a supporter of Sanders’ campaign, it is his Jewishness, rather than his politics, that concerns me.
Here’s why. Sanders descriptively represents only around 1.5% of America’s population, but as president will become, whether we like it or not, the de facto representative of the Jewish community as well as of the American people at large. A recent article by The Forward’s J. J. Goldberg shows that, despite Sanders’ open pride about his Judaism, people seem to set it aside or ignore it. I am inclined to agree with Goldberg that this is due to the fact that Sanders’ Judaism deemphasizes the traditional, tangible elements of the religion and is, therefore, hardly felt. Nonetheless, if Sanders wins the nomination, and even more so if he wins the presidency, his Jewish heritage will eventually come to light. And when that happens, an electorate surprised to discover it had chosen someone who is, in fact, not “one of us” may well feel deceived and resentful.
I would like to clarify that I am not proposing this will lead to some sort of cataclysm or disaster for American Jews, nor that this is any good reason to distance ourselves from Sanders; again, I am a supporter of Sanders. I am proposing that we be aware of what it will mean to elect a Jewish president, or a Jewish national leader anywhere else in the world, for that matter. That meaning is not only proudly proclaiming, but also confronting, a heritage that the vast majority of people do not identify with and which has potential to become a point of widespread resentment.
Therefore, it will be the responsibility of the Jewish statesman (that is, if one is elected) to ensure no harm comes to this heritage through his/her office. This is an issue to which we must pay attention even if Sanders’s campaign fails, just as I should have after Miliband’s resignation, since Jewish candidates will appear in future elections as well.
The author is a 19-yearold Jewish Israeli-American from New York City, currently studying for a BA in Israel at IDC Herzliya.