Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) campaigns in Cleveland.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
BOSTON – Bernie Sanders could conceivably become the first Jew to become president of the United States, but his ethnic and religious identity have thus far been a non-issue, both for the candidate himself and for his supporters.
Journalists and pundits, from the New York Times to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency have wondered about this, noting that not only has the Democratic candidate failed to capitalize on his background to garner votes but that he has, in fact, seemed to play it down.
Following his win in the New Hampshire primary earlier this month, Sanders described himself as “the son of a Polish immigrant,” prompting one supporter, a rabbi, to tell the Times
that “nobody in Poland would have considered Bernie a Pole.”
And while Sanders has evoked his Jewishness and the fact that members of his family died in the Holocaust as one of the reasons compelling him to fight racism, for the most part his views are ascribed to his socialist ideology rather than to any religious weltanschauung.
Part of the nonchalance with which American Jews have approached his candidacy stems from the fact that former Connecticut senator and Orthodox Jew Joseph Lieberman “already broke the Jewish glass ceiling” during his vice-presidential run 16 years ago, argued NYU law student Daniel Treiman in an op-ed published this month by the JTA.
“Of course, Lieberman wasn’t just a Jewish candidate; he was a very Jewish candidate. He wore his identity on his sleeve: an Orthodox Jew outspoken in his support for Israel and other Jewish causes,” Treiman wrote, adding that Sanders faces something of a disconnect from the leaders of organized Jewry, both because of his criticism of Israel and because his “staunchly left-wing stances occasionally have taken him outside even the liberal mainstream of American Jewish politics.”
However, despite his religion being mostly a non-issue, the candidate’s views have shown great resonance with younger voters on campus, including Jewish ones.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post
on Monday, Emerson College Hillel director Miriam Berkowitz Blue said that she has not heard people talk about the candidate’s Jewishness.
“People talk about it on Facebook but not on campus. On campus the excitement is about the lack of a conventional politician in him and the feeling that he is anti-establishment, and that speaks to them,” she said. “I don’t think his Jewishness plays a part, which is a little upsetting because it’s exciting, but he doesn’t present himself like Lieberman and it isn’t a strong part of his identity like it is with Lieberman.”
“I think that there is no excitement that he’s Jewish because he doesn’t really mention it at all in his campaign,” agreed Hannah Smith, a student nearby at Clark University involved with Jewish causes.
“He doesn’t mention it as a substantial aspect of his campaign,” she continued, adding that many people she knows believe that the very fact that his religion hasn’t been an issue is, it itself, a matter of great significance.
Many pro-Bernie students “think of it as a big thing because it shows how far the country has come that being Jewish doesn’t make a big difference to his campaign because you don’t have to be a rich WASP [to] succeed in politics,” she explained.
Sanders represents a new paradigm of Jewish identity in the United States, said Clark freshman Gil Haven.
“I identify with fact that he is Jewish but I feel I would vote for him either way,” he said.
“I’m in a similar boat to him – I’m Jewish but I’m not very religious. The new wave of Judaism is not about being particularly religious, it’s about the history and culture of our people, and not about religion binding us together.
Sanders shows young Jews that they don’t need to follow the very religious footsteps of their parents and grandparents to be Jewish.”
And while Haven believes that many of the candidate’s “socialistic values” come from his Jewish background, he said that he would cast his ballot for him no matter who he was.
“I agree with his ideology and plans for country and that’s why I’ll vote for him, because he will push the country in a forward direction and it doesn’t matter if he is Jewish, Catholic or Muslim,” he said.