March 2016 - Bernie Sanders

Dear Friends,

            That a Jewish candidate won a presidential primary would have been remarkable, if not incredible, to my father, he of America’s “Greatest Generation.”  That Sanders being Jewish seemed to have been of no consequence to the electorate, would have been incomprehensible to him.  How can we account for this phenomenon just three decades after my father’s death. I cite two factors: (1) the nature of Bernie Sanders’ Jewish identity, and (2) the integration of Jews into the American political scene.

            Regarding Senator Sanders’ Jewish identity:  He opens his mouth and Bernie sounds Jewish (of the Brooklyn variety).  It’s not only the accent, it’s what he says and the way that he says it.  Both kvetchy and chutzpadik, Bernie tells it the way that he sees it – unapologetically challenging the status quo.  It is in the tradition of the rebels who defied Moses 3200 years ago.  Although they ended up being swallowed by the earth, their rebellion is preserved and even applauded by the rabbis.  Their descendants can be found in our sanctuary on Friday nights.  Still Bernie’s iconoclasm is stylistically Jewish, not substantially so.  To be sure, the electorate doesn’t care any more about Bernie being Jewish than Bernie does.  Unlike vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman whose life was determined by his Judaism and its observance, Bernie belongs to the growing majority of Jews who are unaffiliated and culturally defined. 

            But more: The Sanders’ candidacy must be seen within the context of the ubiquity of Jews in public office in our country.  Jews are represented in far greater numbers in our government than our population percentage would indicate.  Look to the Supreme Court, as an extreme case.  Non-Jews with liberal values have even been adopted as Jews.  Bill Clinton has been called “the first Jewish president,” for example.  (He has also been called “the first black president,” too!)  It’s not only that fewer people vote along ethnic lines these days, it’s also that policy seems to matter much more than identity.

            How far our landsman Bernie will go in the race to the presidency is yet to be determined.  In the interim, I rejoice that we live in a country where a candidate’s personal identity is incidental to the political positions he represents.  And that is remarkable indeed.