Imagine dusting off an encyclopedia of Jewish history some years in the future. Year 2016 appears dark and littered with colorless and dejected images: fatigued French Jews disembarking El-Al jets, “Anti-Apartheid” college activists trampling Israeli flags, swastikas painted on Chabad walls, stabbed and bloodied Israeli mothers, Bibi and Obama at one another’s throats, alongside a candid shot of John Kerry embracing Iran’s Mohammad Javad Zarif. True to seasoned expectations, 2016 was unfair to the Jews.
Tired from this same old tune, you lift the corner of the page to read what inevitable horrors await in 2017. The page feels light and uneven. A page filled with the usual Jewish discrimination is often much heavier. Scanning 2016 once more, a discovery is made. Small yet colorful, the bottom of the page presents an image of a disheveled yet stimulated Bernie Sanders, fist raised in the air before an assembly of young American enthusiasts. Awkwardly, you repeat the caption aloud “Young Democrats Feel The Bern.”
On February 9, 2016, Bernie Sanders, a Jew pursuant to all iterations of Jewish law, became the first Jew in US history to win a presidential contest upon winning New Hampshire’s primary.
A curious American Jew, myself included, might struggle to reconcile Bernie Sanders’ unprecedented rise with the seeming demise of all things otherwise considered Jewish. How could 2016 both feature a Jew toying with the keys to the White House while fears of renewed anti-Semitism flood the Jewish world?
The answer lies in the grey, not the black and white definition of anti-Semitism Jews came to know following World War II. In 1935, Hitler and the Reichstag codified the Nuremberg Laws which rendered Jewish blood the target. The filth of a Jew was not a choice, it was a poison incubated in the womb.
Today is not akin to Nazi Germany. Student led BDS campaigns should not be mentioned in the same breath as Kristallnacht. Accordingly, one might conclude Bernie’s rise is proof anti-Semitism has been diluted much as the Nazi’s brand of anti-Semitism has been expunged. Proponents of this view argue Bernie’s rise is unsurprising as anti-Semitism, at least on a scale worthy of our attention, is a turned page.
Perhaps. But this analysis seems incomplete. Bernie’s unprecedented ascent taps into an inquiry larger than whether anti-Semitism remains. Rather, it asks what form of anti-Semitism remains? Who are its targets and, likewise, which Jewish profile has escaped its jaws? Bernie Sanders is not a target of 2016 anti-Semitism.
In 2016, anti-Semitism has liberalized its target criteria: a Jew receives anti-Semitism only if he or she so chooses. Jews are not offensive per se, but rather offensive only when acting on their Jewishness.
In 2016, anti-Semitism is reserved for those who announce their Jewish sounding name as in fact a Jewish name. Anti-Semitism is reserved for outspoken defenders of the only Jewish State, either those dressed in olive uniforms or those guarding Birthright tables in their student union. Anti-Semitism is reserved for Israel by way of grossly disproportionate media scrutiny or UN Resolutions. And so to keep measures consistent, anti-Semitism remains reserved for Paris or Brooklyn Kippah wearing Jews or Chabad Menorahs. In 2016, anti-Semitism is not about one’s blood but about one’s decision.
Assimilation, as it has in past, provides the seductive antidote. Sure, Josh or Rachel’s mother is Jewish, but he or she does not welcome Shabbat with a Friday night dinner, visit Israel, or give his or her Jewish heritage much thought apart from when Larry David or Seth Rogen provides a convenient opening. Jews, pursuant to today’s criteria of anti-Semitism, can escape the unjust limitations of discrimination by scrubbing away any and all Jewish features.
Bernie Sanders is a Jew as his mother was a Jew. But his political triumph is no indication that anti-Semitism has been banished to the pages of Jewish history preceding 2016. To the contrary, his political triumph is confirmation that assimilation works.
This begs a philosophical question: should we celebrate assimilation as a tool towards rectifying anti-Semitism? Anti-Semitism has historically harmed the Jewish body, mostly in a physical sense, whereas assimilation has historically erased the Jewish soul. It is for this reason rabbinic scholars have juxtaposed physical persecution suffered by the Israelites in Egypt to cultural assimilation experienced by Jews in Assyria (Isaiah 27:13). The former, while physically painful, hardened the Jewish spirit, whereas the latter quietly deleted a generation of Jews.
Bernie Sanders is the 2016 caricature of an assimilated American Jew. Whether that is a triumph or a defeat for the Jewish Diaspora is for us ponder. Mine is a voice of despondence. A triumph for assimilation is a nail driven into the continuity of the Jewish people. Celebrate Bernie Sanders’ victory on his merit as a democrat if you must, but do not praise his victory as one for the Jewish people against anti-Semitism.