I’m not convinced that Bernie Sanders is good for Jews. Not just Israeli Jews, but American Jews as well. He may actually be harmful.
The New Hampshire primary has concluded, and the race is on to see who will win the Democratic nomination. Hillary Clinton barely edged out Bernie Sanders in the Iowa Caucus, and was handily trounced in New Hampshire. There is a fundamental shift in the media’s focus, and invariably, that means Bernie Sanders’ Jewish background is now in the spotlight. This comes as no surprise at all to me. Even less surprising is that the most heated debate on the subject has been among the Jewish community itself. I feel that as a Jewish man with a strong sense of pride in his heritage and in the Torah, I should share my own opinions on how I perceive Bernie Sanders and how he handles his Judaism in the public eye.
In regards to Bernie Sanders and the focus on his Jewish heritage and apparent lack of regard for it, I say this. I think his presentation (or lack thereof) of his Jewish heritage sets a bad example for young Jewish people that are trying to find their way in the world. Bernie Sanders was born to a Jewish mother, therefore, he has a Jewish neshama (soul) just like any other Jew and he can’t change that. The impression that I get from him though, is that he would if he could. Much like Jewish Marxists/Socialists/Communists tried to do in the early 20th century.
The difference between Bernie Sanders and people like Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former senator Joe Lieberman, the Lubavitcher Rebbe Z”L and to a substantially lesser degree, myself is this: We all in some way or another celebrate or have celebrated our Jewish faith and heritage as a core aspect of our lives and morality, while Sanders hides from it. I don’t care if his “Jewishness” is a part of his political beliefs, I care that he is doing damage to Jewish continuity in the Diaspora by treating it like a burden. I’ve been asked, “Who am I to judge” and “What right do I have to decide who is and isn’t Jewish enough”. My answer is that I’m nobody. Apart from being someone who cares deeply and wholeheartedly for the continuation of the Jewish people around the world.
I view Bernie Sanders in the same way that I view Jewish students who choose BDS rallies and Students for Justice in Palestine over Shabbos dinner at their local Chabad or Hillel group. I view them as sadly misguided, and influenced by the same negative forces in history that inspire non-Jews towards anti-semitism. The difference between Bernie Sanders and those confused students is massive though, in that Sanders has huge influence, and a public platform. His visible discomfort when confronted with his own Judaism and with the subject of Israel reinforces those same feelings in tens of thousands of Jews in America.
I do not believe that this is deliberate on his part at all. I genuinely believe that he is a good person, with the best of intentions. I don’t necessarily agree with him politically, but I respect the fact that he stands by his convictions. What bothers me is that in trying to save the world through his progressive values, he is inadvertently hurting the people that he could potentially be helping most. Jewish children need heroes and role models. Sadly, many Jewish children aren’t taught in depth about the great Jewish heroes of history. Sure, we know about the Maccabees, and most of us know about King David, but for more secular Jews, those stories don’t always resonate. These same children don’t know about brave and brilliant Jews like Theodor Herzl, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Hannah Senesh or the Bielski partisans. They don’t know about these heroes, who’s stories could inspire tremendous pride in their heritage. These stories and all the rest combine together to form a real life epic that spans thousands of years. They embody all the aspects of Jewish pride and potential.
Senator Bernie Sanders has a chance to become part of that same epic. He has a chance to join the ranks of heroic and inspirational Jews. He is choosing not to do so. The Jewish heroes of history have one thing in common above all else. They were all proud to be Jewish and wore it on their sleeves. Some did so from birth, others did so later in life but all of them chose to use their accomplishments to elevate Jewish continuity and consciousness. Bernie Sanders could become the first Jewish president in American history. That is an incredible concept. Instead though, he is choosing to present himself as the first Socialist president, who just happens to have been born Jewish. I’m not here to tell you who to vote for, or who is or is not Jewish. All I’m here to do is my part to protect and elevate my people. They aren’t just my people though. They are Bernie’s people too, but he is not currently acting in a way that shows any pride in that fact.
I’m not asking him to suddenly divorce his Catholic wife. I’m not asking him to start wearing tzitzit and putting on tefillin every morning. He can still eat his lobster and pork if that’s what tickles his fancy. What I am asking of him, and of everyone that reads this, to think about whether or not he is putting a good face on Judaism. Is he presenting it in a way that inspires young Jews to reach for the stars without abandoning their culture and identity? Is he acting in a way that will cause him to be a hero to Jewish people fifty years from now? The answer to both of those questions, in my opinion, is no, and I have to say, that answer makes me very sad.