Bernie Sanders and the Idea of the ‘Self-Hating Jew’

When I think of Jewish individuals who have significant issues with their own cultural heritage, I invariably gravitate toward fictional rather than real characters, such as Alexander Portnoy in Philip Roth’s acerbic, often-hilarious novel Portnoy’s Complaint. I think of this protagonist’s love-hate relationship with his mother, a blueprint for what is so often the source of many Oedipal Hebraic stereotypes. I think of Alex’s horribly aggressive, pathetically sexualized pursuit of an Israeli woman as a method of addressing his own relationship with Judaism. And I think of his anger, the loathing he has of his own upbringing, and the cracked mirror it holds up to American Jewish members of his generation.

I don’t think of Bernie Sanders.

There’s been a lot of concern about Sanders and how much of a “friend” he could conceivably be toward Israel as a viable U.S. presidential candidate. Aspersions have been cast on his belief systems and his “Jewishness,” with suggestions being made that he “isn’t really Jewish enough” or is somehow ashamed of his identity. Frankly, I wonder if people who voice these opinions are really seeking an image akin to the one Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer imagines himself as at the table of his girlfriend’s anti-Semitic family in the film Annie Hall: a bearded, hatted Hasid, complete with peyot and traits that immediately peg him as a member of the tribe. The fact is, Sanders, a secular Jew, doesn’t wear his religion on his sleeve, and that bothers many folks who share his faith. It resembles a kind of desertion of his creed, even an antagonism toward it, especially when one considers the presumed reluctance with which he refers to it. It doesn’t seem, to many observers, that he likes being Jewish.

This kind of reasoning is problematic for me. The link to Sanders’ Jewish heritage is hardly hidden; some of his relatives were murdered during the Holocaust, and he himself worked on an Israeli kibbutz for a time. And why should he be regarded any differently from the host of other secular Jews—myself included—who don’t showcase physical or psychological qualities that outwardly identify them as being Jewish? I was brought up in the Reform tradition: I attended synagogue on the High Holy Days but rarely at other times; I did not observe Shabbat at home, and although I attended Hebrew school as a child, I can barely read the language and certainly can’t understand it, save for a few words. Am I still Jewish, though? I care about Israel and what goes on there. I take offense at anti-Semitism. Do I need to express how Jewish I am in every thought and action to be considered, unequivocally, a Jew?

The Jewish diaspora has endeavored greatly to assimilate into the societies it has extended to, and that has led to questions about safety from prejudice and discrimination—which it has suffered throughout its history—versus the dilution of identity and cultural character. Is it preferable to reveal oneself as a Jew without fear on the street, yarmulke on the head and tradition in the heart, or is that too risky … “too Jewish,” as the folks who worried about such a thing used to say? Is it better to merge completely into the lifestyles and customs of the nations we’ve become citizens of, to put our Hebrew on the back burner, in the interests of security?

These aren’t easy questions to answer, and Jews have wrestled with such issues for a long time. Does Sanders? I’m not sure. One thing I do perceive is a concerted strategic effort to avoid making too much of his heritage—perhaps owing to the stigma it may have in certain segments of the country. Anti-Semitism is still rife in the United States, unfortunately, and it rears its ugly head on both the left and the right. Sanders, I don’t think, is anti-Semitic. He’s not a “self-hating Jew.” But he does appear to place his focus deliberately off his faith, and while that may be in keeping with the original sentiments of America’s founding fathers, it may be difficult to digest in this day and age, as constituents are always seeking the personal in the political … what makes our candidates tick, what they like, what they’re interested in.

Maybe Sanders isn’t interested in Judaism, though I’d hesitate to call him one who dislikes or repudiates his own culture. Still, given the needs of many U.S. Jews who seek a champion for causes important to them (including Israel), his tactic may not be a particularly astute one. His perceived indifference toward religion doesn’t sit well with many in this country, and it has alienated numerous individuals of the same faith. That truly makes for a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation: On the one hand, America may not want a presidential candidate who’s “too Jewish”; on the other, it may view one who’s “not Jewish enough” as a traitor. Is there a middle ground here? Unfortunately, no; there’s only political quicksand.

And that, I think, will be the defining characteristic of Sanders’ campaign. I don’t think he’s a bad guy, and he’s certainly no Alexander Portnoy: wading in a morass of self-loathing and vicious navel-gazing, angry at his parents, the fabric into which he was born and raised, the cultural strings he was attached to and can’t extricate himself from, no matter how much effort he makes to do so. Sanders is not someone who’s running away from his Judaism. He’s not someone who dislikes it. Yet he’s viewed in exactly that light because he doesn’t promote it extensively, and such an approach doesn’t do him any favors. Appearances are everything in the United States today, and when you’re running for President, you’ve got to keep them up. Does that mean the peyot and beards of the Hasidim are necessary accoutrements for a Jewish candidate to be considered viable in this day and age? I wouldn’t put it past us, in all honesty, though of course, they might be considered “too Jewish.”

By whom, though, is the real question. And I’ll leave that issue for a presidency in the future.

About the Author
Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and has interviewed innumerable people—including two Auschwitz survivors whose story may be heard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website. His views and opinions are his own.
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