Bernie Sanders, Antisemites and American Jewish Identity

Bernie Sanders is the only Jew to ever win a presidential primary. As such, he is the Jew who has come the closest to being President. Even if he does not win the democratic nomination, this is still a historical achievement.

Therefore, many have frowned at the fact that the Sanders campaign has failed to properly highlight this historic moment. In fact, Sanders seemed to try everything in order to hide that he is Jewish in order not to hurt his chances to win the nomination.

In a recent debate, Sanders was asked point blank why he never mentioned his Jewish identity. His unfortunate answer makes us wonder whether it would not have been better for Sanders not to answer at all.

Anderson Cooper asked Sanders: “Just this weekend there was an article I read in the Detroit News saying that you keep your Judaism in the background, and that’s disappointing some Jewish leaders. Is that intentional?”

In response, Sanders answered: “No. I am very proud to be Jewish, and being Jewish is so much of what I am.”

If he would have stopped there, Sanders’ answer would have made most Jews content and proud. After all, we have a candidate for the role of leader of the free world proudly claiming his pride in his Jewish heritage!

However, Sanders went on to qualify his statement by explaining why he was proud to be Jewish, and thus giving us a look into the foundation of his Jewish identity.

Sanders said: “Look, my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. I know about what crazy and radical, and extremist politics mean. I learned that lesson as a tiny, tiny child when my mother would take me shopping, and we would see people working in stores who had numbers on their arms because they were in Hitler’s concentration camp.”

This is Sander’s Jewish identity. It is an identity based not on Judaism but on anti-Semitism. It is an identity which ignores the accomplishments of the Jewish people and bases itself on remembering the accomplishments of the Jewish Nation’s worst enemies. The anti-Semites define what Judaism is for Sanders.

Of course, no one should minimize the importance of remembering the Holocaust. It is a defining moment of Jewish history and the Jewish world is much better off remembering it than forgetting it. Moreso, if we want to make sure that the Holocaust will never be repeated, neither towards Jews nor towards any other people, we must remember. We must never forget.

However, as important as remembrance is, it should never overtake our Jewish identity. It must never become the defining factor of our Jewishness.

Why did Sanders not mention with great pride that he is the son of Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish nation who fought against the violent paganism and brought about the morality of monotheism to this world?

Why did Sanders not mention Moses who led the Jews out of Egypt, in the first instance of history where slaves were freed from bondage, an instance which has remained an inspiration for all movements for freedom and liberty up until this very day?

How could Sanders forget King David and his inspiring poetry, as collected in psalms, and speak with pride of the leader of the Jewish nation that was at once a great artist and a great military strategist.

Did Sanders not know about the Hasmoneans or the Bar Kochba revolt, two instances in which the Jewish nation fought bravely against global empires in order to protect their right to the free practice of religion and against religious discrimination?

How could Sanders not have mentioned the Talmud, one of the greatest collections of wisdom ever written, which is still studies on a daily basis by such a large part of the Jewish nation?

Why did Sanders not mention Maimonides or Rabbi Judah Halevy, two medieval Jewish philosophers who remain some of the greatest philosophers in history?

How could Sanders not even mention Spinoza, Marx, Freud or Einstein, who each broke the frontiers of their disciplines, for better or worse, but always pushing further and reaching new heights?

Most importantly, how could Sanders ignore Herzl, Jabotinsky, Ben Gurion and Begin, the founding fathers of the state of Israel, or Yoni Netanyahu, Roee Klein, and all the other modern day heroes risking their lives in the IDF in the fight against terrorism. How could he ignore the great Hebrew poets of the past century, from Hayim Nahman Bialik and Naomi Shemer to Rabbi David Buzaglo, who helped revive the Hebrew language that was once dead? How could he ignore the fact that we live in an age where the Jewish people have returned to their land after two thousand years of exile, coming home from Morocco to Iran and France, Yemen, Poland, Ethiopia and Russia, the only nation to ever accomplish such an unlikely accomplishment.

How can Sanders reduce such an incredible history to the horrible events of the Holocaust? Is that really the most defining feature of Jewish history?

In fact, Sanders is just reflecting a problem with Jewish identity within the American Jewish world. In a widely published PEW research from 2013, when asked what it means to be Jewish, 73% of respondents answered that remembering the holocaust is an essential part of what being Jewish means to them. This was the most widely answered option. For comparison purposes, only 43% claimed caring about Israel was essential and only 19% believed that Jewish Law was an essential part of their Jewish identity. Only one of the eight other options, “leading an ethical life,” ranked almost as highly (69%) as “remembering the Holocaust.”

If American Jewish identity is one of remembering only the worse parts of Jewish history, all the while we are living in one of the most incredible periods of Jewish history, why is anyone surprised that many Jews are leaving the Jewish tradition and assimilating into American society? Is there anyone who wants to be a victim? It is therefore no surprise that this same study shows the intermarriage rate is at 58 percent, up from 43 percent in 1990 and 17 percent in 1970, where among non-Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate is 71 percent.

Charles Krauthammer recently quoted Emil Fackenheim who explained that if there are 613 commandments in traditional Judaism, the 614th is to deny Hitler any posthumous victories. Krauthammer went on to say that “the reduction of Jewish identity to victimhood would be one such victory. It must not be permitted.” We should never allow the anti-Semites to define who we are.

With such an incredible history which the Jewish people can be proud of, it is beyond understanding why the focus would be kept on victimhood rather than intense pride in one’s heritage.

Jewish communities and educators should aim to broaden the knowledge and connection of American Jews to all aspects of Jewish culture, including the horrible holocaust but not limited only to this or similar antisemitic events, so that they can see that they have much to be proud of. If this heritage was presented to them, they would, without a doubt, embrace it much more than the victimhood-based version of Judaism. This is the great challenge of Jewish educators in the United States.

About the Author
Dan Illouz is a member of the Jerusalem City Council with the Hitorerut movement.