Hillary Clinton enthusiastically and understandably embraces the expectations of being the first female president. But her only remaining opponent for the Democratic presidential nomination would be a trailblazer, too. Bernie Sanders would be the first Jewish president.
But he doesn’t talk about it much, and when he does, it tends to be from a historical, not spiritual, point of reference.
Asked last summer by the Christian Science Monitor what got him interested in politics at an early age, the 74-year-old Vermont senator replied, “A guy named Adolf Hitler won an election in 1932. He won an election, and 50 million people died as a result of that election in World War II, including 6 million Jews. So what I learned as a little kid is that politics is, in fact, very important.”
A Politico story cites a more specific Sanders comment: “I was very conscious as a kid that my father’s whole family was killed by Hitler.”
In October, during a campaign rally at George Mason University, a hijab-wearing woman stood up and said she was worried about anti-Muslim rhetoric in American politics. Sanders called her over for a hug and said, “I’m Jewish. My father’s family died in concentration camps. I will do everything that I can to rid this country of the ugly stain of racism.”
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When asked directly about his religion, however, Sanders is more oblique. Queried at a CNN town-hall event prior to the New Hampshire primary, his answer seemed half-ecumenical and half-secular.
At that session, CNN anchorman Anderson Cooper followed up on a question from an audience member about how Sanders would reach out to religious voters.
“You’re Jewish, but you’ve said that you’re not actively involved with organized religion,” Cooper said. “What do you say to a voter out there who sees faith as a guiding principle in their lives, and wants it to be a guiding principle for this country?”
“It’s a guiding principle in my life, absolutely, it is,” Sanders responded. “I would not be running for president of the United States if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings.”
He described that spirituality as a feeling “that we are all in this together and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me.”
Sanders may have wished to avoid getting into the complicated discussion of the difference between secular and religious Jews. However, it would be a mistake, as prominent Jewish writer Gal Beckerman claimed, to simply consider Sanders a representative of modern secular Judaism.
In another follow-up question, Sanders was asked specifically what motivated his actions at the University of Chicago to fight against housing segregation. After a short hesitation, Sanders stated, “I am not sure.” This avoidance was troubling. In other settings he has made clear that his Jewish heritage was a guiding motivation and, indeed, it explains the time he spent on a left-wing kibbutz in 1963, an episode he no longer mentions.
Sanders also skirts his father’s heritage. On his website and in his presentation at the annual convention of La Raza, Sanders stated, “My father was a Polish immigrant who arrived in the United States at the age of 17 without a nickel in his pocket, without much of an education, without knowing the English language. … Like immigrants before and after, he worked hard to give his family a better life here in the United States.”
Sanders might be excused for not saying “Jewish” immigrant. However, in the La Raza talk, he discussed the discrimination faced by different groups in the United States. He mentioned Native Americans, blacks, the Irish, and the Italians but not Jews. This seems more than an oversight, especially considering the anti-Semitic hate crimes the FBI records each year, which continue to outnumber hate crimes against Muslims.
More troubling is Sanders’ position on Israel. At the New Hampshire forum, he mentioned that two of his advisers on Middle East are John Zogby and a group called J Street. The embrace of these critics of Israeli policies is reflected in his website’s comments on the 2014 Gaza War. “Bernie is Jewish,” it reads, “but he does not favor Israel over the Palestinians, nor does he otherwise let his religion influence his positions regarding the conflict.” While Sanders “condemned” the terrorist actions of Hamas “as a barrier to peace,” the statement continues, he called Israel’s attacks on Palestinians “reprehensible, particularly in the context of Israel being the occupying power in the conflict.” Thus, he maintained the pro-Palestinian position that Gaza should be considered under Israeli occupation.
On campuses across the country, the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) characterizes Israel as an apartheid regime that must be combated by adoption of boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) policies. Similarly, Black Lives Matters (BLM) condemns the U.S. for being a white supremacist society and calls for reparations. As to the latter demand, Sanders has stated that while in agreement with the BLM thesis, he rejects reparations because they are not the most effective way politically to correct the injustices. Will he parry the BDS demands with similar caginess?
BDS supporters create a hostile environment for Jewish students by making broad generalizations often based on incorrect knowledge of actual Israeli policies or American Jewish efforts. This has been well documented at Oberlin, the University of California system, and wherever SJP has significant support, including my own Brooklyn College.
How will Sanders respond when a Jewish student from one of these campuses asks him what he would do about hostile anti-Jewish sentiment being expressed? Will he respond as he did to the Muslim student with a full-throated condemnation of those who are creating a hostile environment for Jewish students? Given his harsh stance on Israel, will he also give those students a hug? (Previously published on Real Clear Politics, Feb 23)