Democratic Socialist American Jewish Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) won New Hampshire’s February 9th Democratic presidential primary with 60% of the vote. Why has that historic victory — by the first-generation American and Brooklyn native — received such a muted response from the 70%+ American Jews who consistently vote for Democrats? The warm embrace and celebration American Jews gave in 2000 to Democratic VP nominee Joe Lieberman is obviously missing. All those labels attached to Sen. Sanders may provide the answer.
Few Americans, let alone Jews, understand the term Democratic Socialism, which makes them uncomfortable and concerned. Fewer still understand why a Brooklyn transplant to Vermont — who’s always run and won office as an Independent — seeks to carry the Democratic Party’s presidential banner. And although Sanders doesn’t distance himself from his Jewish upbringing, observance of traditional Jewish rituals and support for Israel are secondary to his political identity.
It’s a conundrum.
Israeli journalists recently discovered a Hebrew language article covering a 1990s Sanders interview in which he identifies his college days experience living and volunteering on northern Israeli kibbutz Shaar Ha-Amakim (Gateway to the Valleys). Founded before WWII and the Holocaust, this was one of many early Jewish settlements with deep political/social egalitarian values and practices. Early eastern European Zionists were attracted to the opportunity of creating a utopian agrarian-based society in the historic Jewish homeland. Political movements succeeded in attracting young idealists who were both rebelling against stifling paternalistic Jewish society and escaping anti-Semitic communities back home.
Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 was successful due to the leadership, commitment, creativity and resourcefulness of that first generation of kibbutz settlers, who by then had nowhere else to go. They fought for their lives, their ideals and their traditional homeland. And although they identified themselves as Jews, religious observance was seldom in the forefront.
When a college-age Sanders volunteered on the kibbutz in the early 1960s, his own values were imbued with an Israeli imprint. Ironically, some 50 years later, American Jews are having trouble recognizing Sanders’ values-based political philosophy as Jewish.
Contemporary Israel has left that illustrious and romanticized idealism largely behind. American Jewish supporters of Israel identify with an entrepreneurial Israel that is a strategic asset, a bulwark of Democracy on the front lines of conflict with Islamic jihadists.
Thus when Sen. Sanders declares discomfort with Israel’s military response in Gaza to Hamas missiles back in 2014, and promises an “even-handed” approach to U.S. relations with Israel, if elected, many Jewish Democrats squirm.
The fact remains that the Sanders presidential campaign is drawing tremendous support from Millennials, Jews included, who have helped him become a serious contender to Hillary Clinton. The idealism behind his core message of economic and social justice, has strong roots in mid-twentieth century Israeli kibbutzim and has found fertile American ground.
As his star continues to rise, embracing the values of the man and his campaign really shouldn’t be that hard. Particularly when considering the Republican alternatives.