“It looks like Bernie Sanders is going to be the first Jew to win a primary,” my friend Adam said to me yesterday. “So if you want to puff out your chest, go ahead!”
I was glued to the television for five hours last night and turned it on again this morning. Not a soul mentioned that he was Jewish. I went to the New York Times as soon as I booted my computer; the Jewish-owned newspaper that speaks to the Jews of New York didn’t say so either. I had to go to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency to get the news. Yep: Bernie was the first Jew to win a primary. Mazel tov.
So: Why doesn’t anyone care that Sanders is Jewish?
The simple answer is that the American elite– who Bernie skewered again last night!– live in a world filled with empowered Jews, so Bernie’s rise is nothing new to them. It’s not just that Joe Lieberman came before him, 16 years ago, but Americans are now very accustomed to seeing Jews in positions of power, from Rahm Emanuel to Elena Kagan to Paul Wolfowitz to Alan Greenspan and his wife Andrea Mitchell. The expert and correspondent desks on the cable networks include lots of Jews. At one point last night on CNN, I believe I heard four Jewish Americans speak one after another about what we were seeing. These same correspondents talk– at length– about evangelical Christians and their effect on the race. They aren’t about to turn their cameras on themselves and ask the same question wrt Bernie.
The plain truth is that Americans accept Jews. I grew up being schooled in Christian animosity to Jews. But according to Pew, twice as many Americans would object to an evangelical Christian as a candidate for president than they would to a Jew (10 percent see Jewish as a problem, 20 percent see evangelical Christian as an issue). Sam Stein of Huffington Post went to New Hampshire in an atavistic spirit of Jewish paranoia last week to say that Jews feel a sense of foreboding in Sanders’s rise, and the smears are going to start any second. I don’t think so. The only one doing Jewish shtik is Saturday Night Live, and Bernie himself, when he appeared as an immigrant in a (lifeless corporate) skit over the weekend saying that he was going to change his name from Sanderwitz to Sanders so people wouldn’t think he was Jewish.
Then too, Bernie is hardly any more Jewish than other people in the race. He’s married to a non-Jew; he is deeply religious, but that religiosity is not Jewish as such. Hillary Clinton’s daughter is married to a Jew, so is Donald Trump’s daughter. Both Huffington Post and JTA assert that Donald Trump has Jewish grandchildren, and Bernie doesn’t. Having Jewish grandchildren is often held up as a criterion of being Jewish by the Jewish press– so that makes Trump more Jewish than Bernie Sanders.
The bottom line here is that Jews in the power structure are by and large assimilated Jews, and so no one in the media elites has a problem with that. Joe Lieberman faced a different climate in 2000. He was far less assimilated than Sanders, and his religiosity caused people to scrutinize him. As I pointed out at the time, if it was a problem that George Bush was visiting Bob Jones University because the Protestant school had a policy against students dating Catholics, it was also a problem that the religious organizations Lieberman was a member of objected to Jews dating non-Jews. Lieberman was called on then to state that he did not object to intermarriage by Jews.
Today it is very common to hear our leaders, including President Obama, state that Muslims must “assimilate” into American society. Whatever you think of that cultural/religious demand, it certainly seems to operate in the power structure. And Bernie is assimilated. So: no one talks about him being Jewish.
The one big asterisk here is, of course, Zionism. The ideology of Jewish nationalism is premised on the idea that Jews can never be safe in western societies and must have a Jewish country and Jewish sovereignty in order to feel secure. Many Jews in the power structure, and Christians too, adhere to this ideology, so much so that it defines their views of foreign policy. Bernie Sanders surely was an adherent of Zionism; he said that the Holocaust and Israel’s creation were central historic events for his parents, and he moved to Israel in his 20s for several months, no doubt out of atavistic adherence to that ideology. Atavistic: something your ancestors believed.
How Zionist Bernie Sanders is today is an open question that we can only hope will get aired. Hillary Clinton is way more attached than Sanders to Israel; the Forward says that reaching out to Jewish-Americans is now part of her comeback plan.
It’s time for the media to have a conversation about Zionism that is at least as robust as its touch-screen fascination with evangelical Christians. The ideology of Jewish nationalism is surely out of date; today the most dangerous place for a Jewish person in the world is Israel. But the ideology is regnant among Jews over 40. One of CNN’s board of commentators last night said a few months ago, “As a Jew I’m attached to the idea that in a post-Holocaust world, there should be one state on earth devoted to Jewish self protection and Jewish self-expression.”
Does this ideology make sense? I say Zionism is an anachronism, and Bernie Sanders knows it. Jews are plenty safe in the U.S. One might even be president, and no one will bat an eye.
Update. Haaretz is on the story. Chemi Shalev writes:
Well, you might ask, by that logic, shouldn’t Jews support Sanders because he’s a Jew? The answer is no, for many reasons: Because Sanders isn’t running as a Jew and it’s hard to tell how much of Jew he feels he is; because American Jews don’t seem like an underprivileged class that needs a symbolic upheaval; because I’m not sure that most Jews even want one of their own to be president; we’ve got enough tsores (troubles) as it is.
And note this unofficial ad on behalf of Sanders, which disparages religious difference-making; a possible dig at Hillary Clinton’s appeals to identity politics.
Thanks to Ofer Neiman, Annie Robbins, and Adam Horowitz.