In 2011, New York magazine called Barack Obama “the first Jewish president” for his tough-love support of Israel. It was not only a ridiculous statement at the time, bombast intended to counter the exaggerated attacks coming from right-wing hawks, but it was an offensive statement for many American Jews who understand that backing Israel does not make one Jewish.
That was five years ago. Today, for the first time in American history – just seventy years after U.S. forces liberated Buchenwald – we have the opportunity to intone those words in actuality: “the first Jewish president.” In Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Party has a viable, Jewish candidate inspiring young Americans across every divide imaginable, using the language of morality just as much as that of populism. Given this, it’s worth exploring just what being ‘Jewish’ means for Bernie Sanders, and why his Jewishness is meaningful.
I recognize Sanders, see much of my family and myself in him, as do millions of eligible voters.
Like most American Jews, Sanders is not religiously observant, if to be observant means faithfully practicing Jewish rituals, engaging with organized Jewish institutions, and adhering to Jewish law. He does none of this. And yet, his cultural identity and his ethical compass are deeply Jewish, coming from a long tradition of American Jews who have eschewed theism and organized religion while culturally and politically embracing the core tenets of justice echoed within Jewish texts.
For Sanders, socialism is Jewish. Ending income inequality is Jewish. Supporting black Americans as they struggle against continued oppression is Jewish. Which is not to say such things are inherently so, but rather that for Sanders, such positions are a direct extension of his Jewishness. His career-long drive for social justice is a central part of his political identity in the same way his being Jewish is a central part of his cultural identity, and the two are inextricably intertwined. Belief in God doesn’t matter. Going to synagogue doesn’t matter. Keeping kosher doesn’t matter.
What matters is justice. And that mattering is Jewish.
To some, this may sound strange. But most American Jews likely read the above paragraphs and nodded. Of course.
In The Daily Beast, Jay Michaelson recently wrote a fantastic piece entitled “What Kind of Jew is Bernie Sanders?” Within it, Michaelson rightly traces the history of Sanders’ Jewish progressivism:
Secular, progressive Judaism is, itself, a kind of religion. While dispensing with the God of the alte velt – if the Enlightenment didn’t kill him, the Holocaust certainly did – leftist Jews of the 20th century maintained a prophetic, religious zeal for justice.
Some of this came from within the Jewish tradition, both as a matter of Biblical injunction (“Do not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger as you were slaves in Egypt,” a commandment today’s Jewish Trump-supporters might ponder) and of national character. European Jews were oppressed for thousands of years: burned, exiled, forbidden from owning property, banned by polite society. And even when, in the 18th and 19th centuries, “civilized” Jews from France and Germany were granted the benefits of citizenship, the “backward” Jews from Eastern Europe were still subjected to pogroms.
When the descendants of these Jews came to the United States, the intellectuals among them brought their history of marginalization and their firm belief that progressive change – whether revolutionary or gradual – was absolutely necessary as a matter of simple morality. America was the goldene medina, the Golden Country, where finally everyone could be equal, regardless of birth or race. Yet there was obviously a gap between that ideal and reality, and into that breach rushed a generation of Jewish progressives. Some championed the New Deal, others joined the New Left, some were hunted down as communists and provocateurs. But all participated in a Jewish version of “civil religion”: a basically secular moral order that agitated for progressive social change.
Indeed, this is the cloth from which Sanders is cut, as Michaelson notes. And while I personally do not share Sanders’ disengagement from organized Jewish institutions and practice, I do share his brand of agnosticism which borders on atheism. I share his commitment to social justice as a principal extension – if not the principal extension – of my Jewishness.
It is perhaps Sanders’ simultaneous rejection of organized religion and commitment to policy positions using the language of morality that has so many young Americans excited by his candidacy. Young Americans who in large numbers are rejecting organized religion while embracing humanist principles. Young Americans who hear Sanders say the following and respond, Yes!
“Ninety-nine percent of all new income generated today goes to the top 1 percent. The top one-tenth of 1 percent owns as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. Does anybody think this is the kind of economy we should have. Do we think it’s moral?”
If speaking to American Jews, Sanders could just as easily have said, “Do we think it’s Jewish?” We would have all shook our heads, barely batting an eye at the statement, which feels as natural as saying chutzpah and eating matzoh-ball soup.
Unlike evangelical candidates who cling to policy positions out of religious fanaticism and politicians who pledge a belief in God as a way to demonstrate having a moral compass, Sanders may be the first viable presidential candidate in U.S. history to reject such belief as a guiding principle.
It’s no coincidence that he is also the first viable Jewish candidate. And his brand of secular, progressive Judaism is as central to his candidacy as Ted Cruz’s evangelical bluster is to his.
As an American Jew, I will not be voting for Sanders because he is Jewish. I will be voting for him because of how secular, progressive Judaism has informed his political positions.
Positions a growing number of Americans are beginning to share.
David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, published recently by Oneworld Publications.
Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.