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.