Thanks to Bernie Sanders’ strong showing in the early Democratic presidential primary races, America is finally having its Jewish moment. While American Jews are relatively well-to-do and integrated into the country’s social, political and economic fabric, the Vermont senator’s win in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary has raised questions of what role his being a Jew will play in a campaign and a possible Sanders presidency.
America — and Jews generally — had no problem understanding what kind of Jew Joseph Lieberman was when he ran on the ticket with Al Gore in 2000, nor when he made his own run for the White House four years later. Lieberman is a religious Jew. He believes in God, keeps kosher and doesn’t work on Shabbat. Viewed through that lens, Sanders is a different kind of Jew — one who doesn’t go to synagogue and doesn’t identify with organized religion.
Yet, Sanders’ lack of practice and identification makes him like most American Jews. And we easily identify him as a particular kind of Jew — the leftist, crusading, civil rights Jew of the 1960s and ’70s. He’s a Jew defined by his political beliefs, actions, associations and his ethnic heritage, but not by his religion.
But will America get it? And are Sanders and his supporters ready for a tidal wave of inquiry, misdirection and character assassination that is likely to develop about his Jewishness? Some worry that the answer is “no.”
But whether they are ready or not, the scrutiny has already begun. Last summer, radio host Diane Rehm asked Sanders about his Israeli citizenship, even though he has no Israeli citizenship. And just last week, after President Barack Obama’s address at the Islamic Society of Baltimore, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Sanders, “You, of course, are Jewish. Do you think that potentially could be a problem working with the Muslim world out there and trying to get help, for example, in this war against ISIS?”
Later, CNN’s Anderson Cooper pointed to Sanders’ Jewishness and secularism: “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?”
This kind of scrutiny will increase the longer Sanders’ run continues and the more successful his effort. Some of it will shed light on Sanders’ fitness to lead and what it means to be a Jew in 2016. But some will be wholly inappropriate and malicious. The question is, are Sanders and his supporters ready for that questioning? They need to be.