Sanders’ Jewish roots so far have been quiet issue in campaign

Bernie Sanders participates in the PBS NewsHour Democratic presidential candidate debate on Feb. 11. Win McNamee/Getty Images via JTA
Bernie Sanders participates in the PBS NewsHour Democratic presidential candidate debate on Feb. 11.
Win McNamee/Getty Images via JTA

Should Maryland voters have a say in the April 26 Democratic primary, American University political scientist David Lublin thinks that despite the state’s large Jewish population, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Jewish heritage will not have much of an impact.

Lubin thinks former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will still emerge victorious, because Maryland has a closed primary, meaning only registered party members may vote in a primary.

“Sanders has been cleaning up with the independents in Iowa and New Hampshire,” he said of Sanders’ early success.

Despite that strong showing, Sanders is far behind Clinton in national polling in Nevada, which will hold caucuses on Feb. 20, and in South Carolina, which will hold a primary on Feb. 27.

Lublin, who studies minority representation in U.S. politics, said Sanders’ frequent reference to himself as the “son of a Polish immigrant” strikes him as odd.

“I’m of Polish-Jewish origin and I’ve never heard of someone refer to themselves as Polish when they’re Jewish,” he said.

He said Sanders should let his ethnic roots show, an approach that has aided Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in his presidential bid.

“Part of the American experience is that we tend to celebrate our origins and our success in America,” he said. “Marco Rubio has a very compelling story. He talks about how he was raised by humble [Cuban] immigrants and worked his way up. And that’s great. It doesn’t make him less American, it makes him more American.”

The secular Sanders stands in stark contrast to the last Jewish American to participate in a presidential campaign — former Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who was Al Gore’s running mate in 2000. Lieberman keeps kosher and observes the Sabbath.

Dan Gerstein, a New York-based political consultant who was a spokesman for the Gore/Lieberman campaign, said at that time there was a “euphoria” over a Jew being on the ticket. But the reaction broke down into three schools of thought.

Younger Jews were entirely behind Lieberman. Middle-aged Jews were excited that a Jew had risen to such a high leadership role, but were still uncomfortable with Lieberman’s observance. Older Jews who had lived through the Holocaust were worried about lingering anti-Semitism, Gerstein said.

“It was more his declarations of religiosity and his faith in God and religious values, and because so many Jews have become accustomed to Jewish politicians being very secular and defenders of the church-state lines, there was no getting around it,” Gerstein said. “That made some Jews in the Democratic Party uncomfortable.”

That election was one of the closest in history, with just over 500 votes in Florida separating Gore and Republican George W. Bush. Gerstein believes Lieberman’s presence on the ticket allowed Gore to be competitive in Florida by appealing to faith-based communities.

“Because Sen. Lieberman was devout in his faith, he had very strong ties to the evangelical community, and I don’t think many secular Jews appreciated this. But for many Christians, the ties of religiosity trump the difference in faith or the divide between Jews and Christians,” he said.

Gerstein said Sanders’ appeal has mainly come from a disgust with the Washington establishment and the feeling that Clinton has been a part of the culture there for so long.

“For people who feel Washington has been captured by special interests, he’s willing to tell a truth that resonates with them,” he said.

Gerstein said that Sanders has been effective at reaching the left wing of the party and has been able to appeal to progressives who were against the Iraq War, which Clinton voted for. But he thinks Sanders will have a more difficult time with Jews whose primary concern is Israel’s security.

“The Jewish community obviously is not monolithic, and many Jews vote based on policy toward Israel, and I think there’s going to be a bloc of Jewish voters who might be more into voting for Hillary based on foreign policy,” he said.

“My attitude about Bernie Sanders is I’m glad he’s there,” he added. “He’s kind of like the ACLU. I want him there to hold people accountable, but I would not want him in charge of foreign policy.”

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