Bernie Sanders Is a Rorschach Test for Jewish Americans

Sanders embodies the double consciousness that’s begun to plague progressive Jews and reflects the community’s greatest anxiety

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Democratic presidential hopeful Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders Speaks to supporters at an Immigration Town Hall, California on December 20, 2019 at San Ysidro High School.
Democratic presidential hopeful Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders Speaks to supporters at an Immigration Town Hall, California on December 20, 2019 at San Ysidro High School.Credit: AFP

What do Jewish Americans see when they look at Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders? A charming relative – or a cantankerous one? A warrior for justice – or someone who sells out his own people? Someone who’s devoted his life to the dispossessed and downtrodden – or someone who has disavowed his own heritage?

Sanders has split the Jewish community into fans and critics, and the critics are by far the larger group. His lack of popularity in the Jewish community is well-established. As Aiden Pink has chronicled in The Forward, polls and donation data have shown throughout the 2020 campaign that Sanders has less support from his fellow Jews than he does from the general population, where he is currently surging.

But this unpopularity remains mysterious to me, especially its persistence in the face of growing anti-Semitism. It was one thing to prefer Hillary Clinton’s brand of identity politics to Sanders’ economic populism, which were cast as a dichotomy in 2016, that more innocent time. Back then, Jews still viewed our existence here in the United States through a Vaseline lens of comfort and safety. But with anti-Semitic vandalism, attacks, murder and mass murder on the rise, the fact that so few Jews take comfort in a Jewish candidate, one with a non-negligible chance of winning the nomination no less, is enigmatic – doubly so given that he has added a previously spurned dimension of identity politics to his populist message.

The reasons Jews give for their dislike of Sanders, whose campaign managers did not respond to a request for comment, fall into three main categories. Many cite his attachment to figures like activist Linda Sarsour and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who have complicated relationships with the Jewish community. Omar made and then apologized for comments widely viewed as anti-Semitic. She was also the first member of Congress to come out in support of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement, which many Jews view as anti-Semitic (Sanders does not support the boycott). And Sarsour is a well-known antagonist of American Jews, taking pains to pepper her public appearances with disdainful attacks against Zionists, especially progressive Zionists. Nevertheless, the Sanders campaign designated Sarsour a surrogate, and Sanders has campaigned with Omar.

Jewish Americans also cite Sanders’ own seeming discomfort with his Jewish identity as a reason they can’t quite get behind him. Sanders famously shut down attempts to ask about his Jewish heritage during the 2016 campaign, though he’s been more open about it in 2020 – part of his embrace of identity politics and a reversal on immigration. Finally, there are Jews who are put off by his socialism, once so popular in American Jewish life but by and large abandoned in favor of liberalism in the post-war era.

Of course, these are the very things Sanders’ supporters love about him: his newfound commitment to intersectionality and its avatars in minority communities; his complicated relationship with his Jewish identity, which many Jews share; and his radical socialism.

Like any good Rorschach test, Bernie Sanders seems to represent to the Jewish community the best and worst aspects of Jewish American life: an exuberant commitment to justice, coupled with a discomfort with our own power, which can result in self-effacement.

Bernie Sanders c’est nous.

Many have wrongly portrayed the Jewish community’s response to Sanders through the lens of a generational divide: The American Jewish establishment, uncomfortable with the leftward turn of young Jews, spurn the man who seems to embody if not lead it. But this view is wrong for a number of reasons. For starters, the leftward lurch of American Jews isn’t limited to the young; it’s cross-generational.

More importantly, Sanders’ views on Israel are hardly outside the mainstream. As a solidly (“100%” was his term) pro-Israel candidate who criticizes the government of Benjamin Netanyahu but believes “it is true that some criticism of Israel can cross the line into antisemitism (sic),” as he wrote in a recent op-ed in Jewish Currents – Sanders’ views on Israel reflect those of the American Jews.

“My pride and admiration for Israel lives alongside my support for Palestinian freedom and independence,” he wrote. “I reject the notion that there is any contradiction there.” You’d be hard pressed to find a better summary of how the vast majority of Jewish Americans feel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

If there’s something youthful about Sanders’ Jewish identity, it’s the propensity to privilege the “uksheh ani l’atzmi ma ani” (When I am only for myself, what am I?) – portion of our sage Hillel’s famous adage, without much by way of the other part of it: “im ain ani li, mi li” (If I am not for me, who will be for me)?

Like so many people who have only grown up in an America that loves and protects them, Sanders seems to have forgotten the Jewish history he has begun to speak of (at a time when Jews are being gunned down in their synagogues, he used his father’s story of escaping anti-Semitism to introduce a major immigration overhaul). And his plan to address anti-Semitism, laid out in his op-ed, is laughably light on details; aside from directing the Justice Department to prioritize fighting white nationalism, he had no new ideas to combat our new reality, proposing a Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism (we have one) and rejoining the United Nations Human Rights Council (it’s unclear how the UN is supposed to protect U.S. Jews here at home). Worst of all, he completely erased the most recent form of anti-Semitic violence plaguing Jews: a wave of brutal attacks against Orthodox Jews in his own hometown of Brooklyn.

That erasure is no accident. The perpetrators of the Brooklyn attacks, many of them caught on film, are young men from minority communities. And Sanders, now under the influence of intersectional activists, views the fight against anti-Semitism not as an end in and of itself, but rather as a tool in the fight for justice for other oppressed minorities. “The struggle against antisemitism is also the struggle for Palestinian freedom,” writes Sanders, who sees “the fight against antisemitism and for Jewish liberation as connected to the fight for the liberation of oppressed people around the world.”

These are the words of someone anxious about prioritizing his own community’s needs unless he can instrumentalize them in the service of other, more oppressed people. They are the words of a person who views Jews and their concerns here in the United States through the lens of privilege and power, someone fundamentally uncomfortable with that power unless it’s being used to help others.

It’s a discomfort Jewish Americans are feeling keenly right now. Sanders does not represent one Jewish demographic or another, but rather the tension at the heart of mainstream liberal Jewish American life in 2019. Rather than an anti-Zionist fringe, Sanders represents Jewish Zionists – especially liberal or progressive Zionists – who have become uncomfortable with their Zionism (and even their Jewishness) in progressive spaces yet remain unfree to desist from it.

Sanders embodies the double consciousness that’s begun to plague progressive Jews, who can neither defend Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians nor imagine a world without a Jewish state. It’s the discomfort of liberal Zionists that Sanders seems to stand for – which is why he makes Jews uncomfortable. He embodies the community’s greatest anxiety in our current political moment: Are things bad enough for us that we can expect the same justice we demand for everyone else?

As the Baal Shem Tov, the father of the Hasidic movement, famously said, “The world is a mirror. The faults you see in others are your own.” As, I would add, is the glory.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of The Forward.