Bernie Broke the Glass Ceiling for Jews - but He Doesn’t Want to Own It

While Hillary Clinton and her supporters wrap themselves in the flag of gender politics, for Bernie Sanders there just is no Jewish flag.

Lea Rappaport Geller
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Bernie Sanders after winning the New Hampshire primary in Concord, New Hampshire, Feb. 9, 2016.
Bernie Sanders after winning the New Hampshire primary in Concord, New Hampshire, Feb. 9, 2016.Credit: Reuters
Lea Rappaport Geller

Jewish women looking to shatter a glass ceiling in Democratic politics are spoiled for choice this year. If we want to break new ground, we can have either the first Jewish nominee or the first female nominee. If either wins, we’ve made history come November. Turns out though, that while Hillary Clinton and her supporters are happy to wrap themselves in the flag of gender politics, Bernie Sanders and his fans talk very little about his Jewishness; for Senator Sanders, there is no Jewish flag. 

To many Jewish women, the choice is clear: Hillary. Some of this is generational. For Jewish women of a certain age, let’s say over sixty, the choice seems to have made itself. Even if you aren’t a Hillary supporter, it’s hard not to feel a little sad for poor Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright, though their efforts to shame younger women to climb on board Team Hillary backfired in New Hampshire. All that hard work only to have their younger sisters get behind a man who shouts a lot and seems more like your angry uncle at the Seder, fixated on a single topic (in this case, income inequality), rather than get behind someone who could be the first female President. 

To be sure, there are younger Jewish women on Team Hillary, many of them professional campaigners. These women cite Clinton’s statement that “women’s rights are human rights” at the UN Conference on Women in Beijing, as well as her call for paid family leave, affordable childcare and equal pay, and her commitment to reproductive rights. 

To all of these women, Hillary will be a better president than a campaigner, and they understand why – getting to the top of any heap is an ugly process; and it’s even uglier if you’re a woman. These women understand the fight, they understand the compromises, and they cannot for the life of them understand why more younger women aren’t getting on board.    

Conversely, if women are supporting Hillary, warts and all, because they desperately want to see a female president, Jewish women on Team Bernie are not there because he’s Jewish. 

First of all, shocking as it may be, there are people in this country who do not even know that Bernie Sanders is a Jew.  Even though Sanders seems so much more Jewish than Joe Lieberman, an observant Jew and the last Jew to run in the Democratic primary, Lieberman spoke in a clipped, Connecticut twang and his clothes actually fit. Were it not for his name, he could have hidden out for a lot longer. Bernie, on the other hand, could change his name to Christensen and he’d still seem like the guy who sold your grandparents pickles on the Lower East Side. 

But until he appeared alongside Larry David on SNL last week, many of us had never even heard him mention his religion. In a skit on the show, Sanders and David struck up a conversation on a boat from Europe. Bernie introduced himself as “Bernie Sanderswitzky, but we gotta change it when we get to America so it doesn’t sound quite so Jewish.” 

David replied, “Yeah, that’ll trick ‘em.” 

Turns out, it did trick them. If you ask Jewish women to list the top reasons they support Bernie Sanders, chances are, his Jewishness would have to stand in line behind free college tuition, universal healthcare, his stand on campaign finance, his opposition to the war in Iraq and the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream flavor named for him. 

To our parents, not only would Sanders’ Jewishness have been apparent, and either reason to vote for him or not (better not to draw attention to ourselves), but the very word ‘socialist’ would have been code for ‘Jewish.’ Not any more. Young Jewish voters don’t think ‘red scare’ when they think socialist, rather, they think Sweden.   

Some Jewish women even see Bernie as better for women, mostly because they don’t believe he’s part of a large political machine like Hillary. Although Clinton and Sanders agree on most issues and voted together ninety-three percent of the time while in the Senate together, some women believe that Bernie won’t compromise, whereas they view Hillary’s desire to get the job done as a potential path to more compromise than they can stomach. Because they don’t see Bernie as part of the establishment, they deem him less patriarchal, even if to some he seems patronizing. (Yes, Senator Sanders, you can be both a progressive and a moderate at the same time. You can actually also walk and chew gum.)

If some women are lining up behind Hillary because she is a woman, is there anyone who’d vote for Sanders solely because he’s Jewish? Probably not. Any Jews, including Jewish women, who would vote for someone because he’s Jewish would more likely be voting in the Republican primary. These Jews would rather vote for a born-again Christian who promises to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem rather than vote for someone who’s done actual time on a kibbutz. 

Now that the Democrats have made Hillary Clinton the first woman to win the Iowa Caucus and Bernie Sanders the first Jew to win a major party primary (New Hampshire), the question is which of the two will claim the ultimate brass ring – the nomination, and then the presidency. While we have a choice between two ceilings to shatter, it’s a mistake to view this as a choice between a woman and a Jew. Rather, Jewish women have a choice between a woman and a Democratic socialist, who just happens to be Jewish. 

Lea Geller is a writer who lives in New York City her family. She blogs at www.thisisthecornerwepeein.com and tweets at @lrgeller

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