It was a historic moment when Bernie Sanders became the first Jewish American to win a presidential primary in February 2016. But, in an odd move for a politician, it was an achievement that Sanders himself declined to recognize.
In his victory speech over Democratic rival Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, the Vermont senator made no mention of his ethno-religious roots when describing his background, calling himself “the son of a Polish immigrant who came to this country speaking no English and having no money.”
His avoidance of mentioning his historic first and his description of his father as being simply “Polish,” with no reference of fleeing anti-Semitism as the reason he sought haven in the United States in the 1920s, raised eyebrows in the Jewish community and among pundits — present company included — in the Jewish and Israeli media.
The sense that he was deliberately trying not to use the “J word” was reinforced a few days later when he debated Clinton and referred to “somebody with my background,” instead of simply calling himself what he so clearly looks and sounds like: a Brooklyn Jew.
And so it continued throughout that hard-fought primary. Sanders played a game of cat and mouse with the Jewish and Israeli media as they made every effort to tease out Jewish angles on the socialist politician with the thick accent who reminded them of their own grandfathers and uncles. Yet while he may have sounded like everyone’s uncle around the Shabbat table, he assiduously avoided referring to his Jewishness and only discussed Israel and the Middle East when asked about it directly.
A mild obsession was born when — for no clear reason — Sanders and his campaign opted to keep the name of the kibbutz where he volunteered in the early 1960s a dark secret, spurring journalists to dig through piles of records before it was discovered in the Haaretz archive that he had spent several months on Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’amakim in northern Israel.
At the time, Sanders’ closest Jewish friend, Richard Sugarman, “Bernie-splained” that his friend is not “embarrassed or ashamed” of being Jewish, but that he is a “universalist” and “not into identity politics.”
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“I don’t think this campaign is going to change him,” added Sugarman, who has known Sanders for over 40 years.
He was right, the 2016 campaign didn’t change Sanders. When he reemerged into public view in 2017, Jews balked when, while condemning President Donald Trump’s divisiveness, the senator recited a laundry list of groups “who are undergoing oppression and suffering” in the Trump era — but left Jews off the list and made no reference to anti-Semitism.
The omission in his speech in a Manhattan church was particularly noticeable since it was occurring only weeks after the tragic events of Charlottesville, when anti-Semitic chants like “Jews will not replace us!” were shouted on the streets and Nazi memes abounded on Twitter — so much so that Jewish celebrities started wearing yellow stars to publicly identify as an embattled minority.
And this year, as the latest Democratic presidential primary race began to heat up with Sanders one of the top candidates, he was still keeping his Jewishness under wraps.
As late as July, he had kept his April stop at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue — where he met with the rabbi who watched 11 of his congregants die at the hands of a racist mass shooter — a secret. The New York Times reported that Sanders defied the advice of campaign aides who offered “a graceful way to disclose the visit.
But Mr. Sanders, the only Jewish candidate among the leading Democratic contenders, did not want the visit to be perceived as a publicity grab. His impulse illustrated a deeper challenge confronting his aides and supporters: After nearly four decades of running, and usually winning, iconoclastic campaigns on his own terms, he is deeply reluctant to change his approach. Mr. Sanders has been unwilling to regularly talk about his personal history of growing up poor in a Brooklyn neighborhood full of Holocaust survivors.”
This, the Times article noted, was becoming a problem. At a time when every other candidate in the crowded Democratic field was using part of their personal story to make their case, Sanders’ insistence on sticking to his economic message and refusing to talk about himself was hurting him.
But less than a month later, Bernie Sanders’ Jewish identity finally began to emerge from the closet.
The catalyst in the process was — inevitably — Donald Trump himself.
On August 21, in the midst of the controversy over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to admit Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar into Israel and the West Bank, Trump asked: “Where has the Democratic Party gone? Where have they gone, where they’re defending these two people over the State of Israel? And I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
Responding to Trump, Sanders declared at a campaign event in Sioux City, Iowa: “I am a proud Jewish person, and I have no concerns about voting Democratic. And in fact I intend to vote for a Jewish man to become the next president of the United States.”
He meant, of course, himself.
For longtime Bernie-watchers in the Jewish community, hearing him describe himself as a “proud Jewish person” seemed to mark a new direction.
At first, it was possible that it could be a one-time fluke. But then came Linda Sarsour’s ringing endorsement of Sanders at a campaign rally this weekend. “At a time of a startling rise in white nationalism and anti-Semitism, I would be so proud to win, but also to make history and elect the first Jewish American president this country has ever seen and for his name to be Bernard Sanders,” Sarsour said in the video.
The fact that the controversial Palestinian activist and co-chair of the Women’s March was publicly endorsing Sanders wasn’t surprising — after all, Sarsour, a fellow far-left Brooklynite, had already energetically campaigned for him in 2016.
What was striking now was his campaign’s decision to highlight that particular quote — emphasizing his Jewishness, in both text and video — when Sarsour was named a surrogate for Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign.
And late last week, Sanders gave an up-close and personal interview with Yahoo News reporter Hunter Walker, who set the tone for the senator to talk about his childhood by supplying culinary Brooklyn staples Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda and cheesecake from the legendary Junior’s Restaurant.
Sanders chatted about growing up in Brooklyn, the street sports he played and, in a first, talking at length about his Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrant neighborhood of Midwood. He recounted life in a small, hard-pressed family that had made a point of sending him and his brother to Hebrew school.
Sanders told Walker that while “I am very proud to be Jewish … I would tell you that I was not much of a talmudic scholar. I think mostly we were throwing spitballs.” He also recalled Hebrew school memories that involved speed-reading Hebrew without comprehending what the words meant.
He said — as he has previously — that the aspect of being Jewish that had the greatest impact on him “was the Holocaust and ... what it did to my father’s family and to 6 million people.”
With the rise and awareness of anti-Semitism having grown so significantly since Sanders’ first primary race three years ago, perhaps this change was inevitable.
But it is also a smart political move. In his 2016 contest with Clinton, he suffered to a large extent from his inability to connect with African American and other minority voters — and the perception that he somehow dismissed identity politics, preferring to focus on economic injustice rather than racial injustices. He clashed with the Black Lives Matter movement over his failure to emphasize race and criminal justice.
It remains an uphill battle, with polls showing that the black community overwhelmingly favors former Vice President Joe Biden as the best choice for Democratic nominee. However, Sanders is making headway among younger, progressive black Americans.
Sanders is actively courting minority communities — hence highlighting the Sarsour endorsement, which simultaneously enraged many American Jews who associate her with the anti-Semitism cloud over the Women’s March. (He has little to lose when it comes to the mainstream pro-Israel Jewish community, which has looked at him askance ever since he declined an invitation to address the AIPAC Policy Conference in 2016.) And last month, out of a dozen Democratic hopefuls invited, only Sanders — and Julián Castro — agreed to speak to the thousands who attended the Islamic Society of North America’s convention in the last weekend of August.
With such efforts to appeal to groups who feel strongly about the Trump administration’s behavior on immigration issues, it surely doesn’t hurt for Sanders to remind them that he too grew up in an immigrant household. And for those who feel oppressed by the rise in racism and racist violence in the Trump era, Sanders can similarly remind them that he understands what it means to be a member of a minority that has suffered tremendous loss at the hands of an authoritarian leader.
In order to do so, however, he seems to have learned that he must be open to using the “J word.”