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The Bernie Sanders Paradox: Why Liberals Aren't Ready for a Jewish President

The Sanders candidacy represents a type of Judaism that not only threatens the right wing, but also challenges the liberal left

Etan Nechin
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Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally at Houston University in Houston, Texas on February 23, 2020.
Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally at Houston University in Houston, Texas on February 23, 2020.Credit: AFP
Etan Nechin

Bernie Sanders was poised to win the Democratic Party primaries and become the first Jewish nominee for president. However, at the 11th hour, the party’s centrist flank coalesced around Joe Biden, and all the other Democratic contenders threw their support behind the former vice president, who was deemed the “safe choice” to defeat Donald Trump in the fall. After Biden’s big wins, Sanders’ path to the nomination has virtually disappeared.

The race has also been seen as a contest between liberals and progressives. In this context, liberals are those who believe in a free market while advocating for the use of taxpayer funds to help ensure a “social safety net.” Progressives, on the other hand, push for use of government power to reshape large institutions and level the playing field in all aspects of public life.

Pundits have already began analyzing what led to Sanders’ defeat. Some say his coalition of voters wasn’t broad enough, others said it was fear of his “socialist” credentials, while many said a Sanders nomination was simply “risky” while Biden was seen as more electable.

But one could ask what role, if any, Sanders’ Jewish identity played in his downfall?

Sanders himself has spoken openly about being Jewish, published an essay on how to fight anti-Semitism, and even aired a campaign ad portraying in inspiring terms the prospect of the first Jewish American president. But for the most part, the possibility — and consequences — of the election of the first Jewish president weren’t a subject for much serious discussion in American mainstream media.

Yet, it has always been an underlying issue.

Sanders has become an avatar for the voters not only for a Jewish American politician, but for the American Jew. And his type of Jewishness doesn’t only threaten the American radical right – this anxiety was on full display when a protester unfurled a Nazi flag during a Sanders rally recently – but also challenges the liberal left.

Sanders’ unique position illuminated a fact that hasn’t been talked about directly but instead became sublimated into the mainstream political discourse: In America of 2020, Jews are seen as white – until they challenge the white establishment.

Today, most Jews are seen as white. Many Jews also see themselves as white. For many liberals who were seeking a “diversity” candidate, Sanders is seen as an “old white guy.” This is due to the fact that American Jews have experienced a level of success in integration in ways that still eludes other minorities, especially people of color. In U.S. society, where color is a major factor in predicting income and treatment by law enforcement, Jewishness – the representation of the Jewish cultural experience in the public sphere, as opposed to Judaism, a religious practice – could be absorbed into the white, mainstream population.

Yet in many instances, Jewishness was and could never be seen as white, whether racially or culturally. Visibly Jewish Americans, especially the ultra-Orthodox communities – whose members often live beneath the poverty line, and who are underrepresented in politics and in the mainstream media – are always perceived as Jews first. Moreover, Mizrahi Jews – those descendants of Jews coming from the Arab and Muslim world – and black Jews, as well as members of many communities from the former Soviet Union, never passed as white, neither in society-at-large nor among other Jews. This makes for roughly 40 percent of the American-Jewish population who are conspicuously different from the white American experience.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, and former Vice President Joe Biden, left, return to the stage after a commercial break in a Democratic presidential primary debate at CNN Studios, March 15, 2020.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., right, and former Vice President Joe Biden, left, return to the stage after a commercial break in a Democratic presidential primary debate at CNN Studios, March 15, 2020.Credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS

But in liberal discourse, so obsessed with instant visual representation, Sanders’ Jewishness is simply reduced to whiteness. That’s why even though Sanders is part of a minority comprising less than 2 percent of the overall American population, a minority that is on the frontlines of the biggest wave of anti-Semitic violence in generations, pundits lamented that Andrew Yang was the only minority candidate left in the race, before South Carolina.

It also made it easy for a media focused on diversity to portray Sanders’ coalition as too white and too male. The statistics, however, painted a different picture: In Nevada as well as in other states, Sanders won the Latino vote handily, attracted African Americans under 30, and swept the Muslim vote. His coalition was also very young: Sanders got the support of voters under 30 while Biden swept voters over 60.

By reducing Sanders’ Jewishness to whiteness, liberals are guilty of two things: First, they put him at a disadvantage vis-à-vis Biden, whose whiteness has never been contested. Any outreach by the latter toward minorities is given increased significance, in comparison with Sanders, who grew up as and was surrounded by minorities. Therefore, Sanders has to make extra effort to prove he isn’t white and that his trailing in the race isn’t because he lacks a diverse coalition, but lack of endorsements from mainstream politicians and free media coverage.

It is also hypocritical of liberal media outlets to downplay Jewishness — a unique discrete American identity — while celebrating other identities in the political sphere. As a young girl says in Sanders’ video, “It hurts so badly when people try to erase his Jewish identity, because it looks a lot like mine.”

Secondly, liberals seem to disguise their anti-Jewish sentiment as a critique of white maleness. For example, Joy Reid, an MSNBC contributor, brought a body language expert into the studio to say Sanders “was lying,” when he denied telling Elizabeth Warren he didn’t think a woman could be elected. “There’s a physicality to the way he talks, shaking your fingers at Hillary Clinton, weird,” Reid said.

Chris Matthews, a veteran MSNBC pundit, compared Sanders’ win in Nevada to Hitler’s conquering Paris and said he was fearful that if Sanders and the “socialists” have won in the 1960s, there would be “executions in Central Park.” He then mimicked the senator’s iconic Jewish New York accent.

The focus on Sanders’ mannerisms and speech, as opposed to racial and gender critique applied to Buttigieg, Warren, and Klobuchar, reveal that even the liberal media still racialize Jewish bodies; Jewishness is still something to be examined.

This unconscious form of anti-Jewishness isn’t new. It has been around ever since Jews sought to integrate into white, non-Jewish society. Like any minority, Jews’ integration into the mainstream has always been conditional. It is conditioned on the premise that they will toe the line, embrace the status quo, become model, law-abiding citizens who represent the national ethos – that they become white. The moment Jews dare speak up forcefully against the social order, their loyalty is questioned. When they call for restructuring or revolution, they become agitators, aggressive, unruly rabble.

This is the other reason why Sanders’ Jewishness challenges liberals: It stems from a unique, secular Jewish tradition, one that replaced the synagogue with the public square, a secular religion that put social justice at its core. It’s a movement of Jews who not only looked to take an active part in civil life but aspired to reshape it.

This type of Judaism swept Eastern Europe in the mid-19th century as a Jewish working class emerged with the rise of industrialization. The original “Bernie Bros” may well have been the Seymists, whose young, secular and socialist Russian Jewishness was seen during the first half of the 20th century: The Soviet Revolution, which many Jews took part in to build an egalitarian society; the Zionist movement, which saw Jews move to pre-state Palestine to live communally and also to build an egalitarian society; in 1930s U.S., when Jewish workers organized to fight for better working conditions and against a wave of fascism that was sweeping the country; in South Africa, where Jews were tried along with Nelson Mandela in the Rivonia Trial; and in America of the 1960s, when Jews played a central role in the civil rights movement, with Jews making up at least 30 percent of the white volunteers who rode freedom buses to the South.

Supporters react as they listen to U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speak at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, U.S., March 8, 2020.
Supporters react as they listen to U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speak at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, U.S., March 8, 2020. Credit: LUCAS JACKSON/ REUTERS

This type of Jewishness faced an anti-Semitic backlash, not unlike today’s. During the Red Scare in the 1930s, members of the U.S. Congress warned of the “Judeo-Bolshevik” revolutionaries trying to infiltrate the government. Thomas Heflin, a Democratic congressman and senator from Alabama called for “build[ing] a wall” against Bolshevism, a synonym for progressive Jews. In 1941, Charles Lindbergh, who coined the phrase “America First,” claimed that Jews were trying to draw America into war. Even in the wake of the Holocaust, anti-Semitism was the shadow that followed Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s emissaries as they were on the prowl for “Reds.” Anti-Semitism was even present in the Oval Office when McCarthy’s devotee Richard Nixon was recorded saying that “The Jews are all over the government.”

Despite the prejudice, Jews continued engaging in political life. In the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who had fled from Nazi Germany to the U.S. in 1937, was the final speaker before Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his “I have a dream” speech.

“As Jews,” Prinz said, “we bring to this great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold experience – one of the spirit and one of our history. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

Ironically, after the Civil Rights Act passed, in 1964, guaranteeing legal equality to all American citizens, many Jews, like many other white liberals, became silent. They saw themselves fully integrated into white society. They escaped the inner cities with the “white flight,” made their synagogues more akin to country clubs, embracing globalization and the free market – all while maintaining their liberal identity: focusing on diversity, equality, and civil liberties to assure personal freedoms, like marriage and workplace equality while maintaining the current economic and political structures.

That’s why liberals love Biden. He’s a moderate who vows to bring back civility – as opposed to civic engagement. An activist all of his life, Sanders expects a level of sacrifice and political action most voters aren’t interested in or willing to embrace. Sanders’ attitude led to attacks by his opponents, with Buttigieg criticizing Sanders’ “nostalgia for the revolutionary politics of the 1960s,” and Joe Biden saying “we need results, not a revolution.”

This may also explain Sanders’ appeal to young voters, who see the U.S., especially in the wake of Trump, as unjust as it was in the 1960s or 1930s. They see their parents’ retreat from political life to the suburbs as a reason for inequality, the climate crisis, student debt, rampant racism, and, for a large swath of young Jews, the continuation of the Israeli occupation. They are standing up and demanding to be heard, sometimes inarticulately like the Bernie Bros who bully moderates online, sometimes dogmatically, but there’s an urgency in their message not found in the Biden camp.

It may seem amazing to some that a 78-year-old Jewish man can elicit so many emotions, from admiration to revulsion, from hope to fear. It might be because although Jews have been accepted into white society, there’s a large segment of the American population yearning for a time when Jews were still an outsider group; when Christian values were not preceded by “Judeo.”

Perhaps what’s unnerving for many people is that unlike previous presidential candidates, Sanders doesn’t feel compelled to speak about his faith; he doesn’t quote scripture. His Jewishness is tied to social justice and egalitarianism. In this, it does become religious – for better or worse – a faith not invoked in words and prayer alone but in actions.

His likely failure to win the nomination points to the particular space Jews occupy in American society: both of insiders and outsiders, simultaneously racialized and de-racialized. It also shows that many liberals aren’t yet willing to embrace the values inherent in Sanders’ Jewishness. Sanders’ pushed the liberal wing to its limits over two election cycles. He may have failed, but it’s already evident that his ideas and the space he carved out for belief in genuine political engagement will live on.

Etan Nechin is a Brooklyn-based Israeli writer and editor for The Bare Life Review: a Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Literature. Twitter:  @etanetan23

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