When I was growing up, my mother stroked my hair and told me I was smart and could be anything I wanted.
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“Except,” she said, “president of the United States.”
I was confused. I was 9 or 10, and like any kid who paid attention in social studies class, I knew what it took to get to the White House, should I decide to go into politics. To be president, I had to be American-born (check) and over the age of 35 (I knew I’d get there someday).
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because there’s never been a woman and there’s never been a Jew,” Mom replied matter-of-factly, “and I don’t think there ever will be. Not in my lifetime.”
Not only is it happening in my lifetime, but hers as well. Bernie Sanders, a man three years my mother’s senior, born and bred in the same sprawling city of New York and from the same basic Polish-Jewish immigrant stock, is now a viable candidate for the Democratic nomination for president. His soaring popularity is a stinging challenge to Hillary Clinton, who stands to make history by being the first woman to receive the presidential nomination of a political party.
It’s no wonder that I’m confused about whom to support. Besides the historic moment of seeing Democrats nationwide show readiness to be lead by either a woman or a Jew, the generational divide surfacing in the Bernie vs. Hillary camps is a fault line that runs right to my core. If New Hampshire’s results are any indication, women over 45 are sticking with Hillary; women under 45 support Bernie. As I sit on the cusp of those two demographics, perhaps it’s unsurprising that I find myself taking up too much brain space thinking about this election. I’m young enough to want Bernie’s revolution but old enough to know that Hillary has a better shot at getting things done. I’m well-traveled enough to know that the socialized health care Bernie promises is a success in many places throughout the civilized world, but also concerned enough about various global crises to know that Hillary is better-equipped to cope with foreign affairs.
I’m also a feminist who doesn’t buy the older generations of feminists’ exhortations to vote for Hillary simply because, as Madeline Albright put it, “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” Women in my generation – and certainly the millennials after me – want to support the best candidate, not be shamed into supporting Hillary because women ought to support women. Yes, we owe a debt of gratitude to the feminists who came before us and made a career like Hillary’s possible.
That doesn’t mean we will support Hillary over other candidates if there’s someone whose agenda more closely aligns with ours. Simply feeling that it’s about time there was a woman living in the White House with a title other than First Lady isn’t enough to get our vote. By that logic, I also should have been ready to support Republican candidate Carly Fiorina, though I found just about everything she said repugnant.
To be faced with these choices at all is remarkable. I recently returned to America after almost 20 years abroad, and I’m struck by the extent to which America is more embracing of diversity than it was when I left it. This isn’t something that began with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, although that was a seminal moment in America’s gradual transition away from needing every president to be a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. John F. Kennedy was a ceiling-breaker when he became the first Catholic president, and pundits questioned whether Americans would go for a Southern Baptist before they elected Jimmy Carter.
After eight years of having an African-American president in office, should it be a surprise to see millions of American ready to vote for a candidate who’s Jewish? Sander’s Jewishness has played a remarkably insignificant role in the campaign until now – it seems only other Jews bother to bring it up. Sure, for evangelicals, Sanders personal style of religion – which sounds more loyal to secular humanism than Judaism – is likely to be a barrier to his gaining their support. The average American expresses far less interest in Sanders’ Jewish identity than the question of whether he’s an actual socialist. But when a Lutheran friend in Iowa and a Presbyterian friend in New Hampshire both write to me to let me know they’re “feeling the Bern,” it tells me that they’re more concerned about Sanders’ plan than they are about where he does or doesn’t pray.
Americans showed they were ready to have a Jewish vice president when in 2000 they voted for Al Gore and his running mate, Joe Lieberman, a modern Orthodox Jew. (The two won the popular vote but lost the election to George W. Bush, who won more votes in the Electoral College.) Sanders, who has been married to Catholic Jane O’Meara since 1988, is a far more secular person than Lieberman, and is not affiliated with the organized Jewish community.
And in fact, the Israel lobby circles in Washington looking for a candidate who will stand by Israel’s side regardless of how it deals with the Palestinians are not likely to cozy up to the most viable Jewish candidate for president thus far. They’ll be better off aligning themselves with Bible-thumping candidates like Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio – or even Donald Trump – all of whom swear they’ll give Israel the red carpet treatment again, in comparison to the supposed mistreatment by Obama.
After voters go to the caucuses in South Carolina and Nevada this Saturday, we’ll get a slightly more focused picture of whether Sanders’ momentum is growing. It’s possible that the more he becomes a viable candidate – and if he in fact he gets the nomination – saboteurs and anti-Semites will come out of the woodwork to try to paint Sanders in the worse possible light. Ironically enough, we might see the Wall Street Jews and the Beltway Jews do battle with the Socialist Jew of Vermont. Even if Sanders loses his bid for the nomination – or he gets to run for president and loses – he won’t lose because he’s Jewish. And that, in its own twisted way, points to a different America than the one my mother taught me about all those years ago.