Senior Democratic Official Tells Haaretz: Emails About Sanders' Judaism Crosses a Red Line

Among emails released this weekend by WikiLeaks is one suggesting that party officials try to coax the presidential hopeful into talking about his faith.

A protester carries a cutout of Bernie Sanders during a march against presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, ahead of the Democratic National Convention, in Philadelphia, July 24, 2016.
Dominick Reuter/Reuters

Bringing someone’s religious beliefs into a campaign “is crossing a red line,” says Greg Rosenbaum, vice chair of the Platform Committee for the 2016 Democratic National Convention and chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council. Rosenbaum was responding, in an exchange with Haaretz, to the revelation of emails between top American Democrats concerning presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, who ran against Hillary Clinton.

Some 20,000 emails by the Democratic leadership, revealing the way the party has been operating during the campaign, were published on WikiLeaks and released this past weekend. Rosenbaum stressed that he and his colleagues saw only some of the emails that were leaked, relating to Sanders, and said he doesn’t know how many there were, or whether they had been taken out of context. But if somebody did suggest casting doubt on Sanders based on religious grounds, “that violates the rules.” Rosenbaum said.

Even in the early stages of the primary, he added, National Public Radio talk-show host Diane Rehm asked Sanders if he had a problem of dual loyalty to Israel and to the United States because he’s Jewish. His organization lost no time condemning the question, on the grounds that the journalist would even imply that religion could define one's loyalty, let alone ask such questions in public.

Out of all the leaked emails, one stood out – suggesting that the party should “get someone to ask” Sanders about his religious beliefs, precisely in order to hurt his chances in the American South during the campaign, and threatening to cast a shadow over the Democratic Party's Philadelphia convention opening Monday.

In the mail, under the subject “No shit,” Brad Marshall, the chief financial officer of the DNC, suggests ambushing Sanders with a challenge to his beliefs ahead of the primaries in Virginia and Kentucky – by asking him whether he believes in God. Sanders had been avoiding the topic by saying merely that he is of Jewish heritage.

“He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage. I think I read he is an atheist,” Marshall wrote. “This could make several points difference with my peeps. My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist.”

Although the mail shows that there are those in the Democratic Party who suspect that some voters could be repelled by a Jew – whether atheist or observant – Rosenbaum declared that Sanders’ campaign was a milestone for American Jews, paving the way for future candidates, although there have been some Jewish presidential candidates in the past.

But Sanders came close to being nominated and began to crack the belief that we won’t see an American Jewish president in our lifetime, said Rosenbaum. In fact if he’d won the Democratic primaries, the official added, Sanders could even have won the presidency. Jews should feel proud of the progress he represents, added Rosenbaum.

So far, Sanders’ religious faith has not been a key issue in the U.S. campaigns – he didn’t turn it into a positive element, but didn’t let others turn it into a negative one either, Rosenbaum explained. Indeed, he added, the way the former presidential hopeful talked about the connection between his Jewish education and his values contributed to a very positive public debate. Thus, Rosebaum concluded, his Judaism didn’t play a role, whether in his success or his failure in achieving the candidacy.