Why are Jewish leaders reluctant to endorse Bernie Sanders? (COMMENTARY)

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Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders pauses as he speaks to supporters on the night of the Michigan, Mississippi and other primaries at his campaign rally in Miami, Florida on March 8, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SILK-COLUMN, originally transmitted on March 9, 2016.

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders pauses as he speaks to supporters on the night of the Michigan, Mississippi and other primaries at his campaign rally in Miami, Florida on March 8, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Carlo Allegri *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SILK-COLUMN, originally transmitted on March 9, 2016.

(RNS) At the recent Democratic town hall debate in Flint, Mich., CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked Bernie Sanders if it is intentional that, to the disappointment of Jewish leaders, he’s keeping his Judaism in the background.

“No,” Sanders replied. “I am very proud to be Jewish, and being Jewish is so much of what I am.”

Actually, as J.J. Goldberg recently pointed out in The Forward, Sanders has not been at all reticent about his Jewishness. The reticence has been on the part of Jewish leaders — in striking contrast to their excitement about Joe Lieberman when Al Gore selected him as his running mate in 2000.

But Lieberman was the kind of Jew a conservative Christian could relate to. He kept kosher and observed the Sabbath. Like a Baptist who hits the sawdust trail to acknowledge Jesus as his Lord and Savior, he’d had something of a conversion experience, becoming Orthodox in adulthood — a baal teshuvah, as we call it.


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On top of all that, he affected a certain rabbinic moralism, famously criticizing Bill Clinton for his wayward behavior with the Jewish damsel Monica. And he campaigned in the evangelical mode, talking about the need for more religion in public life.

And still there was some surprise within the Jewish community that Lieberman’s presence on the Democratic ticket had elicited nothing worth mentioning in the way of anti-Semitism.

“OK,” people said, “but just wait until the Jewish candidate is a nonobservant left-winger. Or someone like Sen. Chuck Schumer. Then you’ll see the anti-Semites come out of the woodwork!”

Well, heeeeere’s Bernie! Straight from central casting: a secular New York Jew who calls himself a socialist and calls for a political revolution. How’s that for scaring the hell out of Jewish leaders?

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a contributing editor of the Religion News Service. Photo courtesy of Mark Silk

Mark Silk is professor of religion in public life at Trinity College and director of the college’s Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a contributing editor at RNS. Photo courtesy of Mark Silk

I don’t doubt that lots of Jewish young people, like young people of all religious backgrounds, are backing Sanders enthusiastically. Certainly my three sons are.

But what about the rest of the tribe? Next week we’ll be able find out in the Land of the Hanging Chad. There are heavily Jewish precincts in South Florida that will show whether, despite the shushing of the leadership, the bubbes and zaydes are feeling the Bern too. In the wake of his stunning victory over Hillary Clinton in Michigan, I’m thinking yes.

(Mark Silk is professor of religion in public life at Trinity College and director of the college’s Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a contributing editor at RNS)