Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion Politics

Sanders the Jew

Sen. Bernie Sanders listening to testimony at a 2014 committee hearing
Sen. Bernie Sanders listening to testimony at a 2014 committee hearing

Sen. Bernie Sanders listening to testimony at a 2014 committee hearing

At Sunday’s Democratic town hall debate in Flint, 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.

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 non-observant left-winger. Or someone like 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?

I don’t doubt that lots 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 bubbies and zaydes are feeling the Bern too. In the wake of his stunning victory over Hillary Clinton in Michigan, I’m thinking yes.


About the author

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 of the Religion News Service


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  • Bernie is Jewish and Trump is your typical Christian in that he rarely if ever goes to church or reads the bible. Both are tapping into the countries frustration with politics as usual and political correctness. It is possible we may see them running against each other after the conventions. Wouldn’t that give us an interesting choice this year as to what direction we want the country to take. Both seem to be rather straight forward and neither is controlled by big money or the political establishment. this is certainly the most interesting and maybe the most consequential election since the 60s.

  • “…Anderson Cooper asked Bernie Sanders if it is intentional that, to the disappointment of Jewish leaders, he’s keeping his Judaism in the background.”

    “Mensch” is a Yiddish word that means a person of integrity.

    Bernie is certainly a person of integrity, and his integrity, is Jewishness at its best. His Jewishness is NOT in the background, but is ‘front and center’ in all his words and actions, precisely where it should be. Thanks Bernie!

  • I would guess that Hillary beats Bernie handily among Florida’s Jewish Democrats, who tend to be only slightly to the left of Lieberman. Florida’s probably the #1 place on earth besides Israel that tends to move Jews who settle there to the right rather than left. If Bernie beats Hillary among Floridian Jewish Democrats, he’s a magician.

  • Bernie is Jewish but Trump isn’t Christian – and the difference is in the definitions of the two words. One refers to heritage and birth and thus is not volitional; the other refers to faith and belief and therefore is volitional. You don’t choose whether or not to be Jewish; you do choose whether or not to be Christian.

    There is no creedal assent that identifies one as a Jew; there is a creedal assent that identifies one as a Christian. There is nothing Bernie can say or not say that would mark him as literally not Jewish, but there is plenty that Donald can say that would logically exclude him from being Christian. For example, if Trump said that Jesus never existed, obviously he would not be a Christian since Christianity’s creeds depend on Jesus existing. It would be akin to someone claiming to be a pacifist while supporting war.

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