The signature event on the Jewish political calendar in 2016 was the emergence of Senator Sanders as the first Jewish hopeful ever to mount a credible major-party presidential candidacy, to win primaries and amass a bloc of convention delegates.
Some context is called for. American Jews have in many ways stood at a pinnacle of influence for a quarter-century or more. Just over two percent of the American population, they comprise fully ten percent of the United States Senate and one third of the justices of the Supreme Court. Jews are mayors of two of the country’s three largest cities, Los Angeles and Chicago—for a period in 2013 at the tail end of Michael Bloomberg’s New York mayoralty all three of the largest had Jewish mayors—and they hold countless other positions of power and influence at nearly every level of American society. And yet, no Jew has come close to the Oval Office. Until Bernie Sanders.
Indeed, one of the minor oddities of the 2016 campaign that says much about the place of Jews in society is the fact that of the three candidates left standing when the primary races ended, one, Sanders, is Jewish, and the other two, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, both have Jewish sons-in-law. Trump’s daughter Ivanka underwent an Orthodox conversion before marrying real-estate heir Jared Kushner, while Hillary Clinton’s daughter Chelsea entered an interfaith marriage with investment banker Marc Mezvinsky, heir to a Philadelphia political dynasty. In the end, Sanders, the sole Jew in the race, was the only remaining candidate whose grandchildren are not being raised to consider themselves Jewish, while Trump, the candidate most tainted with bigotry and reviled by the majority of Jews, is the only one with halachically Jewish grandchildren.
A handful of other Jews had sought the presidency before Sanders, but failed miserably. Republican senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania tried in 1996, running to the left of his party’s establishment. Democratic senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut tried in 2004, running to the right of his party’s mainstream. Both flickered out without winning a single primary. Both eventually quit their parties.
Sanders, by contrast, waged one of the most unexpectedly successful campaigns in presidential history. An avowed socialist from the tiny rural state of Vermont, he started his race in 2015 as a virtual unknown, registering a mere three percent in the polls. Yet he ended up a year later almost even with party favourite Hillary Clinton, the former First Lady, senator, secretary of state and now Democratic nominee.
Born in 1941 in a working-class neighbourhood in Brooklyn, Sanders carved out a unique political career. He was a minor activist in the campus New Left of the early 1960s. He spent a half-year after college graduation in 1964 on an Israeli kibbutz—at a time when kibbutz volunteering was virtually unknown in America—and then joined the hippie-era migration to rural Vermont. There he helped form a radical left-wing party and eventually, improbably, became the state’s most popular and durable politician. He was elected mayor of Vermont’s largest city, Burlington, in 1981, moved on in 1991 to the US House of Representatives and then in 2006 to the Senate, serving in both chambers as a non-party Independent who caucused with the Democrats.
In 2015, at the advanced age of 73, he announced what was expected to be a symbolic bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, presenting himself as the enemy of greedy Wall Street and “the billionaire class”. To everyone’s surprise, including his own, his campaign caught fire. He found himself drawing audiences of tens of thousands while other candidates were attracting hundreds or even dozens. His strongest support came from the youngest voters in their teens and twenties, who gave him as much as eighty percent of their votes, taken by his combination of fiery, anti-establishment bluntness and quirky, grandfatherly charm.
No less remarkably, Sanders’ Jewishness was not an issue in his campaign. He stirred enormous excitement as a progressive icon, filled football stadiums with cheering fans, transformed the national debate. But opponents almost never tried to make the fact of his Jewishness a serious campaign issue. Neither did he. Not, at least, until he collided unawares with the pro-Israel advocacy community, with unfortunate results.
In an earlier generation his candidacy might have stirred dark murmurings about Jewish bolshevik conspiracies, but nothing of the sort surfaced in 2016. On the reverse side, a nation as religious and identity-besotted as America might well have expected his Judaism to be made a positive campaign theme, as it was in Lieberman’s brief 2004 campaign—or, for that matter, as Barack Obama’s race was in his successful 2008 presidential campaign. Lieberman had made his Orthodox Judaism a badge of moral probity and drew an enthusiastic following among Jewish community leaders. Sanders, a secular, intermarried Jew, seldom touted Judaism in public.
He never denied his Jewishness. Indeed, he occasionally—mostly when prodded—proclaimed himself proud of being Jewish. He periodically linked his progressive values to his Jewish background. Notably, he didn’t follow the current fashion of many Jewish liberals and progressives who link their leftist beliefs to a notion of Jewish social values. The popular “tikkun olam” catchword that’s entered mainstream American liberal vocabulary never crossed his lips. Rather, Sanders focussed on his upbringing as a child of a Polish Jewish immigrant who lost most of his family in the Holocaust. It taught him early on, he regularly stated, about the evils of ethnic bigotry.
Neither did Sanders’ breakthrough Jewish candidacy become a rallying point for the mainstream Jewish community. Polls showed that he fared worse among Jewish Democratic primary voters than among Democrats overall. Perhaps ironically, those Jews who might have been most open to an ethnocentric embrace of a Jewish candidate were precisely the conservative sorts least likely to gather around a socialist.
J.J. Goldberg’s complete essay appears in the 2016 Summer Politics issue. Subscribe to read more.