(JTA) — Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont and the only self-described socialist in Congress, has long been an outspoken voice in Washington on issues of economic inequality.
But with the vanishing middle class figuring prominently in the campaign for mayor of the country’s largest city, and President Obama last month calling the gap between rich and poor “the defining issue of our time,” Sanders’ pet political cause has moved to the forefront of the national discussion.
“There has been an understanding in the Democratic Party that now is the time to focus on protecting the collapsing middle class and the needs of moderate- to low-income Americans,” Sanders told JTA in an interview. “When the middle class is shrinking and the wealthiest people are doing phenomenally well, we do need revenue to come from the wealthiest people in the country.”
Sanders, 72, who has long caucused with the Democrats, is one of 10 Jewish members in the U.S. Senate. The native of Brooklyn, N.Y., is the son of Polish immigrants whose father’s family was wiped out in the Holocaust, according to a 2007 New York Times profile.
After graduating from the University of Chicago, Sanders spent time on an Israeli kibbutz around 1963 – notably before the 1967 Six-Day War, when it was not common for American youngsters to spend time in Israel.
But Sanders is hesitant to draw a connection between his Jewish background and his priorities as a senator. With a series of observations about the Jewish history of rootlessness and oppression, Sanders begins to describe the role of his lower-middle-class upbringing in forging him into the Congress’ only self-described socialist. Then he catches himself.
“This isn’t a profile,” he declared, interrupting himself. “There are very important issues that need to be discussed – the collapse of the middle class, very high unemployment rates, the crisis of climate change, the widening income gap.”
With a bespectacled face framed by a wild mop of white hair and a lingering tendency to bark in Brooklyn intonations even after 45 years in Vermont, Sanders is one of the more identifiably Jewish senators.
“As everyone in this room knows, I am a Jew, an old Jew,” the actor Fred Armisen, portraying Sanders, announced in an unaired “Saturday Night Live” sketch last year to knowing guffaws from the other members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.