Bernie Sanders is the first Jew to win a presidential primary in New Hampshire, or in any other state. If he should go on to secure the Democratic nomination, and if he should then win the general election, he will have upended conventional wisdom by bringing a long-shot, socialist campaign all the way from Brooklyn to the White House.
But he won’t be a Jewish president.
He’ll be a president who happens to be Jewish.
This is not an endorsement, nor a criticism — just an observation. It says as much about the state of contemporary American Jewishness as it does about the senator from Vermont.
As the nation moves from one first to, potentially, another in the presidential sweepstakes, this distinction is emblematic of a larger set of questions about identity and political leadership. Does being a first make a difference anymore? And if so, is it a feat or a handicap?
We once thought that the appearance of firsts signaled society’s expanding tolerance, a welcome indication of human progress and the dismantling of ancient and self-defeating barriers. After all, any child under 8 years old today thinks it normative to have an African-American family living in the White House.
As someone who has been a first in various jobs, including this one, I do believe the adjective is consequential, that it still means something. Power, especially political power, ought to come in different hues, not only to prove that the Latina woman is as good (or better) than the white guy preceding her, but because there are many effective ways to lead.
So the fact that Sanders’s ethnicity has not stopped or hindered his campaign — so far, anyway — is a sign of growing American open-mindedness, not just toward a born Jew but also toward anyone who doesn’t conform to the racial, religious and ethnic expectations that have defined presidential leadership since this nation was founded. It was true of Mitt Romney in 2012, and would be true if Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz were to be successful this year.
If Hillary Clinton prevails, you can add gender to that list.
But unlike these other examples, Sanders wears his Jewishness lightly, as a thread from his past woven into his character but carrying no unique, dominant color. It’s simply who he is. He doesn’t flee from his Jewish roots, and has occasionally acknowledged them as a motivating force behind some of his most admirable sentiments, as he did last year when asked by a Muslim college student about Islamophobia.
“Let me be personal here, if I might,” Sanders said. “I’m Jewish. My father’s family died in concentration camps.” He decried racism in America and vowed to erase it, rooting his passion in his Jewish identity, by which he meant his Jewish past.
Many American Jews can relate to this powerful equation of Jewishness with social justice and a sympathy for the oppressed, whoever they might be. It’s enough to convince me that Sanders owns his particular brand of Judaism.
But it ends there. It is beautiful, but not especially sustainable. Nor is it uniquely Jewish: There are Catholics, Protestants and Muslims motivated by similar passions rooted in their faiths and traditions. There are avowed atheists who champion social justice just as loudly.
In all other ways, Sanders’s Jewishness is what sociologists call “thin.” He is not raising a Jewish family, nor does he belong to a Jewish community. He is notably irreligious, spending last Rosh Hashanah speaking at Liberty University, and he exhibits no interest in Jewish learning and literacy. His grasp of contemporary Israel is weak, and he all but fled from acknowledging his brief stint volunteering on a kibbutz in the 1960s.
In this, he mirrors a large number of American Jews who are secular in practice but still warmly identified, uncomfortable proclaiming religious belief but still proud of who they are and of whence they came.
I do not judge Sanders for this; it’s his choice, and an authentic one. But it offers no blueprint for how he will wear his Jewishness if he wins the presidency, what other values he will bring to the post, how he will balance adherence to a particular people with the mandate to broadly lead the nation. It is difficult to imagine, especially because there are few historical examples outside of Israel. Former U.S. senator and vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman offered one model, though his brand of Orthodoxy and his increasingly right-wing politics didn’t quite match where most American Jews are, either.
Contrast Sanders’s thin attachment to his faith with Clinton’s embrace of her gender. Throughout her career and continuing into this campaign, she not only presents as a woman, but also uses her platform to promote causes, associated with women and children, that male counterparts have routinely ignored. She is certainly not a candidate who happens to be a woman.
Either path contains risks, as we see in the backlash over Clinton’s feminism. Sometimes, being a first means that you are actually less free to champion issues that pertain to your gender or ethnicity or race. Arguably, Barack Obama governed for many years as a president who happened to be black, constrained by social and political expectations; only recently has he allowed his unique identity and perspective to come into full public expression.
It is still challenging for any minority to resist assimilation, and Sanders is no exception. So even if he wins in November, our image of what it means to have a Jew in the White House will remain blurry at best. Being a first might not matter after all.