Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont, has been involved in politics for more than three decades. He rarely claims the spotlight — but last week Sanders garnered national attention, as he took to the floor of the Senate to speak against the compromise tax deal President Obama brokered with Republican lawmen.
And he spoke, and he spoke, and he spoke.
Sanders delivered an eight-and-a-half hour-long filibuster on Friday, doing his best to block the approval of legislation which would extend Bush-era tax cuts in return for providing unemployment benefits and several other measures the administration was seeking. It was a symbolic attempt and is unlikely to change the final outcome of this political debate, but it transformed the 69-year-old Jewish senator into a hero of the liberal camp.
The speech was a high point of Democratic struggle against the tax deal. It drew 12,000 online viewers who tuned into the webcast to watch Sanders deliver his filibuster and added more than 4,000 new followers to the Vermont senator’s Twitter account. Sanders himself made clear he was not out to set any record (or to break the 24-hour filibuster record set in 1957 by Strom Thurmond).
“I am simply here today to take as long as I can to explain to the American people the fact that we have to do a lot better than this agreement provides,” he said as he opened his speech.
Bernie Sanders is not the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of a Jewish politician. He is not a Joe Lieberman, or a Chuck Schumer. In fact, he was one of only two Democrats (Sanders caucuses with Senate Democrats although he is an Independent) who demanded to oust Lieberman from chairmanship of the Senate Homeland Security committee. Lieberman is not only a fellow Jew, he is also the only other Independent in Senate.
Sanders, the only self-described socialist in the Senate, doesn’t do much mingling in Jewish organizational crowds. On issues relating to Israel he is more J Street than AIPAC, although this is not his main issue.
As a leading progressive voice, first in the House and since 2007 in the Senate, Sanders has focused on fighting big business and Wall Street billionaires. He launched a campaign against the Bush administration bailout plan and later voted against the confirmation of Timothy Geithner as Obama’s Secretary of Treasury. Sanders also was among the first to oppose the Iraq war and has spoken out against taking military action against Iran.
A son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, Sanders was born in Brooklyn and worked as a writer and a documentary film producer before entering politics. He does not speak much about his faith in public; one of the top Google search results for Sanders is the question: “Is Bernie Sanders Jewish?”
Of course he is. Just ask John Podhoretz over at Commentary who had this take on Sanders’ filibuster: “when you give an old Socialist Jew a microphone, you do something more dangerous than you know.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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