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Bernie Sanders Keeps Talking About Being Jewish. Why Won’t We Listen?

There are plenty of things that Bernie Sanders’ presidential candidacy may represent in the arc of American Jewish history. He’s already the first Jew to win a presidential primary. He might even make history and win the brass ring, though it seems unlikely right now.

But there’s one thing that is already certain: The Sanders campaign is providing the backdrop for a mass Jewish psychodrama of wrenching, deeply depressing proportions. Sanders is serving as a passive canvas onto which we are projecting a startling array of our saddest insecurities, neuroses and self-delusions.

Consider, for example, Sanders’ brief discussion on MSNBC last night, February 25, of his Jewish identity and how it shaped his political outlook. It came at the tail end of an hour-long question-and-answer exchange with students at the University of Chicago, his alma mater.

It was the very last questioner, a student who identified herself as Chelsea Fine, who provided the set-up line. After noting that he’d discussed his student years in Chicago that evening, she continued that “one thing that you haven’t discussed as much on the campaign trail is the fact that you are Jewish.” She went on: “As a Jewish student I would like to know, what is your relationship with your faith and what would it mean to you to be the first Jewish president.”

Warned by moderator Chris Matthews that he only had a minute, Sanders replied: “Obviously, being Jewish is very, very important to me. I am very proud of my heritage. And what comes to my mind so strongly as a kid growing up in Brooklyn and seeing people with numbers on their wrists — you probably have not seen that — but those were the people who were coming out of the concentration camps. And knowing that a good part of my father’s family were killed by the Nazis.

“And the lesson that I learned as a very young person is, politics is a serious business. And when you have a lunatic like Hitler coming to power — 50 million people died in World War II. So I am very, very proud to be Jewish and I’m proud of my heritage.”

It seems likely that the student was picking up on spate of stories appearing in the national press in the days and weeks before the program, discussing and lamenting what’s described as Sanders’ unwillingness to discuss his Jewish heritage. The New Republic had a lengthy essay that very morning, titled “Bernie’s complaint — the reluctant roots of his radicalism,” discussing Sanders’ presumed alienation from his Jewish heritage. The New York Times carried a news story the day before titled, “Bernie Sanders Is Jewish, but He Doesn’t Like to Talk About It.” The Times, in turn, referred to a JTA story that appeared February 12, headlined “People are confused why Bernie Sanders won’t own his Jewishness.”

Our own Forward carried an opinion piece on February 20 titled “We Need To Out Bernie Sanders as a Jew — for His Own Good.”

The Tablet weighed in, also on February 12, with an acid piece titled “Judaism — On Background,” with a subheading that read: “Bernie Sanders’ Jewish heritage should be an outward source of pride, but the would-be president — and the mainstream media — continue to keep his roots mostly hidden from view. This hurts.”

And yet, the brief explanation that Sanders offered to the students in Chicago about how living through the most painful period in Jewish history had shaped his fundamental worldview — yes, that was the message — was at least the third time during the presidential campaign that he’s offered a version of that insight. That’s hardly “hidden.”

He did it once during a press breakfast in Washington sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor last June. (Here is the Monitor’s account of the discussion, headlined “Bernie Sanders: I’m Proud to be Jewish.”) He did it again on October 28 during a meeting with students at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. (Here is that exchange on YouTube.)

What’s particularly interesting about the George Mason U. version of Sanders’ I-am-Jewish shpiel is that it wasn’t elicited in response to a question about his Jewish identity. It was volunteered as his response to a question from a Muslim student about discrimination against Muslims in America. You’re Muslim? I’m Jewish. That’s why I want to help you.

“This is what I think,” Sanders replied. “Let me be very personal here if I might: I am Jewish. My father’s family died in concentration camps. I will do everything I can to rid this country of the stain of racism which has existed for far too many years.”

Both of those exchanges — to the Christian Science Monitor and to the students in Virginia — were reported nationally, often with gee-whiz headlines about how Bernie Sanders was “finally” coming out in the open about his Jewish heritage. And then it only took a few weeks before the next round of articles would appear, wondering why Sanders never speaks about his Jewish heritage. And why he hid it throughout his career in Vermont municipal and Washington congressional politics.

The question, therefore, isn’t why Sanders doesn’t discuss his Judaism, but why we keep forgetting or ignoring it.

Before we answer that, two earlier incidents are worth noting, because they’re telling in different ways. One is his exchange with constituents during a town hall meeting in Vermont on August 17, 2014, during the Gaza war. Asked by an angry audience member about Israel’s shelling of Gaza and the deaths of civilians, he agreed that too many civilians had died, but continued that Hamas had instigated the fighting by firing rockets at Israeli civilians and that Israel had a right to defend itself. It turned into a rather ugly shouting match. The anti-Israel hecklers got very angry at Sanders for defending Israel. He got at least as angry, and refused to back down. Here is that event, captured on YouTube. It’s worth watching, if only because we don’t usually get to see Bernie that angry.

The other incident, nearly forgotten, was an “open letter to the Jewish community” signed by seven Jewish Democratic senators, including Bernie Sanders. Released on January 18, 2008, it strongly denounced the spate of “ugly emails” that “many in the Jewish community have received,” which “use falsehood and innuendo about Senator Barack Obama’s religion and attack him personally.” It went on to claim that “Jews, who have historically been the target of such attacks, should be the first to reject these tactics.”

The letter, initiated by Carl Levin of Michigan, noted that the seven signers “have not endorsed a candidate for the Democratic nomination.” Four other Jewish senators didn’t sign, two because they’d endorsed a candidate, two others for reasons they kept to themselves.

The letter is historic for a single reason: It is the first time in history that any Jewish senators signed a public statement that included the words “As Jewish United States Senators.” Customarily, as several senators have explained to me over the years, Jewish senators avoid such statements because they see themselves as representing all the people of their state, not the small Jewish minorities. House members often represent neighborhoods that are heavily Jewish, so they can act openly on Jewish solidarity without feeling they’ve betrayed their office. This was the first time a group of Jewish senators felt compelled to speak out “as Jewish United States Senators” to their fellow Jews while the rest of the world looked on.

So what is it that causes this insistent unhappiness with Sanders for failing to do something that he actually has done openly and repeatedly? There are several causes, I think.

One is a common herd instinct among journalists. We read about something and figure if it’s said often enough it must be true. We ask around to people we know — a rabbi from Vermont, another journalist who’s Jewish and covers politics — and then rush to print. But that isn’t always the whole story. In fact, it rarely is. Maybe that conceit — a quick check and we’re done — was understandable once. But now there’s something called Google. It’s not too hard to find out when and where Sanders has spoken about his personal Jewish values and where they come from. Why so many major journals would carry stories flatly asserting that he hasn’t seems odd.

Another is a widespread tendency to think that Jewish issues don’t have the same depth or require the same scrutiny as other areas of human experience. Gut instincts stand in for historical learning. Or, more often, a little bit of learning is mistaken for a deep understanding. It goes something like this: What do Jews think? Well, I’m a Jew, and I know what I think, so that must be how Jews think — except, of course, for the ones I don’t like.

Some of the stories about Sanders’ Judaism have acknowledged that he’s spoken about it once or twice, but complain that his interest in Judaism seems limited to the Holocaust. Novelist Joshua Cohen, writing in The New Republic, notes Sanders’ repeated mentioning of the Holocaust — linked once to Islamophobia and another time to Hitler having been elected — and opines: “Neither of those approaches hold much meaning for American Jews, who, like most Americans, are more concerned with this country’s ghettos, and the concentration camps it’s running in Guantanamo Bay and on the Mexican border, than with rehashing any foreign martyrdom.”

Really? American Jews aren’t interested in “rehashing foreign martyrdom”? Because you and your friends have outgrown it?

Every survey in the last two generations that has asked American Jews to rank the Jewish values and symbols that are essential to their sense of being Jewish has come up with the same answer: The Holocaust is always number one. You can look as far back as the 1989 American Jewish Committee study, “Content or Continuity: Alternate Bases for Commitment,” or as recently as the comprehensive 2013 Pew survey of American Jews. In both surveys, by the way, Israel ranked in the middle of the list, behind the Holocaust, social justice (2013) and Yom Kippur (1989) but ahead of “Jewish law” (both) and “the United Jewish Appeal” (1989).

Think young people have outgrown that Holocaust fascination? The Public Religion Research Institute checked that very question in its 2012 survey, “Chosen For What? Jewish Values in 2012.” Among other questions, it asked respondents which “Jewish experiences” were “important in informing political beliefs and activities.” Both among respondents over 60 and those ages 18 to 39, the Holocaust was by far the most important. (The others, far behind, were the immigrant experience, being a religious minority and “having opportunities for economic success in America.”)

The other main complaint writers have about Sanders’ Jewishness is that he hides it behind vague euphemisms. For example, his frequent references to himself as “the son of a Polish immigrant.” Michael A. Cohen, writing in The Tablet on February 12, found this “jarring.”

“I mean,” Cohen wrote, “it’s a bit unusual for a Jew — no less a 74-year old Jew — to refer to himself as the children of Polish immigrants: The historical Jewish experience in Poland is not what one would exactly call ‘rosy.’ Being a Polish Jew is not necessarily a point of pride; it’s just very odd for any Jew to invoke their Polish heritage rather than their Jewish heritage.”

Actually, it’s not unusual at all. Throughout the 20th century it was commonplace to refer to Jewish immigrants by the country they came from rather than by what was generally regarded as their religion. Just as Italian or Spanish immigrants — or ethnic Poles, for that matter — weren’t referred to as “Catholic immigrants” unless it was in the context of a religious discussion. A few examples, out of endless cases: diplomat Max Kampelman, “son of Romanian immigrants” (Wall Street Journal obituary, 2013); Arthur J. Goldberg, “son of Russian immigrants” (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1990); Meyer Lansky, “a Russian-born immigrant” (New York Times obituary, 1983); Sophie Tucker, “Russian-born entertainer” (IMDb Biography).

It’s true that in Poland, ethnic Poles and Jews regarded each other as discrete ethnic groups. Ditto in Hungary, Romania, Lithuania, Russia and everywhere else in the heavily Jewish regions of Eastern Europe. But to most Americans, Jews who came here became Americans of Jewish religion, which meant that before they arrived, they were presumably Poles of Jewish religion. And most Jews, except for the minority who clung most eagerly to their separate Jewish ethnic identity, were happy to have it that way.

It’s really only in the last few decades that significant numbers of Jews in America have felt secure enough to wear their Jewishness as a public marker. The easiest way to see it is in show business: Generations of Jews changed their names from Issur Danielovitch to Kirk Douglas, Betty Joan Perske to Lauren Bacall, Emanuel Goldenberg to Edward G. Robinson, Jill Oppenheim to Jill St. John, Joseph Levitch to Jerry Lewis, Pauline Levy to Paulette Goddard or Nathan Birnbaum to George Burns. Contrast all of them with Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, Jason Schwartzman or Sasha Baron Cohen.

Nowadays the Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz who changes his name to Jon Stewart is a rarity. And he talks about his Jewishness so insistently that the name change seems almost irrelevant.

For all that, there’s still a widespread tendency among Jews to regard their Jewish identity as a private matter. I can’t count the number of times I’ve tried to gather information on how Jews live their lives and been told — by college presidents, taxi drivers, police officers, shopkeepers, public officials — that it’s none of my business whether or not they’re Jewish. For every Jewish individual who’s delighted to share, there’s another who worries that the Nazis or the PLO are out there collecting names. Or simply that their Jewish lives are deeply personal and nobody’s business.

Part of our problem is that most of our understanding of what Judaism consists of in America today — and what it is that American Jews experience in their Jewish lives — is gathered by and filtered through people who don’t get the average American Jewish psyche — and don’t particularly want to get it, unless it’s to fix it. These are people who are fully comfortable in their Jewish skins, who have a clear sense of what their place is in Jewish history and what they owe to the Jewish future. Most American Jews aren’t that clear. The questions they’re asked don’t always make sense to them. The preaching of the committed often goes right over their heads, if indeed it reaches them at all. They’re the children who don’t know how to ask, and when the wise child tries to open their eyes, as the Haggadah commands, he or she often comes off sounding like the wicked child: What’s with you, anyway?

Those of us who do live fully in our Jewish skins tend to judge those who don’t as wanting. We think they’ve failed in their duties, or walked away. This can be toxic when those ordinary Jews show up in synagogue for their once a year visit on Yom Kippur, hoping to find some meaning in Judaism for a change, and hear a sermon asking why they didn’t show up last week or the week before. It leaves them a little less likely to try again next year.

This is what gets projected onto public figures who are outstanding in their chosen fields but ordinary Jews in their private lives. They’re hounded. As Americans, we look to celebrities to serve as our models, but Jewish celebrities are rarely able to do the job. Think of the abuse Bob Dylan has taken over the years because his Jewish self didn’t meet our needs. Now look again at Bernie Sanders.

Sanders’ Judaism — looking to the Holocaust as a paradigmatic Jewish experience and learning from it that people need to be kind to each other — is utterly typical of the Judaism experienced by the majority of American Jews. It’s a Judaism that’s not fluent in Talmud and doesn’t touch the Jew’s every waking hour. It’s humble, imperfect, not worn on the sleeve.

It might not be a Judaism that’s particularly gratifying to those of us who take our Judaism — Jewish learning, Jewish practice, Jewish fidelity — very earnestly. But it is the Judaism of the great majority of American Jews, millions of them. If we want to keep our channels open, those who are most committed would do well to make the effort and look their fellow Jews in the eye, to understand those whom they’d like to reach. Bernie Sanders’ presidential race may be an uncommon opportunity to listen and learn. That by itself would be historic.

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