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RBG vs. Bernie: Two types of American Jews

These are difficult days for Jews. The stress of the pandemic and economic devastation it is wreaking, combined with High Holidays in quarantine and surging antisemitism finding new forms for the strange times we’re living in, create a perfect recipe for Jewish anxiety.

But in at least two ways, this was also a year of American Jewish political milestones. First, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont came closer than any other Jew in American history to capturing a major party nomination for president. This is historic, even if Sanders ultimately fell short.

And now, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who poignantly passed away on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, is set to become both the first Jew and the first woman to lie in state at the US Capitol building this week.

Joel Swanson | Artist: Noah Lubin

Joel Swanson | Artist: Noah Lubin

Pretty impressive accomplishments, for two Jews from Brooklyn, both born into lower middle-class families, both marked by the deaths of their mothers at formative ages. But that’s where the similarities end.

For all the surface similarities, Sanders and Ginsburg adopted very different attitudes toward their Jewish heritage. And the reasons why reveal a much deeper lesson about American Jewish identity.

Sanders has always seemed to wear his Jewishness reluctantly, with discomfort. It was something he effaced rather blatantly; for most of his career, he seemed reticent to discuss being Jewish at all, downplaying his Jewishness in favor of cultivating an identity as part of the “white working class.”

In 2016, Sanders notoriously identified himself as “the son of a Polish immigrant who came to this country speaking no English and having no money” – despite the fact that, as one rabbi pointed out, “Nobody in Poland would have considered Bernie a Pole.” And when, in the final days of the Sanders 2020 presidential campaign, the most successful Jewish presidential campaign in US history was targeted by a neo-Nazi waving a swastika flag, Sanders responded with a statement that emphasized his outrage at fascism and Nazism as an American as much as a Jew.

Of course, this does not make Sanders any less Jewish, and much has been written about how his brand of democratic socialism emerges out of a distinctive Jewish history in Poland and New York. But it does mean Sanders has kept a certain distance from the institutional American Jewish community, which perhaps helps to explain why he was far more successful courting Muslim American voters in the 2020 primary than he was courting Jewish voters.

But where Bernie, perhaps seeking to escape the outsider status conferred upon Jews of his parents’ generation and even his own, identified with the white working class, Justice Ginsburg maintained a sense of herself as a cultural minority for her entire life. Raised in a religiously observant family which consistently attended synagogue, Ginsburg explained her Jewishness in a 2018 interview with The Forward as a minority identity that explains her liberal politics and her instinctive sympathy for the underdog. For her, Jewish identity meant “the sense of being an outsider… of being part of a minority. It makes you more empathetic to other people who are not insiders, who are outsiders.”

This outsider status of Jews in the U.S. was no simple thing, however; in the same interview, Ginsburg argued that this Jewish otherness had an integral part to play in the American story. She believed that the memory of the Holocaust directly led the United States to confront its own persecution of its Black minority community, and argued that the Holocaust represented “the beginning of the end of apartheid in America… one of the major propelling forces to the Brown v. Board of Education decision.”

“When we were fighting a war against racism, how long could segregation in our own country persist?” She said in her interview with The Forward.

This sense that the Holocaust directly led the United States to right one of its own greatest immoralities, legal segregation, led Ginsburg to link her Jewishness with her legal career for her entire life. “My heritage as a Jew and my occupation as a judge fit together symmetrically,” she said.

For Ginsburg, Jewish identity meant the memory of great persecution, suffering, and otherness, but it was also part of the DNA of the American story, meaning Ginsburg saw her Jewishness as something of a paradox: both a distinctively minority identity and a profoundly American one.

She described her life’s journey, from the daughter of a Jewish immigrant from Odessa to a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, as a distinctively American story: “What is the difference between a bookkeeper in New York’s garment district and a Supreme Court Justice? Just one generation,” she said. “Where else but America could that happen?”

Ginsburg, like Sanders, was not religiously observant, due in large part to the painful experience of being excluded from participating in a minyan for her mother’s death because she was a woman. But unlike Sanders, she cultivated a profoundly Jewish identity that was secular and cultural in nature. And in so doing, she epitomized the way a majority of American Jews understand their Jewishness. As a Pew poll discovered, 62% of American Jews consider being Jewish to be mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, compared to only 15% who think it is primarily a matter of religion.

And when you ask American Jews what they think is most essential to being Jewish, the highest number, 73%, say it involves remembering the Holocaust – something Justice Ginsburg always described as foundational to her politics.

But Sanders, too, can lay claim to another very common form of American Jewishness. That same Pew poll found that 56% of American Jews say being Jewish means working for justice and equality, the pillars of Sanders’s career in politics. And millennial American Jews describe themselves by increasing margins as “Jews of no religion,” which perhaps most approximates Sanders’s view of himself.

For millennial American Jews, Bernie Sanders and Ruth Bader Ginsburg represent two alternative ways of living Jewishness through social justice. Both are, in their own way, profoundly Jewish, and both tried to live their Jewish identities through a concern for equality and social justice. But one tried to do this quietly, without talking much about being Jewish, while the other made it foundational to her public identity.

At a time when rising antisemitism and emboldened white nationalists are leading more and more American Jews to question whether our belonging is more fragile than we thought, when the president of the United States uses the occasion of Rosh Hashanah to question our Americanness, Justice Ginsburg’s faith that her Jewish identity was fully in consonance with her American identity, that Jewishness was a necessary part of the complete American tapestry, feels almost naively optimistic, and it can be tempting to retreat back to the quietude of a figure like Bernie Sanders.

But when the president does not seem to think American Jews are fully American, maybe that’s when we need the legacy of Ginsburg more than ever. Maybe that’s when we need to stand up and say: Our Jewishness means justice, inspired by our history, and we’re going to fight for it, here, where we are.

Joel Swanson is a contributing columnist for the Forward and a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying modern Jewish intellectual history and the philosophy of religions. Find him on Twitter @jh_swanson.

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