Polling in second place among Democratic presidential hopefuls, Bernie Sanders is a high-profile candidate who happens to be Jewish. So how come no one is talking about his Jewishness?
The 74-year-old even has a Brooklyn accent — the classic cultural sound of American Judaism. Yet the faith of the Vermont senator seems largely absent from the public narrative.
Part of this is likely because Sanders has over the decades not spoken often about his Judaism or what he believes or practices, according to profiles of him. Now the highly private Sanders seems to be opening the window a bit as a presidential candidate, if only to make the case that his drive for economic justice is deeply rooted in his philosophical DNA, and is even tribal.
This week Sanders gave some of his most detailed comments about the impact of his faith, telling the New Yorker that two aspects of his lower-middle-class, World War II-era upbringing “exerted a lasting influence.” One was never having much money.
“And the other was growing up Jewish — less for the religious content than for the sense it imbued in him that politics mattered,” the New Yorker reported.
“Sanders told me that, in the aftermath of the Second World War, his family ‘got a call in the middle of the night about some relative of my father’s, who was in a displaced-persons camp in Europe someplace.’ Sanders learned that many of his father’s other relatives had perished. Sanders’s parents had been fundamentally apolitical, but he took away a lesson: ‘An election in 1932 ended up killing fifty million people around the world,’” the New Yorker piece said.
Sanders also gave a talk a few weeks ago to what you could say is one of the most important religious audiences in the country. He addressed the weekly convocation at Liberty University. Thousands of students come to the convocation, which has become a must-stop for presidential candidates.
At Liberty, he never said any explicit words about Judaism or identified himself as Jewish, but he framed his entire argument about the need to repair America’s economic inequality in religious — and moral terms.
“Let me take a moment, or a few moments, to tell you what motivates me in the work that I do as a public servant, as a senator from the state of Vermont. And let me tell you that it goes without saying, I am far, far from being a perfect human being, but I am motivated by a vision, which exists in all of the great religions, in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam and Buddhism and other religions.
“And that vision is so beautifully and clearly stated in Matthew 7:12, and it states, ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them to do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets.’ That is the golden rule. Do unto others, what you would have them do to you. That is the golden rule, and it is not very complicated,” Sanders said at Liberty.
It’s hard to tell yet what impact Sanders’s faith will have — if any — on his campaign for president, or what impact his apparent lack of affiliation will have. He doesn’t seem to identify with a particular branch of Judaism.
A Gallup poll this summer said 91 percent of Americans said they would vote for a Jewish person for president. That’s higher than the percent who said they’d vote for a Mormon (81 percent), evangelical Christian (73 percent), Muslim (60 percent) or an atheist (58 percent). The lowest characteristic on the scale was Sanders’s political identification: socialist. Only 47 percent said they would vote for a socialist.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, head of advocacy and social justice for the largest segment of Judaism — the Reform Movement — said the news is that Sanders’s faith isn’t news.
“What’s significant here is that we have a viable candidate for presidency who is not only Jewish but has a Brooklyn accent, and it’s not a big deal,” Pesner said Tuesday. “And although he is not a particularly public candidate about his faith, he focuses on issues which resonate with the words of the Hebrew prophets. Many of us find language around income inequality very consistent with our own sense of Jewish social justice.”
One of the largest recent research projects on American Jews showed that “working for justice/equality” was the third-highest category when people were asked to describe what is an essential part of being a Jew. Only “remembering the Holocaust” and “leading an ethical/moral life” were higher in the 2013 Pew survey.
Steve Rabinowitz, a longtime political and public relations strategist who represents many Jewish and Democratic groups, said Sanders “has effectively gone further toward capturing a major party nomination for president than has any Jewish candidate before him.” Only Joe Lieberman, who led early polls in the 2004 campaign and was 2000 Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore’s running mate, ever came this close. Lieberman failed to win a single caucus or primary in the 2004 race, while Sanders currently seems very competitive in two key early states — New Hampshire (where some polls show him leading Hillary Rodham Clinton) and Iowa (where they are neck-and-neck).
“He’s certainly getting crowds Joe Lieberman never got on his own,” Rabinowitz said.
A recent profile of Sanders in the Tablet, a Jewish digital publication, described how Sanders’s father, Eli, emigrated in 1921 from a rural village in the south of Poland, where all Jewish businesses were closed down and Jews’ goods confiscated. “Most of Eli’s family was sent to concentration camps where they were killed,” the Tablet reported.
It quoted Sanders’s older brother, Larry, as saying that for the two of them, “the two political figures who held the greatest influence were Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt. ‘Politics could go desperately wrong,’ Larry said, ‘but it could also have a positive impact.'”
They studied on weekends at Hebrew school, Larry Sanders told the Tablet. The biblical stories they learned did not hold great religious significance. “Rather, in them, justice, and the way humans must distinguish right from wrong were plainly evident.”
It’s not clear how Sanders’s discussion of faith will play out. At Liberty, for example, some heard an unfamiliar ring in his depiction of religion being about morality primarily.
Karen Swallow Prior, an English professor at Liberty and a popular evangelical speaker, said Sanders presented Christianity as being “a faith based on right and wrong as opposed to a faith based on grace.” She blamed conservative evangelicals who frame their faith that way, not Sanders, for that characterization. But it shows the risks politicians may feel they take when they place their beliefs in a religious context.
He didn’t mention it, but Sanders also appeared at Liberty on Rosh Hashana, one of the primary Jewish holidays and one of the few days even unobservant Jews tend to attend synagogue.
Regardless, to some Sanders looked very much the Jew that afternoon.
“He was talking [at Liberty] like a rabbi! Like a rabbi banging on the podium, telling the congregation what’s most important,” said Gerald Sorin, director of the Jewish Studies Program at the State University of New York at New Paltz, near Vermont. “His words come right out of the prophets.”
As Sanders is opening up a bit on the impact of his faith, said Sorin, who has followed Sanders over the years, he’s making clear that “he kind of drank in political philosophy of Jewishness with his mother’s milk. These kinds of things were talked about around Jewish kitchen tables.”
Many readers seemed stirred by the question I posed in the first paragraph: Why aren’t we talking about the faith of a man who may go further in running for president than any other Jew?
Here’s a small sampling of responses:
This post has been updated.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misquoted Bernie Sanders’ speech at Liberty University. He said “the law and the prophets.”