On Sunday night, Sen. Bernie Sanders said onstage in a Democratic debate, “I am very proud of being Jewish. Being Jewish is so much of what I am.”
On Monday morning, someone was probably talking about that line at The Temple in Atlanta.
At the historic Atlanta synagogue, Rabbi Peter S. Berg said, the presidential campaign is a constant topic of conversation — especially in this year in which Sanders, the first Jewish candidate to ever win even a single state’s primary or caucus, has won eight of them so far.
“There is hardly a conversation where it doesn’t come up,” Berg said. “People make comments in our Torah study classes. People talk at the oneg Shabbat after the service.”
But all that talk doesn’t appear to be translating into extra votes. Sanders has already come closer to the White House than any Jew in history, yet it’s not clear that he is inspiring Jews to be any more likely to vote for him than non-Jewish Americans with similar demographics.
“The people I know who are supporting Sanders don’t seem to be doing it because he’s Jewish. Then there are many people I know who are supporting Hillary Clinton, even though they’re proud that Sanders is Jewish,” Berg said. “That’s unusual.”
Unusual indeed. In 2000, when then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Conn.) ran for vice president, chosen by Vice President Al Gore to complete his ticket, Jews swelled with naches, and many observers thought that that pride translated into at least a small uptick at the polls for Gore among Jewish voters.
“Back in 2000, Al Gore’s decision to tap Lieberman as his running mate set off what felt like a months-long national bar mitzvah bash,” Ami Eden wrote for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency last month. This time around, that isn’t happening.
“Bernie Sanders isn’t getting any extra Jewish votes because of his own Judaism,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Jewish Democratic political consultant who worked in the Clinton White House. “Many, many Jews are very proud that Sanders has done so well — and it’s not generating any extra votes.”
Is it because Sanders is not observant, whereas Lieberman wore a kippah and strictly avoided work on the Sabbath? Is it because Sanders rarely brings up his religion unless prompted by a questioner, and even refused to name the kibbutz where he worked in Israel as a young man?
“All the Jews over 40 are with Hillary Clinton. They just are. We just are,” Rabinowitz said. He was with Clinton before she even declared she was in the race, as a co-founder of a group called Jewish Americans Ready for Hillary.
Among young Jews, Sanders has a strong following — just as he has drawn devoted supporters among young Democrats of all religions. However, many of those young Americans less reliably come out to the polls.
The reasons that Jews as a whole seem not to be enthusiastic Sanders supporters are multifaceted, and difficult to fully ascertain since most national polling does not report which candidates Jews have voted for in the primaries and caucuses, or who they say they will support.
Most Jews are Democrats — 64 percent, compared to 26 percent who are Republican, according to Pew. Beyond that, it’s all guesswork.
Steven Windmueller, a professor at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles who studies Jewish American political behavior, has tried in vain to find good data on the subject. “The Sanders identity issue doesn’t seem to be a factor one way or the other. My perception is that he’s trailing Secretary Clinton,” Windmueller said. “If I had to make a guess here, I would guess she is receiving overwhelmingly the support of the Jewish community.”
Sanders’s background is apparent every time he opens his mouth, his Brooklyn accent making many think he might sound right at home at their Passover seders. But he rarely speaks unprompted about Judaism.
“Because he so much downplays his Jewishness, he doesn’t invite a triumphant ethnocentric response of people who would say, ‘I’m Jewish; he’s Jewish,'” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the director of the Religious Action Center, which is the nonpartisan political activism arm of Reform Judaism, the most numerous and generally the most liberal of the Jewish denominations in America.
Pesner also theorized that Sanders’s candidacy does not feel so unprecedented to most American Jews, thus dimming the enthusiasm for a historic campaign.
“It’s not like Joe Lieberman, where it really felt remarkable. Now, it’s not remarkable. Fifteen years is a long time,” Pesner said. “We’ve had a black president. Don’t underestimate what that means to the Jewish community.”
Pesner speculated that seeing one minority candidate achieve the nation’s highest office has eased the anxieties about acceptance among other minority groups, including Jews, who make up about 2 percent of the American population. Mitt Romney, a Mormon who became the Republican nominee in 2012, seemed to prove the same point.
Windmueller echoed that. “A number of things have changed. The election of a black president has already broken the color line…. Everyone or anyone can see him or herself or her group in the political mix.”
Sanders is also up against an opponent with deep ties to the Jewish community. The Clintons have long enjoyed the support of many Jewish voters, including some significant donors.
“We like Hillary Clinton. We’ve known her well for many, many years. We’ve worked with her. There’s a tremendous comfort level,” said Rabinowitz, the former Bill Clinton staffer. “Bernie Sanders? Eh, don’t know him so well. Like him. Excited for him. Proud about his success. But we’re with the other guy.”
Clinton added a director of Jewish outreach to her campaign in January, naming strategist Sarah Bard to the position. The Sanders campaign, which did not respond to an inquiry about its outreach to Jewish voters, does not appear to have such a staff position.
And Clinton even has Jewish ties in her own family — her daughter Chelsea has a Jewish husband, Marc Mezvinsky. (Donald Trump, incidentally, has a Jewish son-in-law as well. His daughter Ivanka converted to Orthodox Judaism when she married her husband.)
And many of the country’s most prominent pro-Israel donors have lined up behind Clinton, who has long nurtured close ties with the U.S. Jewish community and showcased her strong support for the Jewish state. Sanders, in contrast, has emphasized his pro-Israel views less over the course of his political career.
But only Sanders can ignite intense identification among Jewish voters, and the pride that follows that spark of familiarity — whether or not that translates to votes.
Asked whether he keeps his religion in the background, he responded emphatically at Sunday’s Democratic debate.
“Look, my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust,” he said. “I know about what crazy and radical and extremist politics mean. I learned that lesson as a tiny, tiny child when my mother would take me shopping, and we would see people working in stores who had numbers on their arms, because they were in Hitler’s concentration camp.”
Gesturing with both hands, he said, “I am very proud of being Jewish, and that is an essential part of who I am as a human being.”