What Being Jewish Means to Bernie

In the 2016 race, Sanders said little about his Jewishness. Now, in his 2020 campaign, he’s speaking up.

David Klion
July 17, 2019
Chicago police arrest Bernie Sanders at a school segregation protest, August 13th, 1963. Photo: Chicago Sun-Times

THE FIRST TIME Bernie Sanders ran for president, he didn’t talk much about being Jewish. In fact, he didn’t talk much about himself at all. His 2016 primary campaign, like his whole political career, was relentlessly focused on one topic: income inequality, and the moral outrage of a system in which the wealthiest one percent control an ever-increasing share of society’s resources. Compared to many other politicians, who foreground their personal narratives in their campaigns, he seemed to think his biography was beside the point.

This did not pass without notice—or criticism. The New York Times, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, and Commentary all ran articles either implying or outright arguing that Sanders was somehow secretive or embarrassed about his heritage. Sanders himself only directly addressed the issue once, when he was asked about it during a March 2016 debate with Hillary Clinton. CNN’s Anderson Cooper cited an article in the Detroit News accusing Sanders of keeping his Judaism in the background, and asked whether that was intentional. Sanders said it was not, adding, “Look, my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. I know about what crazy and radical and extremist politics mean.” He then declared: “I’m very proud of being Jewish. And that’s an essential part of who I am as a human being.”

Despite his distinctively Jewish accent and mannerisms, and despite the fact that no Jew has ever won more support in a presidential primary in either party, Sanders has never been as publicly associated with Jewish pride as, for instance, Joe Lieberman was when he was selected as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000 (“Chutzpah!” read TIME’s cover). The differences between the two are instructive: Lieberman is an observant Jew, while Sanders does not regularly attend synagogue or participate in organized religious life; Lieberman’s wife is Jewish, while Sanders’s is Catholic; Lieberman is a centrist with strong ties to corporate donors, while Sanders is a democratic socialist who only accepts small donations; and Lieberman is a staunch supporter of Israel, while Sanders has been outspoken in his criticism of the occupation and his support for Palestinian rights. Lieberman, in short, is representative of mainstream Jewish institutions in the country, while Sanders is representative of a different strain of Jewish life—one that is likely familiar to Jewish Currents readers, but marginalized in national politics.

“How uncomfortable he is talking about Judaism is very familiar to me,” says Rebecca Katz, a New York-based Democratic strategist and former staffer to Sen. Harry Reid who supported Sanders in 2016. “There’s a difference between religious Jews and ethnic Jews, and he is very much an ethnic Jew . . . he’s very much a Brooklyn Jew. People who are not Jewish may not understand the distinction.”

Notwithstanding his perceived reticence in 2016, Sanders has been subtly yet consistently deploying references to his Jewish background in speeches and interviews since the beginning of his 2020 campaign—using his Jewishness as a way to express his democratic socialist values, to connect to oppressed minority communities, and to root himself in a wider struggle for justice. This isn’t a strategy to win Jewish votes; rather, it is intended to help voters of all backgrounds understand how growing up Jewish shaped Sanders’s worldview, and how it informs his radical approach to politics.

SANDERS SIGNALED THIS SHIFT at his campaign kick-off in March—a packed rally at Brooklyn College, which he attended as an undergraduate before transferring to the University of Chicago. The key turning point in his speech came after he finished laying out his standard themes and policy proposals. “As I return here to Brooklyn, let me take a moment to become personal,” he said. “As we launch this campaign for president, you deserve to know where I come from—because family history heavily influences the values that we adopt as adults.”

Sanders went on to tell his story, as he rarely has in public appearances. He grew up in a rent-controlled apartment not far from the campus. His father, a paint salesman, “came from Poland at the age of 17, without a nickel in his pocket. Without knowing one word of English. He came to the US to escape the crushing poverty that existed in his community, and to escape widespread antisemitism. And it was a good thing that he came to this country, because virtually his entire family was wiped out by Hitler and Nazi barbarism.”

“I know where I came from!” he bellowed, veering off script. “And that is something I will never forget.” The crowd, which certainly contained its share of young people with similar family backgrounds, roared with approval. Sanders, finally, was telling his supporters that the values he brought to the race were rooted in his own experiences as a Jew: a working-class son of an immigrant, a Brooklyn native, and someone for whom the Holocaust was deeply personal.

“I think there’s a lot of pain and trauma about what happened to his family,” says David Sirota, a Sanders adviser who consulted on the Brooklyn College speech, and who is also Jewish. “I do think that [speech] was an important moment for him in that he let people see that pain. And frankly, I don’t think it was all that easy for him.”

Later that month, Sanders spoke at the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles in the wake of the New Zealand mosque shootings. “Let me do something that I have been criticized for not doing as a politician and be a little bit personal,” he said at the beginning of his remarks. Sanders went on to say that there were two forces that shaped his political views. One was growing up without a lot of money, and the other was being Jewish. He described crying when he would read books about the Holocaust as a child and being unable to understand “why people would do such terrible things to other people.” But then, he said, he got older and studied the history of the Native American genocide, of slavery, and of discrimination against minority groups in general. He explicitly connected these experiences with the Holocaust, and the struggles of immigrant groups today with those of his own family, and he pledged to stand up against all kinds of hatred. “Your background is different from mine,” he said. “What a joy it is to share that.”

“You can see the anger as he talked about it,” says Faiz Shakir, Sanders’s campaign manager, who is the first Muslim ever to run a US presidential campaign. Shakir emphasizes how Sanders uses these traumatic communal experiences to affirm common humanity, which he sees as an antidote to Donald Trump, “a president who’s making you look over your shoulder and see that you’re somehow different than one another, that maybe you came from a different place, speak a different language, practice a different faith, and that that’s a bad thing.”

“He’s talking about [his Jewish identity] where it makes sense,” says Ari Rabin-Havt, Sanders’s chief of staff, who is Jewish. “It’s part of the story of where he gets his empathy from.”

In June, Sanders spoke with Margaret Brennan on CBS’s Face the Nation, who asked him to comment on Jared Kushner’s “peace plan” for the Middle East, which involves no input from Palestinians. Sanders mentioned that he once lived in Israel (he spent several months on a kibbutz in 1963) and that he has family there, then pivoted to decrying the humanitarian conditions in Gaza and saying he would potentially be willing to condition military aid to Israel on their treatment of the Palestinians. His defiance of the Israel lobby’s uncompromising position was not new—Sanders notably spoke up for Palestinian rights in a debate with Clinton in 2016—but his citing of his own Jewish roots for credibility was.

“There’s been an effort over many, many years to try to equate being a good Jew with never offering up any policy critique or concerns about the behavior of the Israeli government, and Bernie has rejected that,” says Sirota. “Bernie is Jewish and he has raised substantive concerns with the behavior of the Netanyahu government, and those two things can exist together. Maybe he hasn’t explicitly said that, but just by being who he is, he transmits that.”

Sanders was the first candidate IfNotNow reached out to as part of its campaign this summer to get primary candidates to pledge opposition to Israel’s occupation. Last month, a group of activists in New Hampshire asked Sanders to be photographed with a sign reading “Jews Against the Occupation.” The resulting image is striking: the 77-year-old Sanders is surrounded by Jewish activists in their 20s, a visual representation of the transmission of an earlier era’s progressive Jewish values to a new, politically engaged generation. While some of the other candidates have taken IfNotNow’s pledge, there’s a unique power in Sanders’s ability and willingness to declare himself a Jew against the occupation.

Last week, the New York Times reported that Sanders aides have been pushing the candidate to disclose more about his Jewish story. They note, for instance, that when he visited the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh following the shooting there last fall, he met privately with a rabbi, but at the time instructed his staff not to inform the media about this, an embargo they now appear to be reconsidering.

“Afterwards, I could tell it wasn’t something that he really wanted out publicly,” says Shakir, referring to the Tree of Life meeting. “It wasn’t something he was eager to go out and discuss. It was something that was done more for his soul, really.”

On the one hand, Sanders is a genuinely private person, and his unwillingness to exploit such a sensitive moment could be read as a refreshing rebuke to this overwhelmingly crass political era. On the other, his decision not to publicly disclose this embrace of his Jewishness—and thus not to emphasize it even when visiting a synagogue in the wake of an antisemitic attack—crystallizes why his Jewish critics might see him as ashamed of his background. But there is also a third interpretation: that Sanders’s choice to keep his meeting with the rabbi private was itself a manifestation of his relationship to his Jewishness, which seems to matter to him not principally as a reflection of himself, but rather as a spur to act on behalf of others.

THE AIDES I SPOKE WITH all say that Sanders’s low-key references to his Jewish heritage are not an explicit strategic decision. But they are certainly aware of that heritage, and of what it means in historical context.

“Of course it has a huge significance. And I think denying that would be silly,” says Rabin-Havt. “When John F. Kennedy was elected as the first Catholic president, that was a barrier broken.” But whereas Kennedy was an iconic figure for American Catholics at the time, Rabin-Havt acknowledges that Sanders is not similarly revered by American Jews writ large. “The pro-Israel people obviously don’t like his policies,” he says, adding that older voters in general, Jewish or not, are not Sanders’s core supporters.

Sanders declined to attend AIPAC’s annual conference in Washington this year. In April, on the eve of Israel’s parliamentary elections, he accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of appealing to racism and said he hoped Netanyahu would lose re-election (he didn’t, although his failure to form a coalition means new elections will be held soon). Rabin-Havt points out that despite Sanders’s criticisms of Israel, “his story is in kind of the Zionist tradition,” pointing to his time on a kibbutz. “I don’t know if he feels Israel has changed,” he adds. “He certainly feels like Netanyahu as a right-wing leader is a shande.”

Sanders is also conscious of antisemitism directed at him, and was personally offended by a May Politico article, “The Secret of Bernie’s Millions.” The article came in response to Sanders disclosing a net worth of less than $2 million (significantly lower than many of his Senate colleagues and primary rivals), owing to book sales and nearly 30 years spent earning a congressional salary. It included an illustration of the candidate next to a tree with hundred-dollar bills for leaves and a fancy-looking mansion that Sanders doesn’t actually own. “It played on like seven antisemitic tropes,” says Rabin-Havt. “He was personally shocked by that and it was a jarring moment that that level of antisemitism was in a mainstream publication.” Politico never apologized for the illustration, which they also promoted on Twitter to significant outcry. Rabin-Havt says that Sanders was still fuming about the illustration weeks later, and Shakir independently brought this incident up in our interview.

Everyone I spoke with pointed to Sanders’s progressive values as key to his relationship to Judaism. “The secular Jewish social justice warrior is a real archetype in American society and culture,” says Sirota. “Justice is so central in Judaism. When he uses that term ‘justice’—social justice, racial justice, economic justice—I don’t think it’s a throwaway line. I think that is the frame through which he sees the world, and I think that clearly connects to his heritage.” In other words, Sanders represents an era of Jewish labor and civil rights activism that was vibrant in the pre-McCarthy New York he was born into, and that has since been suppressed relative to other signifiers of Jewishness in the political arena: Zionism, religiosity, and bourgeois materialism chief among them. This could account for why the emerging young Jewish left, which is reconsidering all of these values, is drawn to Sanders’s strain of Jewishness.

Sirota does acknowledge that he and Sanders haven’t directly discussed Jewish identity in the two decades they’ve known each other. But, he says, “just because he doesn’t expound on his Jewish roots doesn’t mean they’re not part of who he is and doesn’t mean that he doesn’t accept and embrace his own heritage.”

Sanders himself did not end up speaking to me for this article, ostensibly because his demanding schedule as a primary candidate didn’t allow for it. But based on everything his aides told me, it’s also possible that devoting an entire interview to his own Jewish identity would be out of character for Sanders. What he takes from that identity, after all, isn’t ultimately about him.

David Klion is a writer and a contributing editor at Jewish Currents.