Bernie Sanders Will Never Not Be Jewish
The media continues to lament the lack of diversity in the primary race, ignoring the fact that Sanders is Jewish American
Of all the words that have been spoken and the ink that’s been spilled over Bernie Sanders’ Jewishness, nothing quite encapsulates his identity like a Saturday Night Live skit from 2016. In it, Sanders plays an immigrant aboard a ship to America; Larry David (whose own impersonation of Sanders has drawn plenty of praise) plays another, wealthier passenger.
“Who are you?” asks David’s character.
“I am Bernie Sanderswitzky,” Sanders replies. “But we’re gonna change it when we get to America, so it doesn’t sound quite so Jewish.”
“Yeah, that’ll trick them,” David says coyly.
The joke is clear: No matter how much distance he can try to put between himself and his Jewish heritage, Sanders’ voice and mannerisms immediately reveal his identity. So why do so many on the left continue to either discount or ignore it?
Following Elizabeth Warren’s departure from the presidential primary, BuzzFeed reporter Molly Hensley-Clancy wrote that her exit “leaves the presidential race primarily between two old white men.” At the Washington Post, opinion columnist Kathleen Parker noted that “now all we have to choose between are two septuagenarian white men.” The New Yorker’s Eric Lach wrote that “the Democratic Party has done a giant backflip this past year, ending where it started, as a battle between Sanders and Biden, two old white men with contrary cases to make for what the Democratic Party needs to do to beat Trump — and what the country needs in its next President.” In CNN, Jeff Yang reiterated this, writing, “the most broadly diverse Democratic candidate field in history has boiled down, once again, to two old, heterosexual white men.” Not a single one of these pieces acknowledges that Sanders is Jewish.
Part of the reason for this erasure is by Sanders’ own design: Throughout his political career, he’s avoided talking about his Jewish upbringing. In 2015, Sanders said, “I’m proud to be Jewish. I’m not particularly religious.” A New York Times headline from February 2016 reads: “Bernie Sanders Is Jewish, but He Doesn’t Like to Talk About It.” The piece details how Sanders tends to talk about his father as a Polish immigrant, not a Jewish one. And during a debate in the 2016 primary, Sanders said he would make history as “somebody with my background, somebody with my views,” but failing to explicitly mention his background: that he’s Jewish. (A month later he clarified, saying he was “very proud of being Jewish.”)
Yet, this time around, Sanders has explicitly leaned into his identity as a Jew, talking about what it would mean to be the first Jewish president (an outcome that looks increasingly unlikely after a poor showing in Tuesday’s primaries), and the impact anti-Semitism has had on his family. His campaign has released multiple videos centered around his Jewish identity. During a town hall in February, Sanders said being Jewish was one of the major factors to impact his outlook. Sanders’ Jewishness has resonated with his Jewish supporters; some have even taken to calling him “Zayde Bernie” (Zayde being the Yiddish word for grandfather).
You can’t untangle Bernie Sanders’ Jewishness from his politics, no matter how much you want to call him just another old white guy.
Yet many journalists seem to either not understand or simply not care about Sanders’s Jewish heritage. Any time Sanders is on the debate stage, there’s a fresh round of tweets criticizing his speaking style. “Why is he shouting?” Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen asked during an early debate. “Bernie speaks in a tone and at a volume my entire body rejects,” tweeted actress Yvette Nicole Brown. “I really liked that first sentence of Bernie’s statement before he started yelling at me,” tweeted author Jeff Chu during a July debate.
In response to these critiques, many Jews have asked, have you ever met a Jewish person?
For many Jewish Americans like myself, there is something deeply familiar about Sanders. His Jewishness is evident in the volume of his voice, in the pronunciation of certain words, in how he uses his hands to illustrate a point, and his tendency to interrupt others. These are all parts of Jewish speech, in particular the speech of Brooklyn Jews.
Sanders grew up in Brooklyn, though he hasn’t lived in New York since 1968. At age 27, he moved to Vermont, and he’s been there ever since. But you would have no idea he was a Vermonter by the way he speaks. Like many Brooklynites, Sanders rarely pronounces the letter “r” — “billionaires” become “billionaihes,” and “Sanders” become “Sandahs.”And, like so many Jewish people, he is unable to talk without moving his hands, constantly gesticulating to make a point. This is, clearly, a Brooklyn Jew speaking.
Recognizing Sanders’ Jewishness acknowledges just one of the factors that shaped him into the politician he is today. In 1963, Sanders spent a few months living on Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’amakim in Israel. But Sanders’s entire upbringing in a Jewish community undeniably shaped his worldview. Speaking at last year’s J Street’s conference, Sanders said:
If there is any people on Earth who understands the danger of racism and white nationalism, it is certainly the Jewish people. And if there is any people on Earth who should do everything humanly possible to fight against Trump’s effort to try to divide us up by the color of our skin, or our language, our religion, or where we were born — if there’s any group on Earth that should be trying to bring people together around a common and progressive agenda, it is the Jewish people.
This can be read as Sanders talking about himself. As a Jewish person, he understands the danger of racism and white nationalism, especially since a significant portion of his family was killed in the Holocaust. He believes it is his responsibility, as a Jewish person, to fight Trump’s divisiveness and create unity around a progressive agenda.
Every Jewish American has a different understanding of what it means to be a Jew in this country in 2020 — there’s a popular expression, “two Jews, three opinions” — and Sanders is no different. His Jewishness is wrapped up just as much in his inability to pronounce the letter “r” as it is his time spent on a socialist kibbutz. You can’t untangle his Jewishness from his politics, no matter how much you want to call him just another old white guy.
Yes, the Democratic primary field has narrowed to two elderly white men, but one of those two is unlike every other white man who has come before him. To deny this would be erasure, and that sort of dismissal can lead down a dark path. During a campaign speech at a Sanders rally in Phoenix earlier this month, an attendee unfurled a swastika flag in the audience. The Anti-Defamation League soon identified the man as Robert Sterkeson, a white supremacist who has a documented history of anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim bigotry.
Sanders said he was shocked to learn about the swastika flag, calling it “horrific” and “beyond disgusting.” It was a terrifying reminder that Sanders is not just another white man, he’s a Jewish candidate. The far-right will never forget that; progressives shouldn’t either.