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The ambiguous faith of Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders is the first American Jew to mount a credible campaign for the White House.

Yet, the American Jewish community has not rallied around him, nor has there been any Jewish groundswell of public pride. There are no calls for Jews to support their fellow Jew.

It’s because Sanders has almost nothing to do with the American Jewish community or its organizations and concerns.

Though his parents were European Jews — his father came to America at age 17 — and lived in the very Jewish milieu of Brooklyn, New York, a campaign ad describes Sanders simply as “the son of a Polish immigrant.”

Rabbi Michael Paley of New York, who knew Sanders in Vermont, was surprised by this. “Nobody in Poland would have considered Bernie a Pole,” Rabbi Paley said.

But Sanders is more than part of the growing category that Jewish demographers identify as “just Jewish.” He is a modern example of a specific historical type: what Isaac Deutscher, the biographer of the Soviet Communist Leon Trotsky, referred to as the “non-Jewish Jew.”

These were people who became socialists, Communists, and anarchists by fervently embracing “universalist” ideals, and leaving behind the “parochialism” of Judaism.

Following in the footsteps of earlier Jewish radicals, Sanders was caught up in the left-wing movements of the 1960s. While at the University of Chicago, he joined radical student organizations like the Young People’s Socialist League and the Congress of Racial Equality.

After college, he was part of a mini-migration to Vermont of socially conscious urbanites going “back to the land.”

His political career in Vermont began with the Liberty Union Party, which grew out of the anti-war and civil rights movements.

Today, Sanders preaches his own secular brand of social justice gospel. Socialism, not an attenuated Judaism, is his real religion.

At a rally last October, Sanders told his listeners that racism is a tool that politicians and the wealthy elites use to keep workers divided. By pitting black against white, men against women, and straight against gay, “that’s how the rich got richer while everybody else was fighting each other.”

This is a speech that, with few modifications, could have been made by any number of socialists 80 years ago.

In his Middle East policy, Sanders supports a two-state solution guaranteeing Israel’s right to exist as well as a Palestinian homeland, and also backed the administration’s deal to end sanctions against Iran.

Gal Beckerman, a former opinion editor at the Forward, the New York left-of-centre Jewish newspaper, has suggested that Sanders is actually representative of the direction the American Jewish community is headed.

“A majority of American Jews have tried hard to balance their liberalism with an identity that was also connected to tradition and religion, through Reform and Conservative Judaism, and an allegiance to Israel,” he contended in a Feb. 15 New York Times article. But a 2013 Pew Research Center survey “suggests that the socialist worldview is winning out.”

When asked what it means to be Jewish, 69 per cent of respondents answered “leading an ethical life,” and 56 per cent chose “working for justice and equality.” Only 19 per cent said it had to do with “observing Jewish law.”

But this is “winning” by losing! All of these Jews with no connection to Judaism and Israel are, at most, one- or two-generation Jews. “Jewishness” for them is a cultural memory, at best, one that remains part of a childhood nostalgia revolving around food and song, and won’t be passed on.

Certainly their grandchildren most likely won’t be Jewish, as almost all of their children will have married non-Jews.

Such people, like many before them through the centuries, can be filed under the label “l’origine juif,” as the French say. But without actual Jews, not simply those who were born Jewish, there can be no Judaism or a Jewish people.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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