Bernie Sanders Bids for Jewish History

The Vermont senator isn’t religious, but a victory in Iowa or New Hampshire would be the first ever for a Jewish presidential candidate.

Jae C. Hong / AP

You wouldn’t know it from listening to his speeches, but Bernie Sanders is on the verge of making political history.

If the Vermont senator defeats Hillary Clinton in either Iowa or New Hampshire in the next two weeks, he’ll become the first Jewish candidate to win a nominating contest in either major party. The milestone is both significant and overlooked, in part because Sanders talks so little about his faith and, well, because there’s that other candidate trying to break a glass ceiling in 2016.

In many ways, it’s the lack of attention to Sanders’s Judaism that Jewish leaders find most exciting. “It’s the most wonderful anti-climax in American Jewish history,” said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “You have a guy who is from New York with a Brooklyn accent named Bernie who is a viable presidential candidate and nobody is discussing it, which to me is just a remarkable statement of the success of the American Jewish community to be fully integrated and distinct at the same time.”

The last serious Jewish presidential contender was Joe Lieberman in 2004, who sought the top job after serving as Al Gore’s running mate four years earlier. Lieberman never caught fire with Democratic primary voters and dropped out after failing to win a primary, a caucus, or even a single delegate. Yet Lieberman’s Judaism was a major part of his political identity. He was closely associated with Jewish causes and his staunch support of Israel, talked openly about his faith, and didn’t campaign on the Sabbath.

The same is not true of Sanders. His Brooklyn growl evokes a cultural Jewish identity every bit as strong as that of Chuck Schumer or his Saturday Night Live dopplegänger, Larry David. But he is more likely to talk about Pope Francis than any inspiration he draws from his own religion. For the most part, Sanders only discusses his Judaism if asked, such as last June, in the aftermath of an erroneous report mentioned by NPR’s Diane Rehm that he held dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship. “I’m proud to be Jewish,” Sanders said at a breakfast event in Washington. He added that he was “not particularly religious.” When Jimmy Kimmel asked Sanders in October if he believed in God, he didn’t answer directly. “I am who I am,” Sanders replied. “What I believe in and what my spirituality is about is that we’re all in this together, that I think it is not a good thing to believe as human beings that we can turn our backs on other people.”

“And this is not Judaism,” he added. “This is what Pope Francis is talking about.”

He struck a similar note a month earlier during his speech at Liberty University in Virginia, the evangelical school founded by Jerry Falwell where he linked himself to the pontiff’s message of social justice but mentioned Judaism only in the context of “the great religions,” and not as his own. (He made his appearance at Liberty on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.)

“He hardly could run away from it—everyone knows he looks like Larry David,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and the chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. “But at the same time, I don’t think that the leadership of the Jewish community views him as one of their own in the way that they viewed Lieberman or that Zionists might have viewed Brandeis.” Sarna noted that the Iowa caucus—a potential history-making moment for Sanders—will come just a few days after the 100th anniversary of President Woodrow Wilson’s nomination of Louis Brandeis to be the first Jewish justice of the Supreme Court. “Perhaps what’s important is that it’s a nonissue, just as it’s a nonissue that there are three Jewish Supreme Court justices,” Sarna said. (The fact that the other six justices are all Catholic has actually drawn significantly more attention.)

Sanders has spoken more in recent months about his upbringing in Brooklyn, telling The New Yorker that growing up Jewish had an influence on him politically if not religiously. His father emigrated to the U.S. from Poland, and many of his relatives died in Europe during World War II. “An election in 1932,” he said, “ended up killing 50 million people around the world.” As a young man, Sanders briefly lived and worked on a kibbutz in Israel.

Sanders’ wife Jane is not Jewish, and he is not known to be involved in the small Jewish community back home in Vermont. “He just doesn’t connect with organized Jewish religion,” said Rabbi James Glazier, the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai, a reform congregation in South Burlington. Glazier said that while he had seen Sanders attend a prayer service after the death of the father of a longtime friend, he had not been receptive to efforts over the years to draw him into the community. “This isn’t his comfort zone,” Glazier told me. “The doors of the Jewish community are open, and he knows he can walk in, and he knows he’ll be accepted. But we stopped asking because it would be insulting to keep on asking.”

As Glazier noted, because Jews make up such a tiny portion of the population in Vermont, Sanders has never felt pressure either to embrace his heritage or to take strong stands on Israel and other issues important to Jewish voters. That is also the case in Iowa and New Hampshire, but the dynamic might change as the Democratic primary shifts to states like New York and Florida. And he’s going up against a candidate in Clinton who has typically enjoyed strong support among Jews.

Will it matter to voters that Sanders is Jewish? Not likely, according to a Pew Research Center report released on Wednesday. Whether a candidate was Jewish mattered the least to people of any of a long list of traits—eight in 10 said they didn’t care. And while nearly 40 percent of respondents had the (apparently inaccurate) impression that Sanders was somewhat or very religious, that was a lower percentage than for any candidate except for Donald Trump.

If Sanders upsets Clinton and wins the nomination, he may face extra competition for the title of first Jewish president in the person of Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor reportedly considering a run for the third consecutive election. (He’s never actually pulled the trigger.) A Sanders victory in November, meanwhile, would be historic in several respects. He’d be the oldest person ever elected, not to mention the first president to embrace the label of “socialist” as part of his political identity. But with enough support to win delegates in Iowa, and a commanding lead in New Hampshire, Sanders might not have to wait that long to achieve a key cultural milestone: He’d be the most successful Jewish presidential candidate ever—whether he wants to talk about it or not.