To those who know Bloomberg well and even spent years working for him, this is a surprising turn. As mayor, he was more of the stop-by-synagogue-on-Rosh-Hashanah kind of observer, not the guy who’d make a not-so-subtle reference to Donald Trump as “a pharaoh who knows not Joseph,” and speak about “standing together, rejecting demagogues who try to seduce us by playing us against each other, and uniting behind the only shield that can protect us: our common values as American citizens and our common humanity as God’s children.” Bloomberg went all in, going directly from “When Moses descended from Mount Sinai, he smashed the golden calf and raised high a tablet of laws,” to noting that Monday is “the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation,” and recalling his own visit to the death camp a few years ago.
This wasn’t a speech like any presidential candidate has delivered before—and that includes Sanders. Before launching his 2020 campaign, Sanders rarely discussed his Jewish roots, publicly or privately. Sanders superfans know he spent a few months after college in Israel working on a kibbutz, but he’s talked about that more through his socialism than through any connection to the Jewish state. For years, Sanders referred to his father as a “Polish immigrant,” which some saw as a pointed erasure of his identity—when Eli Sanders arrived in America, after all, his passport from the Polish government would have listed his nationality as “Jew.” Jewish leaders have criticized him for decisions like speaking at the evangelical Liberty University in 2015 on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
Discussing his personal life doesn’t come naturally to Sanders, either, and aides’ efforts to get him to speak more about his own story last spring didn’t lead to much. When Sanders does speak of his Jewishness, it tends to be in the context of larger values. At the Hanukkah celebration at the ice rink in Des Moines, Sanders condemned the stabbing attack that had just happened at a a rabbi’s house in New York. He mentioned that his father’s family had been “wiped out” by the Nazis, but spoke about it as instilling in him basic humanist values. His father fled anti-Semitism, he said, as well as violence and “terrible, terrible poverty.” That, he said, is what America is supposed to be about: “What makes this country great is that we have people here from hundreds and hundreds of countries all over the world.” That, Sanders and his supporters would argue, has much more in common with Jewish values than Bloomberg’s style of economic policy, which boosted the rich during his time as mayor.
“I am what I am” is how Sanders put it in 2015, when Jimmy Kimmel asked whether he believed in God. “And what I believe in, and what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together.” This view has evolved. In October, in an appearance in Washington at the national conference of J Street—a progressive organization that aims to influence American policy toward Israel—Sanders stood up during his interview and said, “I am very proud to be Jewish. I look forward to being the first Jewish president in the history of this country.”