Whatever your beliefs about Bernie Sanders, the fact of the matter is that he is one of very few recent Jewish presidential candidates. And it is certainly true that this identity holds weight with voters, whether beneficial or detrimental.
Twice now, Sanders has gotten within inches of the Democratic nomination and potentially the presidency. Sure, some people are not a huge fan of Democratic Socialism. Regardless, the Vermont senator is incredibly experienced in politics and has been religiously fighting for civil rights and liberties for decades now. HIs devotion is clear. Yet somehow, Sanders has fallen short two election cycles in a row.
So why is that? Some Jews believe that his Jewish identity may have something to do with it.
During Sanders’ first presidential campaign, he was originally more private about being Jewish. This raised some eyebrows with Jewish voters, but usually kept him out of dangerous conversations about Israel or American Christian values. Still, he was a sizable target for anti-Semitism along the campaign trail.
In June of 2015, Sanders was interviewed by NPR reporter Diane Rehm for The Diane Rehm Show. Rehm confronted the senator about his “dual citizenship with Israel”, despite the fact that he held no Israeli citizenship. However, this belief was popular among anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists and had been promoted online during the start of Bernie’s campaign. When asked where Rehm had acquired the information, she cited an “anonymous list” online, but had no real sources. Obviously, Sanders denied the false accusation. Still, many believed and criticized Sanders for his fictional close relationship with Israel. And this was far from the last time that Sanders would encounter ridiculous questions surrounding his Jewish identity.
In early March 2016, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were invited to a CNN town hall debate to discuss their different platforms. One of the topics that arose was each candidates’ relationship with God. Anderson Cooper asked Sanders to speak on his ethnic background. And, he did. Essentially, Bernie’s assertion was: “I’m very proud of being Jewish. And being Jewish is so much of what I am.” He elaborated by discussing his family’s history during the Holocaust and how he uses this perspective to identify and combat extremist policies.
But, even as he asserts the importance of his heritage, the CNN broadcast flashes a headline across the screen: Is Sanders intentionally keeping his Jewish faith in the background during his campaign? Somehow, the main attention is still on Jewish conspiracy theories. Sanders’ Jewish identity and its significance to his campaign is somewhat invalidated upon seeing this headline, but this doesn’t stop critics from attacking it upon confirmation.
Not even a month after the senator’s praise of Judaism on CNN’s town hall, antisemtic and extremist outlets were using his identity as fuel. In April, CODEPINK – an organization sometimes considered to be in the far left sphere – attacked CNN on Twitter for prompting Sanders to speak on his Judaism. In the same tweet, the organization also attacked an affiliated Jewish journalist, Jeffrey Goldberg. But the tweet was later deleted.
Sanders quickly amassed hate from anti-Israel writers, such as CJ Werlman. Werlman and numerous other critics assumed that Bernie’s pride in Judaism must have equated to a pride in Israeli policy, despite the CNN town hall never discussing the topic. This conflation of Judaism with Zionism was not only incorrect, but stereotypical and dangerous rhetoric. From 2016 on, the Vermont senator was forced to answer questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict far more often then his non-Jewish competitors. And, considering that the issue is such a polarizing one, any answer that Sanders gave angered the public.
Yet, the anti-Semitism during Bernie’s campaign was even more confrontational at times. In April of 2016, Sanders hosted an event at the Apollo Theater in New York. The purpose of the gathering was to reach out to minority communities around where he grew up and, for the most part, it maintained this focus. But at the very end of the event, organizers allowed for one last question. And it was a really bad one.
The questioner from the audience began, “As you know, the Zionist Jews – and I don’t mean to offend anybody – they run the Federal Reserve, they run Wall Street, they run every campaign.” Sanders was taken aback and attempted to correct the questioner, but they were clearly set in their beliefs. Despite being so publicly confronted with anti-Semitism, Sanders attempted to keep his cool, but this was not good enough for public audiences. Bernie was criticized for being both too harsh in his answer, but also for not being more diligent in his education of this individual.
After the masses of anti-Semitic questions he answered, Sanders lost the Democratic nomination. Then, the presidential election of 2016.
In Bernie Sanders’ most recent presidential campaign, he’s dealt with a lot of similar micro-aggressions and anti-Semitic preconceptions. But, people’s reasons for their aversion to Judaism have somehow gotten even more ridiculous.
In 2019, many voters took to Twitter to complain about Bernie’s volume and hand motions during debates. Some claimed that, despite liking the senator’s policies, he was simply “too loud”. Jews, on the other hand, argued that this was a common trait among New York Jews, especially adults and parents. Jewish voters additionally questioned why other non-Jewish candidates were not accused of being “loud” when speaking passionately. Sure, some Jews brushed the comments off. But, others were upset that people had not considered “Ashkenazi speech patterns” and had simply written Bernie’s mannerisms off as rude.
Problems arose again for Sanders when his Israeli political affiliation was further assumed. While some considered Bernie a Zionist because of his Jewish identity – an assumption placed on no gentile candidates – others criticized his sympathy for the Palestinian perspective, interpreting it as inherently anti-Semitic.
In an article in the Washington Examiner, journalist Tiana Lowe uses this sympathy and Sanders’ forgiveness of Representative Ilhan Omar’s past comments (as well as the all-but-credible right-wing Joe Rogan) as sources that Bernie himself is anti-Semitic. The article reads as a conspiracy theory, attempting to pit Jewish supporters against Bernie and expose outlandish “secrets”.
Whether labeled too pro-Palestine to be Jewish or too Zionist to be moderate, Bernie simply cannot win. But, it is clear that these traits would not have been nearly as frequently questioned had Sanders not been Jewish. And, frankly, he would have been harshly criticized no matter where he fell on the issue of Israeli and Palestinian tensions.
It is clear that anti-Semitism was very prevalent in both of Bernie Sanders’ campaigns. No one can say for sure if it were a component of his loss in the 2016 presidential election, nor if it were a factor in his ability to secure the Democratic nomination for the 2020 election. It is true that some are simply not in favor of his politics.
However, Bernie’s Jewish faith and ethnicity seemed to be a factor in his like-ability, despite his qualifications. The anti-Semitism that Sanders faced was certainly an additional barrier that he had to overcome, while it may not have even crossed a non-Jewish candidate’s mind. Perhaps, had Bernie Sanders publicly supported Christian values and avoided anti-Semitic sentiments instead, he may have won the presidency. Instead of almost won.