The following exchange took place between Anderson Cooper of CNN and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in the March debate in Flint, Michigan:
Cooper: “Senator Sanders, are you intentionally keeping your Jewish faith in the background during your campaign?”
Sanders: “I am very proud to be Jewish, and being Jewish is so much of what I am. Look, my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. I know about what crazy and radical and extremist politics mean. I learned that lesson as a tiny, tiny child when my mother would take me shopping and we would see people working in stores who had numbers on their arms because they were in Hitler’s concentration camps. I am very proud of being Jewish, and that is an essential part of who I am as a human being.”
Once again we are in presidential election season. The candidates are, each in their own way, projecting what they want the electorate to know about their faith. We Americans are used to this quadrennial exercise. This election cycle, however, is exceptional.
Senator Bernie Sanders has advanced further in the presidential campaign than any other Jewish citizen before him. (In 2000, Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut was the vice presidential candidate on Al Gore’s ticket.) Some have commented on how little has been made—and how little Sanders has made—of his Jewishness. Yet many others are trying to understand the relationship of Judaism and Jewishness to Sanders and the positions he advocates. Judaism, and membership in the Jewish people, fit no category of faith and religion familiar to most Christians. Ironically, Sanders’ own untraditional relationship to his faith and faith community actually presents an opportunity for America to learn some unique, aspects about Judaism and the Jewish people.
Judaism Is a Family
Judaism is not just a religion. Judaism and Jewishness are an indivisible amalgam of God, Torah (the scriptures), Mitzvot (commandments), land, language, and familial peoplehood. In the main, one is not born a Christian; one becomes a Christian by affirming the Christian faith. While one can convert to Judaism, for the most part, one is born a Jew. Irrespective of what a Jew believes or practices, a Jew is a Jew. Every Jewish person is a child of Abraham and Sarah and a member of that first family of believers.
Judaism is a family that became a faith and remained a family. One of the consequences of this is the unconditional love of one Jew for another Jew, no matter their depth of religious faith. It is still a family despite growing differences in various Jewish beliefs and practices.
Senator Sanders is a Jew of a particular genre, the product of a specific time and place—New York in the post-World War II years. This has shaped him and many like him, and therefore, has shaped today’s American Jewish community. This requires a short review of history.
By the end of the 19th century, approximately one million Jews lived in the lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which in 1795 was gobbled up by the Austro-Hungarian, Prussian, and Russian empires. That population grew to about five million during the 19th century. This growth took place largely in czarist Russia in the midst of a collapsing and oppressive economic and political order. The Jewish people suffered severely in these societies and under these conditions—both economic hardships and continued anti-Semitism from a largely Christian population.