Has Bernie’s Jewishness Been Overhyped?

Bernie Sanders is on the verge of making political history on Tuesday night. Sanders, a self-declared socialist Senator from Vermont, is expected to beat Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary of 2016. That in and of itself would be an achievement. Sanders would reach another milestone by becoming the first Jewish candidate to win a presidential primary.

The chatter about Sanders’ Jewish faith and prospects of potentially becoming the first Jewish president began in late 2015 when he touted his faith to demonstrate his personal commitment to fight against racism and anti-Muslim rhetoric. During a town hall meeting with students at George Mason University in Virginia in October, Sanders left the podium to embrace a Muslim-American student who complained about the rising tide of Islamophobia in the U.S. and the hurt she feels when she hears anti-Muslim rhetoric from other presidential candidates. “Let me be very personal here if I may,” he said. “I’m Jewish. My father’s family died in the concentration camps. I will do everything that I can to rid this country of the ugly stain of racism which has existed for far too many years.”

The conversation about Sander’s religion intensified when Jewish outlets rushed to celebrate his accomplishment in winning nearly half the Iowa Caucus delegates last week. Since then, profiles have been written about him and the Jewish pride has been on full display, despite the fact that Sanders himself doesn’t talk too much about it. Not to mention that he considers himself secular and non-religious. Ha’aretz even dug through their archives to find an interview in 1990 in which Sanders revealed the name of the Kibbutz where Sanders volunteered after graduating from college in the 1960’s – to the joy of the many reporters struggling to find Sanders’ first connection with the Jewish State. And, of course, the nation of Israel was kvelling.

“The flurry of reports about Bernie’s Jewishness are clearly a reaction to the possibility that he may win today in New Hampshire,” Professor Alan Abbey, director of internet and media at Shalom Hartman Institute, told Jewish Insider. “The late-to-wake-up media pack is running in its usual lockstep fashion, taking cues from each other. And the wide-eyed coverage of how much Bernie’s Jewishness doesn’t matter puts paid to the obvious – it does matter. The likelihood that Bernie may be the first Jew to win a Presidential primary is an awesome thing to contemplate and should be a source of pride.”

Many Jewish Democrats, however, haven’t been “feeling the bern” as Hillary remains the favorite. “Nobody cares that Bernie’s Jewish and that’s great,” says Steve Rabinowitz, head of Bluelight Strategies and a close friend of the Clintons. “I just wonder some days if I enjoy more Jewish pride in Bernie’s successes this election cycle than he does.”

According to Rabinowitz, the candidate himself is the one who doesn’t feel comfortable with the excitement surrounding his candidacy. “For me, Bernie doesn’t need to be more Jewishly observant or more communally involved; I only wish he showed more of a willingness to talk about his Jewish identity except when asked,” Rabinowitz told Jewish Insider. “He doesn’t hide from it and for my money never says the wrong thing – he just doesn’t seem to ever like or want to talk about it.”

Nevertheless, Bernie’s rise to the top and the fact that he’s polling better than Hillary in a general election is giving people the chance to realize that Sanders may be making history in an unconventional way. “I am not surprised that there would be a focus on Sanders’ Jewishness given that no Jew has been elected vice president much less president,” said Dov Zakheim, who served in various Department of Defense posts during the Ronald Reagan administration (and throughout both bush administrations). “The fact that Sanders is a totally secular Jew adds to the media’s fascination with him.

To that end, the question begs: is the media overhyped about this component in Sanders’ candidacy more than the average voter who’s ‘feeling the bern’?

According to Ben Smith, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed, it’s actually surprising how little chatter there is about it. “I think it’s partly because people haven’t really focused on the possibility that he might actually be president at all — much less the first Jewish president, as well as the first non-observant Jewish president,” Smith explained in an email to Jewish Insider.

“I think if people start taking the idea of his presidency seriously, I think you’ll see both more serious chatter about what the first Jewish president would mean and in particular what a president who comes from this part of Judaism would mean to Jews,” he opined.

Smith also believes that if Sanders manages to defy the skeptics and emerge as a strong contender for president, some ugly anti-Semitism would be directed at him “in an election that has already seen more overt bigotry than I’ve ever seen in national politics.”

The Hillary campaign has been treading on thin ice when it comes to the challenge posed by Sanders. In recent weeks, surrogates and experts have been criticizing his credentials and lack of foreign policy experience in making the case against him becoming Commander in Chief. “The vituperative nature of the Clinton campaign’s attacks and its surrogates suggest to me just how much they are worried by this perennial outsider’s appeal, and a too-late realization of Bernie’s appeal,” said Abbey. “Politics ain’t beanbag to quote Bob Dole, but so much for a civil discourse on the issues. That Gloria Steinem, Madeline Albright, and even Bernie’s fellow Vermonter Madeleine Kunin have been drafted as shock troops, show the extent of the Clintons’ panic.”

Rabinowitz disagreed with that notion. “What foreign policy? Bernie doesn’t have a single campaign staffer advising him on foreign policy,” he stressed. “He called for normalizing relations with Iran, for Iranian ground troops in Syria and for close cooperation between bitter enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran. And he never talks about Israel. Like ever. What’s that about?”

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