Sen. Bernie Sanders doesn’t shy away from his faith. But he also doesn’t flaunt it either.
“I’m proud to be Jewish,” Senator Sanders said in June at a press breakfast hosted by The Christian Science Monitor. Though, he added, “I’m not particularly religious.”
The Vermont senator has already become the first American Jew to win a primary election after his defeat of fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire Tuesday. And American Jews are excited about the possibility of Sanders as the first Jewish president, right?
The presidential candidate has continued a quiet confidence about his faith throughout his campaign: a decision that has both excited and disappointed the Jewish community.
“It may seem a little bit unfortunate – in the eyes of the community – that a guy who is intermarried and not part of greater traditions, may have the first shot at national office,” Ken Wald, professor of American Jewish culture and society at the University of Florida, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Thursday. “He kind of signals the problems of Judaism today, a symptom of the real problems the community faces in maintaining itself.”
Because young Jewish Americans don’t have the “same institutional connection” as their parents, Bernie’s low-key Judaism is likely okay with millennials in a way that’s not true for their relatives. In fact, Dr. Wald says Mr. Sanders may even do worse among the older generation of Jewish voters.
“In a peculiar way, he may have a bigger hurdle with Jewish voters than non-Jewish voters,” says Wald. Because the bulk of the Jewish electorate is middle age or older, he probably turns off Jewish voters with his progressive stance. Sanders's campaign has focused almost exclusively on economic matters and has said little during his campaign about Israel – something that is a core issue for older Jewish voters.
“God love him, but our community is not feeling ‘the Bern,’” Steve Rabinowitz, who helped launch the fundraising group Jewish Americans Ready for Hillary, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in January. “He does not deny [his Judaism], he does not shrink from it, when asked about it he says the right thing – but we’d like it on his sleeve. We got it from [Lieberman]. Blacks got it from Obama. Hispanics would expect it. It’s not a litmus test, but we kind of want more from him.”
Some Jewish leaders, such as Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action center of Reform Judaism, say it’s actually more encouraging that Sanders doesn’t flaunt his faith.
“It’s the most wonderful anti-climax in American Jewish history,” Rabbi Pesner told The Atlantic. “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.”
But there is another reason why Sanders’ Jewish identify doesn’t jazz up Jewish voters: he’s not that novel.
Yes, Sanders would be the first Jewish US president, but American Jews are not an underrepresented minority in US politics. Joe Lieberman was on the Democratic ticket for Vice President in Al Gore’s 2000 campaign and former Rep. Eric Cantor (R) of Virginia was unanimously elected Republican Whip in 2008 for the 111th Congress and then Majority Leader of the 112th Congress in 2011. And Michael Bloomberg, the three-time mayor of New York City who has toyed with the idea of a late entry into the 2016 presidential race, is also Jewish.
Overall, Jews continue to have a greater representation in Congress than they do in the general US population. In the present 114th Congress, 9 senators and 19 Representatives identify as Jewish, averaging five percent of the legislative branch. But with the general US population, Jews only represent two percent of the American public.
And of the current nine Supreme Court justices, three are Jewish: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan.
Not only are Jewish Americans effectively weaved into US politics, but they also are more difficult to distinguish. Jewish Americans have long identified as Democratic voters – but the Democratic slant has decreased in recent years.
In a Gallup poll from 2008, 22 percent of Jewish Americans identified as Republicans and 71 percent identified as Democrats. But in 2014, these identities shifted to 29 and 61 percent respectively.
So if his religion won’t hurt his 2016 prospects, why not embrace it more, asks the Jewish community.
“The Jewish Democratic vote might actually hurt him,” says Professor Wald.