Talk to people who have been in politics for a while, and they will say the fact that two Jewish Americans are running for the Democratic nomination, one of them the clear frontrunner, is a sign of the country’s diversity and acceptance of Jews.
“The barriers that previously existed appear to be no longer really a part of our political reality, and that is something for Jews to celebrate,” said Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. The fact that Sen. Bernie Sanders and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg are Jewish “has become less of an issue,” said David Greenfield, the head of the Met Council, a Jewish charity, and the former deputy finance chair for Joe Lieberman’s campaign in 2004. That their Judaism isn’t the first thing most people think of, versus their positions on the issues, is a “sign of the maturation of the political process in the United States,” he said.
But scratch the surface and there is a deep anxiety. Sanders and Bloomberg are running for the 2020 Democratic nomination at a time when concerns about growing anti-Semitic incidents and attacks are higher than they have been in years. And while no one — radical extremists excluded — is questioning whether they are fit to run for the nomination because they are Jews, questions over what it means to be Jewish are playing out in strange ways across the political spectrum, tied to the two candidates’ positions on Israel and masked as a discussion of policy. What we’re hearing are disturbing echoes of a centuries-long discussion over what it means to be a “good Jew” or a “bad Jew” — who is acceptable to a Christian-majority society, and who is not?
The last few years have seen a sea change in the debate over anti-Semitism, which has become increasingly partisan and often fought out through the prism of Israel. Republicans have stood by a president who has repeatedly engaged in anti-Semitic tropes — from claims of dual loyalty to dangerous clichés about money — and attempted to cleanse his behavior by pointing to his strong support for Israel, from tearing up the Iran deal to moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, one of several Israel-related campaign promises he had made to evangelical Christians. Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, two first-year Muslim women members of Congress and Sanders surrogates, have been used to paint the Democratic Party as anti-Israel. The two have both been called out for statements that have veered into anti-Semitism, and Democrats say work is being done internally to confront activists and Democratic politicians who have made the same mistakes. Like Omar and Tlaib, Sanders is vocal in focusing on Palestinian rights — but unlike them, he and most of the party do not support the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Because Jews are widely accepted in US society, the question of Sanders’ and Bloomberg’s Jewishness is not about the particulars of their religious practices, unlike the questions around Sen. Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. Both identify as secular Jews, and neither makes a huge deal of it. Sanders, after barely mentioning it when he ran for the nomination in 2016, has recently been speaking more about his Jewishness publicly, writing an essay for Jewish Currents, a progressive outlet, releasing videos, and speaking at town halls about the family he lost in the Holocaust and how that has informed his upbringing and values. The recent turn has prompted some Jews — Republicans and more conservative Democrats — to question his sincerity. Sometimes those questions can be valid; where was Sanders, for example, when Jews were looking to flee the Soviet Union he so often sought to praise? But sometimes that question can veer into anti-Semitism.
“Is Bernie Sanders Jewish or is he Jew-ish?” asked Kalman Yeger, a New York City Council member and conservative Jew whose anti-Palestinian remarks have drawn wide criticism. “I've seen in the last couple of days he's been putting out tweets about how he's a proud Jew, and I’m wondering, in my life, I've heard about Sanders since I was a little kid. I can't remember Bernie Sanders ever being someone who took particular pride in his Jewishness. I'm not sure where that all came from all of a sudden. And I don't question somebody his level of observance. I truly don't care much. I don't know where all of a sudden Bernie Sanders became, you know, the chief rabbi of the United States.”
Yeger added, “Normally, that would be unreasonable, insulting, and borderline inappropriate — but he’s the one who has put his Jewishness on the table.”
Sanders has seen an outpouring of support from leftist Jews in part because he reflects an identity that's not often seen in the highest positions of power, but has long been represented in the Jewish community, with a focus on social justice and encapsulating the values of Judaism while not strictly practicing. But that has also made him a target for everyone from conservative Jews to evangelical Christians to Republicans across the board to some in the mainstream media who have questioned whether he can really be Jewish if he does not pledge allegiance to Israel without criticizing its leadership or treatment of Palestinians. And his embrace of surrogates who have played into anti-Semitic tropes or made anti-Semitic statements, from Tlaib and Omar (who've apologized) to activist Linda Sarsour, does legitimately trouble some Jews who are not coming from a place of anti-Muslim prejudice.
No such claims about whether he is “really” a Jew have been made about Bloomberg, who has a more traditional pro-Israel stance. Introducing his platform to Jewish voters last month, Bloomberg outlined how he was against the Iran deal — but was also against Trump tearing it up, and he is now sort of for it. He said he was against the way Trump moved the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a de facto recognition of the city as the capital, but would not look to move it back. And he has said he will address this year’s AIPAC conference after Sanders made a show of announcing he would not attend.
Abigail Pogrebin, director of Jewish outreach for Bloomberg, positioned her candidate as someone who would heal divisions in the post-Trump era. "If we're going to look at the two Jewish Americans in the race, it calls for someone who's going to bring that temperature down and not exacerbate it,” she said. “To me, that's where you have to look at these candidates very differently — one is not just exploiting those divisions but, I think, deepening them, and that's Bernie Sanders." Sanders’ director for Jewish outreach declined to comment on the record.
But in society at large, the debate over AIPAC, and over Israel more broadly, is rarely about what certain discussions or policy shifts mean on the ground for Israelis and Palestinians. More often, it is a means of signaling one’s politics — "radical" or not?
At the Democratic debate in South Carolina on Tuesday night, moderator Major Garrett of CBS News directed a question on Judaism and Israel to the two Jewish candidates. “If elected, Sen. Sanders, you would be America’s first Jewish president. You recently called a very prominent, well-known American Israel lobby a platform for 'bigotry.' What would you say to American Jews who might be concerned you’re not from their perspective supportive enough of Israel? And specifically, sir, would you move the US Embassy back to Tel Aviv?” A follow-up tweet from CBS juxtaposed Sanders’ Jewishness and support for Israel, as if one threatened the other, saying “@BernieSanders says he’s 'very proud of being Jewish,' but calls @IsraeliPM Benjamin Netanyahu a 'reactionary racist' and says that while the U.S. must defend Israel's security, ‘you cannot ignore the suffering of the Palestinian people.’”
Despite how it was phrased, the Israel question wasn’t really for American Jewish voters anyway. According to a poll released Friday by the Jewish Electorate Institute, Jewish voters continue to identify as strongly pro-Israel, but still rank a candidate’s stance on Israel at the bottom of a list of 16 policy priorities (health care and protecting Medicare and Social Security rank at the top). Another poll found that the number one issue for Jewish voters was defeating Donald Trump. The Jewish Electorate poll also found that Jewish voters give Sanders the lowest favorability rating out of the field of candidates, but it still stands at 52%. The Forward recently found that the bulk of donations among rabbis went to Elizabeth Warren.
The debate over Sanders’ and Bloomberg’s stance on Israel has become a stand-in for their politics at large. Are they traditional or “too radical”? Are they a “good Jew” — as defined by non-Jews — or not? These are the cracks where anti-Semitism lives and breeds.
Pogrebin said Jewish identity is more than a stance on Israel, and that it comes down to values. Commenting on CBS’s focus on the embassy move at the debate, she said: "It’s the oversimplification of both identity and morality. I wanted to be with someone who refuted those camps, those silos. It’s facile, it’s reductive, and I think it’s destructive."
Even those who consider themselves “friends of the Jews” can fall victim. Earlier this month, Sen. Ted Cruz was called out for commenting critically on a tweet about Bloomberg by saying “It’s almost as if he owns the media.” Rep. Andy Levin responded, “Words matter. Owning the media outlet carrying this message is indeed a problem. However, accusing a Jewish candidate of owning ‘the media’ is anti-Semitic.” Cruz denied the charge, calling it “utter nonsense” and trying to fortify his bona fides: “There is no stronger supporter of Israel or foe of antisemitism in the Senate.”
Levin, who has endorsed Warren and was critical of Bloomberg in an interview with BuzzFeed News, said, “I'm not going stand by when Republicans use him as fodder for their political aims, including their effort to weaponize anti-Semitism to divide progressives.”
This debate is happening at a time of increasing fear among the Jewish community. A recent poll found 73% of Jews feel less secure in the US compared to two years ago, with 59% thinking Trump was at least partially to blame for the unprecedented attacks on synagogues like Poway and the Tree of Life. Daily attacks on Orthodox Jews are growing astronomically. They, along with the mass stabbing in Monsey and shooting in Jersey City, have shown that not all violence is directly driven by the rise in white nationalism, though Trump’s countenance of violence and hate speech has led to an atmosphere of instability around the country.
The Anti-Defamation League, which monitors anti-Semitism, says it has stepped up monitoring both online and off. “There's concern that anti-Semitic tropes, like 'Jews control the government' or 'Jews control the banks' or 'Jews control the media' — we don't want those ideas to become again centered in the conversation during this race,” said ADL’s chief, Jonathan Greenblatt.
“On the part of the fringes, on the margins where these extremists exist and where they trade their ideas and whatnot, we're already seeing signs that they're talking about the campaign,” he said. “And they're talking about the idea that Sanders and Bloomberg will carry out the will of Zionist or Jewish interests at the expense of what's best for the US.”
Those ideas reign supreme among white nationalists, like those who shouted “Jews will not replace us” during the deadly events in Charlottesville, spewing a hateful conspiracy theory that says Jews are pro-immigration to weaken the white race.
That’s the concern of progressive Jewish activists like Sophie Ellman-Golan, 27, who supports Sanders. “He describes himself as a Zionist who believes in Palestinian rights and Jewish safety — that is probably how I believe the majority of American Jews would also describe themselves,” she said.
These activists care about Israel, but their focus — especially coming at a time when the peace process is stalled and many people have turned on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has embraced Trump and supernationalist policies — is on the situation at home. Rising anti-Semitism in the US, stoked in part by Trump and his rhetoric, has, maybe ironically, shifted many young Jews’ views inward. In Ellman-Golan’s case, it’s helped push her toward considering Sanders as the candidate to support.
“I think it's just this really somewhat archaic understanding of Jewish safety ... that is predicated very much on that this state must be protected at all costs,” Ellman-Golan said. “I believe that for Jews to be safe, all people have to be safe. ... I want to be safe here, where I live.”
The name of the Jewish Electorate Institute was misstated in an earlier version of this post.