And it’s not enough that Bernie is Jewish.
by Letty Cottin Pogrebin
People keep asking Jewish feminists like me which would excite us more, the first woman or the first Jew in the Oval Office. The answer is, it depends on which woman and which Jew.
The mere thought of President Carly Fiorina or Vice President Sarah Palin gave me palpitations. But in 1984, when Geraldine Ferraro became Walter Mondale’s Democratic running mate, I rejoiced, because she wasn’t just any woman; she was an “out” feminist, fearless in her advocacy for gender equity and reproductive rights and against discrimination, poverty, racism, homophobia and violence against women.
Oddly enough, in the 2016 campaign, it’s okay to call yourself a feminist, but not to be explicitly pro-woman—as if half the human race is just another interest group. I’m supporting Hillary Clinton not because I’m a woman and she’s a woman, but because she has worked tirelessly on behalf of all women, even the young ones who criticize her. “They may not support me now,” she told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow at a February debate, “but I support them and we’ll work together.”
The feminist in me trusts Hillary because of her lifelong dedication to advancing women’s health, physical safety, economic well-being, legal equality and human dignity. These are not just talking points; they’ve always been among her explicit priorities. The fact that she has lived more than six decades inside a woman’s skin is just icing on the cake.
Just as I’m not automatically for any woman, I’m not for just any Jew. Though inclined to shep nachas from members of our tribe who achieve national prominence, I felt no kinship with the late Senator Arlen Specter as he mercilessly attacked Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings. Nor was I thrilled when Al Gore picked as his running mate Senator Joe Lieberman, who often tacked to the right—against affirmative action, pro-Pentagon—on issues where most American Jews tilt left.
As for Bernie Sanders, the feminist in me isn’t sure where women’s issues fit into his priorities—and the Jew in me is bewildered by his relationship to his Jewish identity.
A few days before the New Hampshire primary, I heard him say about his faith, “It’s a guiding principle in my life—absolutely it is…everybody practices religion in a different way.” True enough, but I wish I understood Bernie’s way. I don’t want him to brandish his Judaism the way the Republican candidates trumpet their Christian piety, or to praise God or pander to Jewish leaders. But I wish he seemed more comfortable in his Jewish skin. While he has never denied his roots, he seems to have cultivated a remarkably low profile of his ethno-religious origins. He was born in Brooklyn to a Jewish couple, so why, in his New Hampshire victory speech, did he describe himself as “the son of a Polish immigrant”?
Since we are only 2.2 percent of the population, other Americans probably could benefit from understanding how many different kinds of Jews there really are. I see his candidacy as a squandered “teachable moment.” I wish I knew whether he identifies with Jewish peoplehood or considers us just another religion. I wish I knew where he stands on Israel’s settlement policy and its treatment of Palestinians.
Instead of just mentioning that his family lost relatives in the Holocaust, he could show there’s more to his Jewish heritage than tragedy and victimization. He could acknowledge the debt he owes to Jewish socialists. Instead of just damning income inequality, he could give a shout-out to Jews who did something about it—Jewish women who worked with immigrants in the urban settlement house movement, Jewish union leaders who struggled for fair labor standards, Jewish feminists who fought for gender justice.
Instead of just endorsing Black Lives Matter, he could identify with the Jewish civil rights activists who, far beyond our proportion in the population, went south for the cause.
Bernie cites Pope Francis as a major inspiration, but I’ve never heard him mention a Jewish leader he admires. He speaks the language of Judaism’s core values (peace, justice, fairness, relief for the poor and oppressed) but never seems to make the connection.
Most tellingly, he said he volunteered on a kibbutz but would never say which one. It took an Israeli journalist (security analyst Yossi Melman) to identify it as Shaar Haamakim, which was then affiliated with Hashomer Hatzair, the socialist youth movement, and Mapam, the leftist political party. Why would a man running as a socialist hide this biographical fact? Maybe because, as Naomi Zeveloff noted in The Forward, the founders of that kibbutz “had a strong admiration for the Communist system in the Soviet Union.” It’s one thing to rail against the one-percenters, but quite another to have to explain the difference between democratic socialism and Soviet communism in a sound bite.
Bernie probably realized that once the politics of his kibbutz were known, he’d be tarred with guilt by association. And indeed, the conservative American Thinker immediately dubbed his old kibbutz “Stalinist.” Did he fear a preview of the red-baiting and stealth anti-Semitism in store for him if he actually won the nomination? If so, he was probably right. The Swiftboating of John Kerry’s military heroism and the demonizing of Mitt Romney’s Mormonism will look like love pats once the opposition attack dogs sink their teeth into the country’s first Jewish presidential nominee—whether it’s Bernie or someone else.
If he beats Hillary, I’ll vote for him even though I doubt he can win. And if it’s quixotic anyway, shouldn’t Jews gain something from the exercise? As Rabbi James Glazier of South Burlington, Vermont, said of Bernie, “We need a Jewish hug from him every once in a while.” My sentiments exactly.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is the author of 11 books, most recently the novel Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate.