The senator from Vermont stood before the screaming crowd. Hands raised, he spoke into the microphone. “Our great country was based on a simple principle,” Bernie Sanders said after winning the New Hampshire democratic primary. “And that principle is fairness.” Sanders’ victory that night established him as the first Jewish candidate in American history to win a presidential primary.

But throughout his campaign, Bernie Sanders has downplayed his Judaism. In his same speech, he called himself “the son of a Polish immigrant,” making no mention of his father’s faith. And yet, though he has rejected ties to organized religion, Sanders’ message aligns with Jewish values. The faith shapes Sanders’ view of the world and how America should act. Throughout his campaign, Sanders has invoked ideals similar to those of the Labor Zionist movement – the ideology of the kibbutz, a socialist Jewish collective where he spent several months during the 1960s.

The Labor Zionist movement envisioned a Jewish state, built by Jewish pioneers, where people would live in equality. This state would be socialist; its values stemmed in part from the idea that Eastern European Jews had lived under oppressive governments for too long. A Jewish state would make them masters over their own destiny and give them the chance to form a government rooted in Jewish values. Sanders worked on a kibbutz, the early Jewish collectives that were symbolic of the movement. Labor Zionists established kibbutzim (pl.) to create a working Jewish class that would become the bedrock of a strong Jewish nation.

Sanders’ efforts to mobilize the American working class echoes Labor Zionism’s attempt to harness the political energy of Jews living in Israel. Just as the kibbutz built a national identity for a new state, so too does Sanders’ rhetoric create a sense of American pride and a renewed commitment to the American dream.

Sanders’ campaign website spell out populist ideas in detail. “Income and Wealth Inequality” is the first issue mentioned. A caveat at the bottom of each page reminds voters that the website is paid for by “Bernie 2016 (not the billionaires).” Sanders’ movement is not Zionist; he focuses on Americans, not Israelis. But his message contains a similar effort to empower the many against the oppressive few.

Zionists rooted kibbutzim in the notion that ordinary workers could join together and create a fair society. Sanders strives to create an American ethos that specifically targets the wealthy. “This campaign is sending a message to the billionaire class,” his website proclaims. “You can’t have it all. You can’t get huge tax breaks while children in this country go hungry.” Sanders wants a fair America and imposes a sense of collective responsibility. Your greed has got to end,” he wrote. “You cannot take advantage of all the benefits of America, if you refuse to accept your responsibilities as Americans.”

Sanders seems aware of the ideological roots underpinning Judaism’s values of egalitarianism and social justice. “Bernie Sanders subscribes to a moral code of conduct defined in large part by Jewish traditions,” Diamondstein said. “This has played out often during the primary process when you can see his deeds and words reflecting core tenets of social justice, equality, and fairness.”

Sanders’ message unapologetically seeks to create an equal America by redistributing the nation’s wealth, resources, and influence. And as he addresses his past, his policy increasingly intersects with his Jewish values. His principles highlight those of the Labor Zionist movement and the broader Jewish community.

Sanders’ message resonates most clearly among young members of the Jewish community. “There appears to be a strong connection between Bernie Sanders and young Jewish adults,” said Judy Diamondstein, Chief Executive Officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven. “His message resonates with them and makes it a little cool to be Jewish.”

Notwithstanding his “Jewish” message, however, Sanders has established himself as a vocal critic of Israel’s policies and its Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Sanders has not presented a policy that is “pro-Israel,” or even “pro-Palestine.” He has condemned both Israel and Hamas for unnecessary force. He was the first Senator to announce he would not attend Netanyahu’s February 2015 address to Congress, citing fears that Netanyahu’s address was a publicity stunt for an upcoming election. His official stance on Israel is distinctly bilateral – Palestinians must acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, but they must have a homeland and control over their political future.

Zanger-Tishler thinks Sanders is making the conversation within the Jewish community more dynamic. “The fact that he lived on a kibbutz but also criticizes Israel’s policies has led to many discussions in the community,” he said. “I can’t think of a public figure who talks about Palestinian rights and is also very pro-Israel. That is becoming a big point of conversation in the Jewish community.” Zanger-Tishler notes Sanders may create room for many American Jews to identify with both Israel and Palestine instead of choosing a side. Sanders has made it easier, he said, for secular Jews to support Palestine without compromising their Jewish identity.

Despite his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Sanders has garnered significant attention as the first Jewish candidate to win a presidential primary. Although the issue matters little to those outside of the Jewish community, the Vermont senator has gathered a broad coalition of voters around him. That “seems to indicate to me something positive about the way that America perceives its Jewish citizens,” Yale Hillel President Michael Zanger-Tishler said.

At the Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan, Sanders said he is proud to be Jewish; the faith defines how he sees himself. His father’s family was wiped out in the Holocaust, and he knows firsthand what radical politics can do to minority groups.

Zanger-Tishler agrees with this idea. “Judaism is as much a religion as it is a narrative,” he noted. On Passover, for example, Jews retell the story and recall their own narrative of oppression. “It is really hard to reflect on our narrative, a crucial part of our religion, and not be called to action in the way that Bernie is,” Zanger-Tisher said.

“Jews refer to themselves as part of ‘the Jewish people,’” Dimondstein agreed. “The collective is very important as a source of memory, pride and responsibility.  Bernie Sanders’ accomplishment as the first Jewish candidate to win a presidential primary is important and historic.” His victories thus far convey a sense of possibility and confirm a universal belief in the American dream.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *