Bernie Sanders got closer to becoming a major party’s presidential nominee than any other Jewish candidate in history. For all the mixed emotions the Vermont senator’s candidacy aroused, it is a fact worth noting as he exits the campaign and throws his endorsement behind Vice President Joe Biden.
Sanders was often uncomfortable in discussing, let alone campaigning on, his Jewish identity, although his Jewish biography is both quintessential and undeniable. He has deep roots in Jewish New York, having grown up in Brooklyn and attended James Madison High School. In recent years, as he began to speak more about his Jewish identity, he often said his politics were formed as a reaction to the rise of Hitler and the fate of his relatives murdered in the Holocaust. “I am a proud member of the tradition of Jewish social justice,” he wrote in an essay for the left-wing Jewish Currents. “And I am so inspired when I see so many Jewish people picking up this banner, especially the younger generation of Jews, who are helping to lead a revival of progressive values in our country.”
That tradition led him to carry the banner for an ideology — democratic socialism — that drew passionate supporters and bitter opponents. Although his rivals often tried to paint his ideals as radical and un-American, nearly all were drawn from a history of American progressivism that included the labor movement, the New Deal and the Civil Rights movement. His solutions for overhauling America’s health care system may have been unrealistic and politically untenable, but his analysis, especially as the Covid-19 virus exposes the deep inequities in access to quality health care for all, cannot be ignored. Neither can his focus on income inequality and how a massive concentration of wealth and income among the rich hurts economic growth, fosters distrust of the political system, depresses wages and breeds crime.
On the Middle East, Sanders could sound like a liberal Zionist who spent time on a left-wing kibbutz — which he did — but also like the kind of critic who unfairly singles out Israel and places blame on it for all the ills and challenges of the region. He denounced Israel for its “disproportionate” responses to unrest and terrorist attacks in and from Gaza, without demonstrating much empathy for Israel’s security needs or significant scrutiny of the Palestinian side. Gratifyingly, he stood up to anti-Zionists when he noted that “some criticism of Israel can cross the line into antisemitism” and endorsed the right of self-determination for Jews. But he also welcomed into his campaign figures who supported the boycott of Israel and chose to treat the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as an unredeemable enemy rather than as a setting for engaging with American Jews who might disagree with him but are open to dialogue.
Sanders amassed 937 delegates and won primaries in six states outright before Biden surged ahead of him, helped, no doubt, by a Democratic electorate focused on “electability,” wary of Sanders’s economic and cultural prescriptions, and spooked by the coronavirus. His legacy includes a young, impassioned voter base that is fed up with the status quo, and a party that has shifted left. But as the surge for Biden demonstrated, Bernie’s influence, on Israel and other issues, went only so far. The revolution won’t start without him.