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February 12, 2016 4:04 am

Who Cares if Bernie Sanders Is Jewish?

avatar by Ben Cohen /

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Bernie Sanders, left, and Larry David. Sanders joked about his name being "too Jewish" in an SNL skit. Photo: NBC/Saturday Night Live.

Bernie Sanders, left, and Larry David. Sanders joked about his name being “too Jewish” in an SNL skit. Photo: NBC/Saturday Night Live. – It would be churlish to deny the remarkable achievement of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in decisively winning the recent New Hampshire primary.

For months, Sanders has been depicted as an eccentric whose limited appeal will be crushed by the ruthless Hillary Clinton political machine. But there he was at the podium in Manchester, laying out an agenda — an increased minimum wage, “breaking up” the big banks, a gutting of the criminal justice system — that sounded, in places, akin to what the followers of the Bolshevik revolutionary Leon Trotsky called “transitional demands.” (By which they meant a strategy to expose the democratic limitations of capitalism through leveling demands that cannot be met without a socialist revolution.)

It was stirring stuff, enhanced by Sanders’s strong Brooklyn accent and his facial expression, which betrays that he’s spent much of his life going from one left-wing meeting to another. In particular, he reminded me of another leading Jewish socialist whom I knew when I was growing up in England — the late Ian Mikardo, a Labour Party parliamentarian who represented a working class, east London constituency.

I met “Mik,” as he was known, through Poale Zion, a socialist Zionist organization affiliated with the Labour Party. The son of Jewish immigrants from western Ukraine, Mikardo embraced both the Labour Party and Zionism as a young man. For him, there was no contradiction between these two commitments; one might even say that for Mikardo, socialism and Zionism were joined at the hip.

What resulted was a strong, proud Jewish identity that stayed with him for his entire life. Declaring yourself a Jew, a socialist and a Zionist was always a brave thing to do, especially during the Cold War, when the Soviets and their official doctrine of “anti-Zionism” exercised undue influence on much of the left.

Which brings me back to Sanders. Most Americans would not have been struck by his description of himself as the son of a “Polish immigrant.” But some Jews were, and not necessarily those on the right. Seconds after that remark, Chemi Shalev of the leftist daily Haaretz tweeted, “Is it parochial to be irked a bit by Sanders describing himself as the son of a ‘Polish immigrant?’”

I suppose it is parochial, but I’ll admit that I too was irked. “Ian Mikardo would never have played down his Jewish origins,” was my first thought. My second thought was essentially frustration at Sanders’s apparent ignorance of the society that his forebears came from. Poland in the early 20th century was indubitably not America, something Sanders’s father, Eli, would have been painfully aware of. The notion of a “Poles of the Jewish faith” was hardly a widespread one. The nature of Poland at that time determined that when Eli Sanders came to America, he did so as a Jew, not as a Pole.

Since that speech, there have been several reports in the Jewish and general media that have highlighted two factors. Firstly, that Sanders is largely indifferent — note well, indifferent, not hostile — to Judaism and Jewish identity. Secondly, that most Americans don’t care that he’s Jewish, and most American Jews aren’t now preparing to break out the streamers in case he becomes this country’s first Jewish president.

In the cold light of day, there’s nothing objectionable about either of those points. Identity politics already exercises too great a hold on the political imagination of today’s America, so in that sense we should find Sanders’s insistence that we speak about the “issues” rather refreshing. Apart from anything, it means we can dispense with the argument that Sanders can’t possibly be inimical to Israel’s interests because he’s a Jew. We’re supposed to focus on the issues, remember?

Jewish or not, the foreign policy of a Sanders administration would make the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency seem like a halcyon period by comparison. To begin with, Sanders isn’t really interested in the rest of the world — like most leftists these days, he has abandoned the principle of internationalism. Working conditions at Walmart animate him. Syrian children murdered by poison gas are someone else’s problem.

Think back to his New Hampshire speech. Interestingly, the only time Sanders didn’t get a loud cheer was when he said that the Islamic State terrorist group had to be destroyed, which speaks volumes about his supporters. But he followed that up by saying that the nations of the Middle East bear the prime responsibility for achieving that outcome because — pace Obama — we cannot be the world’s policeman. And actually, in his case that’s true — if you conceive of the nations of the Middle East as a cohesive bloc, not only can you not be the world’s policeman, you shouldn’t be either.

On top of that, the milieu that is influencing Sanders’s thoughts on foreign policy — when he can be bothered to think about it at all, that is — is one that is nakedly hostile to Israel. On the Middle East, he listens to J Street, a Jewish anti-Israel group that strangely masquerades as “pro-Israel,” and its ally the National Iranian American Council, which is the closest thing the Iranian regime has to a lobby in Washington. So it hardly takes a soothsayer to figure out that a Sanders foreign policy would be grounded in isolationism, together with a willingness to let Russia, China and Iran run amok in the name of reining in American imperialism.

The Sanders phenomenon speaks to a wider problem, namely the growth of extremism in American politics. And because extremists of different stripes have more in common than they are prepared to acknowledge, seeming polar opposites can end up being very similar. I can’t perceive a significant amount of light between Sanders and Donald Trump on foreign policy; both are isolationists, and both regard the world outside America as another galaxy.

If there’s anything to be said here in Sanders’s favor, it’s that he’s less giddy than Trump is at the prospect of meeting Vladimir Putin. But when it comes to substance, both candidates — one declaring that we need a socialist America, the other declaring that we need to make America great again — will preside over the continuing loss in global credibility that has become so stark under Obama.

Ben Cohen, senior editor of & The Tower Magazine, writes a weekly column for on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).

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  • steve

    If his name was Bernie Rabinowitz he would be a non-factor in the Presidential race.

  • carolebolotin

    Those ignoramuses to whom you allude, who can’t wait to celebrate Sanders’ elevation to the Presidency, will, hopefully, not be voting!!! Sanders is about as Jewish as George (I hate Israel and Judaism) Soros, who never misses an opportunity to defame Israel and Judaism, either through his finances or public relations (J Street). Incidentally, Soros is one of the BIG supporters of Clinton, which definitely goes to show us of her philosophy about Israel and Judaism!!!

  • nelson marans

    Bernie Sanders as a supporter of J Street has destroyed any pro-Israel possibilities If he is elected to the presidency He probably will follow the policies of President Obama vis-a-vis Israel. His earlier appearance on a kibbutz was driven not by support of Israel but as a honeymoon with his new wife. There has been nothing in his rhetoric indicating support for Israel nor his Jewish antecedents.

  • Al Talena

    There wil be some Jews who will have mental orgasms that a Jew is running for the presidency. His silence re Israel and his lack of real history with the Jewish people speaks louder than any attempt to make him look kosher.

  • Sanders has company in his stance to diminish Israel. In fact, one might say that many are in cahoots with power brokers, who favor the fated bull.

  • Mordecai Ben Natan

    Sanders worries me and I am sure most Israel supporters.

    Will he show that being a Jew means nothing to him, but that he will appease the Goyim? by not supporting Israel fully>
    Will be worse than Obama re Israel?

    Will he supply Israel with all their military requirements?

    As bad as Obama was, he made sure that Israel would have military advancement over the enemies.

    Will he come to Israel’ said if she is attacked by
    A huge Arab army, like ISIS?

    Whatever, he is far better than the witch Hillary who has done so much harm to Israel and Netanyahu.\
    Hopefully, Hillary will be sent home, and not to he WH

  • Wm. J. Levy

    What is wrong with the editors of this site which I have always admired until now.

    Bernie Sanders has declared “I’m not much of a Jew” so he is in his own admission in the largest group of “Jews” in America but he is the most dangerous of all “Jews” because he is pro-Palestinian and wants to be more even handed and will stop funding aid to Israel and probably wants them to go back to the 1949 (1967) borders.

    He meets with Al Sharpton, a black racist who is vehemently anti-Jew and anti-Israel responsible for the deaths of 2 Jews in Harlem and Obama’s go-to-guy who has been to the White House more times more times than any other racist.

    It doesn’t bother Jews because most Jews are against Israel and when the Arabs or Iran or both destroy it they won’t be sorry.

    Stupid Jews voted for FDR each time he ran and he was anti-Jew and denied Jewish entry. Millions of Jews would mpt have died and still Jews love him till today.

    Sanders belongs in VT and not in DC. I wish him the worst because he is no Jew.

  • If Bernie himself doesn’t care why should we?

  • Arthur Cohn

    Bernie Sanders has many admirable qualities, but care for Israel’s 6 million jewish citizens is not high on his list. If it were, he would not have voted for the atrocious Iran nuclear deal. This deal provides Iran with plenty of funding fot their terrorist proxies,such as Hezbollah, as well as providing Iran with a sure path to obtaining nuclear weapons.

  • Mickey Oberman

    Where are the ten other comments?

  • Mickey Oberman

    I care.

    We do not need any more kapos.


  • Motik

    In his NH winning speech Sanders introduced himself as “son of Polish immigrant”. He hugs and kisses anti-semites like Sharpton to get their support. Is he qualified to be a Jew? He is successful in selling damaged goods to no-nothing audiences – that’s all

  • Holy Shirt

    Bernie Sanders is Jewish? Obama claimed to be a Jewish too, when he wasn’t claiming to be Christian. Everybody wants to be a comedian nowadays.

  • David Fried

    This is an excellent piece, and I share your concern that Bernie will feel constrained to put even more daylight between the US and Israel than Obama has done. But I have two questions.

    1) What makes you think that Bernie is a Socialist? He’s running for the Democratic nomination; he has caucused with the Democrats since he first was elected to Congress 25 years ago; and what is Socialist about single-payer health care and breaking up the banks? The debates have been almost embarrassing at times for the lack of any real policy differences between Hillary and Bernie. His whole campaign amounts to “Hillary’s fatally compromised. I’m not.” (I agree, by the way.) Clearly she’s more of a hawk than he is, but that’s about it.

    Secondly, Bernie is not a modern identity-politics leftist but a paleo-leftist. I think he’s absolutely immune to the world-view that sees Israel as the mercenary arm of the evil colonialist West, oppressing the virtuous brown Palestinians. I have no idea how this will play out in practice, but at least he’s not listening to Sid Blumenthal.

    Finally, I am a Brooklyn Jew seven years younger than Bernie. I don’t care if he’s a believer or not, I don’t care if he attends a Seder. I know this guy. I have known him all my life (not literally!) He is a Jew through and through. He is not, and never could be, an “as-a-Jew.” Hillary, on the other hand, has zero feeling for Jews or Israel. As a consummate opportunist there is nothing she won’t do if it serves her purposes. She scares me a lot more than Bernie does.

    One question I have that no one can answer. Does Bernie speak Yiddish? If so, I rest my case.

  • Dommy

    Who cares if Bernie Sanders (initials B.S.) is Jewish?

    Certainly not Bernie Sanders.

    Or Larry David either, for that matter.

  • Charles D. Gelfand

    Dear Mr. Cohen,
    I respectfully disagree with you about Donald Trump, but I wholeheartedly agree with you about Bernie Sanders, as regards Israel.
    Without American support and aircraft, Israel has no chance to succeed on its own.
    Conversely, the United States would be severely weakened without Israels assistance.
    The Obama administration severely weakened our military supremacy, our prestige and respect of all the world powers, friend and foe alike.
    A President Bernie would even exacerbate this decline much further.
    A deal maker and tough guy like Trump, would have Iran, North Korea, and Isis quaking in their boots.
    Charles D. Gelfand
    A Kosher Cowboy from Texas

  • Arthur Taub MD PhD

    Sanders, a Jew? Feh!

    To my mind, the only thing that characterizes a “Jew” is Judaism. One is born in it, to be sure. But it is a “race,” because, not despite, Judaism which prescribes endogamy. Sanders in married to a gentile, which Judaism proscribes. He does not identify himself as Jewish, not even as a so-called “secular” Jew, devoid of Judaism altogether. Nothing Judaic actually informs his fatuous pseudoprogram. He is, what we Jews term, politely, obvious to all, an old fool, peddling old, failed nonsense, with old, failed tropes.

  • I have a blog in which I wrote about Bernie Sanders. A comment I received showed anti-Semitism immediately because the reader was AFRAID he would support Israel. Read my article and the readers comment and my reply to this.
    I happen to have dual citizenship with Israel and my blogs are in defense of Israel. This reader didn’t even realize that he/she was anti-Semitic!

  • Sanders is a card carrying member of a Stalinist kibbutz whose members worked to achieve the destruction of Israel.What a Jew!

  • enufizenuf

    The “remarkable achievement of Sen. Bernie Sanders in decisively winning the recent New Hampshire primary” is due to the idiocy and lack of knowledge of history of a large portion of US society, especially those at universities where 9 out of 10 professors are degenerate leftists.