“Bernie Sanders made history on Tuesday night as he became the first Jewish-American to win a presidential primary.
The milestone falls just eight days after Ted Cruz became the first Hispanic-American to win a presidential nominating contest with his win in the Iowa Caucuses.
Sanders is not the first Jewish-American to run for president. Both former Pennsylvania senator Arlen Specter and former Connecticut senator Joe Lieberman mounted unsuccessful campaigns for the White House in 1996 and 2004, respectively. Further, the Republican nominee for president in 1964, Barry Goldwater, was of Jewish descent but was a practicing Episcopalian.
But Sanders is the first Jewish-American candidate, not to mention the first non-Christian candidate of any denomination, to win a state in a presidential primary.”
But although The Guardian mentioned it in the news story above, this news did not create much of a splash in US media and Philip Weiss says that this may be a good sign, an indicator perhaps that Americans now accept Jews and the old animosity is in decline. What is more interesting is that the Jewish community is not as enthusiastic about Sanders as you might expect, nowhere close to the level of enthusiasm that the black community had for Barack Obama in 2008.
A candidate’s identity should not be the primary reason to vote for him or her. Voting either for or against a candidate purely on ethnic, racial, religious, or other personal identity markers is to be deplored. But there is no question that, all other things being approximately equal, it can be a significant secondary factor. While it is likely that most people voted Barack Obama into office because of his policies and because he was a Democrat, there is no doubt that the election of the first person of color to the presidency was a milestone that gave a lot of satisfaction to many people, even those who supported his rivals.
Breaking down such barriers to high office is a good thing though it does not necessarily imply that the barriers have fallen everywhere. Hillary Clinton has emphasized the fact that if elected this time she would be the first woman to assume the presidency. This would undoubtedly be a landmark event for everyone in the US to celebrate, especially since the US is so woefully behind the rest of the world in this. Sri Lanka elected the world’s first female head of state with executive power as far back as 1960 and since then almost all the major democracies have done so, including Muslim majority countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh. Ronald Reagan broke another barrier as the first divorced president. (You can see a list of other US presidential firsts here.)
But why is so little fuss is being made about the fact that were Sanders to win, he would be the first Jewish US president? Part of the reason is that Sanders himself does not raise the issue unless he is asked about it and even then does not dwell on it. It is clear that he is not particularly religious although he has said on occasion that he has “very strong religious and spiritual feelings”. But his Jewishness seems to be more a secular ethnic identity with a moral dimension rather than a religious one, a lukewarm religiosity more along the lines of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ formulation that young people now increasingly adopt and is another reason that he is so popular with that age cohort.
I have not seen any polls that suggest how voters feel one way or another about the possibility of the first Jewish president. While the climate for a non-religious candidate is getting better, and even Republicans seem to like Donald Trump despite being aware that he is not particularly religious, there are still pockets of deep hostility towards an openly atheist candidate, and anti-Semitic sentiment is also undoubtedly out there even if less likely to be overtly expressed.
Religion, unlike race or gender, is not visible but that has not prevented it being a major factor in presidential politics with Republicans in particular wearing their religion not merely on their sleeves but as practically crowns to be polished publicly at every opportunity. John F. Kennedy becoming the first Catholic president was seen as a significant milestone. I think that unlike Trump, Sanders has too much integrity to try and don a fake religious cloak. If his Jewishness became an issue and subject to close examination, his seeming lack of overt religiosity would likely hurt him more than his ethnic identity, and dominate over the positive effect of him breaking a major barrier. So perhaps it is just as well that the fact that he is Jewish has not become an issue. At least not yet, because if he does become the Democratic nominee, I would not put it past the Republicans to launch a whispering campaign that the US is a Christian country and thus should have a Christian president, however nominal that Christianity might be.
Amusingly, when he was a congressman, Sanders once played a rabbi in the film 1999 low-budget comedy film My X-Girlfriend’s Wedding Reception. He did it as a favor for a friend whom he knew well from the time when he was mayor of Burlington and he was actually pretty good and did it in one take.