Bernie Sanders is the Jewish descendent of Polish immigrants who came to America to escape oppression and discrimination at home. The members of his family who stayed behind were wiped out in the Holocaust. And yet, his identity as a Jew and the barrier-breaking significance of his standing in the polls is rarely discussed.
The only other Jew who has taken a serious run at the presidency is Joe Lieberman, and I use the term “serious” loosely. Lieberman never won a single primary or caucus and dropped out of the 2004 race after being crushed in the first five states to vote. Sanders, much to the chagrin of the Clinton campaign and the DNC, made it through every single primary in ‘16, garnering 43% of the vote, even in the face of almost universal hostility to his campaign from the Democratic Party establishment and the corporate media. So far in the 2020 race he’s consistently polling at #2 in most national surveys, behind Joe Biden.
Whether he wins the nomination or not, that’s a historic accomplishment for a Jewish candidate. So, why isn’t that a part of the narrative? No one would think of discussing Corey Booker or Kamala Harris without considering their African American identities. Nor would anyone talk about Julian Castro while ignoring his Latino heritage. This is particularly strange in a party that tends to fixate on identity politics to the exclusion of all other ideas that fall to the left side on the ideological spectrum.
So why is Mayor Pete a gay candidate, and Harris a black female candidate, while Sanders’ enemies feel comfortable writing him off as an “old white man?” Part of it is convenience. If you hate Bernie Sanders, as most of the media and party establishment do pretty openly, with one MSNBC commentator recently opining that Sanders, “makes my skin crawl,” although she quickly admitted that she didn’t actually know why that is (hint: check your bank balance), the “old white man” charge is a convenient explanation that conforms nicely to the establishment zeitgeist, which is that progress lies not in enacting the policies that would dismantle oligarchy, but in diversifying the identities of those who manage it.
If Sanders represents a minority, that takes away a line of attack that requires no policy discussion, and that’s their favorite kind. Once you have to start defending American exceptionalism while at the same time trying to explain why Americans can’t have the health care that every other industrialized nation on earth provides to its citizens, things can go sideways on the debate stage pretty fast. “Old white man,” isn’t an invitation to a discussion; it’s a slur. And like all slurs, its designed to go around the brain and right to the worst instincts and prejudices of its target audience.
But there’s another reason that Sanders doesn’t get to be Jewish, and it’s the same reason that people of Irish and Italian descent usually won’t be described as Irish Americans or Italian Americans when they’re running for political office.
While many groups migrated to the United States en masse from the 1840’s to the 1920’s, no others came in nearly the numbers that the Irish, Italians and Jews did. First came the Irish in the mid-19th Century, escaping the potato famine. Then Italians in the 1870’s, largely because of mass poverty at home. And finally, the Jews in the 1880’s, fleeing the pogroms that the Tsar had launched against them in Russia and Eastern Europe. None of these groups were considered “white people” by those who had come before them. Even the Irish, who were closest to being considered “white” in the racial economy of the time, were subject to grotesque cartoon caricatures printed in respectable publications in which they were portrayed as monkeys and apes. At best, these new arrivals were “ethnic white,” a catch-all category for every European who wasn’t a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.
The journey from “ethnic white” to white white began for many at Ellis Island, with the changing of the family name to something more Anglo-sounding. This occurred on both sides of my own family. On my father’s side, Wolinsky became Wolin, and on my mother’s, Dobular was, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, made up out of whole cloth. If you meet a Dobular who isn’t related to me, let me know.
Later, some Jews and Italians would take Irish names, rather than Anglo ones, knowing that with their lower class urban accents and mannerisms, they were never going to be able to pass themselves off as WASP’s, but they might feasibly be mistaken for being Irish, which was marginally better than being a Jew or a Southern European. Hence, Emanuel Goldberg became movie gangster, Edward G. Robinson, and Anthony Benedetto became singer Tony Bennett, among countless other examples.
But it wasn’t enough to want to be white. In order to truly become full-fledged white people, American society would have to accept them as such. That acceptance didn’t come until after World War II. Having just fought a war against a Nazi regime that took the idea of racial inferiority to its logical conclusion in the mass genocide of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and other “out” groups in German society, racism, at least against the “ethnic whites” who had been the principal victims of the Nazi campaign of mass murder, fell out of fashion in mainstream American culture. Just how out of fashion? The answer to that can be seen in some of the cultural products of the time, including the remarkable 1948 film, The Boy With the Green Hair, which features a very young Dean Stockwell as a war orphan who is unjustly discriminated against for his hair color. With the resistance to allowing ethnic whites to move into certain neighborhoods thereby suspended, the large-scale development of suburban tract housing well underway, and the GI Bill providing the necessary down payments for houses, the children and grandchildren of Ellis Island began to empty out of their urban enclaves and assimilate with a vengeance.
For the Jews, this need to assimilate was perhaps particularly acute. With the Nazi atrocities having only recently wiped out two-thirds of the European Jewish population, the potentially horrific results of being considered the “other” had never been made more clear. They not only moved out of the ghettos, but out of the blue-collar occupations of their parents and grandparents, to become middle-managers, professionals, CEO’s and media figures. As a result of this history, today 94% of Jews self-identify as white, and, outside of white supremacist circles, most of society agrees. But self-identification aside, there’s always a cloud hanging over Jews and their relationship to whiteness. There’s a common saying in the community that well sums up the sneaking feeling that it can all be taken away at any time: “I didn’t know I was Jewish, until Hitler told me I was.” This warning to never forget how easily the fate of the highly assimilated pre-war German Jews can befall any Jews, anywhere, perfectly encapsulates the complicated psychological relationship of Jews to their “whiteness,” a whiteness that is always experienced as provisional and of dubious applicability outside the major cities.
Ironically, should Sanders win the nomination, it will be at a moment when the status of Jews as whites is being seriously debated for the first time in several decades. This is partly being driven from the right by the Trump presidency and the way it has emboldened anti-Semites, but also from the left’s abandonment of multi-culturalism, in favor of racial and cultural balkanization.
The Jews present a knotty problem for the latter. In a schema where there are white people who are by definition the beneficiaries of white privilege, and then there are the victims of white privilege (everyone else), where to place a group that doesn’t get followed around by store detectives, but is also on the receiving end of the majority of hate crimes, according to FBI statistics? Are they the oppressor? The oppressed? Some of both? Does this way of looking at the world allow for a group to be both? It gets complicated, most especially for Jews themselves, who suddenly find their hard-won whiteness, increasingly thrown back at them in the form of the neo-slur, “white Jews.”
Right now, this is a conversation mostly taking place among the hard-core Identitarians, and on the pages of online Jewish publications, but should Sanders be the nominee, it’s going to force a debate on these questions the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1950’s. We know what the right is going to do: burn a swastika and such. Whether the left will accord Sanders the celebratory mood with which they would surely greet the nomination of a member of any other historically marginalized group, or whether they’ll simply update “white man” to “white Jew,” in grudging acknowledgement of some shade of difference, is currently an open question.