Sanders First Jewish Politician To Win A Primary


Two weeks before the Iowa caucus, New York magazine’s Frank Rich delivered a campaign analysis for New York magazine under the headline, “Getting serious about Bernie“.

Rich admits, “I have never believed — and still don’t — that [Bernie Sanders] can be elected president even though I prefer almost everything about his views and record to Clinton’s”.

Rich pointed to three problems Sanders would face in a national election:

“He’s 74; he can be stigmatized as a nominal ‘socialist’ (though that nomenclature may not carry much weight, negative or otherwise, to 21st-century American voters, beyond the claque who think every Democrat is a socialist); and he’s Jewish, a fact that few want to discuss as a possible hindrance to a national general-election candidacy.”

Breaking through those three barriers in his first two campaign contests with Hillary Clinton, Sanders exceeded all expectations, narrowly losing in Iowa, and handily winning the New Hampshire primary (to use one of his favorite adjectives) by a “huge” 60%-38% margin over Clinton.

Beaming with home team pride, the Jewish News Agency eagerly reported: 

“In New Hampshire on Tuesday night, he handily won the Democratic Party contest, becoming the first Jew to win a presidential primary. In Iowa, he became the first Jewish presidential candidate — the first non-Christian, even — to win delegates in a major party’s caucus or primary. . .

“What’s more significant is that he’s the first Jew to mount a credible campaign for the White House.

“It’s not that credible Jewish politicians haven’t run for president before. There was Republican Sen. Arlen Specter in 1996 and Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman in 2004. But they were out of step with their parties and their candidacies went nowhere. (Both later quit their parties.)”

By winning his first primary in New Hampshire, Sanders is poised to go somewhere, not nowhere. Could he prove Frank Rich and other uneasy progressives wrong, and become the first Jewish president?  

And if the White House does await Sanders, what are the implications for future U.S.-Israel relations?

There is a good case to be made that Sanders’ Jewishness would be a positive force toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue. 

New Hampshire, which is next to Sanders’ home state of Vermont, did not need to “discuss” Sanders’ ethnicity. His huge margin suggests that Democratic voters who already knew Sanders were not deterred from supporting him because he is Jewish.

This could be a sign that voters want to judge Sanders on his political record, not on his ethnicity. Divorce and membership in the Catholic or Mormon religious groups no longer are barriers to the White House. Jewishness, religious and secular, might now be added to that list.

If Sanders fails to defeat Clinton in future party primaries and caucuses, his presence in the race could still nudge Clinton away from her long allegiance with the state of Israel.

His early successes have already shaped the campaign to the left of the political spectrum on other issues. 

Sanders has never made an issue of his ethnic heritage. In his New Hampshire victory speech, he repeated his standard campaign personal history talking point, recalling that his father was a “refugee from Poland”.

His presence in the race may also give the media protection from a major fear.

The main stream media is skittish when discussing Jewish religion and ethnicity. Journalists (and politicians) live with the perpetual fear of being branded anti-Semitic if they stumble when crossing the verbal minefield of Jewishness in public life.

It is the central purpose of Israel’s hasbara (propaganda) campaign to label any and all criticism of the state of Israel as anti-Semitic. Hasbara has long been the major generator of the fear of “anti-Semitic branding”.

This fear gives Israel an “iron wall” within which it can retreat when criticism comes from outside. By hiding behind that hasbara “iron wall”, Israel is able to defend actions by the state of Israel with lies and deception about its military occupation and oppressive treatment of Palestinians.

Sanders is quick to assert that he honors both his religious and secular Jewish heritages. No word on how he responds to one recent media representative who wrote that Sanders possessed an “attenuated” view of his faith. 

If journalists were still educated in the humanities, which includes religion, that dishonest adjectival dismissal might have been avoided. 

Frank Rich’s presumption that Clinton would be a safer candidate against any Republican may still prove to be correct. Clinton’s defeat in New Hampshire may be only a bump in her road toward her certain coronation.

Still, Rich had his misgivings even before Iowa and New Hampshire:

“If Clinton continues to lose altitude through self-inflicted wounds, through Sanders’s ability to sell himself to a wider electorate, or through further revelations about her and Bill Clinton’s dubious buck-raking from Wall Street, corporate America, and foreign governments, the Democrats are left with only one plan B: Bernie Sanders.”

Clinton wants to overcome that bump in the road. She made a good start when she reached for rhetorical heights in her New Hampshire concession speech. She was energetic, not crestfallen.  She was determined to recover in Nevada and South Carolina. Rolling Stone reported her look to the future:

“After a big loss to Bernie Sanders in the New Hampshire Democratic primary Tuesday, Hillary Clinton used her concession speech to shift the focus to the South Carolina and Nevada contests and beyond, and to tout her progressive credentials on issues that have dominated Sanders’ rising campaign—namely campaign finance reform and the power of Wall Street.

“‘We’re going to fight for real solutions that make a real difference in people’s lives,’ she said. ‘That is the fight we are taking to the country. What is the best way to change people’s lives so we can all grow together? Who is the best change-maker? And here’s what I promise: I will work harder than anyone to actually make the changes that make your lives better’.”

If she keeps talking that way all the way to her return to the White House in her own right, Bernie Sanders has already won a partial political victory by driving her to the political left.

Next up with a heavy concentration of minority voters coming to cast votes, are the Nevada Democratic Caucus (February 20); South Carolina Republican Primary (February 20); Nevada Republican Caucus (February 23); and South Carolina Democratic Primary (February 27).

The picture of Bernie Sanders, above, is a Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Image.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
This entry was posted in Hillary Clinton, Israel, Middle East, Palestinians, Religious Faith. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Sanders First Jewish Politician To Win A Primary

  1. AWAD PAUL SIFRI says:

    Great analysis of prospects of Sanders versus Clinton.
    My gut tells me that Sanders will be more fair than Clinton on the question of Israel-Palestine. He will also, most likely, have some more creative ways of achieving a “just-peace”, whether in a 2-State, or One-State solution.
    His powerful shield against Zionist demagogues is that he is “Jewish”. They cannot accuse him of being anti-Semitic and they cannot credibly smear him of being a “self-hating Jew”, because it is too obvious that he is not so. He is proud of his heritage, which includes being Jewish.
    On the other hand, I remain more skeptical about Hillary Clinton. I think that, in the final analysis, she will use her allegiance to Israel, as her ultimate weapon, in order to differentiate herself from Sanders. I do not think that his principles will allow him to go so far, even though, he will be sympathetic to Israel’s security and well being.
    Furthermore, because of his principles and because of his “Jewish heritage shield”, he may be the ONLY candidate to have any chance – I repeat, ANY chance – of driving a reasonably fair resolution to the Israeli occupation of Palestine.

  2. Interesting that you should bring up Bernie Sanders, mentioning his Jewish faith without referencing his campaign position on Israel/Palestine. Last October, I went to his campaign site and downloaded the following:

    Bernie Sanders on:
    The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been one of the world’s most difficult and intractable disputes for more than sixty years. Moreover, the failure to resolve that crisis has helped fuel other conflicts in the region. Senator Sanders has long supported a two-state solution that recognizes Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, and the Palestinians right to a homeland in which they control their political and economic future.
    The most recent violence in Gaza represented a particularly ugly and violent time in the dispute. Senator Sanders strongly condemned indiscriminate rocket fire by Hamas into Israeli territory, and Hamas’ use of civilian neighborhoods to launch those attacks. However, while recognizing that Israel has the right to defend itself, he also strongly condemned Israeli attacks on Gaza as disproportionate and the widespread killing of civilians as completely unacceptable.
    The U.S. must play a leading role in creating a two-state solution, which will require significant compromises from both sides. The Palestinians must unequivocally recognize Israel’s right to exist, and hold accountable those who have committed terrorist acts. The Israelis must end the blockade of Gaza, and cease developing settlements on Palestinian land. Both sides must negotiate in good faith regarding all other outstanding issues that stand in the way of a durable and lasting peace in the region. In the meantime, strict adherence, by all sides, to the tenets of international humanitarian law is necessary in order to avoid escalating the conflict yet again.

    So Jim, there are some encouraging statements here, but it would be difficult for him to desert his tribe if he reached the White House, although I expect he would be less of an Israel-Firster than Sec. (as he calls her) Clinton. Most of us have long given up the “Two-State” solution in favor of a One State, with liberty and justice for all (also totally unacceptable to our friends, who have the luxury of having a Friend in the US that is not willing to put any teeth into its Anti-Settlement position.

  3. Charlton Price says:

    Many Jewish-Americans must be between a rock and a hard place in making their Sanders-Cinton decision. (I make this obvious point with no schadenfreude.). And these comments on Jim Wall’s analysis are very perceptive and noteworthy..

  4. Good post, Jim. But I cannot and will not forget the video evidence I saw of Sanders’ screaming “Shut up!” to a woman at a town hall meeting in late 2014 when she questioned the Zionist massacre of Gaza in that time frame. That was enough to prove for me Sanders’ tribal allegiance. Jewish lady and physician Jill Stein has my vote in November 2016, if she and her Green Party appear on my ballot. Her platform on Palestine-Israel is excellent. My vote may be wasted, but, as my hero Ralph Nader says, we citizens should not cave in and vote for the “lesser worse.” The Democrats (ugh) and Republicans (ugh-ugh) are two sides of the same ugh-ly coin.

  5. David Neunuebel says:

    Judy and I hope Bernie Sanders becomes President of the United States. It has nothing to do with his ethnicity or religious beliefs or lack thereof. He represents a break in the status quo. Hilary Clinton IS the status quo and it’s the status quo that is killing this nation.

    That said, as for your comment, “If Sanders fails to defeat Clinton in future party primaries and caucuses, his presence in the race could still nudge Clinton away from her long allegiance with the state of Israel,” I seriously doubt it.

    But we thank you for all your work and posts.

  6. oldkahuna says:

    As I’ve said here a couple times, Bernie is the only candidate I could support. He has made it clear that Bibi is a major obstacle to resolution in Palestine and Israel. How far he would push Israel, I don’t know. But he will. Clinton is NOT going to budge in her Israel till we all die position.
    The campaigns will not end with South Carolina or Nevada.
    In NH Bernie won every demographic, except older women. It would seem that the populace is tired of the Clinton brand, especially when it comes to economics, foreign policy, and domestic policy. According to my math, that leaves Bernie.
    The uncertainties are the mass media (committed to Hillary), minority voters (who, despite conjectures in every direction, are an unknown factor), and the DNC (which has been firmly committed to Hillary).
    Thanks for the provocations, Jim!! 😉

  7. Robert says:

    I think the Bern will be beneficial to peace prospects, if only because he is unlikely to jump into military entanglements in the region, unlike Hillary. This in itself weakens Israel’s position and de-legitimizes gratuitous warfare, bombing and occupation.

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