Bernie Sanders already making history as Jewish candidate

By Ian Hagerty

(Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
(Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)

John F. Kennedy faced backlash during his presidential campaign because he was Irish-Catholic. Barack Obama shifted our nation’s perception of what can be accomplished by an African-American. Since Hillary Clinton’s first attempt at office in 2008, people have celebrated her potential to be our first female president. But Bernie Sanders could very well be our first Jewish president, and no one seems interested.

I’ve brought this subject up amongst friends on several occasions. Some of them weren’t even aware that Sanders is Jewish. It could be said this ignorance is a good thing – we look past the immortal soul and look instead at the candidate, to the breath and blood, the same as any other. However, something about this ignorance just doesn’t sit right. Religion has often been at least a warm subject for the media during coverage of candidates in an election.

In the world we live in, what’s on the inside doesn’t matter all that much, especially in politics. Politics are all about the façade that protects policy and platform from the wind and the rain that batters them day in and day out. Sanders’ resonant, gruff yet tonal Brooklyn voice is a part of his upbringing and heritage. I have New York Jewish heritage and it’s impossible for me to hear Sanders’ voice without also hearing the same cultural roots. Bernie Sanders is Jewish and I’m ecstatic that he could be our president.

While Sanders is of Jewish heritage, he isn’t actively involved in the Jewish community. His wife Jane and his children are Christian. He isn’t devout. All the same, this doesn’t change the positive potential impact that a presidential stint for Sanders could have for history. Maybe it’ll cause a sprinkle of social change as well. For any position, Commander-in-chief probably even more so, a new perspective – not just of the person, but of the culture as well – is essential to keeping up forward momentum and keeping the warring tribes somewhat at peace.

Marginalization of a social or religious group has nothing to do with the level of commitment a member of said group has. What matters is that Sanders was born into a Jewish family, that he identifies as Jewish and that he may be the first person to bring a bit of Jewish culture in the Oval Office.

It’s an undeniable fact that the United States experiences frequent anti-Semitism. Even last week on Saturday Night Live, Sanders made a joke about changing his name to be less Jewish before coming to America.

Yes, this was a common occurrence at Ellis Island, and the skit may well have taken place on the Titanic, during a time when anti-Semitism was expressed more openly in society and amongst seasoned bigots, but the joke still holds the same weight today. People weren’t lost on the meaning of Sanders’ joke. It sat well within their own personal understanding. It often seems like we’re sailing free and clear in open water, until yet another Jew joke pops out of the dark like an iceberg. Sometimes they may seem innocuous enough, yet the bulk of the issue and its deeper meaning still lingers below the surface. The North Atlantic is full of ice and America is just as we have always known it to be.

Sometimes things are a bit more menacing than a joke, however offensive, as well. You don’t have to go far. After all, while vocally silent, symbolically loud swastikas aren’t exactly strangers to the stalls of UMass’s bathrooms. Hate speech like this can only be indicative of underlying anti-Semitism or unacceptable ignorance.

Sanders has already made history by being the first Jewish candidate to win any delegates in a presidential primary. On Tuesday, he won the New Hampshire primary. This is an incredible feat. Maybe there are some silent celebrations going on, but I haven’t heard them.

People may start talking about Sanders’ heritage more and more as time goes on. Maybe the Republicans will find subtle ways to utilize the silent anti-Semitism that reigns in the United States through the eyes of conspiracy theorists and simple bigots.

Maybe Sanders will gain even more support for being an outlier; it seems to be an important aspect for Democratic candidates these days. Time can only tell.

Ian Hagerty is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]