This week, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released the results of a study that showed a strong persistence of anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes in American society.
The nonprofit civil rights organization, which has been tracking anti-Semitic attitudes in the United States since 1964, found that 11 percent of Americans—approximately 28 million—believe in six of the 11 Jewish stereotypes it tests for periodically. For example, 25 percent of respondents believe that “Jews always like to be at the head of things”; 24 percent believe that “Jews are more loyal to Israel than America”; and 15 percent believe that “Jews have too much power in the business world.”
These perceptions about Jews shouldn’t come as a surprise. The ADL has also found that anti-Semitic incidents of violence are surging in the United States. Last year, the group reported that 2018 marked a 40-year high in attacks against Jews, which included the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack on American soil. More recently, a gunman opened fire on a kosher deli; a man wielding a machete stabbed five people outside a Hanukkah celebration; and every week there are more reports of assaults against Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn.
All of that is certainly a cause for concern. But at the same time, there is some surprisingly good news for Jews, at least within the Democratic primary: There are three Jewish presidential candidates whose Jewishness is hardly a factor for the voting public. Both Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg are on the rise, and Senator Michael Bennet remains in the race despite low polling numbers. All three appear to be getting evaluated purely on the merits of their ideas and messaging. But Sanders and Bloomberg are viably competing for the highest office in America.
That’s not nothing. A few days away from the Iowa caucuses, American Jews have cause to celebrate this long-fought milestone of assimilation. Sanders and Bloomberg are competing for the highest office in America. Their Jewish roots aren’t helping or hurting them—they are just accepted. To non-Jews, that might not seem particularly newsworthy. But to Jewish Americans, in 2020, the success thus far of Sanders and Bloomberg is nothing short of miraculous.
Thus far, Sanders is having more success than Bloomberg. Sanders is polling a close second to former Vice President Joe Biden in Iowa according to the latest Monmouth poll. Sanders is leading the field in New Hampshire, according to the latest CNN/University of New Hampshire poll, in a state he won in 2016.
Bloomberg is polling significantly lower: he’s at nine percent compared to Sanders’s 23 percent in the latest national Monmouth poll. But Bloomberg’s polling numbers are on the rise, even though he didn’t enter the race until last November and is skipping the four early state primaries. Bloomberg isn’t even on the ballot in New Hampshire, where Sanders is at the top of the ticket, because he’s putting all his focus into the Super Tuesday states, where he is investing significant money in television ads. Still, in each of their cases, their Jewishness has been a non-factor.
Some of us are old enough to remember when placing an American Jew on a major party ticket was considered a bold move. In the 2000 race, when Vice President Al Gore chose then-Senator Joe Lieberman as a running mate, Lieberman was a practicing Orthodox Jew and a centrist Democrat known for working with Republicans. At the time, the New York Times jumped on Gore’s selection of Lieberman with a headline destined to place his Judaism at the center of the discussion: “Gore’s Choice for His Running Mate: Moderate Senator Who Scorned Clinton: Selecting Lieberman Is Seen As Bold Move; Religion May Be Issue.”
Bloomberg and Sanders have differed in their approaches to embracing their Jewish heritage. In 2006, Bloomberg dismissed his ability to run successfully for President: “What chance does a five-foot-seven billionaire Jew who’s divorced really have of becoming president?” Fourteen years later, he has embraced his Jewish background emphatically. Before an audience at a Jewish community center outside of Miami last weekend, he invoked Torah portions and spoke of Jewish Americans’ responsibility to be inclusive and tolerant, and to help protect other communities targeted by this administration. Speaking on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, he decried anti-Semitism and vowed to protect Israel’s security.
Sanders’ polling numbers have continued to increase even since he has embraced his Jewish identity. But for Sanders, embracing his Jewish identity has been a longer path. It certainly didn’t serve as a centerpiece in his Vermont Senate run. Throughout the 2016 primaries, Sanders said he was proud to be Jewish, but largely evaded addressing his Jewishness at any depth. Now, he’s going all in. In October, around the one year anniversary of the Tree of Life massacre, Sanders wrote a column for Jewish Currents about fighting anti-Semitism. When addressing the liberal Zionist group J Street’s 2019 Conference, he recounted his experiences of living on a kibbutz in Israel and having relatives who died in the Holocaust. “I am very proud to be Jewish and look forward to being the first Jewish president,” he said. “If there is any people on earth who should do everything humanly possible” to fight the Trump agenda, “it is the Jewish people.”
This week marked 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz, the end of the Holocaust. The admonition to “Never Forget” already serves as an informal Jewish 11th Commandment. Unfortunately, the resurgence in anti-Semitic activity has made the lessons of the Nazi genocide even more urgent. In synagogue, at family dinner tables, and on social media, American Jews find themselves discussing a topic they long believed belonged in the annals of history. We have been reminded that being Jewish places us in the minority, as an “other,” susceptible to hatred and discrimination, even violence.
Yet an uptick in anti-Semitism has coincided, surprisingly, with a strong signal of support from a major portion of the American public.
In essence, Democratic voters, as well as some independents and Republicans, have given a collective nod that the country’s highest office is well within reach for a Jew, even in a year when tensions about “electability” have been particularly fraught. Then, consider another layer of meaning: the last generation of Holocaust survivors, including those who fled Europe and emigrated to the United States, may live to elect a Jewish president.
Certainly, we can expect the anti-Semitic tropes and trolls to become louder and more forceful if a Jewish candidate becomes the nominee. Just as Barack Obama faced racist backlash, so, too, would a Jewish nominee face an anti-Semitic backlash. But right now, Bernie Sanders is surging in both Iowa and New Hampshire, neither of which are home to many Jews. That’s an incredible feat not just for Sanders, but for all American Jews. When a politician’s ethnic heritage is a total non-issue, that’s what we call good news for the Jews.