The socialist or the billionaire? Why Bernie and Mike don’t fire the Jewish imagination

The socialist or the billionaire? Why Bernie and Mike don’t fire the Jewish imagination

I can’t figure out if God hates or loves Ted Nugent. If he didn’t hate Nugent – the anti-Semitic, gun-toting, far-right former rock star – why would God allow a presidential race that may soon include both a democratic socialist Brooklyn-born son of a Polish Jewish immigrant, and the billionaire former mayor of New York City who actually won something called the “Jewish Nobel Prize”?

It’s also possible that God loves Ted Nugent and likes giving the self-styled “Motor City Madman” material for his kookier political ravings. The attention surrounding Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg can only fuel the kind of bigotry that led Nugent to share a Facebook post about the 12 Jews who are “really behind gun control.”

Weirdly enough, Ted Nugent may be more fascinated by the two Jews in the race than, well, the Jews are. When Joe Lieberman was picked as Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, the Jewish community (loosely defined as people who write for and read Jewish newspapers) went bananas. It wasn’t just that Lieberman might have become the first Jew to be just a heartbeat away from the Oval Office (if you don’t count the occasional White House cardiologist). No, Lieberman davened at an Orthodox synagogue. We dreamed about a Passover seder at the White House where the Jewish guests might actually outnumber the gentile staff members.

I haven’t seen similar salivating over the prospect of a Sanders presidency, or a Bloomberg insurgency. Certainly, there has been a spate of “What kind of Jew is he?” articles on Sanders. We learned how he “reads from the Passover Haggada in Hebrew” and that one of his best friends and former housemates is Richard Sugarman, an Orthodox professor of Jewish philosophy at the University of Vermont. JTA even noted that Sugarman once roomed with Lieberman at Yale, making the professor perhaps “the only person to have lived with both serious Jewish contenders for the U.S. presidency.”

And last week we finally learned the name of the kibbutz where Sanders spent a few months in the 1960s. Kibbutz Sha’ar HaAmakim, near Haifa, belongs to the secular, leftist Hashomer Hatzair movement. Right-wing critics are already blasting Sanders for belonging to a “Stalinist” commune, although if his stint on kibbutz were anything like mine, he spent more time shoveling chicken poop and ogling Swedish volunteers than plotting the liberation of the proletariat.

In his liberalism, secularism, and unmistakable Brooklynism, he is as familiar a Jewish type as one can imagine — if not in the Senate than in a college classroom, union hall, or used book store. American Jewry is catching up with Sanders in terms of its secularism: Pew tells us that millennials are almost five times as likely as members of the “Greatest Generation” to describe themselves as “Jews having no religion.” And like the vast majority of self-identified “secular” Jews, Sanders has a non-Jewish spouse

So it’s not as if Sanders is a Jewish outlier. The Jewish community is a cholent of believers and skeptics. Some go to shul; others cut a big check for the local federation. For every Yiddishist who shuns religion, there’s a temple president who can’t understand a word of Yiddish or Hebrew, and a civil rights activist who considers tikkun olam her real religion.

If Sanders does not fire the Jewish imagination, it is not because he is not seen as Jewish. But for the very types of people who get excited by Jews in high places, he’s not exactly the right kind of Jew. What is a Jew doing in Vermont? He speaks about his pride in being Jewish and has defended Israel against double standards, but does he feel Israel in his kishkes? And it’s nice that he’s liberal, you can almost hear older Jewish voters saying, but doesn’t he overdo it a bit? This is America, after all, not City College.

Bloomberg too was never a darling among the engaged Jews — as a Jew, anyway. Yes, he gives generously to Israel and Jewish organizations. He has spoken movingly about the anti-Semitism faced by his own Jewish parents. Anti-Semites never forget that he is a Jew: The Facebook meme shared by Nugent referred to him as former mayor of “Jew York.”

On the other hand, Bloomberg’s partner isn’t Jewish, and his kids were “kind of raised…to be Church of England,” as one of his daughters once put it. If you believe that the Jewish future begins with the family, Bloomberg may not be your role model.Years back, a Wall Street Journal article lamented that Bloomberg’s Jewishness was marked “mostly by detachment.”

That was unfair to Bloomberg, I thought at the time, and reflected a notion of religion shared by way too many politicians. Belief or ritual are not the only measures of Jewish identity, and Bloomberg is unassailably a member of the tribe. He's just not seen as a standard-bearer, the way Chuck Schumer or Debbie Wasserman Schultz are.

Make no mistake — if either Sanders or Bloomberg were somehow to win the presidency, it would be a milestone. I just don’t expect Jews to turn out for either candidate just because he’s Jewish, the way black voters tapped Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton. Some will vote for Bernie Sanders because he represents their “Jewish values”; others will say he’s hardly a Jew at all.

Mouth-breathers like Ted Nugent no doubt see Sanders and Bloomberg as just two more cogs in the Jewish conspiracy. But what kind of conspiracy supports a billionaire and a socialist, and isn’t too excited about either one?

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