2016 Election Blog #8: The “Jewish” Bernie Sanders: Examining the Rise of a Democratic Socialist
One of the most frequent questions I receive on the lecture circuit involves the “Jewish” credentials of Senator Bernie Sanders. Last October, the Senator did an interview with The Forward focusing on his Jewish upbringing, but that piece would only provide certain basic information on his early life1. Much remains to be both asked and assessed when one examines the Senator’s Jewish story!
How has Sanders Jewish upbringing informed his politics? In what ways does Sanders appeal to the Jewish electorate? And finally, is his candidacy “good for the Jews”?
Enter Bernie Sanders:
Sanders, who was born in 1941, grew up in a working class Jewish family as the youngest of two sons. His father immigrated to the United States from Poland; his mother who was from a Jewish immigrant family was born in New York City. His friends generally describe his introduction to Judaism as more secular than religious; nonetheless Sanders would have a bar mitzvah.
While in college, the young Sanders would serve as an organizer for SNCC (Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee) and CORE (Congress of Racial Equality). While at the University of Chicago, Sanders would lead a campus demonstration seeking to end student housing segregation. In 1963, he participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. During his years in Chicago, the future senator would join the Young People’s Socialist League
Graduating the University of Chicago in 1964, Sanders would spend some time on a kibbutz in Israel before settling in Vermont. Holding a cross section of jobs during the 1970’s, he would enter the political world as a member of the Liberty Union Party. During the 1970’s Sanders would run unsuccessfully for mayor of the city of Burlington, Governor of Vermont, and for the United States Senate.
In 1981, Sanders would narrowly win the mayoral race with the support of a grassroots organization, the Progressive Coalition. During the 1980’s he would serve three terms as Mayor of Burlington. Under his leadership the city would be the first in the nation to fund community-trust housing. He would improve the Lake Champlain waterfront, revitalize the city’s downtown, and convert waterfront properties to a mixed-use district that encompassed public parks, housing, and business.
In 1987 U.S. News identified Sanders as one of America’s most successful mayors. In 1989 he would elect not to seek re-election. Over the next several years, Sanders would teach political science at both the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and at Hamilton College. In 1990 Sanders elected to run as an “independent” for Vermont’s one seat in the House of Representatives, wining that election and ultimately serving 16 years as a House member. In 2006 he would successfully run for the Senate, being re-elected in 2012 receiving 71% of the vote.
In 1965 Sanders would marry Deborah Shilling; the couple would divorce a year later. He is the father of Levi Sanders, who was born to Susan Mott in 1969. In 1988 he would marry Jane O’Meara Driscoll, the former president of Burlington College and a Roman Catholic. Sanders considers his wife’s three children as his own and is more than happy to speak about his children and grandchildren with great pride.
Sanders as a “Jewish” Voice from the Past:
As I travel the country, individuals speak about being reconnected to their own Zionist socialist roots when hearing Bernie Sanders articulate his message. Younger attendees speak of Sanders as reminding them of their “Zayde” (grandfather), as this 74 year old provides an image of their own family stories. Others reference his New York dialect as rekindling their own roots and connections to “the City” (New York).
Sanders’ encompassing domestic agenda is compared by some of his admirers as having a direct link to the social justice message of Judaism. His focus on challenging big business and affirming his support for this nation’s working class has inspired a certain class of Jewish social activists.