Bernie Sanders' candidacy is a first for Jews. So why isn't he talking about it?
Bernie Sanders speaks to Clarke University in Dubuque, Iowa (Telegraph Herald/screen grab)

Historic nature of his presidential bid is drawing a shrug from his co-religionists in Florida, the first state with a large Jewish population to hold a primary

Bernie Sanders may be the first credible Jewish candidate for president in American history but, to the heavily Jewish Democratic electorate in Florida, he might as well be chopped liver.

Eight years after both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama rallied Democratic voters with the historic nature of their candidacies – Clinton as the first credible female candidate for president and Obama as the first credible African American – the historic nature of Sanders’ candidacy is drawing a shrug from his co-religionists in the first state with a significant Jewish population to hold a primary. Florida goes to the polls along with Ohio and other key states on Tuesday.

Even though Jewish voters are disproportionately Democratic and almost 70% of Jewish votes nationally went to Obama when he won re-election in 2012, Sanders has not campaigned in Palm Beach County – home to more than a third of Florida’s estimated 640,000 Jews – once.

Although he did pay a brief visit to Miami, about an hour south of Palm Beach County, he has ignored this vote-rich area where a disproportionate number of residents are – like the Vermont senator – elderly Jews originally from New York City.

As one voter there, retired hotel investor Michael Slosberg, 77, who moved to West Palm Beach from New York eight years ago, said of Sanders: “We haven’t seen the guy or heard much from him. We know where Hillary stands and I’ll be surprised if she doesn’t win Florida.”

Part of this is statewide strategy. While polls have tightened in other states holding 15 March primaries such as Illinois, Clinton has maintained an overwhelming lead in the Sunshine State. It also may have to do with Sanders’ own awkward relationship with his faith and heritage.

Although Sanders had a bar mitzvah growing up in Brooklyn and spent time in his 20s living on a kibbutz in Israel, he isn’t observant and has shied away from discussing his faith. He has often awkwardly referred to himself as “the son of a Polish immigrant” at times on the campaign, including his victory speech in New Hampshire. While technically true that Sanders’ parents immigrated from an area now part of present-day Poland, this was strange and jarring to some Jewish voters, since Jews in Poland before the second world war were victims of constant anti-Semitism and occasional pogroms and would likely not have considered themselves Polish.

Asked about this faith in an unusual moment at a recent Democratic debate , Sanders was firm: “I am very proud to be Jewish, and being Jewish is so much of who I am,” he said.

“Look, my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler in the Holocaust. I know about what crazy and radical and extremist politics mean. I learned that lesson as a tiny, tiny child when my mother would take me shopping, and we would see people working in stores who had numbers on their arms because they were in Hitler’s concentration camp.”

He concluded: “I’m very proud of being Jewish and that is an essential part of who I am as a human being.”

Rabbi David Paskin, who leads the congregation at Temple Beth David, a conservative synagogue in Palm Beach Gardens, said of the Vermont senator: “Does he or does he not make a big deal of his Jewishness? I was happy with the way he described his Jewishness. He really is a reflection of 87% of the Jews in America, secular Jews who are biologically Jewish but don’t express it in any significant way.

“There’s something to be said for us as a Jewish community to have arms open enough to embrace his Judaism or his lack of wanting to talk about it, because those are the Jews we have in the world. Does it make him more qualified? No. But would I like to see a Jew in office? Damn right I would.”

To others, the fact that Sanders’ religion is a non issue is important in and of itself. Steve Cohen, a Democratic congressman from Memphis, told the Guardian: “It’s wonderful that it has not been raised as an issue and shows how far America has come.”

To Cohen, who is supporting Clinton, the fact that Sanders’ faith was not an issue represented how much “Jews have assimilated in the United States and the country has accepted the fact that we are a land that welcomes immigrants and multicultural society”.

Does it make him more qualified? No. But would I like to see a Jew in office? Damn right I would.

Rabbi David Paskin

This was echoed by Aaron Keyak, a top Jewish Democratic strategist and principal at Bluelight Strategies, a Washington consulting firm. “You know we all have pride in the fact that Bernie Sanders had gone farther than any other Jewish candidate, but maybe it’s a sign of progress that his Jewishness isn’t playing a prominent role in [whether] people are supporting him or not.

“In a way, it’s sign of progress that a Jewish American is running for president and it’s not the first identifier but when he’s quoted in newspaper,” Keyak suggested. “For a people that have been persecuted throughout history and have had governments seek to murder us and destroy our tradition, in that sense it is real progress.”

Polling bears out that Sanders’ politics may be a bigger obstacle to his electoral success than his religious background. According to a June 2015 Gallup poll , 91% of Americans say that they would be comfortable voting for a Jewish candidate for president. However, only 47% would vote for a socialist.

Professor Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish demography project and a professor of geography at the University of Miami, noted though that regardless how frequently Sanders attends synagogue, his message is deeply influenced by Judaism. “The role of man is to repair the world and make it a better place, and charity, helping the widow and the orphan, those are kind of core Jewish values generally no matter how religious people are,” Sheskin said. “After all, Bernie Sanders is a secular Jew, he’s not at all religious, but he knows exactly what tikkun olam and tzedakah are, and his opinions fit within that.” © Guardian News and Media 2016