July 22 2017

Campaign 2016 & the Jewish Problem

by Eric Michael Mazur, Virginia Wesleyan College

Many American Jews have felt uneasy during the current presidential campaign, largely because of how Judaism has been the object of campaign rhetoric—from various candidates and the media, and in ways that are neither flattering nor representative. Some of the rhetoric—seeming indifference to Jewish sensitivities, the deployment of anti-Semitic stereotypes, and even rhetorical threats of physical harm—is not unheard of in American politics. What seems new is the way this rhetoric has revealed a significant difference in how non-Jews and Jews understand “religion,” particularly with regard to Jewish identity.

Jewish communal memory often elicits reactions among American Jews who have experienced xenophobia as list-making; not as in “who stays and who goes,” but as in “who goes first and who goes second.” In the recent campaign, Islamophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric have revived memories of nearly two millennia of dependence on the toleration of host nations. Senator Ted Cruz's acceptance of an endorsement from Pastor Mike Bickle, who articulated a vision of Jews as mere players in his own community’s eschatological drama, reminded many of the insultingly essentialistic role some Protestants envision for all Jews. Questions from radio talk-show host Diane Rehm to Senator Bernie Sanders about Israeli dual-citizenship—which he does not have, and about which she learned from Facebook (!)—recalled accusations of divided (or inauthentic) Jewish loyalty. Comments from former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, a religion advisor to Donald Trump’s campaign, that her candidate fondly recalled when “even my Jews would say ‘Merry Christmas’” blended experiences of cultural marginality and subservience with veiled accusations of Christmas-bashing. And while likely not his fault, Trump accepting and wearing a Jewish tallit during a church visit raised concerns about cultural appropriation, supercessionism, and religious obliteration.

The use of code words and negative stereotypes—particularly when invisible to non-Jews—only serves to increase Jewish discomfort. Trump’s declaration to Jewish Republicans that he was “a negotiator, like you folks,” and his campaign’s use of an image of Clinton with a six-pointed star beside the caption “Corrupt,” on a background of $100 bills, replayed negative stereotypes about Jewish business practices. So did the repetition of the names of allegedly scheming Jews (specifically Blumenthal, Gruber, Soros, Wasserman Schultz, and the historically Jewish financial firm Goldman Sachs) and conspiracy theories involving “international bankers.” Cruz derided Trump’s “New York values" and labeled Trump's criticism of Cruz accepting a loan from Goldman Sachs as “chutzpah” (properly pronounced, but with extra emphasis on the “ch” sound—as in “ach du lieber,” not “chew”—for laughs), revealing how “New York” is often code for “Jewish” and all that is foreign to “real American values.”

In the post-Holocaust world, existential threats are particularly disconcerting. Trump’s hesitation to distance himself from Klansman David Duke, journalists with seemingly Jewish names (who may or not be Jews) reporting dramatic increases in online anti-Semitic harassment after writing articles critical of Trump, and the discontinuation of the Republican National Committee's convention’s live-stream when online responses to Jewish former Hawaii Governor Linda Lingle’s speech became virulently anti-Semitic have all triggered fears of physical persecution.

Sadly, none of this is terra incognita for older American Jews. Duke launched presidential campaigns in 1988 and 1992. The Reverend Jesse Jackson maintained a relationship with openly anti-Semitic Reverend Louis Farrakhan and referred to Jews as “Hymies” and New York as “Hymietown” during his 1984 campaign. And in 1980, Ronald Reagan was present to hear Southern Baptist Convention president Dr. Bailey Smith note that “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew.”1

But in addition to the traditional forms of anti-Semitism American Jews both expect and fear in the public sphere, during the current election cycle there has been a subtle framing of some representations of Judaism as non-religion, resulting in an erasing of the highly nuanced way that even members of the Jewish community itself—in the United States and globally—struggle with notions of Jewish identity.

It is true that there were odd moments during the 2000 campaign involving journalists evaluating Democratic vice presidential nominee Joseph Lieberman’s Judaism via his adherence to halakhah. But as one journalist wrote, Lieberman “wore his Judaism like a yarmulke,” and among American Jews, his nomination inaugurated “a months-long national bar mitzvah bash.” Among non-Jews, he clearly represented a recognizable Jewish stereotype; in addition to being shomer Shabbat, he wore a kippah, he kept kosher, and he regularly attended synagogue. Not only was Lieberman Jewish, but he was (to borrow a term from former Daily Show host Jon Stewart) very “Jewy.”

This year, non-Jewish America was introduced to a Jewish candidate who, according to the Pew Research Center, is actually more representative of American Judaism than Lieberman.2 Senator Sanders, who by halakhic standards is unambiguously Jewish—his mother was Jewish—also lived a life filled with yiddishkeit: he was a bar mitzvah, he spent time on a kibbutz, he recites kaddish on the yahrtzeit of a lost friend, he performed tashlikh with the only rabbi in Lynchburg, Virginia, and he insisted on saying in Hebrew the prayers over the candles at a public Hanukkah event when he was mayor of Burlington. Nonetheless, he was deemed “not Jewish enough” by some Jewish commentators representing both the political right and left: Seth Mandel argued that Sanders wasn’t Jewish because he was a socialist; conservative personality Dennis Prager called Sanders a “non-Jewish Jew”; and Reform Rabbi Valerie Lieber argued that, because Sanders had “downplayed his Jewish heritage almost to the point of renunciation,” all Jews had an obligation to “out” him “for his own good”—a troubling statement given the Jewish history of persecution. But other writers and public figures—Jews and non-Jews—were critical of what they perceived to be Sanders’s difficult relationship with his own Jewishness.

For many non-Jewish journalists, however, the issue was not whether Sanders was Jewish enough, but whether he had a religion at all. Despite a wide variety of indicators—those listed above, but also his ability to articulate his motivation in terms of both a pre- and a post-Holocaust Jewish worldview, his joining other Jewish senators in condemning rumors that then-Senator Obama was a Muslim, and even his cameo role (while a sitting member of the House) as “Rabbi Mannie Shevitz” in the 1999 film My X-Girlfriend’s Wedding Reception—Sanders’s sense of personal privacy rendered his Jewishness invisible to many non-Jews. Most American Jews likely agreed with Ron Kampeas who wrote that Sanders was “one of the more identifiably Jewish senators”—probably because they’re related to someone just like him. Nonetheless, David Gibson concluded that Sanders was “the most secular major candidate in the 2016 race, and perhaps in US history.” A Democratic National Committee staffer came to a similar conclusion, suggesting that Clinton’s campaign use Sanders’s presumed atheism against him in upcoming primaries. This representation of Sanders’s religiosity—that he was an atheist and therefore wasn’t actually Jewish—exposed a very American Protestant bias in how non-Jews often approach Judaism, particularly in its modern manifestations.

The result was that, although a number of people—including an Orthodox friend of Sanders’s—found something prophet-like in his campaign, many non-Jewish observers framed it in the context of their own Christianity rather than Sanders’s Judaism. Some described the overall campaign as a crusade—not a particularly common (or popular) term within the Jewish community; several compared Sanders to an “Old Testament preacher”; and one—comparing Sanders’s prophetic sensibility to Jesus—suggested that he was likely the “most Christian candidate in the race.”3 The writer likely meant it ironically or as a compliment; but try to imagine how non-Jews would react to one of their candidates being called “the most Jewish candidate in the race.”

It is complicated determining who is Jewish; take the “Jewishness” of the various candidates’ grandchildren. According to halakhah, because Ivanka Trump converted to Judaism when she married, she and her children are Jews. Chelsea Clinton did not convert, meaning that her children would not have been considered Jews for most of Jewish history. However, in 1983, the Reform movement made official its policy of accepting as Jews children of non-Jewish mothers, provided those children were raised with a Jewish education, and underwent Jewish life-cycle rituals. (The Reconstructionist movement made a similar shift in 1979.4) This means that the “Jewishness” of the Clinton grandchildren is still to be determined, but only for the Reform and Reconstructionist communities. Sanders fathered one child (with a woman who was not his wife and whose religious identity I have yet to determine) whose name is Levi (pronounced “lay-vee” like the tribe, and not “lee-vi” like the jeans), which sounds traditionally Jewish, but so does “Lenny Kravitz” and “Norman Jewison.” In a culture where many (Jews and non-Jews) simply profess their religious identity, determining who is Jewish, and by what standard, requires more than the lyrics of the latest version of Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song.”

And while members of the American Jewish community often distinguish between being a Jew and practicing Judaism (said the comedian: “I don’t have to practice; I’m very good at it”), most do not renounce their Jewishness even if they move to other spiritual homes, or to none at all. But for many non-Jews, the issue seems to be rooted in conceptualizations of religion as dependent on theism and Judaism as a racial identity: if Jews constitute a race, then Sanders (and other non-theistic Jews) can be “racially” Jewish but still have no religion. Leaving aside issues such as the social construction of race, the tragic consequences such a theory has had on Jews (and others), and the cognitive dissonance created by recalling that Jesus was Jewish, within Judaism—and particularly post-Enlightenment Judaism—this racialization makes little sense, either globally or among American Jews.5

Just as vexing is the notion of monotheistic Judaism’s “religious” non-theism. “To be a good Jew, in Orthodox religious terms, is to obey the ritual and ethical commandments” writes Jay Michaelson; “I remember a teacher of mine telling me that ‘To be a good Jew, you need to believe in one God, or fewer.’” The Torah articulates 613 mitzvoth, but the overwhelming majority of them don’t require belief in the Divine for their fulfillment. Such belief does make them easier to justify—and many Jews will argue that such belief is one of the mitzvoth—but there is a general and historic consensus within Judaism that it is more important to do the right thing, regardless of why, than to believe the right thing but not do it.

Like the ritual mitzvoth that may be more familiar to non-Jews, the ethical mitzvoth are grounded in Torah, and constitute part of the Jewish requirement to perform tikkun olam (“repairing of the world”). And while some Jews may judge others by how well (or whether) they fulfill the ritual mitzvoth, few would entirely negate the Jewishness of those Jews who privilege the ethical mitzvoth. To do so would be a rejection of halakhah and a negation of the Reform and Reconstructionist movements as well as a number of other movements with roots in ethical Judaism, including Jewish Science, Humanistic Judaism, and Ethical Culture. A recent survey of American Jews concluded that “[s]ecularism has a long tradition in Jewish life in America … and most US Jews seem to recognize this”; even among what the survey calls “Jews by religion” (as opposed to the ill-fitting phrase “Jews of no religion”), over half thought that “being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture,” with over 60% indicating that “it is not necessary to believe in God to be Jewish.”6

Thus it was no surprise when a candidate identified by the media as likely to become the “only openly atheist member” of Congress turned out to be Jewish, or when former Represenative Barney Frank declared that, contrary to media reports, he was not an atheist.7 Tellingly, Frank’s discussion of his own “Jewishness” is placed amidst his description of an unrelated event that occurred on Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish High Holy Days and a period of reflection and confession for all Jews.

Many younger American Jews mirror their “millennial” cohort; they are non-institutional but nonetheless engaged and in search of meaning. Many were likewise attracted to the Sanders campaign. But unlike many of the non-Jewish “Nones” who appear in surveys, the Jewish version—identified by some scholars as “New Jews”—generally understand their connection to their Jewish identity as an inheritance as well as a preference, or as Rep. Frank put it, “a mix of religious, ethnic, cultural, and social elements.”8 If this is the case, then it might be wise to heed the words of American religious historian Leigh Eric Schmidt when he writes that “[r]aising the atheist specter against presidential candidates has been a tried-and-true part of the attack apparatus in American politics from the beginning”; continuing to do so with an increasing percentage of American Jews will only perpetuate a significant misunderstanding of American Judaism, and will likely sustain Jewish unease in the public sphere.


1 Majorie Hyer, “Baptist Leader’s Statement on Jews Stirs Debate,” Washington Post (September 26,1980): F10.

2 Pew Research Center, A Portrait of Jewish Americans: Findings from a Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews (October 1, 2013). Available online at <http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/> (accessed November 2, 2016).

3 See also Doyle McManus, “If Bernie Sanders Wins California…,” Los Angeles Times (June 5, 2016): A26; and Margaret Talbot, “The Populist Prophet,” New Yorker (October 12, 2015). Available online at <http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/10/12/the-populist-prophet> (accessed November 2, 2016).

4 Jacob J. Staub, “A Reconstructionist View on Patrilineal Descent,” Judaism 34, no. 1 (1985): 97–106.

5 See also Katya Cengel, “The Lemba Jews of Zimbabwe Are Having a Hopeful New Year,” NPR.org (February 10, 2015). Available online at <http://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2016/10/09/496869349/the-lemba-jews-of-zimbabwe-are-having-a-hopeful-new-year> (accessed November 1, 2016); and Sue Fishkoff, “Jews of Color Come Together to Explore Identity,” Jewish Telegraphic Agency (October 13, 2009): Available online at <http://www.jta.org/2009/10/13/life-religion/jews-of-color-come-together-to-explore-identity> (accessed November 1, 2016).

6 Pew,  Portrait, 8.

7 Nick Wing, “Congress Likely to Get Its Only Openly Atheist Member in November,” Huffington Post (April 27, 2016; updated May 4, 2016): Available online at <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/jamie-raskin-atheist-congress_us_5720eb95e4b01a5ebde42002> (accessed November 1, 2016); and Barney Frank, Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 217–18.

8 Pew Research Center, “Nones” on the Rise (October 9, 2012). Available online at <http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/> (accessed November 1, 2016); Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “The ‘New Jews’: Reflections on Emerging Cultural Practices,” paper delivered at “Re-thinking Jewish Communities and Networks in an Age of Looser Connections” conference, Yeshiva University (December 6–7, 2005); and Frank, Frank, 217.


Eric Michael Mazur is the Gloria and David Furman Professor of Judaic Studies and Center for the Study of Religious Freedom Fellow at Virginia Wesleyan College.

Image: Senator Bernie Sanders prays with Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, before delivering an address to Liberty University students in Lynchburg, Virginia, in September. Photo by Jay Paul/Reuters.