By Sandra Fox
How the Democratic candidate for President is the newest pretext for an old debate over acceptable American Jewish identity
In the past weeks leading up to the Democratic primary in New York, discussions about Bernie Sanders’ Jewishness have proliferated among the substantial Jewish electorate in the city and state. While articles and editorials on the issue take different perspectives, they largely attempt to answer the following question: Is Bernie Sanders Jewish enough for the Jews?
Arguments over Mr. Sanders’ Jewish identity encapsulate an old debate in a new context. Between 1881 and 1924, two and a half million Jews, most of them traditionally observant refugees from Eastern Europe, arrived in America. These Jews were by and large poor, and lived in tight-knit urban communities in which Jewish culture changed, but remained robust in the new American context. As they climbed the socioeconomic ladder into the postwar period, Jews anxiously argued over the nature of “authentic” Jewishness, fearing how suburbanization, newly acquired affluence, and a tolerant American society would lead to the end of “real” Jews.
In the 1950s and 1960s, American Jewish leaders projected their fears onto youth, and scrambled to create an American Jewish culture that would feel relevant, and would serve as an antidote to assimilation and the perceived risks of intermarriage. Out of those efforts came widespread programs of Holocaust and Israel education in summer camps, Hebrew schools, and youth movements. As I have found in my research on postwar summer camps and youth movements, Jewish educators relied on such programs to make kids “Jewish enough” by simulating the experiences of Jews in Israel, which some say had become a lynchpin of American Jewish identity after the 1967 Six Day War, and through memorializing the perished Jews of Europe. The establishment Jewish community, as represented by institutions like Jewish Federation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, still seek to assure that young Jews will become “Jewish enough.” Investing in organized programs, such as free trips to Israel, they focus on preserving what is referred to in communal discussions as “Jewish continuity.”
But now, when for the first time in American history there is a formidable candidate for the presidency who happens to be Jewish, Jews have been projecting on to him their greatest insecurities, fears, and anxieties over how they should act as individuals and as a community, and what they should stand for today. They also extended those projections in recent days to the campaign’s currently suspended Jewish Outreach Coordinator, Simone Zimmerman. Zimmerman, now in her mid-twenties, grew up immersed in establishment, Israel-centered education, such as Camp Ramah of the Conservative Movement. Her evolution into a progressive — one who cares deeply about Israel’s future and the Jewish people — embodies the Jewish establishment’s greatest fear: that even with day schools and summer camps aimed to make kids fit their mold of acceptable Jewishness, they cannot control Jewish youth.
Jewish establishment institutions and press outlets affiliated with them played a direct role in discrediting Simone Zimmerman in the short time she occupied her position with the Sanders campaign. The organized Jewish community in America chooses not to make room for the growing number of Jewish millennials like Ms. Zimmerman who are engaged with their Jewish identities and care deeply about the future of the Jewish people and of Israel. The way in which many Jewish millennials express their care for Israel by its very definition involves critique of Israel’s rapid slide toward nationalist-religious extremism, its discriminatory treatment of its Arab citizens and Palestinians, and its increasingly intolerant attitudes to its own civil society that chooses the path of dissent. The attack on Ms. Zimmerman reflects both the generational shift in dialogue surrounding Israel, and the failure of Jewish institutions to understand and productively embrace it.
The Jewish establishment picks and prods Mr. Sanders’ Jewishness because it reflects a part of Jewish history little celebrated among the mainstream American Jewish public, precisely because it diverges from the sanctioned Israel-centered identity of today. His values echo those of Yiddish-speaking socialists and labor union activists of Eastern Europe and the immigrant Lower East Side. Scrappy, poor, and universalist, this turn of the century model of American Jewishness is what upwardly mobile Jews in the mid-20th century left behind as they departed the cities for the suburbs and climbed the socioeconomic ladder.
As many in the Jewish communal establishment question Mr. Sanders’s Jewishness when he says he cares about both the well-being of Israel and considers the needs of Palestinians, they ignore the history of early socialist Zionist movements like Hashomer Hatzair, which indicated similar concerns. When Jews call into question whether Mr. Sanders is “Jewish enough” because he is secular and intermarried, they point to the same fears of assimilation and “continuity” that have concerned the American Jewish community for decades, the Jewish people for millennia. When Jews ask for more from this candidate’s Jewish identity than his family’s Holocaust experience, they expect more from him than they expect of other assimilated Jews. For many, connecting the Holocaust with their identities is an acceptable and prevalent practice — one that, moreover, has been encouraged through the focus on it in Jewish education. And when Mr. Sanders faced an anti-Semitic comment two weeks ago in Harlem, a journalist went as far as to provide examples of what he should have said in response, rebuking him because he chose not to dignify the anti-Semitism in the question with a direct answer. Instead Mr. Sanders let the crowd’s powerful booing serve as the community’s response.
While it is ordinary for Jews to argue and test the boundaries of Jewish identity (“two Jews, three opinions,” as the saying goes), the focus of these debates on a single person, and then, by extension, onto his young Jewish Outreach Coordinator, point to an extraordinary, and damaging, shift in communal discourse. Like Philip Roth upon publishing Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 — an event that occasioned communal anger with the writer — Mr. Sanders has become the latest catalyst for discussions that tend to occur amongst Jews, though typically away from broader public attention.
The establishment Jewish institutions and media outlets affiliated with them are jumping at the opportunity to police Mr. Sanders’ identity because public and open discussions of his Jewishness signal the generational shift in the debate about the future direction of the American Jewish community writ large. By comparing Mr. Sanders’s Jewishness against the boundaries of established forms of public American Jewish identity, the organized Jewish community acts no differently than when they try to mold Jewish youth in their particular vision of an approved and sanctioned Jewishness, or when they limit the parameters of conversations surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Zimmerman, at the ripe age of twenty-five, embodies the current generational split, and the policing of Jewish discourse and identity are exactly what Simone Zimmerman and her co-millennial progressives fight against in organizations like Open Hillel and If Not Now.
Mr. Sanders will not appeal to all Jews, because they are a diverse group with wide-ranging views on both American and foreign policy. If American Jews are going to debate this presidential election in the press and in communal spaces, they would be better served focusing on policy rather than on policing Mr. Sanders’ expressions of Jewishness. But if the debate about Mr. Sanders’ Jewish identity must continue, it should translate into a self-aware process, in which Jews consider Mr. Sanders, and by extension Simone Zimmerman, in the broader scope of their experience in America. The boundaries of what being “Jewish enough” looks like continuously evolve. The historical precedent for these debates should remind Jews that their institutions and dialogues must evolve, too.
Sandra Fox is a Ph.D. Candidate in American Jewish history at New York University.
Image via Gage Skidmore