THE BLOG
09/21/2015 08:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How About a Jewish President?

ASSOCIATED PRESS

For the past few days, the presidential election has focused on religion -- in specific, the Islamic religion. This started with Donald Trump failing to challenge a questioner's assertion that President Barack Obama is a Muslim, and then shifted to asking Republican candidates whether they could hypothetically support a Muslim to become America's president. This time it was Ben Carson who stumbled, not Trump. Other Republican presidential candidates have -- to their credit -- condemned Carson's remarks, most notably Ted Cruz (on constitutional grounds: "the Constitution specifies there shall be no religious test for public office and I am a constitutionalist") and Lindsey Graham (on historical grounds: "America is an idea, not owned by a particular religion"). Bobby Jindal tried to win the gotcha battle in his own unique way:

If you can find me a Muslim candidate who is a Republican, who will fight hard to protect religious liberty, who will respect the Judeo-Christian heritage of America, who will be committed to destroying ISIS and radical Islam, who will condemn cultures that treat women as second-class citizens and who will place their hand on the Bible and swear to uphold the Constitution, then yes, I will be happy to consider voting for him or her.

This ignores the fact that, as Ted Cruz pointed out, there is no requirement a president "place their hand on the Bible" while being sworn in (the words "so help me God" don't even appear in the official oath of office), and also brushes aside how today's Republican Party could be described by many as a "culture that treats women as second-class citizens," but Jindal's always been known to unintentionally utter some rather ironic statements.

But all of this media attention over a hypothetical Muslim presidential candidate (not one of the major party candidates is, in actual fact, a Muslim) completely ignores a truly pertinent question -- one that I am personally astonished that nobody's really even noticed yet. The question: Could America elect the first Jewish president in 2016?

You may not be aware of it, but Bernie Sanders is Jewish. You are probably not aware of it mostly because the subject has yet to be raised in any meaningful way in the media surrounding the presidential campaign. We all know that Hillary Clinton (or Carly Fiorina, perhaps) could become the first woman president in American history. Those aware of modern history know that John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic president. So why has nobody noticed that Sanders could be the first Jewish president?

Kennedy, of course, had to answer some very tough questions about his faith when he ran. Would he be nothing more than an agent of the Pope and do whatever the Vatican told him to do? This may sound astonishing these days, but back then it was a serious concern of many American voters. Change is always difficult. Kennedy gave a brilliant speech about the subject, which largely put it to rest on the campaign trail. Barack Obama had to follow in Kennedy's footsteps when he gave his own speech about the Reverend Wright, during his 2008 campaign. When Joe Lieberman became a candidate for vice president, the issue of his religion came up as well.

A Jew is currently in second place in the 2016 Democratic field, and yet the issue hasn't even really arisen. Now, I realize this may be due to other factors. In the first place, the media doesn't treat Bernie's campaign very seriously at all (they'd rather make jokes about his hair, or socialism). So perhaps it's just part of the media's sneering contempt for a man they have deemed an "unserious" candidate. Or perhaps it's due to the fact that Bernie himself admits he's "not particularly religious." Religion is always examined more closely for a candidate who triumphantly wears his religion on his sleeve, after all. Perhaps it's because Bernie's not some sort of uber-hawk on Israel, the way Lieberman has always been. Perhaps it's because America has become much more tolerant towards Jews over the past few decades in general (it wasn't so long ago Jews weren't allowed to do things like join country clubs, to insert a historical note).

But at the very least, the possibility that Bernie Sanders could become America's first Jewish president should be a valid topic for conversation in the midst of this campaign. A Jewish president would be seen with delight by some -- the same sort of delight many Americans felt after electing the first African-American candidate. Bernie as first Jewish president might be seen as horrible by the anti-Semitic and otherwise bigoted. It may also be seen as horrific by Zionist Jews, who would likely see Bernie as insufficiently supportive of Israel. But whatever the reaction, it should at least be a subject for discussion in the electorate. So far, it hasn't been to any noticeable extent.

In the midst of an extensive interview by Ezra Klein of Vox, the subject of Zionism did come up briefly. Here is Sanders's response to being asked if he was a Zionist:

A Zionist? What does that mean? Want to define what the word is? Do I think Israel has the right to exist? Yeah, I do. Do I believe that the United States should be playing an even-handed role in terms of its dealings with the Palestinian community in Israel? Absolutely I do.

Again, I think that you have volatile regions in the world, the Middle East is one of them, and the United States has got to work with other countries around the world to fight for Israel's security and existence at the same time as we fight for a Palestinian state where the people in that country can enjoy a decent standard of living, which is certainly not the case right now. My long-term hope is that instead of pouring so much military aid into Israel, into Egypt, we can provide more economic aid to help improve the standard of living of the people in that area.

That does sound pretty even-handed -- much more even-handed than most American politicians, in fact. Republicans in particular have become big supporters of anything Israel wants to do, and routinely pander to this issue to woo Christian fundamentalist voters (this is a complicated subject worthy of its own article, but I'm just going to touch upon it here). Just one quick example of this: Carly Fiorina has a line from her stump speech about how the first thing she'd do upon entering the Oval Office as president would be to place a call to her good friend Bibi Netanyahu.

The only time Bernie's religion tangentially came up in the media in a noticeable way was when an NPR host falsely accused him of holding dual citizenship in both America and Israel. Somebody in the fact-checking department really blew it, to put it mildly. Bernie was interviewed just after this happened by the Christian Science Monitor, where he told a compelling personal story. Here's the whole segment:

"I'm proud to be Jewish," the Independent from Vermont -- and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination -- responded Thursday at a press breakfast hosted by the Monitor. Though, he added, "I'm not particularly religious."

As a child, Sanders said, being Jewish taught him "in a very deep way what politics is about."

"A guy named Adolf Hitler won an election in 1932," the senator said. "He won an election, and 50 million people died as a result of that election in World War II, including 6 million Jews. So what I learned as a little kid is that politics is, in fact, very important."

Chances are, Sanders's religion would not have come up at the Monitor breakfast, except for a controversy the day before. During an interview broadcast by NPR, host Diane Rehm had asserted, mistakenly, that Sanders was a dual US-Israeli citizen.

He immediately corrected her, calling it "nonsense that goes on in the Internet." But Ms. Rehm pressed on and asked about other members of Congress. Sanders took offense.

"I honestly don't know but I have read that on the Internet. You know, my dad came to this country from Poland at the age of 17 without a nickel in his pocket. He loved this country. I am, you know, I got offended a little bit by that comment, and I know it's been on the Internet. I am obviously an American citizen, and I do not have any dual citizenship."

That is a deeply moving piece of Sanders's own personal history. Any other candidate would have put it front and center of their first "introduce the candidate" television ad. So far, Bernie hasn't made any political hay out of his own life story. This may be the biggest reason why the media hasn't picked up on the subject, in fact. Bernie has said from the start that his campaign is not about him personally -- it's about his ideas, first and foremost.

Even so, the fact remains that one of the frontrunners in the Democratic race is Jewish. So while the media is currently having lots of fun asking their hypothetical "gotcha" question over a non-existent Muslim presidential candidate, it would seem a natural progression to also start asking whether a Jewish candidate would be acceptable as president. Because this is not a theoretical or hypothetical "gotcha" question at all. There actually is a Jewish candidate running, and he's doing pretty well in the polls right now. If things broke his way, it is entirely possible Bernie Sanders could become our nation's first Jewish president. Personally, I think this would be just as big a milestone as the first African-American or the first woman (I should plainly state that I am not Jewish, I just think it'd be a milestone of tolerance worth celebrating). But then, I'm not running for president. So after the media has had their fun asking about a Muslim candidate, I'm hoping that they'll return for a second round of the religious-tolerance questioning, and ask everyone running for president whether they could support a Jewish president -- whether Bernie Sanders or some future Jewish candidate manages to achieve this goal. I think that's a much more relevant question, at this point, and I'd like to see the candidates' answers.

 

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