Bernie Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a television interview before a town hall meeting, Sept. 3, 2015, in Grinnell, Iowa.

Bernie Sanders is Jewish, but does anybody care?

Sanders has soared in the polls, becoming a legitimate contender for the Democratic nod for president. An NBC/Marist poll taken at the end of August and beginning of September has Sanders trailing Hillary Clinton by 11 points in Iowa and leading her by nine points in New Hampshire. The poll assumes a Joe Biden run.

In 2000, Joe Lieberman became the first Jewish candidate to appear on a major party presidential ticket (Barry Goldwater had Jewish roots but was raised Episcopalian). Jeffrey Gurock, professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University, told ABC News then that the Gore-Lieberman ticket would be a “litmus test for American views about Jews.”

The result: Gore-Lieberman lost, but barely, and few blamed Lieberman or Judaism for the loss.

“His Jewishness was not much of an issue. In fact, the fact that he was an observant Jew had a certain degree of cachet in terms of the American electorate,” Gurock said. “I did not pick up much in terms of anti-Jewish feeling toward the Lieberman candidacy.”

Twelve years later, as Barack Obama sought to become the first African-American president in the nation’s history, Gallup asked Americans, “If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be __, would you vote for that person?”

Ninety-one percent said they would vote for a Jewish candidate, less than for an African-American (96 percent), woman (95), Catholic (94) or Hispanic (92), but far higher than for a homosexual (68), Muslim (58) or atheist (54).

That hasn’t always been the case. In 1937, when the question was first asked, only 46 percent said they would vote for a Jewish candidate – far lower than for a Catholic candidate.

So, there was a time when a Jewish candidate would have been even more shocking than John F. Kennedy in 1960.

But that time is seemingly long past.

What’s more interesting is that while Joe Lieberman’s Judaism was strongly embedded in his reputation, that doesn’t seem to be the case with Bernie Sanders.

“I don’t think Bernie is ‘like Joe Lieberman’ in most senses folks would mean that,” Robert Taylor, political theorist at the University of Vermont, wrote in an e-mail. “He’s not particularly observant, and he doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about or thinking about or advocating for Israel. He certainly has a secular Jewish background, but I think his role in American politics is much more importantly defined by Vermont liberalism than anything else.” 

A Google Trends search shows that the most common searches involving Sanders bring up words like “president,” “socialist” and “Vermont,” not “Jewish,” although when he first announced his campaign, “Is Bernie Sanders Jewish?” was the second most popular question asked.

“I don’t hear much at all about his Jewishness,” Gurock said.

“It’s something that generally doesn’t come up,” added Cuyahoga County Democratic Party chair Stuart Garson. “People just see him as a very liberal, social justice kind of guy.”

Gurock said Lieberman was a “strongly identifying Jew” who didn’t hesitate to bring religion up on the campaign trail.

“Joe was not one to run from or hide his Jewish roots,” Garson said.

Sanders has yet to insert Judaism into his stump speech.

“I don’t ever get a sense he relates a position to his upbringing within the Jewish tradition,” said Garson, noting he’d bring up his Jewish upbringing all the time if he ran for office. “I’ve never seen him invoke his Jewish background and any kind of life lesson he might have gleaned from it.”

Indeed, his lengthy campaign website biography doesn’t mention Judaism.

“Bernie Sanders’ Jewishness seems to be a non-issue for him and a non-issue as far as the American electorate is concerned,” Gurock said.

Yet, while Sanders might not be defined as “the Jewish candidate,” he fits into a strong tradition of progressive Jewish politicians from Brooklyn.

It’s not just the accent. He went to James Madison High School, which liberal Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and leading Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer also attended.

“He’s part of that tradition,” Gurock said.

His active work on civil rights, including as a Congress of Racial Equality officer and organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, was true of many liberal Jews.

“He’s very typical of liberal Jews, social justice-oriented, very favorably disposed toward civil rights and African-American freedom, not feeling like Jews in other parts of Brooklyn later on in his life as being threatened by the emergence of black power,” said Gurock, who wrote an extensive history of Jewish people in New York City from 1920 to 2010.

Just because Judaism isn’t front and center in the national perception of Sanders doesn’t mean a Jewish candidate isn’t exciting.

“I would love to see it,” Garson said of that possibility. “It would have to be the right candidate, the right person.”

Join the conversation on Facebook at facebook.com/showdown2016 and on Twitter @CleveJN and use #Showdown2016.

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