In the year 2000, Senator Joe Lieberman became the first Jew to appear on the national ballot for one of the two top offices in the land. As Al Gore’s nominee for Vice President, many Jews voted for the ticket out of ethnic pride, notwithstanding that most Jews vote for the Democrat in any event. In 2000, four out of every five Jews vote for the Gore-Lieberman slate, among the highest percentages ever recorded. As I recall, there was palpable pride that Lieberman was on the ticket even among Jews who did not vote for him.
Fast forward to 2020. Two Jews – Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg – for the very first time are credible candidates for the Democrat nomination for President, and there seems to be little Jewish pride in the whole enterprise. Few people care about their pedigree, and no one is questioning their loyalty to America (well, at least not because of their Jewishness). Their Jewish heritage seems to be background noise, a part – and not a very important part – of their personal histories and completely irrelevant to the task at hand. If either man is the nominee, a majority of Jews will vote for him, mostly unthinkingly, because he is a Democrat and not because he is a Jew. The pride in Joe Lieberman is dissipated.
What has changed? Is it because Jews have made it in America and so prominent Jews are no longer a novelty? Or is it because Jews have lost it? I sense the latter.
Consider the obvious: the involvement of each man in Jewish communal life. Sanders is a renegade Jew, whose brief stint on a kibbutz more than a half century ago qualifies as his deepest connection to the Jewish people. Bloomberg has been more involved in Jewish life through his philanthropy – he has supported Jewish charities – and because he has lived in New York City for so many decades. Neither man identifies in the least with the biblical vision of the Jewish people as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, a people chosen by G-d to bear His name, observe His law, and bring His morality to the rest of mankind. Neither man evinces the slightest interest in, or observance of, the 613 commandments that define the life of the Torah Jew.
Thus, it is unfortunate but typical of American Jewry during this era, that Sanders has been intermarried for more than 30 years and has no Jewish children. Bloomberg is divorced from a Jewish woman (her father was a non-Jew) but his paramour since 2000 is also non-Jewish. With intermarriage devastating American Jewish life to the extent that accommodation with it is making inroads even in the Orthodox world, it is hard to imagine the consequences to American Jewry if intermarriage (or inter-religious relationships) finds its way into the White House, with all the attention that is naturally focused on the First Family. Intermarriage will be so normalized, even celebrated, that the fragmentation and disintegration of American Jewry will be hastened.
One positive byproduct of the Trump administration has been the prominence of religious Jews – in the President’s family, of course, but even among his staff, advisors and appointees. (I hope they somehow compensate for the plethora of Jewish Democrats who have relentlessly waged war against President Trump since before he took office.) But the visibility of a yarmulka and mezuzot in the White House, the respect for Shabbat and the appreciation for the rhythms of traditional Jewish life have been rewarding, and, one can pray, even inspirational to Jews whose faith and commitment can only be strengthened by the presence of faithful and committed Jews in positions of distinction.
It is a sign of how accepted Jews have become in American civic life that the President demonstrates such a comfort level with religious Jews. But that display of Jewish pride would be dramatically reversed in a Sanders or Bloomberg administration, whose connection to Jewish life is, respectively, non-existent and tenuous. How is that connection defined?
Recall as well that Joe Lieberman was an observant Jew, who wore his Jewishness on his sleeve. For sure, his political views were not all Torah based and very much in the mainstream of his party. But he was known in America, and perhaps even most appreciated by Jews, for his forthright and persistent advocacy of the moral notions that are reflective of the biblical Jewish ethic. And he was never ashamed to declare that his morality stemmed from his religious heritage.
For Sanders and Bloomberg, it is clear that their world views are uninformed by their Jewish backgrounds. Indeed, like many (if not most) American Jews today, their Jewish ties are strictly ethnic. As President Trump is of German-Scottish heritage, Joe Biden’s is Irish, and Elizabeth Warren’s background is still indeterminate, Sanders and Bloomberg are Jews by blood but not ideology. If Rav Hirsch labeled the people of Israel a “religio-nation,” both a nation and a religion, these two candidates lamely embrace the former but completely eschew the latter. Their Judaism is cultural, and thereby misses the essence of our uniqueness.
No wonder there is little excitement in the Jewish world for these two aspirants, no sense of having one of our “own” make it big. Far from embracing their rich and eternal heritage, they perceive it as an accident of birth. While they are wholly different in temperament, policies and even acceptability as presidents, they share in common this constricted approach to Judaism. Judaism as a religion and a national identity are the two legs on which we stand. Remove one, and our distinctiveness withers and disappears and, these days, fairly quickly.
It bears mention that the two do not share the same views on Israel (or on the United States, for that matter). Sanders is overtly hostile and his self-definition as “pro-Israel” is reasonable only if you characterize as pro-Israel a desire to see Israel divided, weakened and stripped of its Jewish identity. Bloomberg is certainly not hostile; he fits comfortably into the modern Democrat party’s support for an Israel that no longer exists, and for good reason. He opposes settling the heart of the land of Israel and remains wedded to the “two-state delusion.” But that is where the Democrat party is. Sanders’ Israel has the right of self-defense in theory but never in actuality. Bloomberg is more practical on that score, but again, his policies are unrelated to his Jewishness.
Have Jews so made it in America that the prospect of a Jewish president has left people blasé? Or does this feeling emerge because of the nature of these candidates and the realization that, in terms of both domestic and foreign policy, the incumbent’s policies are far superior even for Jews? Or is it because their Jewish identity is so tepid that it is hard to connect with them or summon any pride at all?
In truth, ethnic voting is always a distressing phenomenon. Votes should be based on shared values and objectives – not superficial considerations like blood, race, religion or ethnicity. Undoubtedly, if a faithful Jew ever runs for President – a most unlikely proposition – the reaction of Jews will be far different. It is entirely plausible, even probable, that a non-Jewish President can represent the true interests of the Jewish people, and even extend unflinching support to the State of Israel, far better than can any Jewish candidate. The two Jews currently in the running remind us not of the success of the American Jewish community but rather of its decline. That neither will be elected President should come as a relief for multiple reasons.