(This article was written while Sanders’ was still vying for the Democratic Presidential nomination, now he is still on the ballot and officially collecting delegates… we’ll see what happens.)
In 2016, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders made history as the first Jewish candidate to be awarded delegates during a major party’s presidential primary. I supported Senator Sanders four years ago, and until he dropped out on April 8, I was proud to support him again in 2020.
Recently, the novel coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic shutdown of much of the United States have laid bare the current president’s utter incompetence, lack of empathy and inability to provide any comfort whatsoever to an increasingly anxious and scared citizenry. For that reason, it’s obvious that anyone who finds the current occupant of the White House to be unacceptable or dangerous must vote for Former Vice President Joe Biden in the fall. Having said that, let me tell you why Senator Sanders was the candidate who most closely aligned with my Jewish values.
Economic & Racial Justice
In the Torah, it is instructed that “You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart…Love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:17-18). The Jerusalem Talmud also instructs, “in a city where there are both Jews and Gentiles, the collectors of alms collect from both Jews and Gentiles; they feed the poor of both, visit the sick of both; bury both and restore the lost goods of both, for the sake of peace” (Yerushalmi Talmud, Tractate Demai). For many Jews, myself included, these writings inspire a pursuit of economic and racial justice throughout society. Senator Sanders’s entire political career has revolved around helping poor and middle-class American families achieve financial security and extending basic rights and dignity to marginalized groups. Unyielding devotion to the voiceless and downtrodden has been a consistent guiding purpose for Sanders whether as a mayor, congressman, or senator.
One of Judaism’s central middot, or values, is Tikkun Olam which is understood to mean “repairing the world.” This ethic is rooted in the idea that the world is imperfect, and that it is the responsibility of every human being to do his or her part to improve it for future generations. Equally important to Tikkun Olam is the idea that we are “stewards of the earth” – God-appointed caretakers responsible for tending to His garden. In the Torah, we are told, “And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Later on, in the text, when the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land, God outlines a strict and oddly specific agrarian policy: “For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord.” (Leviticus 25:1-5). These passages, for many Jews, inspire a sensitivity and humility in regards to our relationship with the planet. The consensus of the scientific community is that human activity is contributing to climate change, and that, if significant progress is not made to reverse the destruction that industrialization has wreaked on the natural world, the earth will become increasingly hostile to human habitation. Senator Sanders, while not the only Democrat to champion the issue, is acutely aware of the risks of allowing the catastrophe to continue unabated.
While the Torah and Talmud do not weigh in on the debate between single-payer, a public option, or Medicare for all, the collected body of Jewish wisdom has plenty to say about health and wellness. Maimonides, for example, prioritized health care as the most important service a community must offer to its residents (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot IV: 23). Throughout most of history, Jewish communities, particularly in Europe, were semi-autonomous and responsible for the wellbeing of their members. For that reason, councils of community elders led by rabbis have, traditionally, organized the provision of health care services for their communities. Jewish ethics required that doctors reduce their rates for poor patients and, in some cases throughout history, a Jewish community might raise funds to cover a patient’s expenses. Unfortunately, in a society of more than 300 million people, we cannot rely on the kindness of charity to cast a wide enough net in order to provide adequate health care services to those without the means to pay. The unprecedented, historic crisis we find ourselves in has also exposed the myriad flaws in our current health care system. For these reasons among others, Senator Sanders’ goal is to expand the very popular Medicare program to allow enrollment for people other than seniors.
Most people familiar with Jewish culture have heard the expression, “be a mensch.” A mensch is usually considered to be a person who possesses virtues such as honesty, compassion, thoughtfulness and wisdom. While many Americans – liberal and conservative – would agree that the current occupant of the Oval Office has been found wanting in this integral aspect of being president, Senator Sanders displays these qualities in spades. Sanders’s political career has been characterized by steadfast adherence to a moral vision for the improvement of society. His positions on major issues have not changed in any significant way, a rare accomplishment within a political system which usually bends the most ambitious to the political winds of the day. Whether he’s advocating for workers, critiquing the American military industrial complex, fighting for equal rights for women and people of color or demanding justice for the families of 9/11-victims, Sanders’s strong moral compass has provided leadership for his constituents, and increasingly a conscience for the entire nation. A mensch is someone we tend to look to as a role model or hero. Senator Sanders’s authenticity, foresight and kindness have made him a champion for those who value justice, peace and prosperity.
Senator Sanders has spoken eloquently about his extended family that perished in the Holocaust, as well as the impact that learning about the Holocaust had on him as a child. When asked about his socialist roots, he often refers to the transformative period that he spent on a kibbutz in Israel as a young man. Despite these Jewish identity markers, the senator still faces occasional accusations of being a “self-hating Jew.” These allegations are likely due, in large part, to his opposition to the right-wing Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has staunchly opposed the proliferation of Israeli settlements on land set aside for a future Palestinian state. While he does not support the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, he did oppose an anti-BDS bill which, in his view, would infringe on “every American’s constitutional right to engage in political activity.”
Because of his critical, and at times openly antagonistic, statements regarding Israeli policy as it pertains to the Palestinians, Sanders has come to be viewed by large portions of the American-Jewish community as “not Jewish enough.” The requirement that a politician – or anyone – hold a certain political position in order to be included in a particular community is patently absurd. When writers at the New Republic and The New Yorker questioned Sanders’s former primary rival, Mayor Pete Buttegieg’s homosexuality because of his strait-laced wardrobe or lack of effeminate mannerisms, gay conservatives were rightly incredulous. Likewise, when a writer for The Atlantic tried to make the case that Kanye West isn’t black because of his support for Donald Trump, black conservatives were understandably offended. When other identity groups attempt to enforce ideological prerequisites for membership, it seems draconian and intolerant. Why then do some Jews continue to require absolute and uncritical support for Israel as a precondition for inclusion in the Jewish community?
PERRY FEIN is a contributing editor and writer to Jlife Magazine.