For decades, Jews have been at the front lines of social change, and Bernie is no exception.
When my great-grandmother Sophie landed in America from Poland in the early part of the 20th century, she assimilated like so many other Jewish immigrants. I’ve never known for certain why she turned her back on her Jewish roots, but my beloved grandmother told me her mother was fearful — of what and whom I’m left to ponder. Having fled Poland during the poor and unstable decades between the Russian Empire’s anti-Jewish pogroms and the Holocaust, I can only imagine Sophie thought that by not being Jewish, she was saving herself and her kin.
In order to make up for this lost time with the Jewish way of life, I’ve spent a great deal of my adulthood connecting with my ancestry and learning about the Jewish people. A realization I came to fairly quickly was that Jews are prone to activism, or tikkun olam — repairing the world. From Joshua Abraham Heschel to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Abbie Hoffman to Naomi Klein, Jews have played an important role in the progress of America. What also became clear to me is that Senator Bernie Sanders fits the mold of Jewish revolutionary.
Today, Bernie Sanders carries the ancestral baton from Samuel Gompers, the founder of the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Union, which later became the America Federation of Labor (AFL). Today AFL-CIO oversees 55 labor unions comprised of 12.5 million workers.
He carries the baton from Clara Lemlich, who at the tender age of 23, encouraged thousands of impoverished Jewish workers at the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory to strike due to poor working conditions and low pay.
And from Joshua Abraham Heschel, who in 1965 led a protest 800-strong against the FBI’s treatment of civil right activists. A short while later, he stood beside his friend Dr. Martin Luther King in the march from Selma to Montgomery.
And from Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem, who told women they were so much more than just a mother and a wife, and who reminded the world that abortion is a woman’s choice — not the government’s.
And from Noam Chomsky, who in 1967, wrote the powerful “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” a condemnation of the elite for not speaking out against the U.S. government’s involvement in the Vietnam War and for playing a nonexistent role in the radical transformation of American society.
And from Abbie Hoffman & Jerry Rubin, who risked their lives, reputations and jail time to passionately speak out against the war in Vietnam.
And from Howard Zinn, who wrote the seminal book on America history — “A People’s History of the United States” — educating millions on the atrocities and injustices Native Americans, Black people and poor people faced in America for centuries.
And from Harvey Milk and Frank Kameny — the former being one of the earliest openly gay politicians in America; the latter being the father of the LGBTQIA+ rights movement — who bravely used their voices to speak out against homophobia when homosexuality was still taboo across most of America.
And from Bella Abzug, an accomplished lawyer and arguably the first feminist member of Congress whose campaign slogan was “This woman’s place is in the House — the House of Representatives.”
The list of radical Jewish thinkers and activists, whose cloth Bernie is cut from, is never-ending.
These Jews changed the world indelibly.
And no doubt, all of these revolutionaries were told they were “too angry” or “too radical” — phrases now affixed to Bernie Sanders with frequency — to get anything accomplished. But today we hold them up as heroes, as individuals who were willing to stand up for others — oftentimes alone — leaving themselves vulnerable to attacks from progress-fearing critics.
As someone who was not raised in the Jewish faith, I can’t speak to Judaism’s centuries-old origins of helping others. What I can speak to is the tangible, still-felt-today reason why so many modern Jews became advocates for others: anti-Semitism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Since the 1880s, when Jews began to leave Eastern Europe and Russia en masse due to anti-Jewish pogroms, to now, in our post-Holocaust society, Jews have been at the epicenter of unions, women’s liberation, gay rights, civil rights, and anti-war efforts.
“Our experience of being kicked out of almost every country in Europe, of being murdered systematically because of who we are, of having our humanity denied for centuries, barred from many professions, forced to live in ghettos — it is natural to find solidarity with other historically oppressed people and victims of genocide,” says Mindy Ohringer, a New York-based Jewish writer, political analyst and Bernie Sanders supporter since 1991.
“We cannot ignore the suffering of others. It is so similar to what we have experienced for thousands of years, being viewed as “The Other.”
Sue Katz, a Jewish activist from Boston who was a member of the Women in Black anti-war movement in Israel and Women Against Fundamentalism in London, agrees that 20th century anti-Semitism and generational trauma plays a large role in not only her activism, but the activism of other Jews such as Bernie Sanders.
“When Jewish people –like Bernie and like me — grew up in a secular household in a family that has immigrated from Europe to escape anti-Semitism, the notion of resistance to oppression underpins all of family life,” says Katz. “It may not be a topic of open discussion, and often those who escaped death don’t want to talk about it, but it simmers under family and community life. I suspect that within Bernie’s world, like for so many first- and second-generation Jews in America, there was never any doubt about the responsibility to resist prejudice, only how best to do it.”
In his 2020 campaign for presidency, the normally private Bernie Sanders has been more vocal about his Jewish ancestry. He speaks of his paternal ancestors who perished in the Holocaust, and how he is the proud son of a Polish immigrant.
When recently asked on a CNN Town Hall how his heritage impacts his views as a progressive politician, Sanders responded that being Jewish impacts him “profoundly.” He shares the story of looking at picture books of WWII and the Holocaust and crying. It was during his childhood, he says, that he began to understand how cruel human beings can be to one another.
“We are one people,” Sanders says to the question asker. “And I don’t care if you’re Black, you’re white, Latino, Native American, Asian American, you’re gay, you’re straight. That’s not what it’s about. What it’s about is that we’re human beings and we share common dreams and aspirations. So, the pain that my family, my father’s family suffered in Poland, is something that’s impacted my life — absolutely.”
When I look at Bernie Sanders, I do not see a politician first — I see an activist. A Jewish activist. I see the Jews who came before us who bravely cleared the path to the podium and microphone. I see the Jews who helped unionize their co-workers to ensure worker democracy and fair treatment. I see the Jews who spoke out against needless wars and white supremacy. I see the Jews who stood up for women’s rights, Black’s rights and LGBTQIA+ rights. I see the Jews who were told they were too loud and too radical. I see the Jews who, all too well understanding pain and suffering, stood up for the underdogs, the working class, the marginalized, the forgotten, the abused.