Being Jewish is not something I advertise.
Some of my earliest memories are trying to explain to school friends that no, I didn’t kill Jesus – and, yes, I do eat matzo but it isn’t made with baby’s blood – and would they like to come over to my house and play Legos?
I’ve been called “yid,” “kike,” “heeb,” even just plain “Jew” with the lips curled and the word hurled at me like a knife.
Heck. When I was a kid even the bus driver called me “moneybags,” though my family was far from rich.
So it makes sense to me that Bernie Sanders isn’t running for President as a Jew first.
He’s running on his policies and experience.
But it still hurts when pundits complain that there are now just two white men vying for the democratic nomination.
Sanders IS Jewish. You know that, right? If he were elected, it would not be business as usual. It would be unprecedented.
Yet that fact is almost always glossed over because it doesn’t fit the media narrative they’re selling.
Sanders is the “crazy socialist,” not the “historic Jew.”
This constant erasure is a slap in the face.
And I mean MY face, not just Sander’s.
I doubt it feels too good to him, either, but it feels personal to me, as well.
My family and I live just outside of Pittsburgh, about a half hour away from the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill where just two years ago 17 people were gunned down in perhaps the worst act of violence against Jews in our nation’s history.
I teach “The Diary of Anne Frank” to middle school children less than 15 minutes away.
I have relatives who belong to that congregation, though I didn’t know any of the 11 people who died.
Let me ask – were they white?
I’ll bet they thought they were, but all it took was an anti-Semite with a gun to challenge that.
Like Bernie, I lost my extended family in the Holocaust – great grandparents, great uncles and aunts, cousins, who I will never meet. I grew up with only the closest of familial relations.
Before I was old enough to get in to see a PG-13 movie, I knew about mass graves, ghettos, cattle cars and crematoriums.
Generation upon generation of European Jewry never expected to be singled out for extermination. They probably thought of themselves as regular, everyday people, too – an US not a THEM.
Bernie would meet that same standard. Like all of us, he knows we’re white only until someone decides we’re not.
So when talking heads decide to erase the fact of Bernie’s ancestry, they aren’t just playing politics. They’re engaged in naked prejudice.
Let me be clear. I don’t bring this up out of some sense of political tokenism. Bernie shouldn’t be recognized just for appearances sake. He needs to be seen for who and what he is.
This isn’t about identity politics. It’s about basic truth.
When some folks complain about the way Bernie speaks or that he yells too much, they’re really showing a xenophobic bigotry.
Bernie is a Jewish man who grew up in New York.That is how people from there talk.
I’ve known scores of people who speak like that – often at the dinner table during family gatherings. Just because it isn’t a part of your personal experience doesn’t make it acceptable to dismiss.
If you belittled someone for speaking with a Spanish accent, it would be called out for what it is – prejudice.
But by ignoring Bernie’s Judaism, you allow all kinds of discriminatory preconceptions to pass as little more than valid criticisms.
Don’t get me wrong.
I don’t think Bernie’s Judaism is the most important thing about him or his campaign.
I wouldn’t support just any Jew who was running. For example, I wouldn’t back Joe Lieberman or Jared Kushner if they were seeking elected office.
But it DOES mean something that Bernie is in the hunt for the Democratic nomination and is Jewish.
For me, he typifies what is best about us.
He embodies the spirit of doing good for others and trying to make the world a better place. He seeks justice in economic, social, racial, gender and political relationships. He tells truth even when it’s uncomfortable to hear. And that includes the truth about the Israeli government’s reprehensible treatment of the Palestinian people.
In his 30 years in Congress he passed mountains of bipartisan legislation as the amendment king. He refused to support the Iraq War or cuts to social security. He supports unions, workers, public schools and universal healthcare.
Being Jewish does not take precedence to those things. But I hope supporting those things will help redefine what people think of when they think of Judaism.
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