Bernie Sanders, if nominated and elected, would be America’s first Jewish president. A preview of how white nationalists and (neo) Nazis feel about such a possibility was on full display at his Michigan rally when a swastika banner was unfurled in the audience.
Though reticent to share his own family’s history, Sanders has recently begun talking about it: “My brother and I, and our wives, went to Poland to the town he [our father] was born in. He fled terrible poverty and anti-Semitism. The people in town, very nice people, took us to a place where the Nazis had the Jewish people dig a grave and shot them all. Three hundred people.”
One paradox about Sanders is that, even when condemning Nazi atrocities, he seems never to mention the biblical imperatives about justice that eloquent African-Americans, both preachers and politicians, still use to electrify audiences, both black and white, discussing slavery and segregation. We quote here a self-described “drum major for justice” who said: “No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” Who said this? Not Bernie Sanders, but Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963’s March on Washington, invoking the words of the Prophet Amos from the Hebrew scriptures.
What troubles us most is the explanation the Sanders campaign gave for his last-minute cancellation of a speech on racial justice that the Vermont senator was scheduled to give in the troubled community of Flint, Mich. His spokesman explained: “[Senator Sanders] does not have those experiences. He is a white Jewish man.” Sanders instead gave his traditional stump speech while a following panel, made up of all “people of color,” discussed racial justice in America.
We cannot but wonder whether Sanders knows that the Prophet Amos enjoined everyone, including “white Jewish men,” to “hate evil and love good and establish justice at the gate.” Why “at the gate”? Because biblical Israelite communities located at their gate a law court, open to everyone, including widows and orphans and the poor and infirm, to plead for justice.
Sanders knows intimately about how the Holocaust destroyed families. He also takes pride in the role of young white college students, including Jewish martyrs Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, who risked their lives in the mid-1960s so that black people could vote in the Jim Crow South. Yet why does the senator through his spokesman “include out” of the dialogue on justice for the discriminated and poor—someone like the senator himself with a lifetime of experience speaking up for the disadvantaged of all colors?
We fear he may have become a captive and the de facto cheerleader-in-chief of exclusionary “identity politics” that “includes out” forever white people, especially Jews, from speaking up for racial justice.
American history has shown time and again that you do not have to belong to a church or synagogue to invoke biblical imperatives that all people be treated equally and given equal opportunity the way that Abraham Lincoln did. You do not have to be an African-American president like Barack Obama to condemn anti-black racism the way that President John F. Kennedy did in introducing historic civil-rights legislation.
But you must transcend divisive “identity politics” to lead people of every race and creed to follow Amos’s justice imperative the way that Dr. King did.
In 2016 and 2020, Sanders has been “a drum major for justice” by alerting Americans to the continuing injustices suffered by the poor, racial minorities and white working families left behind by the new global capitalism.
However, he will never solve those problems nor bring the day of a color-blind America any closer by basing the struggle for justice and equality on the color of one’s skin.
The Bible (Deuteronomy 16, 20) declares: Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof—“Justice, Justice You Should Pursue.” Why the double language? Rabbi Elya Meir Block explains that the pursuit of righteousness must be pursued with righteousness. There cannot be a righteous society without justice as a foundation stone.
There are plenty of reasons for judges and officials to recuse themselves from involvement in certain situations. Clearly, in our democracy being “white” and/or Jewish shouldn’t disqualify any American from taking a leadership role on the lifelong road to a just society.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean and director of Global Social Action at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Dr. Harold Brackman is a historian and consultant for the Simon Wiesenthal Center.