This is the Most Jewish Presidential Field Yet. Why Aren’t More Jews Excited about 2020?
It’s the morning of Rosh Hashanah, and I’m clasping my Star of David necklace around my neck as I prepare to go to High Holidays services. I am a Jewish student from St. Louis, now attending High Holy Day services at Temple B’Nai Jeshurun in Des Moines, Iowa, one of three synagogues in the metropolitan area. The Jewish community here is small, with only about 200 families in the synagogue; but, it’s vibrant, and I’ve built a home here.
Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, “Head of the Year” in English, and this morning marks the beginning of the year 5780. I realize this year will be a chaotic one. In Iowa, the caucuses are fast approaching, and every member of this congregation has likely been fielding a variety of phone calls and volunteers knocking at their doors. Just last Shabbat, my dinner table was filled with staffers from four different campaigns, each with their own pitch for their own candidate. However, I can’t help but wonder whether this caucus will lead to representation.
Four current presidential candidates have Jewish ancestry: Senator Bernie Sanders, Tom Steyer, Senator Michael Bennet, and Marianne Williamson. This is the widest number of Jewish presidential candidates in any election by far. Before Bernie Sanders’ first candidacy in 2016, there weren’t any major candidates who were practicing Jews. Barry Goldwater was the closest, a practicing Episcopalian whose father was Jewish (Salon), as was Vice President John Kerry, a Catholic, who also had a Jewish father. Neither candidate took ownership of their Jewish identity in a way that connected them with other Jewish Americans, and the White House has never had a Jewish president.
Even with such a large field of Jewish candidates, it is unfortunately notable that all four of the candidates have been unwilling to fully identify with their Jewish descent. In a time when representation is sorely needed, the fact that these candidates sometimes use their affiliation with their religion for political gain limits progress.
Senator Bernie Sanders, on paper, should be considered a major step forward for Jewish representation in politics. In 2016, he was the first Jewish person to win a major presidential primary, and is the only major frontrunner in 2020 of Jewish descent. However, Bernie Sanders has limited discussions of his own faith. More recent conversation about his experiences being a young Jew in New York could be traced to a campaign strategy; the New York Times writes, “even Mr. Sanders’s aides acknowledge that they would like to see him talk more about his post-World War II childhood in Brooklyn, where he was surrounded by Jewish immigrants who bore the tattoos Nazis had branded them with.” In an aptly titled article “Why Don’t More Jews Like Bernie Sanders?” Aiden Pink of Forward revealed that many Jews seem to think that Sanders doesn’t talk about his faith enough, and that he only talks about his religion when he perceives a benefit to be gained. That could explain why a May 2019 Morning Consult poll had Sanders underperforming with Jewish Americans compared with the Democratic population overall.
As for the lower-polling Jewish candidates, they, too, are subtle about their Jewish descent. Senator Michael Bennet has a Jewish mother and a Christian father. Although he himself does not identify himself as Jewish, he identifies his mother’s stories from surviving the Holocaust as the “impetus” for his political career. Tom Steyer is an Episcopalian, but has spoken about his Jewish father in campaign videos. Marianne Williamson has had an interesting relationship with Judaism, describing herself as always having an “interest in religion,” more generally. Publicly identifying herself as a Jewish woman, Williamson is also described by the New York Jewish Week as a “post-religion spiritual leader,” and utilizes multiple religious figures, including Jesus and Buddha, in her writings and advising. She also planned a campaign stop at Drake University on the evening of Rosh Hashanah.
Even with four Jewish presidential candidates, it still feels like we are searching for representation that just does not exist. The story of Judaism today requires conversation; it requires the telling of stories that are incredibly difficult to be told. The story goes beyond the pogroms or the Holocaust to the everyday anti-Semitism that affects the lives of every Jewish American. It’s about the Nazi flag flying in East Des Moines earlier in September. It’s about the fact that the President thinks that any Jewish American that votes Democratic is “disloyal.” It’s about anti-Semitic incidents dramatically increasing across the board, from the web to actual violence.
The question that we have to answer is whether simple representation is enough. Do we need a candidate that fully embraces their identity as a Jewish person? Or do we need someone who fully addresses all that being Jewish means in today’s American society? In the New Year, I will have to grapple with my own identity and what that translates to when it comes time to caucus. I’ll be searching for someone who represents not just me, but my values and my vision for the country. I’ll be seeking someone who doesn’t shy away from the important stories. Someone who knows the meaning of tikkun olam, who is up to the task of repairing the world. Maybe that’s one of the Jewish candidates, but maybe it’s someone else. All will be revealed in the year ahead.