Silence on candidates’ Jewish connections speaks volumes

Al Gore made American Jewish political history when he selected Joseph Lieberman as his vice presidential running mate in the 2000 election. Lieberman, who could have become the first American Jew “a heartbeat away” from the presidency, evinced intense communal pride. Both popular and Jewish media buzzed about this shattered glass ceiling, while commentators opined on the civic impact of Lieberman’s Shabbat observance, the White House Christmas tree and even the strong support he enjoyed from the faith-based Christian electorate.

At a Princeton University Jewish Studies lunch held during that campaign, attendees were asked to react to the historic nomination. Half the room responded with excitement and delight, wondering why it took so long for an American Jew to achieve Lieberman’s status. Yet the other half of the room balked, expressing profound concern, even fear, that the nomination of a Jew risked a new outbreak of anti-Semitism, especially when the Gore-Lieberman administration faced its first foreign policy challenge in the Middle East.

A quick review of the room revealed a generational dynamic. Older folks, raised in an era of American anti-Semitism not to mention the Shoah, worried about a Jew in high-profile office — while the younger set stared in disbelief. The days of American anti-Semitism, in their life experiences, were long gone. At that moment, it seemed, American Jewish political culture reached adolescence; old enough to play in the adult crowd, but still too young to come to terms with its implications.

Fast-forward 16 years, and the silence is deafening.

The first Jewish candidate for president, Bernie Sanders, declares his candidacy to barely a communal whisper. After impressive primary wins, an inspired grassroots campaign and an appeal to young voters across the ethno-religious landscape, Sanders hasn’t earned even a fraction of Lieberman’s Jewish attention. Perhaps, many in the social media world offer, Jews squelched their enthusiasm for Sanders precisely because Sanders seemed to distance himself from his “heritage” every chance he could, emerging, with great irony, as the only presidential candidate to decline AIPAC’s invitation to speak at its annual policy conference.

Yet Sanders’ approach to his Jewish identity enjoys strong historical precedent. Early 20th-century Jewish immigrants, socialist by politics and secular by religion, often declared their distance from Judaism. In a weird twist, Sanders’ rejection of his Jewishness is actually an embrace of it. All while most of this ethno-religious drama remains under the Jewish communal radar.

And then there’s Hillary Clinton. A former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state, Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, stood under the chuppah as mother of the bride when daughter Chelsea married Marc Mezvinsky. With the arrival of Charlotte in 2014, Clinton added a most joyous title: grandmother to a Jewish baby girl. Think about the Jewish implications. Should she return to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., next year’s White House Passover seder, for the first time in American Jewish history, will be a family seder for the extended Mezvinsky-Clinton mishpachah.

Donald Trump shares Clinton’s grandparent status. Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who converted to Judaism before marrying Jared Kushner, has welcomed three Jewish children into the extended Trump family. With all the Jewish vitriol over Trump’s candidacy, the leading Republican candidate for president still must remember to say “Happy Hanukkah” when he hands his grandchildren holiday gifts next December. For all the well-founded critiques of Trump’s political positions, almost nothing has been said of how it resonates within his own family. His daughter and grandchildren may well be his best, if not most ironic, defense against Jewish opposition.

If, as Milton Gordon argued in his 1964 book, “Assimilation in American Life,” intermarriage stands as the ultimate sign that an immigrant group has achieved full civil equality in American society, then the possibility of either a President Sanders, Clinton or Trump resolves the generational tensions surfaced by Lieberman in 2000. The time when American Jews needed to worry about their high political profile has long since passed. Adolescence has ended. The silence about these new Jewish families speaks volumes.

Marc Dollinger
Marc Dollinger

Marc Dollinger holds the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Chair in Jewish Studies and Social Responsibility at San Francisco State University and is author, most recently, of "Black Power, Jewish Politics: Reinventing The Alliance In The 1960s."