At a town hall in Nevada Thursday night, Bernie Sanders talked about the advantages of being descended from white, as opposed to darker-skinned, immigrants.
Contrasting his experience with the “hatred thrown at” President Barack Obama,” the Democratic presidential candidate said, “No one asked me whether I’m a citizen or not. My father came from Poland. Gee, what’s the difference? Maybe the color of our skin.”
As has been noted, Sanders sometimes seems inclined to take the opportunity to ignore his Jewishness. He has by no means denied being Jewish when queried. But in discussing the historic dimensions of his presidency in two recent debates, he alluded to his Jewish background without explicitly claiming it.
Even in discussing his white privilege Thursday night at the MSN town hall, he missed an opportunity.
The prompt was a question about how he would address Islamophobia.
“Bluntly and directly,” Sanders responded. “You know, this country, this country’s greatness relies on the reality that throughout our history we have welcomed people into this country. As I mentioned, my dad came from Poland at the age of 17.”
He then launched into talk of immigration reform and his disgust with attempts to delegitimize Obama “by suggesting he was not born in America because his dad came from Kenya.” He wrapped up by paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr.
There was no mention of Judaism — his or his father’s.
The Jews of Sanders’ father’ generation — and to a degree of Sanders’ (he’s 74) — were not as inclined as are tribe members today to reveal their background. At a time when bigotry was much more prevalent, they used their whiteness to “pass” as members of the majority.
Maybe Sanders is still trying to pass to some extent. Vermont Jews recently suggested to me that Sanders’ reticence about his Jewishness may a habit formed over years of running for statewide office.
As Burlington mayor, it was easier for Sanders to be out and proud about being Jewish. The city was in the 1980s already transitioning from a small industrial hub to a cosmopolitan college town populated by disaffected urban easterners who had transplanted to the state — and who were familiar with Jews or Jews themselves.
But when Sanders ran to be a Vermont congressman and then senator, he had to stump for votes from among the state’s rural voters, who might have been nonplussed at or even hostile to the idea of voting for a Jew.
So in answering his own question about the difference between him and Obama — the color of their skin — Sanders left unsaid what’s the same. They each belong to a minority still facing hatred, which is why Jews of Sanders’ generation have at times let the difference obscure the similarity.