Is America ready for a Jewish president? The anti-Semitism facing Bernie Sanders – Matthew Rozsa/Salon.com
Ninety-one percent of American voters say they’re willing to vote for a Jew. Other statistics are less encouraging
Is America ready to elect a Jewish president?
Ann Coulter did her part to draw attention to that question this week, when she sent out a tweet many believed was anti-Semitic implying Republicans only mentioned Israel because they thought it would win them Jewish voters. The question is also relevant now because Sen. Bernie Sanders is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, and happens to be of Jewish descent. This doesn’t mean that Sanders is trying to identify himself as “the Jewish candidate,” of course. “He’s not particularly observant, and he doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about or thinking about or advocating for Israel,” observed Robert Taylor, a political theorist at the University of Vermont who compared Sanders with the last major Jewish presidential candidate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.). “He certainly has a secular Jewish background, but I think his role in American politics is much more importantly defined by Vermont liberalism than anything else.”
At the same time, the simple fact that Sanders is Jewish may become an issue regardless of how closely he identifies with his background. Although the most recent poll studying American prejudices in presidential campaigns found that an overwhelming majority would be willing to vote for a Jew (91 percent), the number wasn’t always that high. Back in 1937, only 46 percent of Americans said they’d be willing to vote for a Jewish presidential candidate; 30 years later, that number had only increased to 82 percent. Perhaps more notably, the number of Americans who said they’d be willing to vote for a Jew was surpassed by those who would vote for a Catholic, black, or female candidate.
Regardless of what the polls say (and respondents are always capable of deceiving pollsters, whether by lying to them or themselves), there are plenty of early signs that Sanders’s background will be used against him. Back in June NPR host Diane Rehm confronted Sanders with the charge that he was a dual citizen of the United States and Israel, a conspiracy theory rooted in a baseless online rumor and has its roots in the old anti-Semitic canard that Jewish politicians can’t be loyal to non-Jewish countries. On the other side of the ideological aisle, the National Review insisted on criticizing Sanders’s economic policies under the designation “national socialist”—the extended title for “Nazi”—openly acknowledging that it was partially doing this because Sanders is “the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and whose family was murdered in the Holocaust.”
Aside from the experiences of the Sanders campaign, there are plenty of other reasons to question whether America is really that tolerant of Jews. As of last year nearly 60 percent of religious-based crimes in the United States were committed against Jews, with one study describing that it has become “fashionable” in many circles. Another report discovered that 54 percent of college students experienced anti-Semitism in the first six months of their academic year during the 2013-2014 school period. All of this can be tied to broader studies which suggest that anti-Semitic attitudes are increasing throughout the Western world, particularly when tied to old-fashioned religious bigotry or relatively newer attempts to use legitimate criticism of Israel as a means of promoting deeper anti-Semitic beliefs.