Bernie’s Jewishness

At the Democratic presidential debate in Flint last Sunday, a woman in the audience was inexplicably called on by CNN to ask what I can only characterize as a stupid question: about the candidates’ relationship to God  — this in a country whose constitution specifies that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust.”

Bernie Sanders’ answer was all about moral principles, with no mention of Judaism. Perhaps as a followup, Anderson Cooper then asked Bernie about published reports that he had been reticent about his Jewishness. Bernie’s response was that he was proud of being Jewish, and it was framed entirely in terms of family and history, with no reference to God or religion.

I was very happy to conclude that Bernie is just like me in yet another respect (besides what I wrote about here): he is a Jew but not a Judaist (as I have discussed here). That I am an atheist, while Bernie seems to be some sort of deist who identifies God with morality, is not really relevant to this point.

The conflation of Jewishness (ethnicity) with Judaism (religion) is something I am sensitive about. It is very common in the West (where ethnic nationality is not generally recognized), not least among many Jews themselves. And so, while several media reports about the debate had misleading references to “Bernie’s Judaism,” there were at least two stories in right-wing Jewish media (here and here) with the headline “Bernie Sanders is not a Jew.” These media represent what my hero Uri Avnery calls the “national-religious” tendency, which is becoming ever more dominant in Israel, and which reminds me of the “national-Catholicism” (nacionalcatolicismo) of Franco’s Spain.

I have no problem with Israel being a Jewish state (though not, as Bibi Netanyahu would have it, a “Jewish nation-state,” as I discussed here). Israel’s neighbors are, after all, officially Arab states: they are all members of the Arab League, and two of them (Egypt and Syria) have “Arab Republic” as part of their official names, even though both countries have substantial non-Arab minorities. Just like Israel, they are not nation-states in the Western mold (in which nationality is essentially identical with citizenship), but national states (as are typical of east central and eastern Europe) with a dominant, ethnically defined, nation (for which the state is the homeland) and recognized national minorities. (I have written a number of essays on this subject,)

And so, back to Bernie: he is a Jew just like me, not as some national-religious fanatics would define it.



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