While he's not as vocal as some Democratic rivals who tout their faiths as influencing their agendas, Sanders has talked more about his Jewish identity recently and tied it to his vow to fight discrimination in all forms, describing himself as “a proud member of the tradition of Jewish social justice.” As Sanders stumps ahead of South Carolina’s Saturday, those broader policy messages – and his history demonstrating for civil rights -- get more attention than his Jewishness.
Speaking to ministers over breakfast at a local Baptist church on Wednesday, Sanders proudly recalled his college-age arrest for protesting against segregation and his attendance at Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 March on Washington. Without referencing his Jewish upbringing, Sanders called for unity against all bigotry.
“Instead of dividing people up, which is what Trump is doing, we’re going to bring people together,” Sanders said. “We’re going to end every form of ugly racism that exists in this country.” The least religious candidate in the Democratic primary is looking to breach Joe Biden’s firewall of black support in South Carolina, where the former vice president is banking on a victory. Sanders led among black voters under 35 in a national Washington Post-Ipsos poll conducted last month, before the first primary ballots, although Biden handily won black voters overall and has led most South Carolina polls.
No matter how Sanders fares on Saturday, his outreach to black voters brings echoes of the interracial and interfaith alliances that bolstered the civil rights movement -- particularly in the South, where four more states will hold their Democratic primaries next week.
“We were partners, and in some instances, we still are partners,” South Carolina state Rep. Terry Alexander, a Sanders supporter dating back to the 2016 campaign, said of the black and Jewish communities. “Some of our concerns are their concerns, and vice versa. And I pray that we continue to be partners, because it’s a human thing ... that’s what Sen. Sanders is all about.”
Alexander, a minister and member of the South Carolina Legislative Black Caucus, said Sanders’ Jewishness doesn’t play a big role in the state. But Alexander also credited the possibility of electing the first Jewish president as a “huge” moment for the country.
Some Sanders backers in South Carolina, where black voters are a formidable force in the presidential primary and where Sanders lost badly to Hillary Clinton in 2016, are only dimly aware of his Jewish identity.
After campaign surrogates spoke Sunday to a Church of God in Christ event in Conway, S.C., 25-year-old Keisha Chester said that she hadn’t known Sanders is Jewish but favored him because of his proposals “to help people” with medical and college debt.
Cedric Blain-Spain, a county-level Democratic state executive committeeman who helped organize Sunday’s church event, said that some locals know Sanders is Jewish “but, to be honest, a lot of them are not knowledgeable of his religious beliefs."
Another South Carolina state lawmaker supporting Sanders, Justin Bamberg, said that voters are aware of Sanders’ past civil rights protests as well as the Jewish community’s struggles. Still, Bamberg credited the Democratic front-runner for sticking to the issues, not himself.
“If you hammer that too hard, the first Jewish president and what that means, it could arguably come off as trying to garner a bunch of support on the backs of the persecution of a specific religious group of people,” Bamberg said. “And nobody would want to do that, particularly not Bernie.”
The black and Jewish communities have both leaned regularly toward Democratic candidates in recent decades. But the bonds between them have faced major tests in the five-plus decades since King’s friendship with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel saw the two religious leaders march together for voting rights in Selma, Ala.
For instance, African American civil rights leaders faced anti-Semitism controversies in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet two of those leaders, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton, have defended Sanders from attacks on his democratic socialism by noting that critics tried to marginalize lions of the civil rights era by calling them socialist or communist.
“When you make up your mind this week,” Sharpton told South Carolina ministers at the Wednesday breakfast he hosted, “if socialism’s on your mind, read about what they said about Martin Luther King and others.”
Sanders doesn’t always ground his calls to stamp out systemic racism in his Jewishness. But his rhetoric has linked the evils of persecuting Jews to those of persecuting other minorities. Asked about being Jewish during a Monday town hall on CNN, Sanders shared that “my father’s family was wiped out by Hitler” and connected his awareness of that suffering to the importance of eradicating “all forms of racism and white nationalism.”
Though Sanders has said he's “not actively involved in organized religion,” African Americans may perceive him as more religious than he is. A Pew Research Center poll released Thursday found 61% of black Protestants viewing him as very or somewhat religious, compared with 72% who viewed the devoutly Catholic Biden that way.
But that doesn't mean Sanders' Jewish identity will come out of the background. “For the vast majority of black voters, (a candidate's) religion isn’t the thing that figures into their electoral behavior,” said Theodore Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice who studies race and politics.
One future message that might highlight Sanders’ identity while unifying black and Jewish voters, Johnson said, is the shared toll of rising hate crimes on both communities. Members at the Tree of Life synagogue traveled to South Carolina last year to observe the King holiday alongside members of Charleston’s historically black Emanuel AME Church.
Both congregations lost worshipers to mass shootings by white supremacists. Notably, one of Sanders' greater challenges may be winning over Jewish voters critical of his approach to U.S.-Israel policy, as well as remarks by campaign surrogates of color that have alienated some Jews.
Sanders isn’t the only Jewish Democratic presidential candidate actively reaching out to the black community. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts have focused more on older voters, and he’s had to apologize for his administration’s use of the controversial “stop-and-frisk” police strategy.
Rev. Alisha Gordon, director of faith outreach for Bloomberg’s campaign, likened his acknowledgment of the harm that stop-and-frisk caused in the black community to the Jewish value of t’shuvah, or repentance.
“That ongoing process” of repentance through accountability, Gordon said in an interview, “is something that black church folks understand. That is a connecting value between Mike and the black community.”
Bloomberg isn’t on the ballot in South Carolina’s Saturday primary.
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