I guess this really is the year of the outsider -- even the Jewish outsider.
Take a look, if you will, at the following New York Times piece about the historic New Hampshire Primary win by Sen. Bernie Sanders. We're talking about the sidebar that ran under this headline: "As Bernie Sanders Makes History, Jews Wonder What It Means."
I realize that this piece is little more than a round-up of clips from Jewish newspapers and commentary publications. The goal, apparently, was to raise topics, one paragraph after another, that Jewish thinkers are talking about (with little new reporting).
If that was the goal, it is amazing what is NOT in this piece. Here is a sample, including the question-mark lede:
But is it good for the Jews?
Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont ... became the first Jewish candidate in history to win a presidential primary election, setting off a familiar mixture of celebration and anxiety among Jews in the United States and abroad, who pondered what his milestone victory meant for the broader Jewish community.
“Did Bernie Sanders Just Grab Jewish Crown In New Hampshire?” asked a headline in the The Forward, which questioned why Mr. Sanders’ victory received less attention as an emblem of acceptance and accomplishment than the selection of Joseph I. Lieberman as the Democrats’ vice-presidential nominee in 2000.
The likely reason: While Mr. Sanders was raised Jewish and even spent time on an Israeli kibbutz in the 1960s, he has been muted in his own embrace of the faith.
His own embrace of the "faith"? Or are we talking about a matter of heritage and culture?
So now the New York Times is going to tip-toe around the fact that, when it comes to playing down the traditions and rites of Judaism, Sanders is actually a pretty ordinary Jewish man from Brooklyn (according to waves of research in recent generations)?
Here is that key quote that I used the other day in a GetReligion post, drawn from a major study by the Pew Research Center ("Jewish essentials: For most American Jews, ancestry and culture matter more than religion"):
What does it mean to be Jewish? There are few more fundamental and difficult questions for Jews -- indeed, figuring out one’s place within Judaism’s 3,000+ years of tradition, 620 commandments (plus a library’s worth of commentary), worldwide diaspora and multiple religious movements is itself key to many Jews’ self-identity.
Jews tend to be less religious than the U.S. public as a whole, with fewer saying they attend religious services weekly, believe in God with absolute certainty, or that religion is very important in their lives. The Pew Research Center’s landmark new survey of American Jews found that overall, about six-in-ten (62%) say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and/or culture, while just 15% say it’s mainly a matter of religion.
That sounds like the campaign-trail Sanders to me.
The headline I used on that earlier post stated: "Washington Post describes Bernie Sanders as a normal, cultural Jew (with a few mysteries)." On Twitter, one comment stated: "I don't even know what that means." You might say that this is the question that loomed over the New York Times piece about the win in New Hampshire.
Israeli and Jewish media outlets swarmed over news of his victory, analyzing it for its significance good and bad. The Israeli paper Haaretz noted that Mr. Sanders often refers to himself as the son of a Polish immigrant, rather than a Jewish immigrant. “The Jewish establishment has a hard time considering him one of its own,” the paper observed.
Another Haaretz commentator, Chemi Shalev, worried that Mr. Sanders’ victory, and his firebrand liberal politics, would stoke anti-Semitism: “More than any other Democratic candidate, Sanders fits the bill of the G.O.P.’s favorite Jewish bogeyman, Saul Alinsky.” ...
And despite the symbolism of Mr. Sanders’s winning the first-in-the-nation primary, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency played down the significance. The news organization noted before the vote that New Hampshire is one of the nation’s smallest and least diverse states. After Mr. Sanders won, it said, “An estimated 10,000 Jews live in New Hampshire.”
There is much that could be said here. Let me add a few points that I think are worthy of future Times coverage.
* What has Sanders had to say about Israel? One would think that this is an issue worthy of a sentence or two in this kind of quick summary. Perhaps this issue is part of the "Jewish establishment" reference?
* Is the Jewish community of one mind when it comes to matters of economics? This is, after all, the calling card of the Sanders political worldview. There are politically conservative Jews and there are also Jews, of all political stances, who are major players in the world of business and finance. What do they think of this candidate?
* Some atheists have happily embraced Sanders as one of their own. However, others in the atheist-and-agnostic world have not been amused by the candidate's attempts to promote a kind of love-your-neighbor spirituality that fudges on the basic God issue.
What, precisely, did Sanders mean when -- in New Hampshire -- he said that religion is:
... a guiding principle in my life -- absolutely it is. Everybody practices religion in a different way. I wouldn’t be here tonight, I would not be running for president of the United States if I didn’t have very strong religious and spiritual feelings. …
If we have children who are hungry, if we have elderly people who can’t afford prescription drugs ... my spirituality is that we are all in this together, and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me. That is my very strong spiritual belief.
So, as what's left of The New Republic hinted, is Sanders officially the first "moralistic therapeutic deism" candidate?
* The campaign now heads to the Bible Belt which, last time I checked, contains a very small population of Jewish socialists from Brooklyn. I think Sanders will be received quite well (although there are sure to be exceptions), since -- so far -- religious and cultural conservatives have treated him as an honorable, honest man of good will with whom they disagree. As opposed to what? As opposed to Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Reporters might want to pull out copies of the well-received Sanders speech at Liberty University, a spot on the face of Planet Earth that Ms. Clinton would be sure to avoid.
In conclusion, consider this chunk of an analysis at Haaretz (which is locked behind a high paywall). Expect to hear more about some of these issues as Sanders heads South and into the American heartland, once again.
The unexpected success of the Sanders campaign bears out recent polls that show that today, more than 90 percent of Americans would vote for a Jewish president -- even a scruffy-looking far-left 74-year-old with a heavy Brooklyn accent.
Yet, far more enthusiasm and excitement emanated from the Jewish community back when Senator Joseph Lieberman was named the 2000 Vice Presidential candidate by Al Gore, and then when Lieberman made a short-lived bid for the presidency himself in 2004, in which he never took a single primary.
That is because the well-connected Connecticut senator, unlike Sanders, was both a committed religious Jew in his personal life and a loyal supporter of Jewish and pro-Israel causes in his political one. In fact, religion was so central to Lieberman’s political identity that Anti-Defamation League chief Abe Foxman actually chided him publicly for going overboard, mentioning God and the role of faith in American life more frequently than Jews committed to separating religion and state were comfortable with.
Stay tuned to bulletins from South Carolina.