Is Bernie Sanders Jewish?

Sanders has said that being Jewish and his family's experience in the Holocaust shaped his progressive political views.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks at town hall at the National Motorcycle Museum on January 3, 2020 in Anamosa, Iowa. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Although Senator Bernie Sanders was supportive of Israel at the start of the current war with Hamas, his views have shifted in recent months.

Sanders recently proposed an investigation into Israel for alleged human rights violations and potential war crimes, which would have potentially limited U.S. aid to Israel. 

While the Senate overwhelmingly rejected his proposal in a vote of 72-11, it made headlines because of Sanders’ history of unsupportive stances against Israel.

But why are Sanders’ views so controversial? And is Bernie Sanders Jewish? Let’s unpack Bernie Sanders’ Jewish identity. 

The basics

Bernie Sanders was born on September 8, 1941, in Brooklyn, New York, to Polish Jewish parents. His father Elias Ben Yehuda Sanders was a paint salesman who immigrated from Poland in 1921, and his mother, Dorothy Sanders, was born in New York. 

His family did not have a lot of money and they struggled economically. Sanders credits this for shaping his political views because he realized that “there are tens of millions of people who are in the same boat,” he said at a CNN town hall in 2020.

Sanders had a bar mitzvah at the Kings Highway Jewish Center. In 2020, he told The New York Times that he is “proud to be Jewish” but added that he is not “actively involved in organized religion.”

The politician has been married twice: his first wife was Jewish but his current wife, Jane O’Meara Driscoll, is not.

The Holocaust impacted his upbringing 

Sanders’ father was born in Poland and immigrated to the U.S. in 1921 at the age of 17. Most of Sanders’ father’s family from Poland were murdered in the Holocaust. 

He grew up in a neighborhood in Brooklyn with many Holocaust survivors and remembers seeing numbers tattooed on their arms. Sanders said that when he read picture books about World War II as a child, “tears would roll down my cheeks” as he learned what happened to Europe’s Jews. 

He stated that learning about the horrors of the Holocaust and how “horrible people can be to other people in the name of racial superiority” shaped his progressivepolitical views. He has tweeted commemorating the tragedies of the Holocaust many times. 

He spent time on a kibbutz in Israel

In 1963 when he was in his early 20s, Sanders lived and volunteered at Shaar Ha’amakim, an Israeli kibbutz near Haifa for several months. The socialist ideals of the kibbutz may have impacted Sanders’ progressive political beliefs. 

Read more: What is a kibbutz in Israel?

Yair Merom, the current chairman of the kibbutz where Sanders volunteered, explained the connection this way: 

“Our values of mutual responsibility are social democratic values, and we choose willingly to create that society… Sanders is talking about the social democratic approach that gives freedom to the individual but with responsibility for the whole. We do that in a practical way.”

Albert Ely, a longtime kibbutznik of Shaar Ha’amakim, remembered Sanders from his time on the kibbutz, telling CNN, “I heard the name Bernard. Bernard is a French name. The only thing I remember is ‘How can an American call himself Bernard? It’s a French name!”

He was the first Jewish person to win a U.S. presidential primary

Bernie Sanders campaigns for president in San Jose, California, March 2020. (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

​​On February 9, 2016, Sanders made history as the first Jewish person to win a U.S. presidential primary, winning 60% of the vote in the New Hampshire primary. 

In July of that same year, Sanders became the first Jew to receive an electoral vote for president at the Democratic National Convention.

When he was accused of downplaying his Jewishness in a 2016 Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan, Sanders stated he is “very proud to be Jewish,” and that being Jewish is, “so much of what [he is].”

Is Sanders supporting Israel during the current war?

After initially expressing support for Israel after the Oct. 7 attacks, Sanders sharply criticized Israel for its operation against Hamas, saying that it “is being conducted in a deeply immoral way” and pressing the Biden administration to withhold military aid for the operation.

He also asked the president to support the recent U.N. resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire, which was vetoed by the U.S. Here’s how Sanders’ position has evolved during the war.

Shortly after Oct. 7, Sanders expressed support for Israel and condemned Hamas’s attacks which he called “barbaric.” Initially, he also rejected the demands by other progressive lawmakers that Israel enter a ceasefire.

However, days after the attack on Oct. 11, he tweeted a controversial statement that many felt placed blame on Israel for the attack and stated we must “insist on restraint from Israeli forces attacking Gaza.”

In the recent legislation he authored to put restrictions on U.S. aid to Israel, the senator questioned Israel’s ethics and stated in a speech before the vote, “We must ensure that U.S. aid is being used in accordance with human rights and our own laws,” implying Israel does not follow these laws. 

“To my mind, Israel has the absolute right to defend itself from Hamas’s barbaric terrorist attack on October 7, no question about that,” Sanders told the press in an interview before the vote.

“But what Israel does not have a right to do — using military assistance from the United States — [is] go to war against the entire Palestinian people and in my view, that’s what has been happening,” he added.

The significant Palestinian civilian death toll has been a focal point of the current war. Israel has been clear that it is targeting Hamas, not civilians, and that it takes numerous measures to protect civilians at the same time that Hamas uses civilians as human shields. 

Sanders’ past statements about Israel

Sanders has expressed criticism of Israel and the Israeli government in the past. Here are some of his past policy positions and statements:

  • In 2001, Sanders was the only Jewish member of the House who disagreed with a resolution blaming all of the violence of the Second Intifada on Palestinian terrorism.
  • During Israel’s 2014 war with Gaza, Sanders was one of 21 U.S. Senators who did not sign onto a resolution espousing unconditional solidarity with Israel.
  • In 2020, he refused to attend the AIPAC conference, claiming it was providing a platform for bigotry for those who oppose Palestinian rights.

He has also criticized the Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stating in 2019, “To be for the Israeli people and to be for peace in the Middle East does not mean that we have to support right-wing, racist governments that currently exist in Israel.”

However, Sanders does support a two-state solution. When running for president in 2020, Sanders stated that, if elected president, he would do “everything possible” to achieve peace between Palestinians and Israelis.

Most Jews did not support Sanders’ 2020 bid for president. A Pew survey conducted in January of that year found that only 11% of American Jewish voters supported the candidate.

While many Jews oppose Sanders due to his controversial views on Israel, others staunchly support the politician. The group “Jews for Bernie” rallied during his 2020 campaign and spoke about their desire to see him elected as the first Jewish president. 

One member stated Sanders’ Jewish identity “looks a lot like mine” while another cited his dedication to “tikkun olam” as her reason for supporting the politician.

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