In one of the most celebrated writings of his presidency, George Washington ended a 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island with these words:
“May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Over the course of U.S. history, some American Jews may have believed they missed out on that blessing, experiencing the sting of prejudice and bigotry from their fellow citizens. At the same time—slowly but surely—many among the “Stock of Abraham” have grown in prosperity, achieving some measure of economic, cultural and political influence along the way. From local councils to state legislatures to the halls of Congress, Jewish citizens have found their voice in the public square. More accurately, they found their voices, since diversity abounds among the children of Israel.
Few represent this multiplicity of American Jewish experiences as well as Senator Bernie Sanders. The presidential candidate might be called a secular Jew: he does not attend religious services; does not observe the kosher dietary rules; holds to a view of God that is more abstract than personal. Still, he was raised in a Jewish home and asserts even now that he is guided by spiritual and religious impulses. With this identification in mind, few pundits picked up on a watershed moment in history: Bernie Sanders is the first Jew to win a presidential primary.
With his victory in New Hampshire, Sanders went farther than any American Jew in politics has gone to date. Yes, Oscar Straus became the first Jewish person to hold a seat in the Cabinet in 1905 (unless you count Judah Benjamin who served as secretary of State in the Confederacy during the Civil War); Louis Brandeis, the first to sit on the Supreme Court in 1916; and General Norton Schwartz, the first to serve as Air Force Chief of Staff in 2008. These, however, are appointed positions—appointed by the president.
Decisively winning (garnering close to 60 percent) the all-important New Hampshire primary makes Sanders a contender to be reckoned with and it gives him significant momentum going forward. Beyond the political horse race, Sanders’ victory makes a religious statement: Judaism is no longer a disqualifier for the highest political office in the United States. New Hampshire, after all, is not Brooklyn. Jewish populations in the Granite State are few and far between. Yet this non-Jewish constituency is not troubled by Bernie Sanders’ public albeit loose religious affiliation. More to the point, religion matters less to voters today than it once did.
Sanders, on the left, tapped into a deep-seated restlessness among Democrats in the same manner in which Donald Trump speaks to impatience among Republicans and conservatives. His full-throated defense of socialism and government activism inspires progressives. Meanwhile, his plain-spoken style and apparent distance from special interest money lends confidence to frustrated voters. The bottom line? They are not going to pull back their support because he is Jewish.
Perhaps things would be different if Senator Sanders were a pious Orthodox practitioner. As the culture is increasingly distanced from Christianity, however, a secular Jew can evolve from a foreboding prospect to a viable candidate. The results from New Hampshire certainly prove that.