It's been a long time since NY Post shit-talker Andrea Peyser spit up any truly special hate rants. Once upon a time, the geese-detesting columnist could slut-shame Millennials, fictional characters, and Danish prime ministers with a self-loathing flick of the wrist. But in recent years, her signature brand of ugly finger-pointing has been overshadowed in the pages of the Post by trendier anti-liberal screeds penned by tabloid troll Kyle Smith.
But Peyser is still a master at public shaming, and she wagged a particularly accusatory finger at Jewish voters this week with her anti-Bernie Sanders diatribe, "If you’re Jewish, don’t vote for Bernie Sanders." In the column, she makes the mistake that many make when talking in generalities about Jews and Judaism: she conflates total, unambiguous support for Israel with Jewish identity, and declares that she'd "take a goyische president over this loser any day."
Bernie Sanders, 74, has forged a far-left political brand, siding with Jew-haters and Israel foes, which is redundant. I urge Jews and their supporters voting in New York’s Democratic presidential primary on April 19 to reject Bernie. He’s not good for the Jews, or anyone else. The rotten actor is certainly not good for the City of New York, home to more Jews than Jerusalem is.
I would hope that 99 out of 100 editors would see this sentence and curl up in a fetal position on the ground: "Bernie Sanders is not quite Jewish. He’s Jew-ish — a non-practicing, anti-Israel, kinda, sorta Hebrew."
I think there are plenty of reasons not to support Bernie Sanders if you are so inclined—his "qualification" comments on Hillary weren't very smart, his much-cited interview with the Daily News showed a shocking fuzziness on his prime issues, or the fact that revolutions generally don't tend to start at Whole Foods—but his religiosity or lack thereof have nothing to do with any of that. Why does playing "a stereotypically obnoxious rabbi named 'Manny Shevitz' (oy)" matter at all in this discussion? How is he "anti-Semitic" for acting in a low-budget movie nearly 20 years before running for president? And why is even the most benign criticism of Israel tantamount to bathing in a pool of blood and pork?
It's a familiar narrative that still gets traction: people conflating criticism of Israeli government policies with anti-Semitism. What Peyser is picking up on here is something that has become a major subtext in the Sanders campaign of late: people—more often than not fellow Jews—monitoring, judging, and ultimately policing him for his Jewish identity and his unwillingness to exploit it. Hysteria has begun to set in: The Week called him "the most Christian candidate" in the race; the Times of Israel called him "seven times worse than Hamas;" and the Village Voice stuck him on the cover, labeled him a "heretic," and smacked him in the face with a bagel.
Even more mainstream media outlets have been equally fascinated with Sanders's uniquely American blend of ultra-leftist, secular Judaism: The NY Times talked to Jews in Vermont about Bernie's identity and went with the headline, "Bernie Sanders Is Jewish, but He Doesn’t Like to Talk About It." In a story titled "Bernie Sanders is first Jewish candidate to win a primary. Does he care?", CNN asked Jewish-American scholar Sandy Maisel about whether Bernie's background has been overlooked, and found the narrative of this campaign is really an anti-narrative: "In some ways, it's a non-story...and that it's a non-story is a pretty interesting story." As Maisel put it, people aren't going to vote against him because he's Jewish—it's more likely that many Jews won't vote for him for being too secular.
The Washington Post wondered why Sanders wouldn't take more advantage of his background: "Bernie Sanders is Jewish. Why isn’t that convincing Jews to vote for him?" As they modestly wrote, "The reasons that Jews as a whole seem not to be enthusiastic Sanders supporters are multifaceted, and difficult to fully ascertain." The Jewish Telegraphic Agency was even more blunt: “People are confused why Bernie Sanders won’t own his Jewishness.” Notably, there haven't been similar inquiries, or demands, of other major candidates, particularly Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. Judaism is still other-ized in this capacity.
From the perspective of Maisel—someone who studies the evolution in attitudes towards Jews in American society—the historical progress American Jews have made in politics is unprecedented. Sanders is the first self-identified Jew to win a primary state in a presidential election. A recent Pew Research Center found that 80% of the public say a candidate being Jewish would not make a difference in their vote. The fact that we can have a serious Jewish presidential candidate who hasn't inspired a raft of anti-Semitic attacks from his opponents is truly remarkable when it was literally the norm in America for centuries. Even 16 years ago, "Jewish pride" briefly took center stage when Al Gore chose Joe Lieberman as his veep candidate.
Much of the recent antipathy and finger-wagging toward Sanders's "atheist Jewish Democratic Socialist" perspective stems from comments he made in the aforementioned Daily News interview in which he misstated the amount of Palestinian casualties incurred in the 2014 Gaza war (Operation Protective Edge). During the interview, Sanders repeatedly said he couldn’t remember the exact number of casualties; he also pointed out that this wasn't near the top of his priorities. "I’m not going to run the Israeli government," he declared. "I’ve got enough problems trying to be a United States senator or maybe president of the United States."
Despite all that (and the fact he issued a much more balanced and error-free policy statement on the Middle East on his site), the damage was done. The Israel/Palestine conflict is a complicated issue in the same way that DNA, comic book backstories, or the films of Nancy Meyers, are complicated, but the faux-pas was boiled down into hysterical talking points in the press.
"He accused us of a blood libel,” Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, said after the interview. “He accused us of bombing hospitals. He accused us of killing 10,000 Palestinian civilians. Don’t you think that merits an apology?”
It's absurd: he's the only candidate whose views were shaped in part by his time living on an Israeli kibbutz, and yet he is being vilified for not being Jewish enough. Anyone who grew up a reform (or even conservative) Jew has experienced this toxic dichotomy. As my colleague Rebecca Fishbein put it:
I went to a Jewish school where I was made to feel "not" Jewish because I wasn't Kosher and didn't observe Shabbat and went to a synagogue where we didn't read all seven fucking Parshiot every Saturday. And then I went to a secular school where I was "too" Jewish because I had a seder. So it's bullshit that we have to quantify or qualify all that, we had like 90 reformations just so everyone could find their own sweet spot.
(Ironically, Sanders is also the only candidate who actually has the luxury of being critical of Israel in a way that the other candidates don't—all the others had to go play nice with AIPAC, even when it blew up in their faces. Even so, Sanders was criticized for putting campaigning over the event: "I think it's a statement. I think it's hurtful to the Israel-supporting community and the Jewish community. It's a very significant statement and hurtful," Rabbi Philip Scheim, incoming president of the Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative Jewish denomination, told CNN. Sanders has expressed his support for Israel, but Scheim added, "You have to demonstrate it more than state it.")
Columnists like Peyser—grasping at anti-Semitic straws in an attempt to inspire renewed outrage—tend to be outliers rather than the norm. But that doesn't mean such tactics haven't hurt his standing among Jewish leaders: 12 members of the New York City Council’s 14-member Jewish caucus have endorsed Hillary Clinton after all. They threw in some shade at Bernie, who wasn't referenced by name, saying in a statement, “This is not a time for learning on the job — especially when it comes to the challenges facing Israel."
Perhaps that's why Bernie released a very boring "Jews For Bernie" ad this week in an attempt to stop the bleeding. No matter which way he moves on this topic, the game seems rigged—only one candidate has been berated with questions about imaginary Zionist Jewish conspiracies (“They’re buying Harlem”) at major campaign events and still expected to treat it with something approaching dignity. And that's why the Andrea Peysers of the world get away with rating other people's identities. The bullies still have the pulpit at the synagogue.
N.B.: Hours before last night's Brooklyn debate, the Sanders campaign announced it was suspending Simone Zimmerman, its new national Jewish outreach coordinator, after Facebook messages came to light showing her speaking harshly of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, she wrote, "sanctioned the murder of over 2,000 people this summer." After an uproar from the Jewish community, the Sanders campaign said Zimmerman would be suspended while they investigated her comments.
"This is the American Jewish community eating its own," Peter Beinart, a mentor to Ms. Zimmerman and a leading voice in liberal Zionism, told the NY Times. “Simone is the best of the best. Most of the other kids have given up on the community. She cares deeply and wants to make it live up to its own stated ideals.”