From the moment Bernie Sanders declared his presidential candidacy on Feb. 19, the internet has been dense with think pieces cutting down the Vermont senator because he is an “old white male.” The barrage kicked off with CNN’s Chris Cillizza, who published “5 reasons to be skeptical of Bernie Sanders' 2020 bid.” While he mostly questioned Mr. Sanders’ ability to withstand a taxing primary race, his final point — “Does the Democratic Party want a 77-year-old white male as its nominee?” — was the most telling. Imitating a dangerous narrative advanced by the far left, Mr. Cillizza invoked identity politics while omitting any mention of Mr. Sanders’ Jewishness. The trend continued into this month when a Washington Post article celebrated the diversity of some Democratic presidential hopefuls, but separately questioned the viability of “the white male candidates” like Mr. Sanders, Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke.
To cast Mr. Sanders, whose father immigrated to the United States to escape antisemitism in Europe, as just another privileged old white male running for president flagrantly ignores his Jewish identity. Mr. Sanders has cited relatives who perished in the Holocaust as the impetus for his interest in politics. He grew up in a middle-class family, attended Hebrew School and lived on a kibbutz in Israel for several months. Four years ago on the campaign trail Mr. Sanders even said, “I'm very proud of being Jewish. And that's an essential part of who I am as a human being.”
Articles like those cited above are not written in a vacuum. They are merely the symptom of a broader trend, led by prominent intersectional progressives, to cast Jews not only as privileged beneficiaries of a racial hierarchy that oppresses other minorities, but also as complicit in white supremacy itself. Nowhere has this notion been more commonplace than among Women’s March leaders. Just this month, Linda Sarsour stated that “white Jews” were behind efforts to cast Congresswoman Ilhan Omar as anti-Semitic. Last December, after intense backlash over her own anti-Semitic comments, including false accusations that Jews were behind the slave trade, Tamika Mallory conceded that “while white Jews, as white people, uphold white supremacy, all Jews are targeted by it.” Not to be outdone, Sophie Ellman-Golan said: “White Jews, like all white people, uphold white supremacy.”
This weaponization of whiteness scrubs Jews of their identity, contradicts history and is antithetical to liberal values.
First, by defining Jewish identity along primarily racial lines, these individuals are embracing bigotry rather than rejecting it. As Israeli writer Yossi Klein Halevi explains, Jews are first and foremost “a people with a religious identity.” In fact, the mere concept of race developed centuries after Jews began regarding themselves as a people: Jewish peoplehood existed well before the 1st century, whereas discourse on race only began in earnest during the 15th century Spanish Inquisition.
Second, characterizing Jews as both victim and victimizer is a classic anti-Semitic trope dating back centuries. The emancipation of Jews in Europe in the 18th century offered Jews — who until then were denied citizenship and confined to “ghettos” — the first chance to assimilate, but only under the condition they fully renounce their Jewishness. Even Jews who committed to assimilation were shunned as racially inferior by their Christian neighbors. Today, Jews are accused of upholding the very white supremacy that sees them as an inferior race.
But what about the idea that white Jews benefit from white supremacy since their light skin has allowed them to “pass” as white? Well, light skin didn’t help the generations of Jews who were excluded from universities and country clubs even into the 1960s. Aside from the glaring reality that white supremacists despise Jews as much as they do all other minorities, one has to wonder, why single out only “white Jews?” Does Tamika Mallory believe white Muslims uphold white supremacy? Would commentators similarly cast the identity of a 77-year-old Hispanic with white skin as a political liability?
When Joe Lieberman was a primary candidate for president 20 years ago, the national conversation centered around whether the United States might have its first potential Jewish commander-in-chief. Today, despite there being a similarly prominent Jewish senator vying for the highest office, public discourse on his candidacy has devolved into whether or not we can have an “old white male” president. This twisted logic must be called out and rejected. If we fail, we risk creating a movement that denies Jewish history and identity and perversely lumps Jews in with their most enthusiastic oppressors.
Ido Levy is editor-at-large of the J’accuse Coalition for Justice. Twitter: @IdoLevy5.