As the saying goes, change is hard. So much so that many times people are opposed to it simply because it involves something new.
“Change” provided the basis for a campaign platform successfully brought forth by a young Barack Obama, but the word also served as a metaphor for his unique presidential candidacy as a Black man. To say there was opposition to his campaign based on the color of his skin is an understatement. But he was able to excite the base of the Democratic Party as well as turn out Black voters who were crucial to his election.
Now, 12 years later, Bernie Sanders finds himself in a similar position. Except that this time around the candidate is a white man who is not Christian, which is all but the de facto religion for American presidents. It has prompted many to wonder whether America is ready for a Jewish president, much like the question of whether the country was ready for a Black president.
Clearly, the answer to that last question came in the resounding form of Obama’s two terms in the White House. However, the answer to the first question about Sanders and a Jewish president isn’t quite as simple.
People attending Sanders’ rally in Phoenix on Thursday night got a harsh taste of that unfortunate truth when a man in the audience unabashedly unfurled a large Nazi flag with a huge swastika printed on it. While security quickly confiscated the piece of anti-Semitic propaganda and escorted the apparent racist out of the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the message was plain and clear: Sanders’ faith could present a problem for him as he continues to seek the Democratic nomination to be president.
The incident came just more than a week after Sanders released a new campaign ad touting his Jewish heritage. Ahead of his rally in Phoenix Thursday night, Sanders also tweeted that he “would be very proud to be the first Jewish president.”
But in an era where racism and anti-Semitism have flourished under the presidency of Donald Trump, some folks have increasingly felt empowered to showcase their hatred instead of keeping it under wraps out of fear of reprisal from society at large.
Aside from the looming threat of violence that is often associated with anti-Semitism, there was also the case of how American Jews feel about Sanders’ campaign and whether they think the U.S. is ready for a Jewish president.
A Pew Research Center survey found that “just one-in-five Jewish voters say they currently prefer Sanders (11%)” to be the democratic nominee compared to 31 percent for Joe Biden. Ironically, 36 percent of self-described agnostic voters preferred Sanders to any other candidate.
While there is no tangible correlation between faith and race, Obama faced questions similar in nature to those about Sanders’ Jewish heritage. It was unclear heading into the 2008 election if America was ready for a Black president, something that Michelle Obama admitted in 2018 that even she wasn’t sure of before she and the rest of the country got their resounding answer with his record-setting election.
To be sure, Obama got his fair share of racist dog-whistling, too, with some even coming from within the Democratic Party as well as from Hillary Clinton’s campaign. But none was arguably as egregious as the Nazi sympathizer who unfurled that anti-Semitic symbol of hate at Sanders’ rally Thursday night.
According to the most recent national poll, Sanders still has some work to do to catch up with Biden’s double-digit lead. Conversely, at this stage in the 2008 campaign, Obama was leading Clinton in the polls. But as the country learned the hard way in 2016, polling is far from an exact science. While the polling in Obama’s inaugural campaign turned out to be accurate, it was clearly flawed eight years later after Trump beat Clinton in the general election despite polling predictions to the contrary.
Aside from his faith, adding to Sanders’ political hurdles was his unbridled criticism of AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby that held its annual conference last month. Sanders said AIPAC is a platform for “bigotry” and in December he described Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “racist” over the country’s treatment of Palestinians. Despite those polarizing stances being in stark contrast to those of Trump — who shamelessly created a loophole to classify Judiasm as a nationality more than a year after he called Nazis “very fine people” — they still could have a negative effect on Sanders with American Jewish voters, especially those in Florida, which has traditionally voted Republican.
Since Thursday’s anti-Semitism seemed to be the first overt instance of it for Sanders on the campaign trail, it could just turn out to be an isolated incident. But since the hateful rhetoric of Trump has undeniably increased and fostered white nationalism and supremacy since his election and after Obama left office, America seemed to be in the type of divisive and racist territory it was firmly planted in back in the 1950s when a Gallup poll found that most Americans would not vote for a Black candidate.
If that type of sentiment keeps up and Biden continues his recent streak of dominance in the primaries, it’s just a matter of time before Sanders will be forced to drop out. However, if the primaries’ tide changes and Sanders is able to turn around his fortune at the ballot box by becoming the Democratic nominee, it could get even trickier for him while on the precipice of becoming America’s first Jewish president.